Right-Sized Rings

Right-Sized Rings

On Thanksgiving Day I joined a group of friends for a ride into Sugarloaf State Park here in Sonoma County. We proceeded to climb Bald Mountain, which rises to roughly 2800 feet of elevation in 5.8 miles. If diplomacy is the linguistic equilvalent to a six percent gradient, then Bald Mountain is straight talk laced with profanities and insults. Not knowing what I was in for, I chose a bike long on beauthy and handling—my DiNucci—but geared modestly, which for this area code is a 34×28 low gear. I was reduced to walking at times. On Strava I called it the hardest climb of my life. That wasn’t hyperbole.

When I went back, I did so with my Seven Airheart on which I recently mounted the new FSA Gossamer adventure crank. This all-aluminum crank features the new subcompact ring setup I wrote about during my Interbike coverage and at the introduction of Felt’s new VR model. The Gossamer is equipped with 48t and 32t chainrings. To do that they had to forge a new crank with a 90mm bolt-circle-diameter, which is why no one is going to be rushing out to order just the rings from the likes of Praxis. To get rings this small, you’ve got to replace the crank itself. The Gossamer is available in four lengths: 165mm, 170mm, 172.5mm and 175mm. The rings are pinned and ramped for perfect shifting.

Honestly, for the riding I do, I’d actually prefer to be on the 46/30 setup that will soon be available with FSA’s SL-K crankset. I don’t have the strength to spin a 34×28 up an unpaved 22-percent grade. At least, not anymore. So if I’m going to spin anything, it needs to be super low. And if you think my crack about a 22-percent grade is hyperbolic, I noted section of 24 and 25 percent on the climb. Hell, even with this crank I still had to walk a 50-foot section.

Bald Mountain is literally the most difficult climb I’ve done in California.

*Drops mic*

The initial attraction to the Gossamer for many riders will be the opportunity to achieve even lower gears for those steep hills, but the real genius behind this crank is the way it increases the number of usable gears on each chainring. It’s nice to be on a climb and not be immediately reduced to the 34×28, sure, but it’s when I’m on more moderate terrain that I find I still have a range of usable gears on the big ring. With a 50/34 setup, I only use the big ring on descents and flat terrain if the conditions are reasonably fast. It is otherwise easier just to stay in the little ring.

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Since installing the Gossamer, I’ve spent time in a fast group and didn’t run into any issues with running out of gear. I still haven’t pedaled in the 48×11 top gear because the descents here are so technical I never reach anything like terminal velocity. Or if I did, the accent would be on the first word, not the second.

The Gossamer is reasonably light for a budget-oriented aluminum crank. The crank itself weighs in at 819 grams (175mm length), and while there are plenty of offerings much lighter, it’s helpful to bear in mind that it’s hard to find something this light for less than $200. The crankset goes for $193.99. And because FSA is one of the developers of the BB386 standard (to which the Gossamer subscribes), the Gossamer can be retrofitted to virtually any bike with their bottom bracket. The BB comes in two versions, one with ceramic bearings ($258.99) and one with steel bearings ($62.99). Think about it: retrofit almost any bike for less than $250.

Neither Shimano or SRAM are making wide-range cassettes that start with a 13, so the only practical way to get the lower gears that make sense for gravel riding is to reduce the size of the chainrings. When I look at the difference in my average speeds between pure road rides and gravel rides, it’s utterly apparent to me that the reduced speeds I post call for lower gearing. I know some people are going to think that flatlanders won’t need the smaller rings because they don’t have the steep hills, but I would suggest the need is no less. Speeds are still significantly reduced. What I’d do differently if I was living in place like Memphis or Chicago is opt for a tighter gearing cluster on my cassette. Instead of the 11-32, I’d stick with an 11-25.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll print this judgment again: a 50×11 is a ridiculously large gear. It’s too large for most riders to ever practically use on the road and there’s even less chance that anyone will use it on a gravel bike. FSA has taken an important step toward giving mortals useful gearing.

Final thought: a greater number of usable gears is like actually having more gears.


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47 comments

  1. David Tollefson

    I’ve had my eye on the Sugino offerings lately for just this reason — getting the subcompact small ring while keeping the steps in back small. Both my road and gravel bike have 46/34 on the crank, and I’d love to go smaller. With the eTap rear only going up to 28t (officially), I was looking at a 44/28 to get the 1:1. The coming WiFli option is attractive as well, but still, going smaller in front is a lighter option than going bigger in back.

