Friday Group Ride #403

Friday Group Ride #403

You know what we don’t talk about enough? Cassettes. Not the ones that used to litter the floor of my car in high school, but the ones that look like dangerous blender attachments and go on bikes. And are cassettes even interesting? Yes. I think yes. They are.

I was talking to a guy earlier today (Hi, Bruce!), and he asked me what cassette I would run on a disc road bike that spends a fair amount of time riding up steep hills. I said, “Well, most of what I see now is 11-32 for that bike,” and he nodded and stroked his chin, and said, “But they’re making 11-34s now with long cage derailleurs, right?” And I said, “Yes. Yes they are.”

What’s interesting is what he said next. He said, “Well, do you think it looks like I’m cheating if I run 11-34?” I laughed, because the idea of being judged based on cassette size is funny, but also because I would run 11-34 in a heartbeat. In my mind, what gear you use is immaterial. You either climbed the hill or you didn’t, right?

That got me thinking though.

With the proliferation of larger cassettes wed to compact chainrings, what is ideal is up in the air again. I have an 11-28 to compact on my road bike, but my mixed-terrain bike gets 11-32. I feel no compunction or shame about that. I’ve ridden D2R2 on 11-28. I know what that’s like.

There is a moment each weekend, as I dutifully churn out my hill repeats, when I go for another gear and my bike tells me, “No, sorry man. That’s all she wrote.” I laugh pretty much every time it happens, and I wonder how many teeth that big cog would need to have for me not to want one more.

This week’s Group Ride asks what is the right cassette for the road? For serious climbing? For gravel or mixed-terrain riding? Is more teeth usually just better? How many of you are more concerned, sincerely, with the lower end of the range?

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34 comments

  1. Winky

    Most of my regular hills are suburban cols of the North shore of Vancouver and yes, I am concerned with the lower end of the range. There are hills of pretty much every gradient up to about 22%, I guess. I like to run a cassette that only rarely forces me out of the saddle in my lowest gear. I’m running compact, and that means 28t on my “summer” bike and a 30 or 32 on my “winter” bike. It’s not to say I won’t climb standing-up for a fair percentage of the time on the steeper slopes, but I want it mostly to be my choice, not the hill’s choice. The steepest thing I ride semi-regularly is probably the short ramp up from Indian Arm (local Vancouverites know it well), and that’s a standing grind for me no matter what.

    I run compact chain rings ONLY for the lowest gear option it gives me. I dislike everything else about it.

    1. PedalingScience

      I’ve moved away from Vancouver but I still remember that hill on Indian arm. When it’s wet it’s a workout and a physics lesson all in one.

  2. Andrew

    I spend a surprising amount of time thinking about this. Thank you for validating me. :- )

    I’ve got compacts on both my road bike (which I ride offroad sometimes) and my gravel bike. The road bike has 11-28, the gravel bike I switched to 11-32. It pained me to take off the nice Ultegra RD and put on a mid cage Tiagra, but I love having the extra gears. Now, I can make any of the gravel climbs here in MN without too much difficult using the 34×32 combo, but I have to admit there are times when I think “if I had lower gears, this would be better”. I’m thinking about going the 48/32 route up front, but I’m not sure the small gain would outweigh the expense of buying the new chainrings. I also use my 50×11, because life is too short not to ride downhill as fast as you possibly can whenever possible, and I don’t like spinning at 130 rpm. What I really want is for someone to invent a way for me to have a 50 up front (or even bigger), paired with something even smaller than the 32. Before you say “road triple”- I don”t feel like buying new brifters.

    Ah, these dilemmas.

    1. Winky

      I’ve been running a 50×12 top gear on my road bike and hardly ever wish for more. But I don’t race, and if the group gaps me on a fast descent, it is usually only a few seconds to bridge back up once it flattens a bit. On my gravel/winter bike I’ll be switching to a 12 on my next cassette and would even run 30-13 if that is an option. The smaller gaps are more important to me than the highest gear.

