The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa

Hill climbing gear?

I saw a road bike today at a shop in Houston that had 11 gears on the back axle and two in the front. Mine has ten in the back and two up front. every year I get into a situation going up a hill where I wish I had one more gear. Are 11 gears something new? Is that eleventh gear for climbing or for speed on the high end? I ask the fellow at the shop but he danced around the subject until another customer came in and he walked away from me to help the other person.

45 Replies

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Paul, April 5, 2014 at 6:45 am

Your post had shades of “Spinal Tap”.

Serious hill climbing gear requires wearing a grimace, a look of insane joy on your face, or a look of zen-like bliss if you really have your act together.

Seriously though, the number of gears does not matter much. What does matter is the range of those gears. You can look up how to figure gear inches if you google Sheldon Brown.

Take the smallest front sprocket and divide that by the largest wheel sprocket in back. Multiple that number by the diameter of your wheel (in inches) and you end up with “Gear Inches”

An example on our tandem of how to figure out how easy your low gear is would be: (24/34)*26= 18.35 Gear inches. This is our easiest gear. It translates into being able to spin up most any hill at about walking speed.

My suggestion is figure out the gear inches for several gears on a given bike, and test ride it in each of those gears so that you get a feel for what each gear inch number can mean in the real world for you.

Our goal is to be spinning at around 90 RPM or more most all of the time and change gears accordingly. We need a very wide gear range because we have very little power.

Have fun and see you on the ride!


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Steve, April 5, 2014 at 7:44 am

Your gearing sounds like standard road racing gearing, and many of us would tell you it was never intended for use by regular cyclists. Stores sell it because customers think we want road racing bikes, but most of us can’t make best use of the stock gearing. We can’t put out the watts to drag ourselves up the hills with the standard low ranges, and the very top end is rarely used unless already flying down a hill The advice about checking your “gear inches” is excellent, but that answer is almost certainly a foregone conclusion. Once you know where you stand you have some options:
1. Replace your front crank with a “compact crank”. This will give you a somewhat better hill climbing gear at the cost of tiny bit of top end. From personal experience though, it makes a significant difference.
2. You might be able to replace your rear cassette with one that has a larger cog for hill climbing. For this and the one above you should do your research or work with your local bike shop to make sure your current setup will work with the new component.
3. It might be possible to change the front crank to a triple, but the expense will probably be much higher and will certainly be more complicated to install. There is no shame in triples though, despite what some would have you believe. Once we are past our 20’s or if we are carrying extra weight around the middle I think the majority of us should have one.
4. If you live in flat country and only worry about this on RAGBRAI you might consider adding a bike to your stable that has a triple already. Over time you can figure out which one to keep, or keep both.

One last thought: As the rear clusters have packed in more more cogs (was 5 when I started riding, now it’s 11 or more) the spacing available to fit those cogs has changed very little. So the cogs, and the chains that must fit on them, have gotten thinner and thinner. Most bike shops would tell you that the fewer cogs on the back the less maintenance required and the the likelihood the chain will break. For a touring bike you might be better off with a triple up front and seven or eight cogs in the back (as long as the gear inches give you a sufficient range, as the poster above mentioned).

Best of luck!


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SFC JKL2, April 5, 2014 at 2:21 pm

As said, it’s the range of gears not the number that matters. If you have a standard double (53/39) in front, a compact (50/34) is probably all you need. Most people never miss the top end gears because you rarely use your highest gear. Even the tour pro’s are starting to use them for some mountain stages.

The second step would be a bigger back cassette. Moving up to a 27 or 28 might require a different rear derailleur with a longer arm to clear the bigger gear.

With that said, don’t forget to work on the engine.


