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Climb Like a Mountain Goat with These Gearing Changes

bike tech Apr 12, 2021

Hands up if you've ever gone out of your way to avoid riding hills? Or maybe you have one you can't avoid on your commute, but you hate it and everyone else seems to just glide up past you, spinning their pedals happily and putting in seemingly a fraction of the effort you are!?

Good news! Unless you are attempting an epic climb at a 15% incline, there is (probably…) nothing wrong with you - you may just need a "friendlier" gear ratio for your fitness and strength!

What the hell is a gear ratio?

Put simply, it’s the gear range you achieve through the combination of your cassette (the ones at the back) and the chainrings (the ones at the front). As you know, when you are riding along on the flat, you can click up and down the gears to make things easier or more difficult depending on the terrain.

Of course, when you're climbing, you are mostly restricted to the ‘easy’ gears – larger cogs at the back and the smaller at the front. But what happens when you run out of gears and you simply can’t push any harder?

Everyone is different, their 'magic' gear may be different from everyone else's. If you haven't found yours yet, don't worry - there's one out there for you. Here's some options to talk to your bike shop about.

Option 1: Swap out your current cranks/chainrings for semi-compact or compact cranks.

Have you ever heard of people saying “I have a 50-34” or other similar seemingly random pairing of numbers? They are referring to the number of teeth on their chainring! (These configurations can also be used to describe the number of teeth on the rear cassette. For example, a 12-25 would be referring to a cassette on which the smallest cog has 12 teeth and the largest has 25.)

Bikes, like anything else, come with a pre-set configuration of components. What the hell does this mean? Let’s investigate.

  • A Standard Crankset is traditionally 53-39. 53 teeth in the larger cog and 39 teeth in the smallest.
  • A Semi-Compact Crankset is: 52-36. 52 teeth in the larger and 36 in the smaller.
  • A Fully Compact Crankset is: 50-34. 50 teeth in the larger and 34 in the smaller.

Remember that the size of the SMALLER chainring at the front gives you ‘easier’ hill gears. You can see below that the smallest gear is much smaller in the compact (right) as compared with the standard (left).

In this example, take a look at the size difference of the smaller cog. Having 5 fewer ‘teeth’ is where it’s at!

You may find that your cranks can be changed to any configuration of chainrings (result!!), instead of having to change the entire crankset. Talk to your local bike shop and they'll advies you of your options... but isn't it good to know you have them!?

NB: Mountain bikers consider gear ratio differently to roadies because they change gear more often with the changing terrain.

Option 2: Swap out your rear cassette for one with a larger range

This is a great option if you prefer to keep a standard crankset on the front OR you could use it as an additional measure if you have switched to a compact crankset but still don’t have the oomph to climb. This may also be a good option for those recovering from injury, getting back into riding after pregnancy or starting riding again after a long absence.

A 'standard' rear cassette is 12-25 (12 teeth in the smallest and 25 in the biggest). Remember at the back, your larger gears represent the ‘easier’ ones for climbing. If you want more 'spinny' gears, you can actually go up to a 12-32 which gives you an extra 7 ‘teeth’ which you will definitely feel make a difference.

Practice Makes Better

Of course, fitness and conditioning is always an element to riding (and climbing in particular...), but the point is this:

Practising climbing makes you a better climber. So whatever adjustments you need to stop avoiding hills, do it!! Bikes are made to suit us, not the other way around.