“Much like Veruca Salt, I want it all.”-me. 2017
Gear ratios have long been a point of contention on bicycles. It was not until relatively recently that the industry blessed us with gearing that was “geared” towards regular people, and not professional cyclists. No longer are we being told things like “harden the fuck up” because we don’t want to turn 53/42 chainrings with an 11-23 cassette.
I want to be clear about something before I proceed: The entire notion of HTFU is toxic and gross. It adds nothing beyond creating a vision of cycling that is entirely inaccessible to all but the strongest of people. The vast majority of people on bikes are not pro-level riders, and most of them are not racing. The idea that riding your bike on a scenic forest road somehow requires unimaginable suffering and pain is dumb, and it’s time that we killed that entire notion.
Can riding a bike be difficult and both physically and mentally challenging?
Yes. But it doesn’t have to be. Ride as hard as you want, but mind your business and let other people enjoy themselves.
Okay, so now that we got that out of the way, back to gearing…
Modern road and gravel drivetrains offer a wealth of options to get you where you need to go on your bike, and the advent of 1X systems have given us things like 10-50 cassettes, which are great for really, really steep stuff, however, I’ve yet to find a 1X drivetrain that didn’t leave me wanting more.
This is where the 1X falls short. You will always be sacrificing something depending on the size of your front chainring. A smaller ring will give you ultra-low climbing gears but will leave your legs spinning out of gear on descents and flats, while a larger ring will have the opposite effect.
Now, maybe you’re strong enough that 46-42 is all you need, and that’s fine, but not everyone wants to push that gear, and loading your bike down with bikepacking or touring stuff changes everything.
That’s the simple beauty of having a front derailleur and two chainrings; it gives you options. I want the ability to ride miles of pavement at road speed, and then climb an 18% forest road while carrying all of the necessary supplies for an overnight trip. And I want to do all of this on the same bike.
Still with me? Fantastic.
Let’s Get Low.
Our goal is to get really low gearing with road shifters while still maintaining a decent higher end for pavement and downhill speeds, and hopefully replace as few components as possible in the process.
There are several ways to achieve our goal here, but not all of them work that well. I have no desire to recommend things to people that are unproven or only work sort of okay. I’ve been riding this setup since 2017 and I can tell you that it’s basically perfect.
What you see here is a Shimano road crankset with 48/34 chainrings, and a Shimano SLX 11-42 cassette. It’s a full Ultegra setup (although this would work fine with GRX, 105, or Tiagra as well) and it shifts flawlessly across every gear, every time.
*If you’re into gear ratios and percentages, this setup will give you a 532% range (48/34)1.4x(42/11)x100=532%
0r a high gear of 122.22 gear inches and a low gear of 22.71 gear inches.
In other words, the high gear is pretty high, and the low gear is really low.
This is all made possible by the Road Link from Wolf Tooth Components. It’s available in two versions, one for the newer direct mount derailleurs, and one for the classic older style. I’ve used both of them, and they work equally well.
The Roadlink is an ingenious little piece of machined aluminum that extends your derailleur hanger, making it possible to shift over a much larger cassette. Wolf Tooth provides a tech sheet on the limits and different combinations you can use (I would suggest that you go over the entire thing).
Some important things you’ll need to take into account is the capacity of your rear derailleur, the size of your chainrings, and the length of your chain, but as long as you pay attention and set it up correctly, it’s the best (and most cost effective) system I’ve found to achieve this kind of gear range.
*If you find yourself wondering what chain wrap is, then go to a trusted bike shop and have them do this for you.
There are other ways to accomplish similar gear ranges but in my experience, Shimano stuff works really well with other Shimano stuff. Introducing other brands into your drivetrain can cause erratic shifting at best, and a drivetrain failure at worst, and just because something works in your stand, doesn’t mean it won’t fail when you’re shifting under load, sixty miles out.
I now have several thousand miles on this setup, and the only failure I’ve ever experienced was a broken derailleur hanger due to banging my bike against a rock, which was 100% my fault (and the road link was still perfectly straight).
Anyway, I’m sure you want to see it in actual action so here we go, 11 speed 48/34 shifting across an 11-42 cassette in all possible gear combinations.
Do I use all of this range, all of the time? No, but my bike is ready for anything I do without having to make any changes, and 34/42 is nice to have at the end of a really long day when your bike is loaded down and you’re still a few good climbs from your goal.