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A guide to bicycle gears

by Dragon Bicycles

Road bikes today are most often equipped with 22 speeds; two chainrings in the front, and eleven gears in the back, with front and rear derailleurs to move the chain up and down the gears as needed by the rider.  Over the past year Shimano, SRAM, and even Campagnolo, the three giants of bicycle component manufacturing, released 24 speed gear setups for road bikes. 
As is the case with most sports, the pros got first crack at the new tech, and so professional bike riders in races like the Tour de France were the first to ride 24 speeds this past year when the 24 speed setup debuted.  The new 24 speed drivetrains are available for the rest of us, at a hefty cost at the moment, but within five to ten years from now the technology will trickle down to the less expensive component levels more attainable by us, the average rider.  
But do we need more gears?  The arguments on both sides are intriguing and also slightly infuriating.  The parts makers like Shimano and SRAM want to introduce more gears and components to make more money; they aren't able to make more money if you're satisfied with the equipment you currently own, and what better way to make you feel lousy about your gear if you're told it is obsolete.  
Serious riders, like those who put in hundreds of miles per week, will support the idea of more gears because they've ridden beyond the capabilities of their current 22 speed setups, and indeed will need more gears to obtain faster and faster speeds.  It is not uncommon to see pro riders in the Tour de France riding at an average speed of 35 mph, with top speeds into the 60's.  The men and women who ride at that level of competition need the bigger gears to remain competitive, as would a race car driver need a car capable of going faster and faster in order to be competitive. 
On the other hand, for the mass majority of us our average speed on the bike is in the teens, with an occasional top speed in the mids 30's.  And we also personally purchase our equipment; top riders are sponsored and their equipment paid for by their sponsors.  Bike teams on the Tour de France will burn through, on average, four to five bikes per rider per team over the 21 stages of the Tour.  Last year 184 riders participated in the tour, with each team having on average about 100 bikes available to them.  The bikes are broken, riders involved in crashes, etc., and at $10-15k per bike, the costs skyrocket immediately, but the cost is not a direct concern for the pro rider, a major difference between pros and the rest of us.  
Buying something that has an aspirational value to it, like buying a pair of Air Jordans hoping that you'll be able to one day dunk from the free throw line, has long been a mechanism for industries across the board to get consumers to buy more than we need, and the bike world is no different. 
Sure a $10,000 carbon fiber road bike with electronic shifting is a fantastic machine, and sure why shouldn't someone buy it if they can afford and want it, but will that $10,000 bike make the rider any stronger than a $2,000 bike?  If your top speed on your favorite 1990's bike is 35 mph, it's a good chance your top speed will still be around 35 mph on an expensive new bike.  This isn't a criticism of ourselves as riders, rather it is meant to be a reality check, a moment to step back and look at what we really want from our equipment for the present and the future, and almost as important, the value we get for the money we spend on our bikes.  
Next time you're out for a ride, any length of ride is fine, change gears and ride around as usual, except keep an eye out for what gears you're using on your bike.  Good chances are that you are riding your bike using only a few gears, probably the ones right in the middle of the cassette.  And sure you'll shift up or down to the extremes of your gears when ascending or descending a hill, but the majority of your riding will be done with only a few gears.  And it works.  It's been working and will continue to work as for the most part, bikes haven't changed in a hundred plus years since its invention.  Yes there are new frame materials, recent introduction of electronic wireless shifting, and fancy seats with the middle cut out to relieve pressure on the rider, but the bike itself, two triangles and a fork, powered by a metal chain, hasn't changed.  Why?  Because the design works.  This then creates a dilemma for big bike and component makers, how do they get their riders to spend more money?      
A single geared bike, known as a single speed or fixed gear bike, is possibly the simplest form of bicycle riding and the first to have been introduced over a hundred years ago.  The single speed bike is just that, a bike born out of simplicity and the love of riding where the rider only has one gear to power themselves up down and along the road.  The beauty of the single speed is in its pure simplicity and ease of use; no mechanical mechanism is needed to move the chain up and down gears, maintenance is so easy as to be forgettable, and the bike is directly connected to the rider because of this simplicity. 
That all said, gear variety is good and in fact vital.  Living in Seattle where the hills are mountains, having a choice of gears is a necessity to get up the next big mountain hill, or to descend the same mountain like a screaming Dragon.  My other favorite bike after my Dragon of course is a fixed gear steel bike from Minnesota based Surly bikes.  I love this bike for all the reasons I outlined above re: single speed bikes, I also love this bike because it helps me train to be a better cyclist on my Dragon, which has 11 speeds.  One gear makes cycling easy, and for me, connects me directly with the machine, similar to driving a manual transmission on a car.  And I take my fixed gear everywhere I can around beautiful Seattle, for rides that last for several hours.  I don't have to think about shifting, don't hear the knocking of the chain against the front derailleur, and ride about taking in the scenery as if almost floating on the bike.  But I can't get up every hill on my fixed gear bike and sometimes I need to get off and walk.  On the way down that same hill, because I only have one gear, my top speed will be limited by the single gear and I'm more likely to spin out (run out of gear).   
So the single speed bike is fantastic to ride, inexpensive, and easy to maintain, but it has a very small following and is a niche of a niche in the cycling world.  Today I believe the most versatile option to be a 11 speed setup that has no front derailleur.  In the mountain biking world the front derailleur long ago disappeared because of several reasons:  1. mountain bikers spend the majority of their time going downhill, so the need for a large array of gears to pedal them up the biking trails is not important, and b., as a mountain biker flies down a trail, the chain is bouncing around a ton, and a double chainring on the front paired with a front derailleur is much more likely to have the chain pop off the rings than a setup without a front derailleur because the chain has to be longer to accommodate the extra gears up front. 
