The unbeaten path; road less traveled; any road; your inner adventurer; those tracks you've always wanted to explore; what's on the other side of that farm gate; all of this; as long as you're happy with the same gearing as an ordinary road bike
We've all seen the marketing material; something that looks very like an endurance road bike, but a bit more flared in various places and with wider tires, interesting seat post and a new top tube design. So, in the foreground, a very nice-looking bike. And in the background, snow-capped mountains, distant rivers, valleys, perhaps even some singletrack, a dusty drivetrain, yellow spring alpines and a babbling brook; I'm getting carried away, but not a ribbon of tarmac in sight. Buy one of these, they said, and you can get to these places TODAY.
Well, OK. But I've been to these places before, on a bike that had suitable gearing. To get to the ones I haven't been to yet, I'd like an adventure road bike; it sounds perfect. Some of these places are very far away and I'd like to ride there instead of taking the train or putting the bike in the car. So, I want to go faster. Not necessarily when I actually get there, but I do want to be able to ride fast on the road then hit the mountains. My XC bike is quick enough on the road, but these things are faster, and I don't need a mountain bike to tackle most of the riding I want to do. So: give me one of these bikes; here's some money.
I don't regret buying this bike: not for a second. In almost all respects it's what I hoped it would be; a faster bike for the mountains and gravel roads, and a terrific bike for sealed roads. But there's a problem. Huge effort has gone into making these bikes ride well on rougher surfaces, but they forgot where these surfaces are; in the mountains. They're steep, and a long way from anywhere. So you need to take gear there, so you don't freeze to death or starve; at the very least, then, extra clothing, basic supplies and tools, and possibly even, I don't know, a tent. Because they didn't think about this, they didn't think about the gearing. They forgot that all the other types of bikes that get taken to these sorts of places have completely different gearing from road bikes. Or maybe they didn't; maybe they just chickened out and thought no-one would buy something that looked like a road bike but didn't have 50/34 on the front.
An interesting thing I've noticed over several years of cycling in the mountains is that the gearing on mountain bikes is suitable for cycling in the mountains. This often involves sustained steep grades with loose, rough surfaces, which is why you need lower gears than a road bike. By coincidence, the gearing on your typical 2-ring mountain bike happens to be also ideal for loaded touring, where you also are going to need lower gears than on a normal road ride, even if you just stay on the road, because of the extra weight.
Here's the problem: despite being marketed at the "adventure" end of cycling, the adventure road bikes from the major manufacturers - Norco, Salsa, Jamis, Specialized, GT et al - are basically slightly tougher, slightly more comfortable, slightly more capable road bikes. They have road bike "compact" gearing - a 50/34 front end, and a road block with one or two extra gears, maybe up to 32 which is about the limit of modern medium cage derailleurs. The lowest gear is therefore 34:32 (front:rear); this is far too high for adventure cycling, long off-road climbs in the mountains, or any kind of loaded touring, where you’d want to hit this 1:1 ratio about halfway down the block on the small ring, and have 5 or 6 gears left below it. (My Stumpjumper has ideal low ratios for climbing with loads on; its lowest gear is 22:36). At the top end, you will most likely find as I have that the high gear 50:11, and the three gears below it, have no practical use. On a loaded endurance trip if you’re doing between 40 and 50kph you’re clearly going downhill and unlikely to be pedalling.
The reason for this is that the manufacturers are selling these bikes to road cyclists, not adventure cyclists. So they veer towards the road end of the spectrum. I honestly believe that a lot of people who wander into a bike shop don't even ask about gearing. Among those that do, your typical roadie knows that 50/34 is "compact", and therefore the smallest of the three common options for pro-level road racing - 50/34, 52/36 and 53/39. They're probably thinking about the quality of the componentry as opposed to considering whether a smaller front end might improve their performance. So if you’re going to sell a new bike to a roadie, sell it as a new kind of road bike, and put the same gearing on it. Never mind that the advertising material shows it in the same places mountain bikes normally go. Never mind how it's actually going to get there.
I think all this will change as people gradually realise the potential of adopting these new gravel and endurance-inspired bikes for adventure touring; even just for taking them really out into the boonies which a lot of people are doing (see the Internet), and where lower gears would be ... helpful. So it won’t be long until the gearing gets sorted. In the meantime, happily, it’s not that hard to sort it yourself - just find yourself a bike shop that specialises in repair and customisation rather than retail, and get them to change the gearing.
The natural tendency is to look to the back; on most bikes it's easier to change the gearing there than at the front, as you can just change the cassette. This is usually only good for smallish changes though - trying to make radical changes this way, you'll soon have the classic problem of fighting warheads with armour; the weight goes up very quickly. The problem is not the back end, a 32 or 36 cassette is fine (look at mountain bikes). The problem is at the front. Here's an illustration; three bikes, all of which I use for adventure cycling:
|| Type of bike
|| Front chainrings
|Specialized|| Stumpjumper 29er
|Giant|| XTC 29er
|Specialized|| Diverge (700c)
So, manufacturers: give us lower gears on these bikes. Or at least make them easier to change. Above all, give us, or make it easy for us to get, 42/24 on the front. That's what we want. If you need to make a new kind of front mech, and put a bigger clutch on the rear one, that's OK. You've got the back almost right; let's have a look at that front end.