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“Bicycle Bill”, April 5, 2014 at 3:25 pm

An 11×2 setup as you described would yield a possibility of 22 potential gear ratios.  But the only two gears (out of the 11) you need to concern yourself with are the largest and the smallest.  Count the number of teeth on each one.  Odds are good that you will get something like 11 or 12 for the smallest, and 26 or maybe 28 for the largest.  The rest will all fall somewhere in between those.  This will make it easier for you to find a mid-range gear for cruising, but your low gear will always be dependent upon the relationship between the largest cog on the rear cassette and the smallest sprocket on the crank.

This is because that the gear ratios on a bicycle are dependent upon the amount of chain that the rear derailleur can wrap up and still work.  Generally, unless it is a specially-designed ‘touring’ derailleur with a longer-than-normal cage, they can wrap up the equivalent of 26 to 28 teeth and still work properly.

Now, without going into a lot of dry techi-babble (you can always Google the gearing articles of Frank Berto for that), you can increase the rear cog in order to get a lower gear ratio, or get a smaller sprocket for the crank.  But remember the principle of wrapping the chain!!  Get too large a cog, or reduce the front sprocket too far, and you may find that the derailleur capacity just isn’t big enough to handle the new differences between the number of teeth.  So you need to also change the rest of the cluster (or also reduce the *BIG* sprocket on the crank) in order to get back, as close as possible, to the same number of tooth difference as you had before you started gear-freaking.  This reduces the gear ratio of your upper-most gears, so you’re forced into making a trade-off —— lower gears for easier hill-climbing, but at the cost of lower gears (and a lower max velocity) for high-speed cruising.
Not to mention that this isn’t a cheap fix.  According to a quick check on Google, 11-speed cassettes can run anywhere between $80 to $350 or more.  Changing out the sprockets might be a little cheaper, but this also means repositioning the front derailleur in relationship to the crank; and this is not something you can do on some bikes when the derailleur mounts are brazed into place.  You could also get a longer-caged rear derailleur for your bike, but now you’re not only changing out cogs and sprockets, you’re changing a derailleur as well — and adding even more expense.

Cheapest fix, then, is mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a sound body.  Get out there, ride a lot, and get strong.  And of course, res firma mitescere nescit — a firm resolve does not know how to weaken.

Or as they put it in the Kevin Costner flick, “American Flyers” — “Once you’ve got it up, KEEP it up!”



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badcatmomma, April 5, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Oh BB, I love when you whisper Latin in my ear!
Seriously, I have a Trek Lexa SLX with a triple on the front. I am not ashamed to say I love the triple. I’m 48, overweight, and going to ride my 32nd RAGBRAI this year. I KNOW I need all the range I can get!


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Michrider !!!, April 5, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Want to climb better? Lose 10 lbs and train on hills. Climbing hills will make us all better at climbing hills!!!


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Amanda, April 5, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Badcatmomma! Nice seeing you on the forum! Never be ashamed of the triple. I have even walked up a hill! GASP!!


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Sandaltan, April 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Yes, welcome back to the forum BCM, 32 RAGBRAIs is indeed an accomplishment and I wish you many more rides across the state. For the record…walking a hill is called “cross training”. Also for the record…leaving Climbing Hill, Iowa is a pretty good climb up a hill with a name, can’t remember the name but the locals have given it a name as we discovered on our way to Sergeant Bluff.



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jeffreydennis, April 5, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Another point based on the original question…..don’t go back to that shop.


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rockman68, April 7, 2014 at 10:46 pm

If you’re currently running a 2X10, converting to a triple probably won’t be a cost-effective fix.
Assuming that your shifters are indexed (as 99% of them in the 2X10 era have been), you’ll need to replace your front shifter to make it compatible with the triple. This just added ~$400 to the tab for a Shimano-105 set-up and more $$$ for an Ultegra or Dura-Ace setup.

I run a compact 2X10 Ultegra setup with 105 levers. 50/34 up front and a 12-25 rear with a short cage derailleur. My local mechanic says that I can go up to a 28-tooth rear without switching to a longer cage. (Other folks that I don’t listen to as much say 27-tooth max.) I almost did it this winter, but I decided to stick with my 12-25.