  2. Tyler B

    Paddy,

    Have you thought of including Strava (or similar) links into articles on RKP? Many posts–especially since you’re doing more covering of travel and excursions–invite “I want to go to there” envy yet it can take quite a bit of homework to piece together a route based on words alone?

    While I’m on a suggestion sprint: why no search box? The header image had me wondering if you had published thoughts on the Syzr which required a trip to google since your archive links don’t make that sort of lookup easy. In marketing speak, they got the ad impressions instead (though you both got the same amount of clickthroughs, which I reckon is what pays) 🙂

    Lastly an on-topic remark: I’m definitely very intrigued by smaller rings–I think I even made a comment to you while slogging up some stretch at Super Sweetwater (I was on the coupled Mosaic)–but am too wonkishly attached to my PM (Pioneer) to be able to switch. I reckon in a year or two with the way prices are falling I’ll be able to get both at a reasonable cost.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      There are certainly readers who follow me on Strava, but I’ve never really felt a need to make my specific rides more public. I should give that some thought. Chances are, you’re not the only reader to wonder that.

      The search box. We killed it with the new design because, honestly, the WordPress search feature was lousy. It’s a good deal easier to find what you’re looking for using Google. Trust me, I know this for fact. It’s not uncommon for me to go looking for what I’ve said on a company previously and when we had our search box it would turn up frogs when you looked for lizards. So I go to Google and get what I’m looking for with the very first search.

      I apologize, but my only memories of Super Sweetwater are of abject pain. But I hear ya on the Pioneer power meter. The good news is that with the way Stages is pricing their power meters, they are a great, if less sophisticated way to go. If at some point Shimano does subcompact, you’ll at least be able to save your left crank from the Pioneer system, so there’s that.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I had a Ritchey some years back that was similarly geared, but it really did allow me to spin out; I had a 12 in the back. But for someone who wants to go super low, yeah, that’s a nice option.

  3. TomInAlbany

    So, the reason I’m putting off the smaller crankset is partly that I don’t want to be as old as I am – 51! See, part of my thinks that if I step down, to a compact or sub-compact, then I’ve given up on getting stronger. Like yourself, Padraig, I’ve got young kids, though, that take up tons of my time that I gladly give.

    What’s your take on the use it or lose it point of view? (Note – I never could push that 52/11 either!)


    1. Author
      Padraig

      It’s important to think about not what the biggest gear you can push is, but how you can generate the most wattage. You’re not likely to build much (any) muscle mass from on-the-bike work at our age. If you want to try to restore waning muscle mass due to aging, do that in the weight room. (Yeah, I have no time for that either.) So the question becomes, how do I try to go a little quicker and getting your cadence up with a lower gear is how you are likely to do it.

  4. David Tollefson

    I thought something caught my eye here… FSA using a 110/90mm BCD? The above-referenced WickWerks uses 110/80, and Sugino uses 110/74. Glad to see the industry settling on a single standard.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Sure, it’s confounding, but just keep in mind that FSA will probably sell more cranks than Sugino and WickWerks put together. I’d say it’s an established standard.

    2. bwebel

      110×74 has been a standard for road triples for a long time, so I think Sugino’s is by far the most logical approach. The others are just wanting to sell their own chainrings.

  5. Stephen Baumann

    Classic cranks like the Stronglight/TA cyclotourist, VO copy of same, and the Rene Herse crank all allow an even wider range of chainrings. Of course you’ll need to use an “old school” square taper bottom bracket spindle. VO and Rene Herse are readily available.
    regards
    steve

    1. Scott G.

      IRD Defiant crank in 94bcd, comes with 46/30 rings. $200
      Shifts nicely with a Shimano CX-70 front mech.
      Ye olde square taper and you can get rings from TA and others.
      Ritchey made mountain doubles years ago that were 94bcd,
      Paging Mr. Ritchey to the order desk.


    2. Author
      Padraig

      While Stronglight has added pins to some of their chainrings, my one experience with one of the cranksets recently wasn’t promising. It shifted like crap. The Rene Herse stuff has no pins, ramps or release teeth and also shifts like crap. And don’t even get me started on square taper. It’s on my tandem out of sheer unavoidability, but that’s a technology that needs to die.

  6. Jim

    Ugh! Hope FSA has improved the quality of their Gossamers. A previous incarnation under the same brand did not last long (literally) on my bike. Broken and in a landfill. The last FSA part I’ve bought. It was an awful excuse for a bike part.

