Ask Nick: Gearing down for going up

Tech editor Nick Legan addresses reader questions on gear ratios for big days in the mountains… or the hills

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Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

I’m targeting a mountainous 2-day stage race in west Texas this spring (the Fort Davis Hammerfest), and am wondering about the practicalities of using multiple cassettes.  The race format includes a Saturday morning six-mile hill climb (rated a Cat. 2 on Strava), then a flattish TT in the afternoon and finally a hilly road race with several thousand feet of climbing Sunday morning.

I don’t own a TT bike, so my plan is to do all three stages on my road frame.  I am a 5’8″, 135lb Cat. 3 and run the following setup: SRAM Red with 53x39T up front and either 11-26t for hilly days and 11-23t out back for flat-to-rolling races.  I would just run the 11-26t all the time, but I find I really miss the 16t cog when rolling along in the pack at 24mph. I’m not competitive in flat or rolling TTs due to my lack of aero equipment and small size, so my real aspirations are for the hill climb and road race.

As for my actual question, what is the most practical set of equipment for a one-man, one-bike operation?  I find when I’m in my lowest available gear (the 39×26 combo), I’m most definitely above threshold in the 9% gradient range if I’m turning my legs over properly in the 80-90 RPM range.  Should I opt for a bigger cassette for the hill climb (with a 27t or 28t max gear), or just expect that when the race heats up on the steep sections of that stage, I’ll probably be going all-out anyway and the 26t should get the job done?  If I were to go with a bigger cassette, I expect I’d need to put a longer chain on too, yes?  Would that preclude me from easily swapping to my 11-23t for the ITT later that same afternoon?

Is there some other, elegant and cost-effective solution I’m not thinking of?
— Clark

You’re asking all the right questions. It sounds to me like you’ve already decided on gearing for the flat time trial and the road race: the 11-23. (Just be sure to check with a racer similar to yourself who’s done the race previously. You may want to consider the 11-26 for the road race. If the bunch decides to chill over some of the climbs you might like to spin a bit up them.)

You sound like a pretty skinny climber-type. Many riders like that prefer a higher cadence, especially when climbing. With that in mind I would recommend experimenting with a 27 or 28 cassette in training. See how it feels when you’re climbing hard on local hills. Then ride some rolling roads too. If you already miss the 16-tooth cog on your 11-26, you might not like the bigger gaps in the 11-28.

It’s also best if all the cassettes we discussed are the same brand and model. Assuming you use them all on the same wheel you’ll cut down on the number of adjustments required after changes. Still be sure that your shifting is spot-on after each change. Check that you won’t shift into the spokes or the dropout.

Regarding chain length, you may need an extra link if you go with the 11-28. But once you have the bike set up for the 28, it will also work with the 26 and the 23. No need to change that during the race, unless you also change chainrings.

I would also encourage you to look at results from last year. What are winning times like on the hill climb? Preparing for the distances and intensity in training, both physically and mentally, may be more important than your gearing choices.

I’m a former USCF racer from the 1980s that never used big chainrings.  Even before compact cranks I used a 50T big ring and my smallest cog was a 13.  I live in a hilly area of SW Ohio where the hills are not very long but sometimes get steep.  I currently use a Shimano 105 crank with 46/34T FSA chainrings and a 12-27 10-speed cassette.  This gives me a 33-inch low gear and a 100-inch high gear.  More importantly, it allows me to use the big ring without having to shift back and forth between the two chainrings.  Yeah, I lose a little on the downhills, but I just make up for it on cadence or I tuck on really long ones.  My thinking is I’d rather have gearing I can use 90% of the time instead of gearing I can use 10% of the time. So here’s the question:

Can I put a Campagnolo CX11 46T chainring on a new Chorus 11 Compact crank?  I’d like to run a Campy crankset with the same gearing I have now.  I know the CX crank is 36/46 but a 36 just isn’t low enough sometimes.
— Allan 

I spoke with Dan Large from Campagnolo North America to check on your question. Unfortunately it won’t work. The width of the two chainrings where they meet the spider is different. You would pull the ring out of true when you tightened the chainring bolt hidden behind the crankarm.

The cyclocross crank is offered in both a 50-34 and a 46-36 combination. So you should be able to order the rings you like if you’re ok using that crank, instead of the Chorus.

I’d also like to add, that I applaud your gear selection. Most road riders are over-geared in my opinion. I have a bike for dirt roads that has a 48-32 chainring set up on it. Even on group rides I’m not usually dropped due to gearing.

I’m planning on participating in a few events this year that involve some significant climbing. I currently have SRAM Red on my bike with a 53-39 crankset and an 11-28 cassette. Any recommendations on combinations or limitations with the current group I have for switching cassettes on climbing days?
— Jim

Get yourself a SRAM medium cage rear derailleur. You can use a Rival or Apex or even a mountain bike derailleur from SRAM if you want something lighter (but you may want to install an inline adjuster in your cable housing as MTB rear derailleurs don’t have a barrel adjuster).

That will let you use an 11-32. If you get the MTB derailleur, you could go crazy and use an 11-34 or 11-36.

Otherwise, you can consider a compact crank. You have lots of options, but you’ll need to spend a little money if you want lower gearing than you currently have. You’re at the limits of SRAM Red’s compatibility with your 11-28 cassette.

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