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Gears: How many do you think you need?

Old 06-11-12, 09:58 AM
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tony_merlino
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Gears: How many do you think you need?

Most of us started riding on single speeds or maybe 3-speed "English Racers", and I know that I was really happy to get my first "10-speed" in the '70s. Since then, I've watched the number of unique gear ratios on a bike increase considerably, and have (mostly) assumed that this was a necessary development.

But a couple of things have made me wonder about that lately. The first was that I got an old Raleigh Record and started riding it. When I got it, I was considerably heavier than I am now, and in considerably worse condition, so I decided I needed to expand and lower the gearing. A BF member had an old chainring set that would fit, that let me replace the 52/42 that was on the bike with a 52/36, and I put on a 6-speed "Megarange" freewheel that, in addition to the 5 gears (14-28) that I originally had on the bike, gave me a 34 tooth bail-out gear with nearly a 1:1 gear ratio with the new chainring set.

I've been riding that bike a lot lately, and I'm having trouble imagining what I'd need more gears for.

The second thing that happened was that, over the weekend, I was trying out a hybrid that I'd just done a bunch of work on, turning it into a bike that I could use for longer rides without discomfort, maybe doing some touring. I realized pretty early on in the ride that I'd left the new chain I'd just put on too long, and it was hopping when I was in the middle chainring in certain gears because the RD couldn't pull it tight enough. So I had to finish the remaining 20-something miles of the ride pretty much using only my large chainring, which meant that I had 7 gears altogether.

It wasn't a challenging ride, but the point is that 7 gears were plenty. I didn't feel like I was spinning like crazy or mashing - there always seemed to be a gear that did what I needed well enough.

So I'm just curious to hear other peoples' views about how many unique gear ratios you really need on a bike. I believe the answer is more than 3, but I also believe it's probably no more than 12 or so, maybe even less depending on the spacing and range.
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Old 06-11-12, 10:15 AM
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Most of my bikes have 1 speed, including my CX race bike and my long distance bike. While this isn't the optimal setup for all situations, I manage to do pretty well with it. I'm not as fast on the flats, and I have to stand up and hammer on hills where other riders are seated and spinning, but it gets me there.

I have an all-mountain rig on the way, and it's got a 30spd drivetrain. I think that's almost as many gears as every bike I've ever owned all together. I have a feeling that after a month or two I'll be ditching the top ring for a bash guard, or maybe even taking it down to a single front.
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Old 06-11-12, 10:51 AM
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Obviously, on a derailleur set-up there is considerable overlap between the gears. A 50/17 is pretty much the same as a 34/12. So the issue is range rather than number. However, there are advantages in having a lot of sprockets on the rear cassette. With 10gears at the back one can have nice close ratios as well as a decent range. Mine goes 12-13-14-15-16-17-19-21-23-25. That means one can find the right gear much more easily than if there were big jumps between the sprockets.

Or, if you want ideally-spaced ratios, you could do as I have done for my tourer and invest in a Rohloff hub. 14 gears, equally spaced - 2nd is 13% higher than 1st, 3rd is 13% higher than second, and so on - so one has a MTBs range, from about 20 gear inches to over 100, with a perfect chain line and no duplication.
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Old 06-11-12, 11:10 AM
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Originally Posted by chasm54 View Post
Obviously, on a derailleur set-up there is considerable overlap between the gears. A 50/17 is pretty much the same as a 34/12. So the issue is range rather than number. However, there are advantages in having a lot of sprockets on the rear cassette. With 10gears at the back one can have nice close ratios as well as a decent range. Mine goes 12-13-14-15-16-17-19-21-23-25. That means one can find the right gear much more easily than if there were big jumps between the sprockets.

Or, if you want ideally-spaced ratios, you could do as I have done for my tourer and invest in a Rohloff hub. 14 gears, equally spaced - 2nd is 13% higher than 1st, 3rd is 13% higher than second, and so on - so one has a MTBs range, from about 20 gear inches to over 100, with a perfect chain line and no duplication.
I agree that range is nice. It's the need for such close spacing that I'm beginning to question. Let's say you're not a racer. I found that it was possible to maintain a pretty comfortable pedal cadence with just 7 gears (and just one chainring, so no overlap of ratios at all), as long as I wasn't trying to squeeze out every fraction of a mph. Current gear wants you to push too hard, risking your knees? Shift down, spin as fast as you like, and go a little slower. No biggie.

I'm not considering changing anything, BTW. Just asking out of curiosity.
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Old 06-11-12, 11:27 AM
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I could get by with just one gear and have done it but for me I get more enjoyment having gears. I ride in groups all the time and a single speed in groups is not ideal. Have to slow doen on flats so they can keep up then group breaks apart going up hills. I paid for all those gears and I use everyone of them.
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Old 06-11-12, 11:34 AM
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Tony, I'm not really disagreeing. You know from an earlier conversation how much I enjoy riding my vintage Raleigh. On that I have the original 50/36 chainset with a six-speed 14/32 freewheel. (The original was a five-speed 14/34) I am absolutely fine with it, including the DT shifters.

