We are spoiled today with the abundance of cassette and crankset options available. 10-40+ tooth cassettes, wide range triples, mid-range double gearing, 1x chainrings, and time trial gearing. You can mix and match to get the perfect gearing for your next adventure or just to get up and down that darned hill on your commute without walking. Alas, it wasn't always like this. Back in the days of guns mounted to bikes, moustaches that hipsters can only dream about, and fantastic riding wardrobe, your options for gearing were basically non-existent. Bicycles have come a very long way from simple beginnings, so let's explore gearing options ranging from fixed/single speed, internal, external, and nuances.
|Fun fact: If you look closely at photos of wheelmen from this era, you'll notice many bikes had foot rests on the fork blades so that the rider could remove his feet from the pedals as he traveled downhill. Isn't fixed gear grand?|
|Granted it's a weird mismatch by today's standards, but it works well for rooty East Coast mountain biking.|
For city bikes, simplicity is king and a 1x system with a medium range 11-32T cassette just makes sense. Novice riders would also benefit from this system. Click one way, gets easier, click the other way, gets harder. No need to explain cross chaining and duplicate gears between chainrings. Just hop on and go.
There are some downsides to consider with a 1x system. Low gearing for MTB is nice with a small front ring (less than 34T), but this leads to gearing that many riders feel is too low for flat and downhill terrain. Unless you're using a narrow-wide tooth profile of chainring, you'll need a chain keeper, like above, to prevent dropped chains off the chainring. In addition, most tourists I've spoken to say that they need at least two chainrings to get a proper gear ratio to get up the hill and not spin out on flat land.
Pros for "1by": Simple, lightweight, great gearing options, perfect for novice riders. Cons: The use of narrow-wide chainring is suggested for off-road, gearing might not be suitable for tourists, use of super wide range cassette (40T+) requires special adjustments and/or derailleur.
50.4 or Fluted Double gives you plenty of gearing on the low end and flats, without having to really worry about spinning out on the downhill. Seriously, if you're spinning out in 48-11, you will benefit a lot more by tucking and saving energy than from furiously spinning.
Indexing is where things get weird. Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM all use different pull ratios. Shimano's compatibility is easier than the rest, which is why it is the standard for quality touring rigs. Many of my bikes use Shimano components for indexed system because it is so damn simple, reliable, and affordable. Otherwise, Campagnolo for friction.
If it is 8 speed or higher and does not say "DYNASYS", you can mix and match pretty much everything. That's how I'm using a 10 speed shifter Ultegra 6600 shifter with an old XT derailleur on my Piolet.
If it says Dynasys, you are limited to only mountain pull shifters and derailleurs. This is the more common question we get. Dynasys only works with Dynasys.
Camargue. This crankset is also compatible with 73mm bottom bracket shells for those using 2.4" tires on the Piolet.
Pros to doubles: Huge variety of options for gearing and drivetrains from "corn cob" to "climb a tree", make it as simple or complex as you'd like, many classic crankset options. Cons: Indexing compatibility can be variable, might not be enough low gear for some riders, heavier than 1x system.
Triples are still popular for the hardcore tourist but have fallen out of use with many cyclists in favor of a wide range double with wide range cassette. This falling out is probably due to over complication compared to doubles and the number of duplicated gears. Scott clings to his triple for his touring Piolet.
Compatibility is slightly hairier than doubles because of the additional little ring. Indexed shifting requires a triple compatible shifter for that extra click. Front derailleur typically need to be longer to grab the chain off the tiny ring.
Pros to triple: Super wide range of gearing options, never have to worry about not being able to get up the hill, fine tuning the gear you're in. Cons: More complicated and heavier than double, indexed front requires triple compatible shifters, duplicated gearing.
To sum up, gearing is a vital part of your bike build. Gearing that is too high can lead to aching knees and walking hills. Gearing that is too low can lead to inefficiency on downhill/flat portions. Think about what type of riding you plan on doing, what terrain you plan to conquer, and if you're anticipating carrying a load.
What's your ideal gearing? What's the wackiest combinations you've seen out and about? Quadruples? Internal + cassette + Schlumpf? Let us know in the comments!