Chains and cassettes are wear items anyway. You’re going to replace them eventually. $80 for a new cassette and $60 for a slightly longer chain, and you’re good to go.


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velomel, April 8, 2014 at 7:35 am

I run an Ultegra nine speed group (6500) I switched my cassette to a 12-28 and have had no problems. I use a standard compact crankset 50-34. This combination leaves me with the good balance between low gears for climbing and a consistent range of gears for the flats (not to big of gaps in tooth count between cogs). If you have a cassette that has to wide of a range of cog sizes, you will inevitably find that you will want one of those missing gears at cruising speeds. Delicate balance.
10 and 11 cog cassettes benefit you not so much for additional low gears but for filling in those gaps in gearing.



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SteveS, April 8, 2014 at 11:34 am

Two steps:
1) you are running 53/39 front crank and live in a hilly area, swap to a 50/34 front crank.
2) Go to a 28 rear cassette.

now you have top end gearing than a standard triple with a 26, and with an 11 you have pretty close to a 53/12 ration.

If that’s not enough:
If you are running older shimano short cage rear derailleurs just a version back or so, most frames can accept a 11-32 9 or 10sp rear cassette (even though shimano tells you only 27 or 28). You may have to crank in the B-adjustment or in some cases swap the b-adjustment screw backwards. Watch the cross chaining.
I’ve set up half dozen frames for folks this way out here and in Az and it works wonders.
Worst case you can go to a mid or long cage derailleur if you need more than 28, and the above trick doesn’t work.


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Cyfan, April 8, 2014 at 2:57 pm

First as someone else said you need to change bike shops. I have a great bike shop here in Iowa that is run by a young man and his wife and they are very knowledgeable. My first RAGBRAI in 2006 and I was 52. I put in more miles than I can count on my 30 year old Raleigh ten speed getting ready for RAGBRAI. I made the whole week including a very grueling day from Ida Grove to Audubon. When I got home I told my Wife that I was getting a new bike which I did, a Trek 1500 which I am still riding now. This year will be my 9th RAGBRAI and the eighth on that Trek. I understand everything that people have been telling you about gear inches and gear ratios but I have no idea what the gear inches or ratio is on my bike. What I do know is that I have three sprockets in front and nine in the back. My first few years all I used the big two sprockets in front almost exclusively. The last couple of years as I get older I have changed and realize that it is all about the revolutions and not power. It is easier to spin more times than spin fewer using more power. Now unless I am going down a big hill I use the small two (small and middle). This is easier on my knees which will be 60 plus on this years RAGBRAI. So for me it is all about endurance and not power. The easier the pedaling the easier the ride.


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KenH, April 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm

My bike is a Fuji road hybrid that came with a 50/39/30 triple and a 12-25 rear. I got a new set of wheels a while back so that I could run wider tires and at the same time I got an 11-27 rear. I used all those gears a lot at first although when I changed the chain last year the middle ring in the front was worn out so I must have used that the most. Last year’s RAGBRAI was my first full RAGBRAI, my first full week ride of any kind. I started out using all the gears but by mid week I was just using the big ring and by the last two days only the top 6 gears on the rear. I might have used more of the rear on my own but my riding buddy struggles big time with hills and going up them at his pace by the end of the week I found that it was possible and more relaxing to pedal up them slowly, as I see some others doing. Training does do wonders and even “on the job training” during RAGBRAI itself is surprisingly effective. For some of us anyway. We are all different and there is lots of good advice in this thread so use what works best for you. It isn’t just age and weight however. I’ve been more than 60 times around the sun and I could stand to lose 20….


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jwsknk, April 10, 2014 at 3:44 pm

had 32-42-52 on the trek until I met Big Sur California. Managed to taco the 32 and the shop out there had 28’s. A bit too small for Iowa but out there I could see it, it got used some.


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