However, on the 20-speed road bikes I do shift more often and thereby maintain a more consistent cadence. That is a definite advantage.

There is one disadvantage to more gears, though. Until they introduced ten-speed cassettes I had never snapped a chain in my life. I've snapped two of them, though.
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Old 06-11-12, 11:38 AM
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I've been wondering the same thing lately. I have a Trek 7100 hybrid. My wife & I have a deal - when I lose 50 lbs I get a new bike.

The 7100 has 21 speeds. (3x7). Yesterday I tried to shift the front derailleur and it didn't move. It's been so long since I've used it that corrosion has it stuck. I need to WD-40 that puppy to get it moving again. Seems to me that I could likely get by w/ a 7-speed

Which brings me to my next bike....

I was thinking of digging up an old English 3 speed and refurbing/restoring it. Sturmey Archer makes an 8 speed IGH. The upright riding position looks pretty darned comfortable to me. Drop on a Brooks saddle and I would likely have a very comfy commuter w/ all the gearing I need for my commute.
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Old 06-11-12, 11:44 AM
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To me having closer spacing if nice when riding in a group keeping a steady pace/paceline situation. On the ride I did yesterday the group I was with fell in behind a group of 15 of so riders moving at about 20 mph. In that situation it is relatively easy to hold that pace as you are practically pulled along by the group. However it is also very important to hold a steady pace without falling back or running into the person in front of you. In these situations I can see the need for closely spaced gears. I know there have been a number of time where I feel like on gear is too low, but the next is too high.

The other aspect of it is climbing and how low you can go there. I've been running a 12-30 with a compact crank and I've gotten over everything I need to. I do have a 12-36 that I ran for a little while (waiting on a piece to fix my other derailleur) and the extra low end is definitely nice at times. For me it really comes down to how steep the hill is, how many miles I've gone and what cadence I can make it up the hill at. I feel that the 12-36 is useful for me now, I envision not needing it when I get down around 200 lbs (right now at 280 hills suck).
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Old 06-11-12, 11:48 AM
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Originally Posted by tony_merlino View Post
So I'm just curious to hear other peoples' views about how many unique gear ratios you really need on a bike. I believe the answer is more than 3, but I also believe it's probably no more than 12 or so, maybe even less depending on the spacing and range.
Fifteen at my 145 pound racing weight, or 180 pounds but avoiding mountains. Eighteen at 180 pounds with mountains. Nineteen at 180 pounds with a 12 starting cog.

Ex: 50-34 x 13-14-15-16-17-18-19-21-23 (eschewing the fully cross-chained combinations of 50x23 and 34x13 the only overlap is between 50x21 and 34x14 which leaves 15 unique combinations out of 18 possible). With the bigger belly 50-39-28 x 13-14-15-16-17-18-19-21-23-26.

That allows enough range with close enough gears to spin 90-100 RPM (which limits fatigue enough that I can ride threshold intervals on consecutive days) over any incline up to 6% which covers the vast majority of paved roads. Pedaling down grades to about 4% is down-right pleasant and 6% not too unreasonable; any faster I'll just tuck.

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Old 06-11-12, 11:50 AM
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I've got 7 gears. Total. My partner does everything I do hillwise one 1. Madison is pretty flat, on the other hand as a kid who lived on a 15% grade in Central PA, I didn't use more than 3-4 gears. I was pretty dumb about gears, so a lot of the time I ended up walking the hill. You still get *plenty* of exercise walking up a 15% grade. And I'm not really sure more intelligent gear use would have helped all that much. You're not biking up a 15% grade without some pretty serious muscle.

I'm not anti gears, but I do think the massive number of choices are most helpful for riders at the extremes. A very new rider won't know their abilities very well, so a wide selection of gears and a big range is good. The new rider won't necessarily use all that range. And a very fit, very well trained racer will make a lot of small gearing changes to help them accelerate and maintain higher speeds than I can. When I ride a bike with more gears, I find that I can often eke out a bit more acceleration than I normally do. And if I *want* to push for a higher speed, the additional gears will often let me go faster than I normally do. So I can understand the benefits... but for my normal daily riding, it isn't a large benefit. A lot of the routes we use frequently can have 10 or more stops per mile, so most of the speed gains come from things like hitting a light timing.