To balance out the lack of a second chainring up front, components makers like SRAM have increased the size of the gears in the back (cassette).  Taking inspiration from the mountain biking world, in the past five or so years SRAM introduced a no front derailleur setup and bigger rear gears for road bikes.  Other brands have followed suit most notably the bespoken Italian brand 3T with their 11 speed race bike the Strada.
In order to make the no front derailleur setups effectively work on the road with its variety of ascents and descents, SRAM built out a larger rear gears and redesigned the rear derailleur to be able to move smoothly up and down a larger cassette.  This new style of 11 speeds with no front derailleur was also adopted by the gravel bike world, which is very similar to the road bike world, except they do their riding on gravel instead of pavement.  What makes the 11 speed setup comparable to the larger 22 speed setup?  Gear ratios.  
The gear ratio is the distance your bike will travel with every full revolution of the pedals.  To determine the gear ratio of any particular gear on your bike simply take the number of teeth on the front chainring, and divide that number by the number of teeth on the cog in the back.  For instance, with a typical 22 speed setup, the double chainrings up front will have 34 teeth and 50 teeth, and the rear gears, the cassette, will have a range of 11 teeth to 32 teeth.  Therefore if you were to be in the small chainring up front with 34T, and easiest gear in the back with 32t, you would get a gear ratio of 1.06 inches.  This translates to an easy gear used for climbing up hills and just starting off on a ride.  
If we were to do the math to get the gear ratios for an entire 22 speed setup, and then compare it with a 11 speed setup, much like the one we offer on our Dragons made by SRAM, we would find that the gear ratios are similar.  This means that whatever speeds a 22 gear bike can accomplish, an 11 speed could hit those same speeds. 
We would also come to discover that within a 22 speed setup, many of the gears are redundant, in fact at least 40% of the gears overlap and produce the same gear ratio.  As example if you are in the smallest chainring up front and the fourth cog in the back, you might have the gear ratio as if you were in the big chainring up front, and the fifth gear in the back.  So why do we carry all of those extra gears if they don't provide us with different gear ratios?  
The answer can be found in tradition, technology, and profits.  The bicycle world is notoriously prone to be adverse to change, take bikes chain as example.  The bike chain is still made of metal, still connected by links and pins, and still requires regular cleaning and maintenance.  Over the years big companies like Trek and Specialized have unsuccessfully tried to introduce belt drive systems to replace the old chains, but the bike world resisted despite the fact that belt drive systems last longer than chains, require less if any maintenance, and are much lighter.  To some extent motorcycles follow a similar path as bicycling's traditional rigidity, but many more motorcycles come equipped with belt drives instead of chains, and so its adoption in to motorbike sport has been more well received. 
Curiously, road bikes have recently evolved to be paired with disc brakes, replacing the tried and true caliper rim brake.  I'll come back to the discussion of disc vs. rim brakes at another time, but the point is that there is a market for newness in biking, and at Dragon bikes we fully embrace anything that will allow us to just jump on our bike and ride. 
The SRAM 1x drivetrain, as the 11 speed is often called, achieves similar gear ratios as the 22 speed drivetrains with a 44 Tooth chainring, and a 11t-42t cassette.  There is no front derailleur, instead there is a more sophisticated rear derailleur that is capable of moving cleanly up and down a larger cassette (rear gears).  This system is used by professional riders, and is available in a variety of component levels.  Another quick side note, the component makers offer a hierarchy of component levels, a good better best sort of thing.  Usually in the bike world as parts become more expensive they become lighter, but they don't necessarily function more efficiently. 
For both Shimano and SRAM to purchase anything below their mid grade "better" component level is to buy heavy inefficient products that don't brake when you want nor shift gears crisply.  A rider should avoid being drawn in by the allure of saving ounces and grams on their bike in the hopes that doing so will make them faster; instead it is important to buy components that are reliable durable and long lasting.  For all three component makers, I highly recommend buying at least the mid level components, Shimano's 105, SRAM's Apex, and Campagnolo's Centaur.  To purchase the top end components seems superfluous because the shifting doesn't get any more crisp, and the weight savings achieved by, say swapping a steel bolt for a titanium bolt, is not worth the extra costs.  It's a lot more healthy and less expensive to lose a couple pounds off our body than it is to buy lighter components.  
Bicycling should be fun, easy, challenging, and adventurous; bicycling shouldn't be cumbersome, a chore, or a sport that requires taking out a second mortgage to afford.  The more hurdles we have to accomplish something the less likely we might be to obtain our goal.  If jumping on your bike seems like a hassle because you have a multitude of gears to choose from, your bike chain is making a weird clunking noise, and you don't view your bike as a joy machine but rather a money pit, you may not want to go for a ride.  Biking doesn't have to be spandex and huge aerodynamic sunglasses; biking can and should be accessible to anyone, even those who ride in jeans and sneakers.  The point is that a bike should be durable, comfortable, and perform at whatever level you want it to perform at without breaking the bank or your back.  Check out our Dragon road bike, I think you'll fall in love with its high performance, easy 11 speed shifting, and comfortable ride.  
Thanks for reading, now get out and ride!