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Road Bike Gearing Thoughts

I'm building up to buying a road bike. I do not intend to purchase it until 2010 at the earliest. But any big purchase requires careful thought... and research... and agonizing over it.

I should note that I generally do not have many regrets down the road when I purchase things if I've agonized over them long enough. Whereas impulsive purchases I may or may not regret.

Now, in the old days, gearing was simple. There were four or five gears in the back and two in front. Because the derailleurs of the time sucked, the gears in front would be a few teeth apart. Occasionally, and only weird people rode those kind of bikes, you'd have gasp three gears in front.

Eventually, the bike boom hit and everybody wanted a bike. Most of those people liked a triple up front much more than a double. And, over time, they started to stuff more and more gears in back. Also, derailleurs improved, so the gap between gears could increase. At some point, instead of shifting in front and in back, you'd select a range with your front gear and spend most of your time shifting in back.

At the same time, the "touring" triple, usually something like 48-38-28 or 46-36-24, became, without any real changes, a "mountain" triple. And the other triple configuration, which was pretty much the double, with a "bail out" gear on the side, became a "road" triple. But, at the same time, indexed gearing and V-brakes hit. As a result, there are all of these stars and caveats, where for no good reason, you need to make sure that you don't use a "road" part where a "mountain" part is required, or vice versa.

Now, road cyclists don't like triple cranks. It's a little heavier and, in theory, a little less reliable in shifting. But most importantly, that extra ring is a Ring Of Shame. Real Cyclists shouldn't need such childish features, thus anybody with a triple is a weakling. Now, as front derailleurs got better, the gap was allowed to get wider such that today's "Standard double" is usually a 53-39.

Thus, the industry came up with something that's almost as good, called the "Compact double". It looks like a double, but the difference between the two gears is even wider and the big ring is smaller, so it's more like 50-34. You lose a little bit off each end, but it's not excessive for most riders. It allows the bike makers to keep things simpler. Some parts aren't shared between a "normal" double and a "compact" double, but many other parts are. And, most importantly, it helps Real Cyclists avoid having a visible Ring Of Shame.

Gearing is often times called a very personal choice. I can see why. Some riders do better if they spin at a high cadence. Other riders do best if they grind at a lower cadence. Some riders are good at climbing, so they don't need very low gears. Some riders don't even have good mountains to climb if they wanted to, so they don't know if they need low gears or not.

Now, here's where I come in. My mountain bike, like most mountain bikes, has a "compact mountain" triple, which means that I've got 22-32-42 chainrings (by shaving off a few teeth on the chainrings and shaving off one tooth in the rear, it's a little lighter and has a little more stump clearance). And, given that I'm used to being unfashionable for even the unfashionable, I'm not scared of bearing the Ring Of Shame. While riding, I often need both ends of the bike's gearing range. I'm going to replace the 42 chainring in front with a 44 chainring one of these days. I find myself using the 42 chainring and the 11 and 12 cog on the streets. Often times at a cadence of 120 rpm, which is why I kind of want the 44 chainring. And, given that I basically suck at climbing, I find myself using the 22 chainring and 28 cog to make it up hills.

I've gotten better, mind you. First time I climbed Mt. Hamilton, I spent the whole ride in 22 x 28. More recently, I climbed it at 32 x 28.

My present goal is to go from where I am now, where I do impressively long rides over hilly and sometimes mountainous terrain, to the point where I do absurdly long rides over rollers, hills, and mountains. Thus, my operational requirements for a new bike is that it must enable me to go longer, farther, and faster. It also needs to be a good value, and be likely to last me for a good amount of time. The problem is that, after you take into account wheel sizes and whatnot, the 30 ring on a road bike is right around equivalent to the 32 ring on my mountain bike.

This means that if I put a 11-28 or 12-28 cassette on a road bike with a road triple, where the smallest ring is 30, I'll get the same degree of gear range that I used to climb Mt. Hamilton the most recent time. The problem is that the 11-28 or 12-28 cassette in back is about at the limit of available cassettes. It's also about at the limit of what you can mount on a bike, both in terms of chain wrap and often geometry, with road-grade parts. On the other hand, this means that if I get a compact double, I lose one full gear's worth of low gearing on the bottom, because the small ring would be a 34, not a 30.

The mountain bike market isn't what it used to be. Lance Armstrong made road bikes cool again and cyclocross is catching on as well. Also, all of the macho downhill trails kids used to ride on are closed. Mountain bikes are now often times part of the upright family with "comfort" and "hybrid" bikes. The popular racing scene is cross-country mountain biking, often times as massive endurance races over not-especially-rutted terrain where lightweight "enduro" cross-country bikes made of carbon fiber can compete.