And realistically, I'm already packing plenty of acceleration, even on my normal bike. I can routinely get through intersections as fast as cars can. The problem with me going fast isn't acceleration... it's sustaining the speeds I hit! So for me there's a lot more benefit to just sticking with my regular bike, and occasionally doing rides where I try to maintain speed in a higher than usual gear.
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Old 06-11-12, 12:02 PM
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Originally Posted by SkippyX View Post
I've been wondering the same thing lately. I have a Trek 7100 hybrid. My wife & I have a deal - when I lose 50 lbs I get a new bike.

The 7100 has 21 speeds. (3x7). Yesterday I tried to shift the front derailleur and it didn't move. It's been so long since I've used it that corrosion has it stuck. I need to WD-40 that puppy to get it moving again. Seems to me that I could likely get by w/ a 7-speed

Which brings me to my next bike....

I was thinking of digging up an old English 3 speed and refurbing/restoring it. Sturmey Archer makes an 8 speed IGH. The upright riding position looks pretty darned comfortable to me. Drop on a Brooks saddle and I would likely have a very comfy commuter w/ all the gearing I need for my commute.
That sounds like a really cool bike to put together, and something like that could well be my N+1. (Which I need like a hole in the head... )
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Old 06-11-12, 12:43 PM
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Originally Posted by wfournier View Post
To me having closer spacing if nice when riding in a group keeping a steady pace/paceline situation. On the ride I did yesterday the group I was with fell in behind a group of 15 of so riders moving at about 20 mph. In that situation it is relatively easy to hold that pace as you are practically pulled along by the group. However it is also very important to hold a steady pace without falling back or running into the person in front of you. In these situations I can see the need for closely spaced gears. I know there have been a number of time where I feel like on gear is too low, but the next is too high.

The other aspect of it is climbing and how low you can go there. I've been running a 12-30 with a compact crank and I've gotten over everything I need to. I do have a 12-36 that I ran for a little while (waiting on a piece to fix my other derailleur) and the extra low end is definitely nice at times. For me it really comes down to how steep the hill is, how many miles I've gone and what cadence I can make it up the hill at. I feel that the 12-36 is useful for me now, I envision not needing it when I get down around 200 lbs (right now at 280 hills suck).
Agree with the close spacing and sucking up to and staying with that group was a hoot. To bad they opted to take the short bit eh?

I think with most Clydes, and I do include myself even though I no longer meet the criteria, we all need something with a wider range e.g. xx - 32 or xx - 36 to climb the evil hills that surround us (Cue the music from the "Sound of Music"). I could ride now with a 11-28 anything I've ridden this year (115K+ feet in 2400 miles) but a 32 makes life so much more enjoyable - which is the point of being on the bike right?

short answer is probably 12 since "we" aren't too concerned with keeping our cadence in such a small range.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:08 PM
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Originally Posted by tony_merlino View Post
Most of us started riding on single speeds or maybe 3-speed "English Racers", and I know that I was really happy to get my first "10-speed" in the '70s. Since then, I've watched the number of unique gear ratios on a bike increase considerably, and have (mostly) assumed that this was a necessary development.
Back when I got my first "road bike" they weren't called road bikes. It was a ten speed. (Nishiki). Having up to a ten speed cassette may be a nice thing (I've never had more than eight), but not absolutely necissary,
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Old 06-11-12, 01:13 PM
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Originally Posted by tony_merlino View Post
That sounds like a really cool bike to put together, and something like that could well be my N+1. (Which I need like a hole in the head... )
The only downside I can see is I might develop an overwhelming urge to dress like this:

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Old 06-11-12, 01:15 PM
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Originally Posted by tony_merlino View Post
and have (mostly) assumed that this was a necessary development.
Why on earth would you assume that?