    2. Ben

      I have White Industries VBC cranks for exactly this reason. I run a 50/28 so I have all the range I could ever want. The front derailleur doesn’t love it, and took some tuning to get there, but it shifts just fine. (I can’t use the lowest third or so of the cassette when I’m in the 28 up front, but why would I want to?)

  3. Lyford

    If you’re on steep dirt loads and are traction-limited — if standing means spinning — it’s hard to be geared too low. I sometimes use a hardtail 29r MTB as my “gravel bike” and like being able to sit and spin while the ‘cross bike folks are grinding and cursing.

    I’m not a wattmonster. I want at least 1:1. My road bike is currently 50/34 and 11-32. If Shimano made a 105 or Ultegra 46/30 subcompact I’d buy two immediately — one for me and one for my wife.

  4. Don

    I’m 67 and like longer rides… Centuries an Half Centuries. I run a Shimano compact Ultegra with 11-32 on my carbon road bike and the same with a Sram 11-36 cassette on an aluminum cross bike. Why….in a long, hilly route you can vary cadence and position to use different muscle groups and give others a break. When tired, you can spin up the hills and still blast 45mph down. I’m a certified old guy and the range gets me through 9000ft centuries. I’d never make that with an 11-28 on either bike.

  5. Jay

    The older I get the more I think about 50-34 on the front and something like a 11-50 on the back…

    But seriously, I have a compact setup on the front and a 11-32 rear cassette and I have run out of small enough gears on some of the big hills that I encounter.

  6. Rod

    I think the ideal gearing (not just cassette) is the one that allows you to do the rides you like to do according to your capabilities and desires.

    I love rough roads. A local unpaved trail includes a 20% section on a loose an uneven surface. I failed to clear it on my “normal” CX gearing of 36×28. So I tried a few more times and even pushed the recommended limits on the Shimano shifters with a SRAM “1x only” 11-36 cassette. I finally cleared that section. And the bike otherwise performs well mechanically. So that’s now my preferred adventure gearing. One of my mates is a proficient MTB rider and he clears it on a 34×28. More power to him, if I had that skill and smooth stroke I’d opt for the tighter spread.

    For those wanting a bigger spread in chainrings, I say don’t be afraid to push the recommended specs. It needs some work but I’ve made 52/34 and 54/39 work in the front. My favourite front derailleur for large spreads and ovalized chainrings was the FSA Energy, it was a bit wider than the Shimano and SRAM models. And the previously mentioned 11:36 back uses a normal Ultegra rear d – didn’t even need an excessive adjustment to the b screw.

    Conversely, on my TT bike I run a 54/44, 11:27. I don’t do hilly time trials but we have a few bumps – I like to stay on the big ring which is the reason for a relatively large spread on the back. And it allows for a straighter chainline at my normal cruising speed/cadence.

  7. Curly

    Not a cassette but I run a 14/38 five speed freewheel on my 1978 Paramount. Coupled to a 47/42/30 Nuevo Record triple. Old guys rule.

  8. PedalingScience

    I did a lot of chin scratching prior to a 3 day off road tour last year. In the end, the biggest cassette I could get to play nice with my 10sp campy drivetrain was a 12-32, paired with 46/34 chainrings. Climbing steep, poorly surfaces dirt mountain passes in 34×30 gave me a lot of time to regret to buying a new crankset.

    I’m doing a similar tour again this year and I think I’ll install an FSA subcompact.

  9. Grego

    The bike I want to get has a maximum chainring restriction due to the large tire capacity. Here’s the max ring sizes for each setup: 1X = 38T, 2X = 28/42, 3X = 26/36/48. Yet I like gear range, both high and low. My plan is, therefore, an XT T8000 crankset with 26/36/48 and 10sp M771 11-36 cassette. 48/11 is a compromise top gear, but it’s going to be all about the low end and the ability to climb the very-steeps. If 26/36 proves to be not enough low range for where I’m riding, I’ll put a Wolf Tooth GC42 on to get the equivalent of the same low gear that I’ve had on mountain bikes for 20 years. If that’s not enough, I must be trying to go up a vertical face. Long live the triple crank and sufficient gear range.

