Does your bike have fun factor gears?

Guest Article by Deborah Chandler

Arn & Deborah riding in Colorado National Monument in September 2012.Summer is around the corner and we live in a beautiful place with amazing cycling options. My goal is toentice you to explore all the awesome climbs nestled into the canyons to our west. I hope after you read this you will count your teeth, get yourself some fun factor gears (if you don’t already have them) and try out Sunshine Canyon, Super Jamestown, Ward, Super Flagstaff, and maybe even Magnolia!

My love of climbing started about 13 years ago on a mountain bike. Well, it wasn’t actually a love at first sight kind of thing. There was some frustration, screaming, and lots of bruising. Once, after a long steep uphill slog on a borrowed mountain bike, I dropped the bike, counted teeth on the largest gear in the rear cassette and yelled to my husband and friends, “Hey, how many teeth are on a 32 chainring?” To this day, they haven’t stopped laughing. This is when I learned that a “size 32 ring” has 32 teeth. Since then, I have learned a bit more about the importance of gearing.

Several years later, my imaginative husband said, “You know, I think we should build up some touring bikes”. I’m pretty game to his ideas and said, “sure”. Now, let me translate his key word: build. Build means he presented me with choices for everything; every single component. He gave me tables of gear ratios and options. Based on my extensive and vast knowledge, my typical answer was, “Just do it like my mountain bike”. And so was built, Dino, my touring bike: a hard tail mountain bike frame, stiff fork (no front suspension), drop handle bars (like a road bike), and gears exactly like my mountain bike. It was a bike designed for cycle touring when you carry all your stuff with you and it had the gears meant for grinding up dirt. You have probably heard the term “Granny Gear”. Well, Dino had Granny Gears that could climb everything. It wasn’t hard; the gears made it easy and fun. In time, I decided to train for a century and then events that featured huge climbs. Over time, I noticed a few things. First, I enjoyed the long climbs and many of my fellow riders looked like they were suffering. While I remained in the saddle pedaling at a comfortable cadence, they were standing and looking like they were killing themselves to make the pedals go around. Second, I was frequently asked, “What kind of bike is that? What kind of gearing do you have?” Dino’s gears were a huge part of my fun factor. I wasn’t in better shape than anyone else. I was riding better gears.

Short techie bit written by husband: The simplest way to thinking about gearing is to observe where your chain is and count the number of teeth in the front ring and the rear cog. For example, a common setup is known as a compact crankset – two front rings – 50 teeth on the big ring and 34 teeth on the small ring. Attached to the rear wheel is the cassette, typically with 10 gears ranging from 11 to 28 teeth. So, if you are using the big ring on the front (50 teeth) and one of the biggest rings in the back – say the 25 tooth cog – for every full rotation of the cranks (50 teeth) the rear wheel will rotate two full times (25 teeth x 2 = 50 teeth of movement in the back). And you will propel the bike forward twice the circumference of your rear wheel. So, sticking with that same big ring in the front and using a 17 tooth cog in the back (i.e. harder gear) will cause the rear wheel to rotate roughly 3 times (50/17) for every rotation of the cranks. You move further for every rotation of the cranks but it is much harder work. The “granniest” gear on a compact setup is typically 34 (small chainring) : 28 (largest cog in the cassette) – one rotation of the cranks moves the rear wheel 1.21 revolutions. Compare this to a mountain bike where you might have a 22 tooth chainring and a 34 tooth cog and a complete turn of the cranks only moves the rear wheel .65 revolutions – a gear almost 2x as easy!

In 2011, my husband and I were visiting Colorado with our touring bikes. What I’m about to tell you may sound like bragging. I’m not. This is to illustrate the fun factor of great gearing. Okay, maybe not every moment was “fun” in what I am to say – we had just come from living at sea level in Seattle and I did think a few stretches of road should have been renamed as “See Colors and Puke” (name of real mountain bike trail). Our first three Boulder rides: Super Flagstaff (ie past the amphitheater to the mailboxes at the top), Sunshine Canyon, and Super Jamestown. While my husband is built with legs of steel, I am not. I just ride the gears that help me get where I want to go. We fell in love with Boulder cycling before we reached the amphitheater on Flagstaff. Two weeks later we were talking to a Boulder real estate agent and discussing the purchase of “real road bikes”. And once again, my husband started talking to me about gear ratios.

By now, I had come to appreciate the importance of the fun factor gears. We test rode a bunch of bikes and I fell madly in love with “Rocket Man”. There was one problem, Rocket Man lacked fun factor gears. My husband promised he could fix this. For those that know how many teeth are on a 34 chain ring, I will share a few specs. Rocket Man came with the “standard” compact crank (50 – 34) and an 11-25 cassette. While my bike knowledge might be lacking, my math skills said this was going to be a problem. I “enjoyed” a few rides on Rocket Man. Let’s say I suffered enough uphill to empathize completely with all the suffering riders I had ever witnessed. Within days, my husband devised my gear makeover. He left the compact crank in place. He swapped out the 11-25 cassette and my rear derailleur. He replaced it with an 11-36 cassette and a mountain derailleur. This is getting techie, so let me simplify: 36 is bigger than 25 and bigger is better when you want to enjoy climbing without killing yourself. Today, I don’t have true mountain bike gearing on Rocket Man, but for a road bike he comes very close. He certainly has the gearing fun factor for Boulder. Rocket Man’s 3rd gear is roughly equal to the granny gear that is common in most compact setups. So, when you are struggling up Flagstaff in your easiest gear, think to yourself, “I wonder if this would be more fun if I had two more gears.” You don’t have to use the easiest gears, of course, but sometimes that is the difference between spinning comfortably or mashing down on the pedals.

So, if you have been thinking you need to be Amazon Woman to enjoy our local climbs, then you might need to think again. It could be time to skip waiting until the day you have legs of steel and instead get yourself some fun factor gears and start exploring. I know it can all sound very technical, but it’s not. The folks at Full Cycle know all about this stuff. They can count up your teeth (or the teeth on your bike!) and give you a gear makeover (roughly $100-$300). It could just be your best year of cycling yet! I hope to see you in the hills!