And the 39 Was Clean as a Whistle

I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!

— Henri Desgrange

I like to think that any time a rider running a compact punctures, Henri’s spirit is brought just that little bit closer to finding peace; I can only imagine what he might have said about the advent of these sorts of chainsets, let alone the wide-range cassettes we see in wide use today.

The thing that bothers me most about wide-range cassettes is the gaps between the gears. Growing up riding in Minnesota, I trained on a 12-23 and raced on an 12-21 because they were basically a straight block until you got to the lowest gears. Going to the mountains I would reluctantly use a 12-27 but I had to stop myself looking at the back wheel too much because I hated the sight of that 27t dinner plate. I’ve gotten used to what my bikes look like with the 12-25 I’m training on these days, but there are definitely times when I simply can’t find the right gear ratio for the terrain.

Growing up, I was considered a spinner for riding at 80-90 rpm; the thinking at the time was that mashing big gears at low cadences was more efficient. We are greatly influenced by what the Pros are doing, and the famous Cyclists at the time like Hinault and LeMond rode at 60 rpm, so that’s what we punters did, too. Today, I’m still riding at the same cadence, but now people consider me to be a bit of a gear pusher in our modern 100+ rpm climate. I like to flatter myself that the size of my climbing gear intimidates the spinners I ride with; my favorite question to ask them is why they are riding in the little ring already. I usually already know the answer (they are sissies) but I like to ask anyway because I enjoy their slightly bewildered expression before looking at my chainset and realizing that I’m still in the 53. I always give them that special look that makes them wonder whether or not I have noticed that the climb is steep already.

Before spinning high cadences became popular and, shortly after, the abominable 11-28 block became the mainstream choice in gearing, climbers would seek to intimidate one another by how tight they could keep their gearing and how few teeth they needed to use to get over a climb. Climbers like Manuel Fuentes would make sure to always ride in a slightly bigger gear than the rest of the group as a show of defiance to the ferocity of the gradient. In The Rider, Tim Krabbé recounts his suffering on the climbs of the Tour de Mont Aigoual in the South of France. His lowest gear was a 19, one which he considered his “bail out” gear. He was confident he could win the race, and throughout he imagines the onlookers admiring the fact that his 19 never saw the chain, “And his 19 was clean as a whistle,” he imagined them saying.

I personally can’t imagine climbing anything steeper than an overpass in a 19, but I do like to challenge myself to stay off my 39 and ride an entire training route in the 53. And his 39 was clean as a whistle.

Related Posts

116 Replies to “And the 39 Was Clean as a Whistle”

  1. @JohnB

    @ChrisO

    But there’s not many people here who will drop me on a climb so stick that in your big rings.

    I can attest to that. I was convinced there was a moto on the climb ahead of us.

    I can 2nd that, flew past me on the lower slopes of the Bealach and it was like my school report card all over again, “must try harder.”

    On the subject of gearing I think I had a compact of sorts long before it became common. I had an old Giant TCR, one of the 1st carbon frames. chunky alu lugs and straight carbon tubes with a 53/39 up front and not enough at the back. I must have been smoking too much hash or something but the 53 was useless unless it was a tailwind or downhill. At great expense I changed it for a 50t and rode it happily for many years.

    To this day I’m a spinner rather than a masher, churning a big gear makes my left knee throb and that sends a message to my brain that goes something like, “H’min arsehole, yer names nae Cancellara, drop a cog or two NOW!”

  2. @frank

    I had a light day today, and what really amazes me is that riding climbs at a slower pace in lower gears feels 80-90% as hard as climbing at a higher speed/intensity. Lower gears to do not really make climbs as easy as they should, it seems. Weird.

    Yep – know what you mean. There are several local climbs that just hurt – you’re much better to beast yourself up them as it will shorten the suffering.

     

  3. @RobSandy

    Totally agree – I often feel that if I try to spin up certain climbs I’m in far worse shape at the top than if I try to beast it up said climbs.

    The added benefit of beasting up an incline is that, if done properly, come the top you have a higher speed and are in the right gear (or at least in the right neighborhood on the cassette) for making the descent.

    But then again I think everyone here knows this, right?

  4. @frank

     

    I had a light day today, and what really amazes me is that riding climbs at a slower pace in lower gears feels 80-90% as hard as climbing at a higher speed/intensity. Lower gears to do not really make climbs as easy as they should, it seems. Weird.

     

    Rule #10 buddy!

  5. @Teocalli

    @frank

    I had a light day today, and what really amazes me is that riding climbs at a slower pace in lower gears feels 80-90% as hard as climbing at a higher speed/intensity. Lower gears to do not really make climbs as easy as they should, it seems. Weird.

