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Gearing for loaded touring

Gears imageWhen touring with the additional weight of camping gear you will need to seriously look at the gearing that you have on your bike. If your gearing is too high you will have problems negotiating any steep gradients and any hills. If the inclines get steeper and your lowest gear is too high you will find it will be hard work to pedal and you will probably end up standing up on the pedals to use you body weight to help push the pedals around. On a short incline you could get away with it but on a long drawn out hill climb you will end up with burning muscles and becoming very quickly exhausted.

'But if it gets too steep I could just get off and push the bike' I hear you cry!

Well yes you could but once you have pushed a fully touring bike up an incline for any length of time you will soon realise that pedaling using the right gearing is a lot easier.

There is no need to be afraid of touring with a fully laden touring bike, it isn't as bad as it may seem. If the bike is loaded correctly with balanced front and rear panniers it is remarkably stable and with the correct gearing you can tackle the hills with ease.

What gearing set up do I need

The gearing set up of a touring bike is different to that of a road bike. The touring bike gearing has a greater range than that of a road set-up as it includes a much lower set of gears to cope with the variety of terrain on a tour. Therefore there is a low end to cope with the hills but still with a high end to give you a high cruising speed on the flat should you wish.

Most gearing is measured in 'Gear inches' and for fully loaded touring I would suggest a range from @100" at the high end to @18" at the low end. For fully loaded touring to achieve these gear ranges you really need a triple front chain ring at the front with at least a 9 speed cassette on the rear. Although this gives you 27 gears effectively you really only have 15 or so gears that you will use but it gives you the spread of gears that you will need. Most touring bikes use MTB gearing components to achieve this gearing range and our touring bikes are no exception they comprise a triple 44-32-22T front chainring with a 9 speed 11 - 13 - 15 - 17 - 20 - 23 - 26 - 30 - 34T cassette.

Here is a table showing the gearing in 'Gear inches' that this setup gives us for our bikes which have 700c wheels with a 40mm tyre and 170mm cranks.

 
Front chainrings
 
A
B
C
Rear cassette No. of Teeth
44
32
22
9 11
109.3
79.5
54.6
 
16.8
8 13
92.5
67.2
46.2
12.4
7 15
80.1
21.8
58.3
40.1
10.6
12.3
6.9
6 17
70.7
19.3
51.4
35.4
10.6
8.6
7.7
5 20
60.1
16.4
43.7
13.6
30.1
5.7
7.9
4
4 23
52.3
38.0
11.9
26.1
4.4
7.5
3
3 26
46.2
33.6
10.5
23.1
3.1
2 30
40.1
29.1
20.0
2.3
1 34
35.4
25.7
17.7

Diagram Key

  Useable range of gears
   
  Gears that are not best to use (see note 1 below)
   
  Difference in gear inches between each gear shift (see note 2 below)
   
  Difference between gears with a double shift (see note 3 below)
   

Notes

  1. When using derailleur gears with a triple front chain ring it is best to avoid putting too much diagonal cross tension on the chain e.g. using the largest chain-ring to largest rear sprocket or the smallest chain-ring to smallest rear sprocket as this will be less efficient, noisy and will lead to excessive chain and sprocket wear.

  2. This shows the difference between each gear shift when moving up or down the gears in the rear sprocket and from moving between the front chain rings. As you can see the differences at the lower end are relatively small which is useful when hill climbing. At the higher end the differences are greater.

  3. When you have such a gearing range there is always going to be some large leaps from one gear to another when you move to a different front chain ring. For example if you are in sprocket '7' on the rear cassette and chain ring 'B' when you move up to chain ring 'A' there is a difference of 21.8 inches which is quite a leap and quite noticeable. But if you do a 'Double shift' i.e. shift up to A from B but at the same time shifting down from 7 to 6 on the rear cassette the difference is only 12.3 which is much less of a leap and gives a smoother transition between the gears.

It certainly worth calculating your bikes gearing to see if you have a suitable range of gearing for fully loaded touring and also to work out where 'Double shifting' might give you a better or smoother progression through your gears. You can find a good gear calculator on the late Sheldon Brown's site here.

If you touring without camping gear and going relatively light weight then you would probably need a gear range from @115" at the high end to @25" at the low end.

Cadence

Cadence is something that most touring cyclists probably think is only a concern of the racing cyclist. However to the touring cyclist cadence is quite important as it will help you to be more efficient and stop you from over exerting yourself and becoming exhausted too quickly.

Cadence is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute or in other words the speed your pedals go round as you cycle. The average touring cyclist's cadence is probably somewhere between 65 - 80 rpm and needs to be a pedaling speed that you can keep up all day without getting too tired. I prefer a cadence of around 70-75rpm where as Frank finds it easier to be a little lower somewhere between 65-70rpm, it is very much down to personal preference. Keeping your cadence relatively constant is the key to efficient cycling and this is where your gears come into play. As you come to an incline if you stay in the same gear as you where in on the flat you will have to push harder on the pedals to keep going and your cadence will drop and you will soon get tired. By dropping down a gear or two it will be easier to push the pedals around and your cadence will increase back to what it was on the flat. Consequently as the incline levels out if you stay in the low gear you will have to increase your cadence considerably to gain or maintain any speed which will be tiring for no real gain, by going up a gear or two you make the best use of your leg power to gain or keep your speed with a reduced cadence. So remember to keep that cadence relatively constant by changing gear.

Hill climbing

Hill climb image

 

Remember it is much more efficient and less strain on your legs and joints to spin those legs in a lower gear on a hill climb than to try and power up a hill in a high gear with a low cadence. It may mean you don't get up the hills so fast but it will mean you can keep going for much longer.

We have amazed ourselves at some of the long steep hill climbs we have completed on fully loaded touring bikes and we class ourselves as of an average fitness. It is just a case of using your gears correctly and having the right range of gears.