You only NEED one gear. The rest are just gravy. On my derailleured bikes, I seldom shift out of the big chainring; only the very steepest hills. Granted, I'm not cross-country touring, and don't live in the Rockies, but there are some decent hills around here. I can climb almost all of them in the big chainring. I have a fixed gear bike with 46-18 gearing and there are only three hills around here I can't get up with it.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Doohickie View Post
You only NEED one gear. The rest are just gravy. On my derailleured bikes, I seldom shift out of the big chainring; only the very steepest hills. Granted, I'm not cross-country touring, and don't live in the Rockies, but there are some decent hills around here. I can climb almost all of them in the big chainring. I have a fixed gear bike with 46-18 gearing and there are only three hills around here I can't get up with it.
Either you are phenomenally strong or your idea of a "decent hill" is radically different to mine. I too have a FG, which at 42/16 is similarly geared to yours. Stick me on a 10% gradient that is more than a couple of hundred meters long and I am really struggling.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:37 PM
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Originally Posted by Torrilin View Post
You're not biking up a 15% grade without some pretty serious muscle.
That's not true, actually. If you look at the best climbers, they are mostly anything but muscular. They are skinny little guys (and gals) who weigh about 130lbs when wringing wet. What matters when climbing is not muscle, but weight, and aerobic fitness. And gears.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:39 PM
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I use just one (fixed) most of the time. The most gears I have is a 9 speed and I tend to use maybe 3 cogs and the big ring unless I'm in the mountains. But I rode behind someone yesterday for about 10 miles over rolling terrain and she used every cog on her 10 speed cassette, doing exactly 90 rpm's the entire time.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:43 PM
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6 At a min unloaded. 14-28 freewheel.
10 If trying to keep a nice cadence and an extra go fast gear. 11-30 with customized ratio's.
14 With a load or hauling my carcass up high mountains.
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Old 06-11-12, 01:45 PM
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I've upgraded both my bikes to 3X9 with close ratio cassettes. one a 12-23 & the other 12-25.
My chain rings are 22-32-36/38.
I pretty much ride them as a 1x9, using the middle ring.
However, I have used the granny in severe headwinds and the larger if I'm out of the urban areas where i can ride a few miles without stop signs etc. (better chainline)
With my emphysema, I can dial in the exact gear I need that works within my narrow (80-85 because of bad knees) cadence range.
If the head/tail wind changes a couple MPH, I can shift one tooth and still spin away with the SAME EFFORT.
I pretty much use the analogy of a semi truck. The engine runs in a relatively narrow range of power output/RPM and they use the gear they need to keep it there.

If you like fewer gears, use them. If you like more, that's fine too. Everybody has different needs/knowledge of what works for them.
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Old 06-11-12, 02:12 PM
  #21  
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Originally Posted by Bill Kapaun View Post
I've upgraded both my bikes to 3X9 with close ratio cassettes. one a 12-23 & the other 12-25.
My chain rings are 22-32-36/38.
I pretty much ride them as a 1x9, using the middle ring.
However, I have used the granny in severe headwinds and the larger if I'm out of the urban areas where i can ride a few miles without stop signs etc. (better chainline)
With my emphysema, I can dial in the exact gear I need that works within my narrow (80-85 because of bad knees) cadence range.
If the head/tail wind changes a couple MPH, I can shift one tooth and still spin away with the SAME EFFORT.
I pretty much use the analogy of a semi truck. The engine runs in a relatively narrow range of power output/RPM and they use the gear they need to keep it there.

If you like fewer gears, use them. If you like more, that's fine too. Everybody has different needs/knowledge of what works for them.
Sure, that's why I'm asking - just curiosity. What I've been finding is that I can still keep my cadence whatever I like - at the sacrifice of either speed or having to push harder. Given your knee problems, the latter might not be an option for you.
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Old 06-11-12, 03:22 PM
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Wow! What a bunch of answers to an open ended question.

You "need" the number of gears that are required for "you" to complete "your" ride on the "terrain" that "you" are going to cover to "your" satisfaction.

A "racer" in Florida could probably get by with 3 to 5 gears.

A fully loaded tourist in the Alps will "require" a few more.

Etc.

<1 = too few
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Old 06-11-12, 03:30 PM
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I run a 21 speed and 24 speed. I use about 4 ratios total. 44-12 or 48-12 for anything that doesn't involve climbing, a few grades down for light inclines, and the granny gear for carrying my kid on the back of the commuter up a steep incline. I don't even use the gears I have and see no need for more.
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Old 06-11-12, 03:43 PM
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Originally Posted by chasm54 View Post
Either you are phenomenally strong or your idea of a "decent hill" is radically different to mine. I too have a FG, which at 42/16 is similarly geared to yours. Stick me on a 10% gradient that is more than a couple of hundred meters long and I am really struggling.
I didn't say I don't struggle, but yeah... I can get up them.
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Originally Posted by bragi "However, it's never a good idea to overgeneralize."
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Old 06-11-12, 03:59 PM
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TrojanHorse
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I only need one gear... the trouble is the one I need changes all the time.

I'm so fond of close cog spacing I'm thinking about changing out my rear cassette (currently an 11-28) for a 12-28. That'll give me a 16 instead of an 11. Depending on what speed I'm going - it makes a difference. If I can keep my speed up over 19 or 20 then I'm in the smaller part of the cassette and all is well, but when my speed drops to 17 then I get to the cogs that are spaced 2-3 teeth apart and yes, it makes a difference! Depending on how my legs are feeling, I may not want to spin at 90 instead of 85, or whatever.

It's certainly something you can over come with a little effort but I don't see why I should do without something that's so readily available. On an average daily ride I use every single cog in the back and both chainrings in the front - I can't get up my drive way without STANDING with a 36 in front, 28 in the back, and I rarely shift out of the big chainring if the hill isn't long or more than 4%.

Everybody's different though.
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