  10. Aar

    My emphasis when choosing cassettes is minimizing the number of teeth that change from one cog to the next. Back in the day it mattered for shifter performance and it still marginally better. Then and now, I find it helps my spin. Currently run Shimano cogsets, my preference is 11-25 summer and 14-28 winter. Really miss the Campy 11-23 but Ultegra cogsets are so much more affordable, shift better and last longer.

    I typically run “race compact” chainrings and don’t hesitate to install my standard crank when visiting pancake flat areas. When things get hillier, I first switch to compact chainrings. Then to an 11-28 cogset. In August I’m doing a ride with multiple sustained 20+% pitches. For that, I’ll toss performance out the window and go all in for the most “gear” my mechanic will let me run. Since my derailleurs are still Campy that prolly figures to be a 30 or 32 tooth largest cog. Looking forward to that grind!

  11. Gabriel

    I’ve found low gearing is a one-way street in which age definitely plays a factor. When I was a 20- something racer 39-53 with an 11-23 was fine for all my road riding around the bay-area mountains. By 30, I’d moved onto an 11-25 and it was great. Then the 28 tooth happened, “for training at specified rpms,” I told myself. Knee problems in mid 30’s got me onto a compact chainset. I’ve never missed the 39-53, but at 40 i’m way slower than I was used to be. Age mostly, i’m sure, but I can’t help but wonder how much is just down-adjusting to the lower gears.
    The only mountain bike race I ever won came after I bent the largest four cogs on my cassette. When fast is the only choice you go fast. Does the opposite also hold true?

  12. Fuzz

    One misconception riders have is that bigger cassettes are for going slower. In fact,the only reason to put on a bigger cassette is to go faster. The goal is to match your optimum climbing power and cadence to the hills you climb. As an example, my buddy and I regularly were doing a very steep hill. I had one more lower gear than he did, and so was regularly up at the top a minute or two before him. I gave him a new cassette, chain, and derailleur to get the same gear I had. The next time up that hill, he was right on my butt, just 15 seconds behind at the end.

  13. Kimball

    I agree with Fuzz; you may make it to the top grinding slowly away, but you’ll be faster if you can spin in your ‘sweet spot’!
    I’m no racer, but like to challenge myself. Currently I run a compact (34/50) crank on my road bike with an 11-25 cassette. Its still getting me up the hills of the Pacific Northwest, but an 11-28 will be a better choice at some point.
    But my all-road bike is a bigger gearing challenge! My wish list includes low enough gearing to be able to sit and spin up the steep, loose gravel climbs (you spin out if you stand), one tooth jumps when cruising at 18 to 21 mph where I still spend the majority of my riding time, and as much top end as I can salvage after satisfying these other two criteria. The best combo I have come up with so far is a 30/46 crankset combined with a Sram WiFli 11-32 cassette. The Sram WiFli is prefered over the Shimano as it keeps the one tooth jumps longer in the smaller cogs (it has a 15 and the Shimano does not). The 30 – 32 combo has gotten me up everything I’ve tried to date and I can spin the 46 – 11 up into the low 30’s.
    One final thought: Smaller chainrings save weight; bigger cassettes add weight.

    1. Winky

      Weight is just one factor. Friction is higher with small chainrings and cogs, though. So is wear.

    2. Padraig

      One of the things we are seeing with newer drivetrains is that the rear derailleur often sits ahead of the cassette, meaning the chain wraps around more teeth on each cog, decreasing wear (by distributing that load over more teeth).

    3. Winky

      The load is not even on the engaged teeth, but is progressively adopted by the links as they come up around the sprocket. This due to elasticity in the chain, but is modified by the tooth shape and wear. It might be that the extra wrap doesn’t take a big share. In any case, smaller sprocket/chainring combos have higher chain tension and friction is generated as the teeth engage and the chain bends, but more significantly as the chain straightens and the chain disengages from the teeth.

