Low Gear Manifesto

click to enlarge, but not this one

So...do you have an interest in climbing the hills but find it arduous and painful?  Do you want to find out the secrets of easier hill climbing?  Do you want to show some respect for your knees and back?  Do you want to save energy?  All these things are possible my friends with some easy and reasonably priced modifications to your existing bike.  How?  Read on...

First, I'll say up front that I am a low gear afficinado.  As a seeker of steep hills, of unknown routes, and generally the roads less taken, I have found that the right tool is necessary to be proficient at this game.  That tool is a well fitting bike outfitted with low gears.  High gears are there as well, but emphasis is on the granny gears, the stump puller, the bailout gear, whatever you want to call it.  I may not use it often, but when I need it, I do smile...yes, smugly.  The fact is that the serious cycling game here is hills unless you are a triathlete, and even they get great benefit from the intense workout the hills and mountains provide.  Another fact is that once you become adept at climbing, you will be addicted to it, and seek out ever more challenging climbs.  The low geared bike is the tool to get you there faster, and keep you there.

I need to acknowledge several people who have inspired me in this biking subculture.  Brian Aldrich a few years back was one of the first to install the very low gears, in fact, the 28 chainring I run now is the part he was originally using then, but decided he didn't need it anymore.  John "MacGyver" McKeon converted his Kestrel time trial bike to a very low compact 34X34, as did Mark Pryor with the same setup before him.  Since then a number of local riders have made this simple modification to exploit the hills.

The first things you need to know about bike gearing is that the larger your gear cog on the back wheel, the lower your overall gearing.  As well, the smaller your front chainring, the lower your overall gearing.  So you want large in the back, small in the front.  Most bikes, including triples, which have 3 chainrings in the front, offer a low gear larger than 1: 1, which in my opinion is not low enough.  A standard compact is certainly not low enough.  I run a modified triple because only a triple can get you below the golden 1:1 gear ratio, read on for more details about that.

What does 1:1 mean?  It means the chainring in the front is the same size as the cog in the rear.  It could be any combination:  28-28, 32-32, or even 50-50 if they made rear cogs that big.  Those of us who are serious hill riders, over time and with experimentation, have settled on 1:1 as the optimum low gear ratio that will get you up the steepest hills.  Now I have to admit I have even lower gears than that on my Lemond because when it comes to the steepest, gutbusting hill I have to face, I am ready, I have the supreme confidence that the leverage low gears provide will get me to the top of any MoFo hill. (Mofo is a term of respect for the hills that really hurt)

Leverage= efficiency.  You can do more work, and work longer, if you use leverage.  It gives you more bang for your buck.  It allows you to do the same amount of work with less effort.  Sounds great, doesn't it?  So what's the catch?  Yeah, ok, you add about a pound of weight to your bike.  Big deal.  You go a bit slower up the hills.  Does speed matter that much?  Would you rather summit the hill feeling fresh and ready to go, or gasping for breath, your knees and back aching, knowing you shaved 5 seconds off your personal best?
That's a no brainer as far as I'm concerned.  You will also have to improve your shifting skills, as you will have 9 more gears to work with.  Some hills you will know what big rig truck drivers have to put up with.

 "Yeah, but Flash, how about compact drivetrains, I hear they are as low as triples, but much lighter and faster", I can hear you say.  Answer:  they are lighter, true, but not as low as triples.  "But the Pros use compacts so I want to use them too so I can be cool like a pro!"  (Update 6/12:  SRAM Apex is a low geared compact setup that IS lower than the standard triple, 34 front, 32 rear)

 Sure, go ahead, but I have a question for you...


 If you are over 30 and in denial about aging then you have probably talked yourself into using a compact for the macho points it provides.  Hey listen, there's a lot of bullshit in cycling, and the biggest load of bike bullshit of all is that triples are for weaklings, women, gays, losers, Freds, or the elderly.  If you are smart, think for yourself, and know your physics, then you know that the advantage low gears give you are all that matters, and the rest is preening, posing, cool posturing and image control.  Do you really think people think you are cool based on your bike gears?  REAL men ride doubles.  How many times have I heard that tired saw?  I'd add "insecure" between "real" and "men".  Triples are heavy.  Hey buddy, you're a lot heavier, maybe you should cut back on the pizza and brewskis and treat your body as well as you do your bike.

