Gearing on road bikes - who uses 50:11?

Your drivetrain was designed for who, exactly?

Recently I ranted about how the gearing on adventure road bikes didn't seem to match the intended purpose of the bikes; it was too high.  In fact, it essentially was the same as on any other road bike.  It elicited some interesting reaction from road cyclists, who live with this gearing; there was tacit acknowledgement, and some confusion from those who plainly hadn't thought about it before.  None of them could quite bring themselves to agree.  One suggested a possible solution might be EPO.  So, forgetting about adventure riding for a moment, let's just talk about road bikes.  I'm going to call it the 50:11 problem.

The gearing on my adventure road bike is basically what you would get on a standard road bike with a slightly wider cassette.  So, for a while, I used it as a road bike.  After a few days and a few big rides, I had used the top gear maybe a couple of times.  I can see what it's for - if you want to go really fast (like >50km/h) while pedalling.  Sure, pros do that all the time, and amateur racers probably do too.. but the thing is, almost all road bikes above some modest price point seem to come with 50/34 on the front, or bigger.  I know a lot of the people who buy these bikes.  They do not, hardly any of them, ride >50km/h on the flat for extended periods - if they ever spin out it'll be going down one of our insane Wellington hills, while pedalling.  What's the point of that?  You're just wasting energy.  And then you're trying to get up one of those insane aforementioned hills using 34:28 or something.  Like I say, fine for athletes, or if you're racing, or if you just like going out with the fast group and boning it on the climbs.  But even endrurance bikes have the same gearing.  If you live in a hilly place, you might well agree that road bikes need lower gears. 

For various reasons to do with the amount of pull on a front mech, chainline issues with extreme gears, and chain slack management, front mechs are limited in the difference they can have between the two cogs.  This is daft and should have been sorted ages ago (for example, we have gears we can't use!) but hasn't, so if you have 50 on the outside, you need to have 34 (or close) on the inside.  Since the road bike industry has some sort of blind spot around the 50 (we must have it, whether or not we use it), we're effectively stuck with the 34.  You can't easily change it, because of bolt circles diameters and assorted fannery. 

Athletes and racers apart, what percentage of the time are most cyclists in 50:11?  2%?  3?  If you live in a hilly place, how much time do you spend in the lowest gear?  10%?  20?  Do you ever wish you had a lower gear?  Ever wish you had a higher one? 

You can, of course, put a triple on and get a very wide range of gears.  But there shouldn't be any need to fit a klunky, complicated and unnecessarily heavy front end to your bike.  Not when you have gears on top you hardly use. 

I'm not saying I don't use 50:11; I do.  Just not very often.  Coming back from rides north of Wellington I often ride the Hutt road from Petone back to town. The road is dead flat and exposed and the prevailing wind is northerly, so you can really tank it along here north to south. There's a few other stretches of asphalt around here that are similarly... amenable. But I can easily live without this. I'm usually only doing it to get to the pub faster.  

There is a phrase you will hear sometimes from road cyclists: "I don't like to be spun out."  Or something like that.  What they mean is that when descending (a very steep hill), they don't like it when they can't pedal quickly enough to engage the drivetrain.  On a good road bike, descending a steep hill will typically mean you are doing much more than 50km/h; in fact if the hill is long enough and steep enough you may, quickly enough, become cahone-limited.  Any pedalling you are able to do is unlikely to materially effect your speed, quite likely to increase your chances of medevac, and be, at best, a complete waste of energy.  Yet there are a lot  cyclists who demand a drivetrain that can deliver drive at such speeds; say, 65km/h or faster.  "I don't like to be spun out."  These people don't, apparently, care that the other end of their drivetrain isn't well suited to getting up the hills in question, and probably just suffer in silence.  

So; can you tell a man by the size of his chainring?  I think not.  We ride because we love love it, don't we?  None of this makes any sense to me.  You don't need a triple.  It's not the width of the range that's the problem, it's the limits; the whole thing is skewed too high.  A double is fine.  Just lose the top few gears, and give real people a few more at the bottom, or at least put on front ends with smaller BCDs so we can easily change the rings.  Not everybody lives in Kansas.  Give them road bikes, not race bikes. 

Main picture: 11-36 11-speed cassette on Shimano 105. Looks a bit weird, but does the job. The XT shadow plus derailleur easily took the cassette without adjusting it (just needed a longer chain), and will shift to the big cog at the back from either chainring without difficulty. Rear derailleur units are rated by how much chain slap they can mitigate, in other words a number given by largest chainring minus smallest chainring plus largest cog minus smallest cog. In Dodo's experience, they will often perform well beyond those ratings. For example, the shadow plus is long-cage; a quick search on YouTube shows plenty videos with 11-32 cassettes running on medium and even short cage derailleurs, which in most cases is way beyond the spec.  But put on a smaller front end, and you reduce the weight at both ends while delivering the same gears. 

vélo vino dodo