  7. Lyford

    I spent a few minutes with Excel. A 46/30 crankset and 11-32 cassette gives you the equivalent of 50/12 on the high end and 34/36 on the low. Seems like a perfectly reasonable tradeoff for most riders.

    The 42/28 with the same cassette would give you the equivalent of a 50/13 on the high end and 34/39 on the low. I’ve done some dirt-road rides on my mountain bike where I was happy to have 28/32 available to sit and spin while the folks on ‘cross bikes were struggling to turn over their lowest gear.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I love how when critically-inclined people do the math and think about it, they go, “Oh yeah, makes great sense.” I don’t mind admitting that this is a review with an agenda. I do want people to see the wisdom in this sort of thinking.

  8. Dave King

    Padraig,

    It’s interesting that you write about this crankset and gearing now. In my search for a gravel/adventure bike, I’ve been obsessively researching gearing option to allow a 700c/29 wheel with 35-40mm tires to climb steep dirt roads. And I’m definitely interested in the FSA cranks like this. They actually look pretty nice for a sub $200 crankset.

    In the course of my search, I’ve come across other options to allow one to continue using “normal” or “compact” rather than sub-compact cranksets while still enjoying low gears. One can hack a 105 5800 11 speed derailleur to allow it to use a mtb 11 speed 11×40 cassette. Apparently, a Deore LX 10 speed rear derailleur has a long cage that is almost identical to the 5800 derailleur cage. Swapping out the cages allows you to use 11 speed MTB cassettes. Link here:
    http://www.gravelcyclist.com/bicycle-tech/bike-tinkering-101-shimano-105-derailleur-hack-by-thomas-aceves/

    Also, Wolf Tooth components has a few different options (for Shimano only) that allow you to extend the cassette range of your rear derailleur (but not the total capacity – i.e., if you run a wider range in back you’ll need to run a narrow range in the front cassette such as 46×36) by effectively dropping the rear derailleur closer to the ground. A longer B screw or add-ons to your derailleur hangar can allow you to run a wider cassette. The devil is in the details, however, so read their info closely and email them questions.
    http://www.wolftoothcomponents.com/collections/derailleur-optimization

    In the end, I think I’m going to go for one of the FSA options, probably the SL-K light Adventure 48×32 (when it finally becomes available). I agree in places like Sonoma Co one rarely encounters the type of downhills that allow the use of a really high gear. Down here in Oakland, however, there are a few descents that I regularly ride which allow me to use a 53×11 at a high cadence and turn some relatively sedate descents into high speed slaloms that are basically like intervals.

    1. Dave King

      Also, one potential issue with a 46×30 crankset can be that your front derailleur may not get low enough for optimal front shifting. Also, smaller cogs and rings will be lighter but wear more quickly – but for me that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

      Also, Cyclingtips had a good write-up recently on sub-compact cranksets.


    2. Author
      Padraig

      I’ve looked at the Wolf Tooth and other options that try to increase gear range at the rear derailleur. They are interesting ideas and neat applications of technology, but in the end I think cyclists are generally better served by eliminating some of the high end. Even if I was encountering descents where I had the ability to pedal a 53×11, I know that once you consider the amount of time spent in that gear it’s still not a great use of gearing.

      My thinking has a certain bottom line: If I do a mountainous ride with a wide variety of terrain and get to the end without having used some gears on my bike, there’s something wrong with how my bike is geared.

  9. Dan

    It is great to see more options for lower gearing. I ride 48/34 up front and 13-27 in the back. I don’t like Shimano and SRAM cassettes, the jump between climbing gears is always three teeth. I use Miche casettes where I can have a two tooth difference on the climbing gears, odd tooth climbing gears, a 13 tooth small cog and the ability to replace individual cogs. If I ever run into Andy Hampsten I wouldn’t want him to see me on even climbing gears.

  10. Zach

    Can you even buy these? You’ve been touting them for a while but this crank isn’t even listed on their website, there is no word on availability for the SL-K adventure or the Omega MegaExo versions, and FSA will not return my LBS’s phone calls. Looks like a great product but a bit frustrating to hear how great something is when it only seems to be available as OEM or for bloggers.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Both cranks will be available shortly. FSA’s web site isn’t completely up to date, but given how lean their crew is, I don’t fault them for that. They should both be available to shops by February.