Now... having said that I should add that I do love my compact Miyata, I've ridden it up every major mountain in the area and all areas of the local hills.  In fact, on Thanksgiving '09 I rode it up Mt. Hamilton (+4,100') and back and exceeded my expectations.  But... it does hurt my body more, especially my back because I have to stand up a lot more on the steeps.  I still ride it in the hills often but I do greatly prefer my low geared Lemond.  On the Miyata I am always surprised that I am out of gears so soon.

It's better to have low gears and not need them than to need them and not have them.


So now take a moment and look at these pics of 4 bike setups which illustrate different gears and think about cogs and chainwheels.  Then I will reveal what you need to do to get your low gears grinding.

Semi-compact Miyata drivetrain.  Rear cassette is 25X11, front rings are 36X52.  Standard compact rings use a 34X50 up front, and may use up to a 28 on the rear.  This bike does not have low gears.

 Standard Rockhopper mountain bike triple gearing:  32X12 in the rear, 22/32/42 in the front.  Very low gears.

 Standard Giant Avail triple chainring setup for the ladies:  26X12 in the rear, 30/40/50 in front.  Could also be 30/39/52 or 30/42/52 as these are standard setups.  Cathy got this superb bike at Alameda Bicycle.

Modified Lemond triple setup for lower gears:  32X11 rear, 28/42/52 front.  Note the small size of the silver chainring up front.  Very low for a road bike. Less than a 1:1 ratio.  My personal hill climbing setup.

So, take that last bike for example.  It started out as a standard triple, with a low cog of 25 in the back and a 30 in the front.  30 / 25= 1.2  This is a good hill climbing gear for medium hills, but when the going gets steep, say over 10% this setup does not feel low anymore, leaving me wishing for something easier.

A typical compact setup is  34/25= 1.36, rather high.   But... the same as a triple IF you get the 28 cassette on the rear which is 1.2. Most come with a 25 or 26, but now there is a new marketing trend, such as the new Apex gruppo from SRAM, that offers a compact with a 32 out back which gives you a 1.06 ratio, ever so slightly higher than 1:1.  Their slogan is "Kills triples dead"  Yeah, ok, maybe ordinary ones.  I actually applaud SRAM for going with this *gasp* radical concept.  They are at least putting the message out there that your normal compact is not quite cutting it hill-wise.

Back to my bike.  I installed a 32X11 mountain cassette on the rear, which then gave me a ratio of  0.93.  Better than 1:1 right there.  But going further, I changed the 30 front chainring to 28, which gave me a final overall gearing of  0.875.

The difference between 1.2 and .875 is... 27% lower than a standard triple or low compact setup.  That 27% will be felt, believe me.  That is serious leverage on a steep hill, and it is 27% less stress on your back, muscles, and knees.  When your fellow riders are standing, grinding, weaving, gasping, eyes bulging, you will be sitting down, relaxed, spinning away efficiently on your highly leveraged bicycle.

So here is what you need:
1.  a mountain cassette for your rear wheel.  9 speeds are standard, but 10 are now available.  (Don't try to get an extra gear by putting a 10 speed cassette on a 9 speed shifter bike. NOT going to work!) Might as well get a 34, the largest available.  Then install a mountain derailler, Shimano Deore is a quality low cost option. You need the mountain derailler because it is longer and takes up more chain slack when you are in the lowest gears.  It also affords more clearance between jockey wheel and large cog when in the low gears.  So if you start with a compact drivetrain, those two items will get you to 1:1.  No need to change your shifters either and your existing chain should work, just don't combine your big cog with your big chainring and all should be hunky dory.  If you start with a triple, the 34 will give you .88, a very low gear virtually identical with my .875 without having to change the front chainring.

Cost on this should be around $100, extra for labor if you don't do it yourself.  You will either say, yeah, I can do that or shudder at the thought and run to the nearest bike shop to let them do the surgery. Either way, a small price to pay for a BIG change, nothing else for this little money will make such a big difference in your riding enjoyment of the hills.
You can even go further....

                     Incredibly, some people opt for a QUAD chainring setup as seen on this tandem.  Whoa...

Consider this a work in progress, and I'll add more as I think of things or to respond to needs.

Good luck and good riding.