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.
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.
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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