  14. Chasing Backon

    I pondered gearing a bunch when setting up my traditional Rando, “allroad”road bike. I ended up with TA style 50.4 bolt cranks using 26/42 rings and an 11-30 cassette. prob not enough top end for fast people, but it’s got all the low end needed for mixed use riding on dirt, gravel, hardpack and easy trails as well as pavement. If I was a bit faster, i’d go to the 11-28 cassette for smaller jumps between the cogs, especially in the 4 lowest gears.

  15. Winky

    Campagnolo have just announced their 12-speed range. I want to hate on it, but it looks pretty well thought through for the most part. I’m happy that the wheel geometry is unchanged.

  16. Steve

    Yeah, I’d really like a 1×12 for the road with the same gear range as the SRAM Eagle, 10-50. I have a friend ask me, don’t you ever worry about the big gaps in the gear range, and I said, ‘when you shift into an easier gear you really want it!’. So my ideal road/gravel bike, 50 46 or 50 on the front with a 10-50 on the rear. Currently I am running 52×36 on the front and 11-32 on the rear, and there have been a few occasions when I went to shift into an easier gear and found out there were none! I live in Colorado and there are times when the grade start pushing 12%,

  17. AG

    Seems like any modern bike set up will have a 11-28, 11-30 or something in that range combined with a compact or semi-compact crank. We all have seen the benefits of those drivetrains and we can talk for hours about adding/removing a couple teeth on the front or back. But the last 5 years has also brought us 48 or 50 tooth cassettes with giant derailleurs and tiny front rings like Eagle. Are we not just moving weight and complexity from one spot to another? I am not looking forward to the inevitable 1x road drivetrain and more clumsy pie-plate size back cassettes defacing otherwise beautiful machines (of course I have Eagle on my mtb). No modern drivetrain can compete look and feel of an old-school 12-23 block and its buttery (manual) shifts between cogs. Climbs were tougher, but so were the riders.

  18. Dolan Halbrook

    My race bike gets a 52/36 up front, 11-28 out back. Seems to be plenty of range for PNW road racing. My “groad” bike runs a 50/36 up front, 11-32 out back, though there are times an 11-34 would be nice.

  19. /sk

    Somebody always will mention “tough” in response to gearing choices. Nothing “tough” about very low cadence and very high torque, just dumb.

  20. khg

    Love my compact with 12-29. It was great for my ride today, which featured some local 2+ mile climbs with sustained sections well above 10%. I was able to stay seated (well, except for this one nasty half-block above 20%), and just stand if I felt like changing position. That was a lifesaver on a section with moss and wet leaves…

  21. Chris

    I happily run a FSA 46×30 up front and an 11-36 10 speed cassette in the back. Most of my long rides are on gravel these days and I mostly ride solo. I can ride up a 20+ mile climb on an old railroad grade in the big ring. A 30×36 also lets me climb all but the steepest fire roads while still carrying a camping load. During the week I never use my small ring, even on the mile long climb at the end of my commute.I really think of it more as a 1×10 with bail out options.

  22. smrat

    I’m riding 1x on my adventure bike with a 42 up front and a 10-42t in the back, and i am never wanting for range, no matter the pitch!

  23. jeffs

    Hot topic. No 11-23 yet? RKP demographics statement? Yes, it changes as we get older.

    All my bikes are compact 50/34. Road 11-27 or 11-28 depending on campy/shimano cassette. Gravel 11-32. Tandem 11-40.

  24. Casey AL

    I have found riding a mid compact (52/36) with an 11-30 to be ideal for a relatively light-weight carbon bike for climbing as well as fast group rides on the flats. The 36-30 gear is just slightly (2-3%) lower than a compact with 32 on the back, whereas the 52-11 gearing creates enough pace to be able to punch it on the flats. I doubt, unless you are doing the Zoncolan, that most would be able to tell the difference between 34-32 and 36-30 when going up anything less than 8%. Is the ideal range of gears for me.

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