Monday, July 7, 2014

Oh dear lord what have I done... Gear ratios for the Etape du Tour

Not enough teeth!
When I bought my first road bike I fitted a new cassette - a 13:29 - because I'm rubbish at climbing.

When I upgraded to my Felt, it came with an 11:25 on the back, I swapped it almost immediately for a 12:30.

Even with that I still cry out for a compact crankset as the gradient rises above 10%.

"No one ever failed to finish a sportive because their gears were too easy," as the saying goes.

Except I don't have my old ratio any more. Because when my bike came back from its service they'd swapped it for an 11:28.

Now, on one level  I love having an 11 again - but, 28? That's like cutting off my old "help me" gear. I needed that gear. In fact, I probably needed another one some days.

The new cassette has four advantages: 1) the 11 cog give me more speed and control descending (I'm not kidding anyone if I claim I'll be spinning out a 52-11 on the flat). 2) It's lighter. 3) My chain won't be stretched out to breaking point if I accidentally end up in my lowest gear on my big ring. 4) I should probably harden up.

On top of all that, Ian Stannard, one of my favourite riders, rode the Tour of Britain a year or two back with an 11-28 on the back. I don't think anyone in the peleton rides a 12-30.

This weekend, with the new gear ratios on, I rode some of Surrey's hardest hills - it was an education.
Meeting up with fellow Etapers David and Lucy (and their shiny new titanium bikes) we headed out for the ride - loosely following the Legs of Steel route and topping out at 160km with 2km of climbing.

More climbing than I had planned for
The newly serviced bike was a joy to ride - so smooth, so silent, so much easier to spin up faster. My cadence on the flat rocketed up into the 100s, 80s just felt slow with so little resistance from the bottom bracket.

The extra top-end speed was a joy on descents too - I could spin up to 60kmh easily. But the new gears were a mixed bag overall.

Thanks to my slightly odd crankset (52:36, sitting between the 'standard' 53:39 ratio and the 'compact' 50:34 one fitted as standard to most bikes) I had the equivalent of a 26-and-a-bit rear cog on a compact with the new cassette. My old 30-cog being the equivalent of a 28 on a compact.

This wasn't enough to spin my legs on slopes of more than about 6%. 7-11% I could get up without standing on the pedals, but it hurt a lot more than it used to.

I got round without dismounting though, up Barhatch (probably Surrey's hardest climb), Ranmore Hill, Leith Hill, Crocknorth (a steady 11%, so a decent analogy for bits of the Etape), Coombe Bottom with its 25% sections and the ZigZags at Box Hill (among others).

More, I set personal records on all bar Box (where I set my 3rd fastest time).

The harder gears meant I was pushing harder to keep a solid cadence, climbing faster, but it hurt.

I was getting out of breath sooner, but oddly this didn't stop me - I was still operating within my limits, just closer to them. It was an education that, when made to by my gears, I can go harder for longer. My legs felt it but didn't stop, my lungs felt it, but I didn't explode.

I was driving rather than spinning sooner and for longer on slopes. I also needed to be out of the saddle sooner.

I found out going up Holme Moss that I could sit and drive for a long time (more than a kilometre) at 11% with my old gears. I really don't know if I could have managed with my new gears - especially given that my cadence dropped to 40 for a while with my old ones.

Looking in more detail at the Etape, I could probably manage the Tourmalet with the new gears. I might even be faster up it. But the Hautacam? It has sections at 14%. There's a kilometre that AVERAGES above 11%.

I ordered another 30-cassette.

That said, post Etape, with no 30km-long climbs to face - the 11:28 is going straight back on. It should rock on the London100 as well as helping my climbing power overall in the long run.


  1. To avoid bike mechs going 'berserk' on my trusty hybrid last year, I ordered all the parts I wanted and gave it them to fit. Certainly wouldn't want to change anything a week or 2 before the Etape. And shouldn't you taper already??? 160kms with 2Kms climbing is looking a rather serious ride :)

    Btw hope all is is well and that we can meet for an after Etape drink somewhere.
    Say hi to rider 7180 in a red/black 'kit' when passing by :)


  2. Was meant to be a 'gentle Sunday spin' - it turns out it wasn't. I'm not tapering as best I can, whilst engaged in a last-minute panic diet.

    Would love to stop and say hello - I'm pretty sure I'll be starting in the same pen as you (I'm 7063) - I'll be wearing a mostly white top riding a black and blue Felt (that you're probably familiar with thanks to the number of photos of it I've posted).

    I'll see if we can find a drinking/eating establishment in Lourdes and post details in my "final prep" post.

  3. Contrary to last year I am much calmer awaiting day D (my confidence not based on the amount of training done)
    I'm more worried about the weather and not having disk brakes this time. My bike will be a Scott Speedster 30 but haven't seen it yet. And I'm staying in Pau Fri-Tues, so won't be able to meet in Lourdes - got no transport unless I hitchhike a ride.