  11. Rod

    I have no shame, and in my otherwise conventionally geared CX bike (46/36) I run an 11-36 cassette. The 1:1 is about as much as I need to clear he really hard bits in the trails I ride. I am not fussy about big jumps in them except for TTs. And yeah, I do use the 11 – the dirt climbs often correspond to paved descents with gradual bits where it gets use. I use a Shimano Ultegra rear D, no issues.

    The 30 looks like a great idea.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      That sounds like a great setup. The 10-tooth jump on the chainrings is really nice in changing terrain.

  12. Jonathan

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been using a Sugino 44/30 with and 11-32 cassette for most of this year. For most of my riding I rarely get out of the big ring, and the 30t really gives me some great low-end gearing.
    I rode my roadie with 50-34 for the first time in ages on a 170km ride the other night and I really missed the small big ring. Found myself front shifting a hell of a lot. The climbs weren’t brutal so I didn’t really miss the low end, but I only used the two smallest cogs on the biggest descent of the ride.

    I’m sold on sub-compact chainrings.

  13. LateSleeper

    Sugino super-compact user here: 44/30 on my gravel/winter bike. Factory wheels have a 30 tooth large cog and my good wheels have a 32. If I build my Ti dream bike this year, it will probably have a 46/30. The recently-announced Rotor single piece ring set seems interesting. If I were building a road bike instead of a mixed-surface bike, I might opt for a 48/32. At 58 years old (last week) I am never going to miss those high gears.

  14. Andrew

    So help me out here. I’m running Ultegra 10spd on my gravel bike. Currently 50/34, 11-28. I’m fine on the steep hills we have here in MN/WI, because they aren’t super long, and grinding up them is ok for now. But I would like to try some lower gearing, without breaking the bank. The cranks are pretty new, so I’m not inclined to switch those out. And I don’t feel like switching everything over to 11spd, as I have 10 spd Shimano 105 brifters. Basically I’m looking at switching out the cassette and RD- any ideas what the best way to go about this would be, to get say an 11-32 or 12-32 on there with a compatible RD?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      So you’re looking at an older XT rear derailleur with an XT cassette. Since price is king here, I’d just start hunting around on the web if you plan to do the work yourself. If you want your shop to install it, I’d just ask them to find what they can. Shimano still has stock on those parts, so there’s no doubt they can get them.

    2. Grego

      Andrew: the easiest way for you to explore this is to get a Wolf Tooth Roadlink ($22) and an 11-32 or 11-34 10sp LX or XT cassette. You might not even have to recable your RD.

    3. Jeff Vader

      With a road link and a 105 rear derailer you can go to a 40 on the back. We’ll, you can on 11speed. I don’t see why 10 speed would be any different. Just check your chain length if you are wanting to run big-big. I run old deore XT rear derailers on all my bikes and go up to 36 on the back with 10 speed or 9 speed “brifters” on the front.

  15. mrt2

    Spot on re: gearing. My teenage son can use a 50 tooth chainring when he does road rides, but frankly, I don’t even use 48 tooth big chainring on my Sugino Triple all that much, and hardly ever use the 48 – 12 big gear. I would use it more if it were a 46 tooth. I probably use the middle chainring 80% of the time.

    My wife’s 2012 Jamis Satellite Sport has an FSA triple with a huge 52 tooth big chainring. She got herself into trouble trying to use it and would too often find herself struggling on even slight inclines with it in a low cadence. After some discussion, we removed it in favor of a chainguard, and replaced the 11 – 25 road gearing with an 11 – 32 mountain cassette. and she has been much happier and faster now that she has an ultra compact 42 – 30 double and the mountain cassette. Not the thing for super fast roadies, but for an avid, if not exactly hardcore cyclist in her 50s, her average speed and endurance was much better this year with the lower gearing on her road bike.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Genius. I just love it when rational people look at the speeds they go and the cadences they actually turn when in their biggest gears. If you’re not doing group rides a 42×11 will take you a lot of places.

  16. JeffW

    Timely article! I’m thinking the same thing for my gravel bike. Here on the SF Peninsula my off-road rides are usual on road to the mountains and up them for a ways, then off onto single-track and trails that get pretty steep. Going with a 48/32 or even 46/30 seems to make more sense than trying to rig up bigger cogs in the back and giving up the smaller jumps. Wouldn’t want to give up the bigger ring on my road bike, but I’m happy to cruise downhill on the gravel rig.

  17. VeloKitty

    Anyone looking for options should also read through the comment section of this article:
    An Open Letter to SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo
    http://redkiteprayer.com/2016/04/an-open-letter-to-sram-shimano-and-campagnolo/

    I’m surprised no one in this thread has mentioned the Praxis Zayante 48/32 crankset which is available. https://www.praxiscycles.com/product/zayante-m30-build/

    The Sugino looks like for classic bikes, but it’s so expensive.

