A bit about gearing

Hi Lee!

I’m hoping you could help explain gear ratios and maybe shed some light on which gear ratios are unnecessary. Here’s the situation:

I have a customer that is using the Sram Red compact double (50-34). In the back she is using the new Sram Apex long cage rear derailleur. She is also using a Sram PG1070 10speed casettte in a 11-32. She is interested in switching out the 11-32 cassette to a 12-36. For some reason, I’m thinking that running a gear combination of 34 small ring to a 36 in the back doesn’t make sense. I think what that means is that she would essentially “spin out” OR her gearing in that given combination is too low. Her rebuttal was that her other bike was a road triple with a 22-32-52. However, she was running a 11-28 10sp to go with the triple. I’m wondering this:

Does she just not want to exert any effort climbing or is it useless to run a gear combination of 34-36?

Hopefully these questions make sense.

Congrats on the new book!


Hey Daniel,

Thanks for writing. I need to rock some family style, but here’s a quick answer:

Gear ratios 101

Gear ratio is the size ratio between the front gear (chainring) and rear gear (cog), measured in teeth. When you divide the front gear by the rear gear, the resulting number tells you how many times the rear wheel will turn for every rotation of your cranks.

44 front / 11 rear = 4 (top gear for most mountain bikes)
36 front / 12 rear = 3 (a good DH/Super D top gear)
34 front / 17 rear = 2 (a common singlespeed ratio)
34 front / 34 rear = 1 (my Stumpjumper climbing gear)
22 front / 34 rear = 0.65 (low gear for most mountain bikes)

The lower that bold number, the easier it is to turn that gear, but the slower you’ll be going when you turn it.

Your example

Old gear
22 / 28 = 0.79
That’s a very low road gear, almost as low as a mountain bike.

Current gear
34 / 32 = 1.06
That’s a lot harder than her old gear. If I was used to climbing with a 22/28, I’d be looking for an easier gear too.

Proposed gear
34 / 36 = 0.94
That’s still harder than her old gear, but easier than her current gear. If her drivetrain will handle that ratio, I say do it.

Picking the right gear

Asking which low gear a person needs is like asking how much they should be bench pressing. It depends.

We all need a gear we can turn without hurting ourselves or feeling completely miserable. That ideal ratio depends on terrain, conditions, genetics, goals, health, rest and whether you have infant twins.

My Mighty Tricross has a 34/28 (the lowest I could go with Shimano Ultegra). Last winter when the babies came, I could barely turn that gear up the 17% climb to my house. Now I can spin that gear pretty easily — and even upshift a few times if I feel like it.

This is important: If I didn’t have the easy low gear, I wouldn’t have been able to ride that bike very much. I would have lost my mind, and I wouldn’t be rocking now.

If your customer wants an easier gear, give it to her. The best bike is the one you get to ride. The best gear ratio is the one you can ride.

But: Don’t let her be lazy and use the ‘easy’ gear as a crutch. Encourage her to:

– Pedal with great form. Always.

– Learn to spin the gear quickly. No plodding along in defeated mode.

– Spend time in harder gears. That’ll make her stronger and increase her overall confidence in the hills. Eventually she’ll save the 34/36 for emergencies.

– Have fun!

I hope that helps.

— Lee

(Tired today from yesterday’s climb: Enduro with 36/34 gear and 2.5 sticky DH tires up Sunshine Canyon.)

Know more. Have more fun!

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9 replies
  1. Garrett says:

    Is a 22-32-52 triple even possible? That’s definitely not your standard road triple. I’m running a 28-38-48 triple with an 11-28 cassette on my road bike with plans to switch to a 50-34 when I get stronger.

  2. leelikesbikes says:

    >> Is a 22-32-52 triple even possible?

    I don’t think so, at least not according to manufacturer specs. The front derailleur won’t have enough range.

    When I set up my Tricross I was really frustrated. I wanted drop bar shifters/brake levers, a road crankset and a mountain-style cassette. I also wanted to stay “in group” and not mix and match between road and mountain components; I don’t have the time or patience to screw around with that stuff.

    I went with Ultegra SL and a 34/50 in front and an 11-34 in back. Now that I’m semi-fit, that setup is working fine, but:

    I think a 36/48 in front would be more useful. I could even see doing a 36 or 38 with a chain guide.

    The new SRAM Apex stuff looks awesome. You get a road crankset with an 11-32 cassette.

  3. daniel says:

    The 22-32-52 was run with a 11-28 9sp cassette coupled with a deore rapid rise long cage rear derailleur. It worked… “okay”

  4. leelikesbikes says:

    If the front derailleur is high enough to fit the 52, it’s too high to smoothly escort the chain to the 22 (at least according to Shimano standards!) You can make it work, but you have to lay off the pedal pressure and be patient.

    My mountain tandem had a 24/36/54. It worked fine, but it took some finesse.

    BTW: Nothing like spinning out a 54 x 11 !

  5. Jay H says:

    I also welcome Sram apex.Its almost imposable these days to spec a drop bar mtb or touring road bike with parts that are not incompatible in some way. Most touring bikes either exceed the capacity of the rear der. or they use a mtb rear der. with a road sti shifter, which according to shimano is only b-list compatible. Building a modern touring bike is a difficult proposition. Similar problems happen upfront with the 45mm vs 50mm road and mtb chain lines and the different shifters.

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