Lets Talk About Gears!

Hello! Lots still happening over here in Evergreen Cyclery land! I have some cool projects that I will begin to talk about. Here is a sneak peak of one such project. Special thanks to the lovely and talented Jenica (Shes all mine and you can’t have her!). Business cards will be here next week!

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I am still working on that local post but until then, here are some additional thoughts that I think integrate well with my previous blog post detailing why I buy my bikes used and my attempt at convincing you to do the same.

At the conclusion of that article I concede that there is lots to consider and I completely get how daunting it can be knowing what is important to prioritize when buying a bike and what isn’t. I hope to slowly tackle common features of bikes and hopefully help with forming some opinions for those looking to buy a bike for the first time.

In this article, lets talk about a feature that I think gets entirely too much airplay-gears!

As a kid, I was obsessed with gears. I reasoned that the number of gears that a bike had was the absolute best way to tell how good it was. I remember when I got my Giant Commotion and it had 6 speeds. 6 speeds! Boy, did I think I was hot shit. There was a gear for easy peddling. Like, if I wanted to cruise and take it real easy. That was the same gear I used when trying to keep up with my dad going up hills. Then, when I was in the flats I could dial it down, push real hard (it got harder to pedal) and I would blast off to 18 mph (I had a speedometer!).

Giant Commotion

Pretty much the bike I had as a kid except mine was red and did not have the grip shifters (too old for that).

I thought my Giant Commotion was awesome. A couple of months after getting it, I asked my dad how many speeds his bike had. When he told me 21 like it was no big deal, I was bummed. I could only change into 6 different gears. He could change into 21… No wonder he was so much better at climbing the hills than I was.

“Modern” bicycle technology now has us all the way up 12 gears. What does that even mean? Well, they are referring to the number of cogs on their rear cassette. Whoa! What is a cassette? There are two clusters of gears on a bike. The Crankset has one set, typically between 1 and 3 gears. The other cluster is attached to the rear wheel and is called a, “cassette.” The cassette can have anywhere between 1 and 12 (apparently) gears or cogs as a part of its cluster. To determine how many gears are on a bike, simply multiply the number of gears on one cluster by the number of gears on the other cluster. As an example, a bike with the cassette and crankset below would be a 27 speed bike (9×3).

Cassette

A 9 Speed Cassette

A Beautiful Triple (3 Chainrings) Crankset

So when we say that modern bicycle technology has us up to 12 gears, that means in theory there can now be 36 speed bikes out on the road. Do we care? Absolutely not! Why don’t we care? Keep reading and I will try by best to explain it.

What makes gears different from one another? It it the number of teeth that each chainring or cog has. On the crankset, the number of teeth on each chainring is usually larger than on the cassette. On the crankset (the front), the larger the chainring, the more difficult it is to pedal. On the cassette (the rear) the larger the cog, the easier it is to pedal. The different combinations between each of the cogs and chainrings allow for all sorts of different gear ratios from extremely difficult to pedal but great for going fast, to extremely easy to pedal but not going much of anywhere (great for climbing a hill).

Does having plenty of combinations of gears make it easier to bike on all sorts of different terrain? Absolutely. I would submit however, that there is a limit to this way of thinking. Rather than worrying about how many gears you have (like I as a young boy did), worry more about what range of gears you bike has.

That 12 speed cassette that probably costs 600 bucks? Probably has a range around 11-28 which means that the smallest cog is 11 teeth and the largest cog is 28 teeth. The other 10 cogs are numbers between 11 and 28. Instead, why not get a perfectly functional 8 or 9 speed cassette that will cost 60-80 dollars. You can still probably get a range from 11-28. The only downside being that the number of cogs between the 11 and 28 is slightly fewer, as you have fewer gears.

Further making that 12 speed cassette less attractive is what they have to do to the other parts of your bike to make 12 speeds work. For simplicity, lets say that the spacing in your frame where your wheel fits is fixed. Well, in order to fit 12 cogs where most bikes have 8 or 9 what do you suppose they had to do? Make them thinner! Along with making the rear cogs thinner, they made the chain thinner (the gaps between each cog can be smaller that way). Sounds great doesn’t it? No! As a result of thinner chains and cogs one also get decreased durability. So that 300 dollar cassette that was maybe good for 5000 miles is now good for only 3000 miles. Not cool. Not cool at all.

In conclusion: Rather than focus on the number of speeds a bike has, concentrate more on the range of those speeds. Most bikes have a range from the low to mid teens, up to the high 20’s or low 30’s. Unless you are sponsored, or money is no object, a bike with 14 to 30 gears should be perfectly fine for most people. Heck, if a bike is bought and the gears ratios just aren’t working out, with very little effort a new cassette or new chainrings can be bought an installed.

Do you remember how many gears your bike had as a kid?

How many gears does your bike have now (assuming you have one)?

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