How Does Gearing Affect Climbing? – Choosing Proper Bike Gears

How To Choose the Right Bike Gears to Climb Faster

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Jerry: “I ride a lot. I rode this last summer in several 100K events and one 100 mile event. I am in shape. But I am frustrated that I seem to do fine on the flats but I always seem to be the be the slow guy on the hills. This is S. Wisconsin so there are some major 8-12% grades. I hate talking gearing to bike people but that seems to be the issue. Can you explain gearing (number of teeth on cassette vs teeth on big rings?) so even I can understand how that might affect hill climbing?”

I feel your pain, Jerry. It took me a long time, and lots of questions before I figured this one out. Most of my riding friends would just say, “Just ride whatever you’ve got.” Well, that doesn’t quite cut it come race day. So I had to teach myself this one (meaning, I signed up for an anonymous email address and emailed my coach pretending to be one of my friends on the team).

So bear with me, because I’m starting at the beginning here.


First, you’ve got your chainrings, which are generally set up in three different configurations: Standard, Compact, and Triple. The Standard is usually a 53/39 combo (numbers correspond to number of teeth on the ring, which you can usually find stamped on the side). Compact is usually 50/34, and a triple is often 52/39/30. The larger the number here, the more difficult the chainring is to push, depending on your combination with the cassette. There’s nothing really wrong here with any of these three options. Don’t let anyone push you around for using a Compact or a Triple. The key is knowing how to pair those with a proper range of cogs.

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Which leads me to cassettes. Here, you have more flexibility. You can actually ride a Standard crankset, but add a larger range of gearing to your cassette in order to have both the top end and low end speed you need to keep up on both the flats and the hills. Many bikes come standard with an 11-23 range block (dependent on whether you’ve got a 9, 10, or 11 speed). In other words, your highest gear would be 11 teeth and your lowest would be 23. This is actually a pretty tight range as cassettes go. These days, there’s absolutely no shame in replacing your low gear with a super easy cog. Plenty of pros ride with a 25 or even a 27. In fact, if you find you need an even easier gear, you can pop on a 32-tooth cog for really spinning up those hills.

So let’s say you leave an 11-27 block on the back and you ride a Standard crankset–you can still use the super fast 53-11 gear to get you sprinting on the flats (that’s a pretty tough gear, btw), but you’ll also have an easy 39-27 gear for the climbs. If you find you need to go even easier, consider the combinations of a Compact or Triple with a wider range cassette–say a 12-28. Test out a few combos and see how they work for you. If you don’t want to buy a bunch of different cogs/chainrings to test, consider asking your LBS if you can test ride a bike that has these combos on it already.

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road bike gearing

Tips for Climbing

You didn’t really ask for some climbing tips, Jerry, but consider these a bonus! Actually, lots of people have asked for some quick climbing tips, and I want to answer them all in one post.

Cadence: Of course, none of these gearing ratios will matter at all if you don’t have your cadence dialed in. Start by playing with your cadence up hill, and make sure you’re sticking with your targets while you train. Then, you can see just how much of a change in your gearing you might need.

Shifting: Make sure you shift into your climbing gears before you start the climb. Look ahead. Think ahead. What gear will you need to be in 50 feet up the road? Shift down before you start doing unintentional track stands.

You sound like a pretty fit guy, Jerry. So hopefully swapping a few cogs on your cassette will be the answer for you. Now to go hit some hill repeats, amiright?

Got a burning question? Send it over to me, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Because it’s important to remember, there are no stupid questions. And anonymity is really cool too.

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to add pacing a climb is critical. I have always been advised to start easy on a long climb. I start in an easy gear at the bottom of a long climb. As I progress and find my rhythm, I gradually drop into harder gears and up the pace. If possible, my effort should peak as I summit the climb. I try not to be tempted to power up a climb from the start. If I stay within myself and build a rhythm even a big Clydesdale like me will pass most of them before the top.

    I do the exact opposite if I riding rolling hills.

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