    There is the option of running a Shimano triple too. The Shimano 5703 crankset will take a 24 tooth small chainring. Mix and match with 11-speed rear if you want. I’m running a 50/39/24 on one bike. It works fine. A chain catcher is mandatory though. (Buy a Krex chain catcher off eBay).


    1. Author
      Padraig

      We’ll be reviewing the Zayante crank some time this spring.

      There’s a challenge with running a triple and that is that few shifters can accommodate three rings and even if you just go for two rings, few front derailleurs that aren’t meant for triples shift far enough in. Add to that problems that emerge with respect to chainline.

  18. Grego

    A different point of view on gearing: I use a 52×11 top gear and wouldn’t want anything smaller; I’m a strong rider, with a relatively low cadence, and I like to go fast. I also use a 36×32 bottom gear and wouldn’t want anything taller; I’m a heavy rider with lots of hills in my area and need the ability to spin up the steep grades. Only recently have I even had the option of a double, instead of a triple, that covers that range. Don’t suggest taking it away. >:)

  19. James

    With a 32 tooth, or even 30 inner ring, and a low BB drop, say 70-72+mm of drop, do you risk interference with the chain stay? I would imagine that chain being fairly close if not “slapping” that stay on bumpy terrain.

  20. LateSleeper

    Grego,

    I hear you on the triple. I have 6700 Ultegra on my century bike, and I do enjoy the 52-12 combo on mountain descents, together with 30-30 to get up there in the first place. But I had to build that bike around a ten-speed group, because Shimano never made a 6800 triple. And my cross bike came with SRAM, so a triple was never even an option.

    I’ll probably build a club ride bike next, and want it to be light, so no triple there either. But I figure a 48-11 will be the most I can push, and I’ll still have a 30-30 for those 10 & 12% grades we have here.

  21. Fuzz

    For my new (last June) Roubaix UDi2, my shop did a K-edge conversion, with an 11/40 rear cassette. That worked OK, but even then, as you noted, the 50/11 was a wasted gear, so I put on a 46T FSA chainring. It’s been fantastic. Because I dropped the 4 links off the chain, it allows me to now use almost every cog with the 34T little ring. For the future I could accomplish the same thing with a 46/30 subcompact crankset and an 11/36 cassette, but it would require double shifting the cassette when switching to the 30T ring. With the 46/34, I just shift the cassette once while dropping to the small chainring. And with my 34/40 low gear, I never ever walk.

  22. Jim Smith

    I came across an article about the 46/30 cranks a little while ago and thought it would be a good idea for my old body. When I started riding good bikes in 1984, I had a 52/42 with 13-23. I’m twice as old now as I was then so a 46-12 that’s only slightly lower than 52-13 should be plenty for me. When I go to Europe, almost all the downhills have lots of switchbacks, so I seldom use 50-12. I’ve been using an 11-32 on Euro trips the last couple of years, never use the 50-11 and would like closer ratios and the 46/30 will allow me to go back to the 12-29 I prefer.

    Remember how few road bikes were being sold before compacts because a lot of people just needed something lower than the 39-25 that was the standard low gear 15 years ago? Well, the people like me who switched to compacts in 2005 or so are another 10-15 years older. I guess the next step will be some small electric booster like the one that the wags claimed Cancellara used at Roubaix a few years ago. Current electric boosters are too big and heavy for the little bit I could use on big hills.

    Heck, even my 28 year old son, who was national team as a junior, has switched to a compact so why shouldn’t senior citizens go for something lower?

    I’ve ordered an FSA SL-K and a White, both in 46/30. Of course, neither is available yet but I’m not off to Ventoux and hopefully one of them will arrive before then. One will go on my S&S coupled Moots, the other will go on my Norco Search adbenture bike. I’m still OK around home with a compact and hope that Campy will have 46/30 cranks by the time I need them on all my bikes.

  23. Bryin

    White Industries offers a crank that can take almost any size rings you want… AND they make a nice thread, square taper BB in many sizes so you can get a nice chain line… made in the USA too…

  24. Bryin

    Also Shimano is missing the boat but not offering a Di2 TRIPLE… the biggest negative about road triples as always been chain rub because of short chainstays.. but Di2 could eliminate that… AND dropped chains! A Di2 Triple would be very cool.

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