The vague feeling I'm getting is that, for the off-road market, manufacturers would like to move it to using a double ring. A lot of downhill mountain bikers already use a double setup, with the third ring replaced with a "bash guard" to prevent the chainrings from scraping against the ground. Sometimes they will use a second bash guard on the other side to keep the chain from coming off. And because downhill mountain biking is basically motorcycling without a motor and the only reason the pedals and drivetrain are still there is because it's a little faster than pushing with your feet, that's OK.

Cyclocross gearing usually accepts that you won't climb quite as steep of an incline as mountain biking without dismounting, but they've always used a double because it's more reliable when coated in mud. Also, cyclocross in general is driven by the roadies, so they've got the macho double thing. Either way, the standard gearing they sell cyclocross bikes for is a compact double where the bigger ring is only a 48 instead of a 50.

And now, for the XC market, which really does need the full gearing range, much like I do, SRAM has a wide-range double gearing setup, marketed as the SRAM XX. If you have a few thousand bucks, I'm sure it's a great deal. In my book, the SRAM XX is a trial effort. I'm not especially interested in buying a bike with the SRAM XX setup because it's simply too pricey. And it could go the way of any number of other bike inventions.

So I've got this vague feeling that the bike market is largely moving away from the triple entirely. As the SRAM XX shows, you can make a bike with wide range gearing without the extra chainring.

Except that we're not there yet. In this sense, it's bad for me to be looking to buy in 2010 because if there is going to be a shift, I'm in the middle of it. And I'm a gearwhore, so I researched this and gathered an assumption instead of just riding whatever a salesperson feels like selling me.

Certain things are easy to switch out. Cassettes, for example, are an easy switch as long as you stick within the range that the deraleur and frame can handle. But switching from double to triple or triple to double is expensive, double to triple especially so. And so my concern is that I'm rather used to an upright mountain bike with front suspension, where I've got a low gear to spin up any mountain and where the front suspension fork robs me of climbing power, especially if I try to stand on it... and it's been so long since I've been on a serious road bike... that I fear if I'll either get a triple where I could have gotten perfectly good results on a more standard-roadie setup, or that I'll not get a triple and regret it.

I'm not sure. I rode a bike with a triple and a 12-25 cassette uphill, which puts me at a gain ratio of 2.28, which is right between the middle ring and the bottom two cogs of my mountain bike and is something that a compact double can be set up for. And I found that workable, but not optimal. I think. The problem is that I still find myself using the bottom end of the gearing range on my mountain bike and I'm not sure if that means I can't do it with higher gears or just that it's more comfortable if I can spin more.

A few words about shifters

With road bikes, there are some shifter differences I'd like to mention.

The old way was to have a lever, either on the down tube or on the end of the bars. They are light and fairly sturdy. If you use them in friction mode, without indexing, they are fairly flexible and reliable. However, I kinda like the fast and clean shifting of a properly setup indexed shifter.

There are a few ways to do "modern" road-bike shifting.

The lower-end Shimano shifters (Sora and below) work by shifting in one direction by moving the brake lever to the side and then there's a little lever on the hoods to shift in the other direction. The problem is that this assumes you are riding in the drops. Campagnolo apparently works almost the same way, except that there's a separate lever and a little lever. I actively hate that shifter type.

Higher-end Shimano shifters shift by moving the brake lever and then there's a second lever underneath the brake lever. This works much better. The Tiagra lineup feels flimsy but the 105 and Ultegra shifters feel just fine.

SRAM has an incredibly impressive way to do shifting that's completely unintuitive if somebody explains it to you, but I think it's awesome in practice. You move the brake lever to the side both to shift and to downshift. It's just that you tap it to shift in one direction and push it over to shift in the other direction. It's a little half-dozen-of-one-six-of-the-other.

Finally, the latest Shimano Dura-Ace parts use electronic shifting, so they can put buttons wherever you want them to. I do not fear electronic shifting like some... it's just that I don't want to spend that kind of money on bike parts either.

The real annoyance is that I'd love to get a slightly heavier and perhaps less streamlined shifter that works like the Shimano or SRAM shifters but that was truly flexible, such that it came with a set of little gears and stepwheels to drive any reasonable set of derailleurs. Naturally, the people who are making these products will have nothing to do with that.