These days such back wrenching and knee crippling gearings in close to unthinkable, or at least it is for the majority of us – even the top pro’s often run compact gearing for the mountains; 28, and even 32 rear climbing gears are not unusual, with even lower “dinner-plate” sized bottom sprockets been seen on some of the steeper slopes, such as those we now see in the Vuelta a España.
Watching old YouTube videos of riders straining and wrestling their way over mountains on old school gear is a painful reminder of times past. I remember getting my first ever 23-bottom gear, for a stage race in the Pyrenees. An embarrassing moment back then, yet something I simply would not consider now – even if I were still in that racing shape of the distant path.
Perhaps it was the fast pedalling mountain escapades of Lance Armstrong that first knocked a hole on that once solid gearing and climbing cadence wall - and of course from there on in it snowballed.
These days most riders use much lower gears than they once did, pedal more efficiently and go faster. It’s evolution, but it hasn’t spread to all corners of the cycling world.
Gravel bikes have made it far more acceptable (even cool) to ride close to mountain bike gear ratios in conjunction with curly bars, taking another step towards the general de-stigmatisation of slow and low gearing.
Last year I got myself a gravel bike – not just for smacking the dirty stuff, but to make many of the road rides I want to do possible, as the climbs on many of my travels sometimes go beyond the bounds of reasonable sanity – often averaging 15-20 per cent grades, all rough cut and baked in tropical heat. These eastern beasts are even tougher when you’re carrying more extra kilograms than your bike weighs.
At the Doi Inthanon KOM race, some of the leading riders had 40-42 tooth MTB rear cassettes, which got me thinking about hybrid options for myself.
I’d ridden MTB cranks on a cyclo cross bike way before gravel bikes had been thought of, but there was always way too much chain slap and suck. A triple crankset would be a great option, but they’ve fallen so far out of style that they’re now tough to find, as are the shifters. Thus the back end seemed like the best adaption option – even if it would make for huge gaps in the gearing ratios.
I’d tried and tested Shimano road rear mechs of all grades, cage lengths and ages – yet there was no way of getting cleanly past a 32 sprocket, as the cage angle forces a tension choking. Yet, I looked closely at the pictures I’d shot of the gears at the KOM, and they were using road mechs. Get an MTB rear mech I figured, which was something I’d done many times on older bikes with great success.
Hours in the local bike shop, and still we could not make the MTB based system work – tensions and spacing would just not dance together at the same time. We were close to giving up on the idea, and as I was about to strip back to basics I showed the mechanic the close-up pic I’d seen at the KOM; “Ahh, you need Roadlink” he exclaimed. I had no idea what he was talking about, but after a ride to another local bike shop we returned with what looked like a gear hanger, but is, in fact, an ingenious piece of aluminium that somehow alters the angle and spacing of the rear road mech, just enough to allow it to handle more back teeth, 40 in this case. What a game changer.
Smooth and seamless, I now have a gravel bike with a much-needed extra gearing lifeline, which has well and truly opened up some potentially painful new climbing horizons.
That said, some guy walked past and scoffed “walking speed” as we finished the re-wire, which should hardly surprise me in a place where it’s almost impossible to find tyres wider than 23mm, enough said.
If you’re looking to ease the climbing burden a smidge, and to give yourself a fighting chance then remember – more teeth do give more bite. For me, it really has allowed me to boldly go where only mountain bikes went before.