    Rule #10 buddy!

    I’m going to have to jump to Frank’s defence and quote Rule #71.

    Although I must admit it’s a puzzle how to have an easy day/recovery ride which goes over any hills. How do you stay in zones 1 or 2 over a hill?

  6. @RobSandy

    @Teocalli

    @frank

    I had a light day today, and what really amazes me is that riding climbs at a slower pace in lower gears feels 80-90% as hard as climbing at a higher speed/intensity. Lower gears to do not really make climbs as easy as they should, it seems. Weird.

    Rule #10 buddy!

    I’m going to have to jump to Frank’s defence and quote Rule #71.

    Although I must admit it’s a puzzle how to have an easy day/recovery ride which goes over any hills. How do you stay in zones 1 or 2 over a hill?

    You are overlooking that the unwritten rule on having a go at @frohnk at every opportunity trumps Rule #71 in this case.

    You perhaps are also a fellow sufferer of this.

  7. @chuckp

    I’v got an 11-32 on my 105 10 speed short cage with a 39/50 up front, and I have run an 11-34 with the 10 speed 105 medium cage. I usually run an 11-25 with a short cage on that bike, and I can put the 11-32 on without even swapping out the chain (provided it’s newish/matched) and just screw the B screw all the way. As long as I don’t fully cross-chain it, which I never do, it’s fine.

    I always ran a short range as a youngster (40 now), partly because that’s what I had, and partly because that’s what all my mates did. But much knee damage, and long periods of more time on the MTB than a road bike, shifted my pedaling style naturally and now I prefer to have more teeth on the back than I think I might absolutely need.

  8. @Teocalli

    @RobSandy

    @Teocalli

    @frank

    I had a light day today, and what really amazes me is that riding climbs at a slower pace in lower gears feels 80-90% as hard as climbing at a higher speed/intensity. Lower gears to do not really make climbs as easy as they should, it seems. Weird.

    Rule #10 buddy!

    I’m going to have to jump to Frank’s defence and quote Rule #71.

    Although I must admit it’s a puzzle how to have an easy day/recovery ride which goes over any hills. How do you stay in zones 1 or 2 over a hill?

    You are overlooking that the unwritten rule on having a go at @frohnk at every opportunity trumps Rule #71 in this case.

    Touche.

     

  9. @frank

    @RobSandy

    Its really tough to find a flat route in Seattle; you just have to really control the effort.

    It’s the same around here – you can ride on the flat if you’re happy riding on dual carriageways. The nice quiet roads all point uphill.

  10. @chuckp @frank

    I think it was Frank that asked whether it was a MTB rear mech. Anyway, thought I’d explain those weird gearing setups. I’m aiming at doing the Perth-Albany-Perth Audax in 2018. It’s a way aways yet, but it’s 1200km over 4 days, and an imperial century is right on my limit right now, without a load. I igure I’ll need a setup allowing for reasonable speed for long downhills and/or good tailwinds, and ability to spin through big headwinds and big hills, whilst carrying some load. Early days yet, so just experimenting.

  11. @Haldy

    @fignons barber

    Food for thought: Merckx set the Hour Record in Mexico City using a 52 x14.

    That would put his avg. cadence somewhere around the 103-104 rpm range

     

    yes, according to Ernesto Colnago’s biography by P.A. Stagi, Merckx hit the target at 104.6rpm. Colnago devotes a whole chapter to the hour record. They were going to go with a 52×15, but switched at the last moment. ……and Merckx’s pre hour record meal consisted of bread with jam, cooked ham, and black coffee. All the details,baby. Great book if you can find it.

  12. I have been running 52/36 on both my 10sp and 11sp Campag bikes, the 10 I have two or three spare cassettes which I mess about with between commuting and winter ‘training’. Living amongst the South Downs of the U.K. means I can always find some awful little short sharp thrutch at nearly no notice around every corner. So I have set my chain length to run either 12-25 or 13-29 with that 52/36, so I can put on my std if I feel manly with no adjustments and only running a short cage.

    Campag say that this does not work i.e. 52 to 29 cannot run smooth AND go around 36 to 12 (on the other block) on the 10 speed on short cage. But they say the 11speed can do it.

    They’re  right, the chain is either too long or too short, yet the 11sp runs 12/27 with lots to spare… The difference is, that the 11sp RD is the same size; 55mm to the cog centres, but the cogs are 11t on the 11sp and 10t on the 10sp, so to solve it I fitted the 11t cogs to the 10sp mech et voila! Runs lovely and shifts all combinations without issues. Highly recommended!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.