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As I've gotten more into road biking, I've realized I really like climbing mountains. These climbs vary between 6-15% gradient usually and go for anywhere between 5-20 miles. I am wondering if I have the optimal gears for this type of cycling. I have 50, 32 teeth for my big ring, and 11-28 (10 total) on my back cassette. According to sheldon brown this below is the range of my gear inches:

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I'm 27 and fairly fit with no health problems, how do you determine whether to get stronger or get a higher gear?

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    What's "optimal" is whatever works for you. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 21 '16 at 1:43
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    Work out you optimal cadence on a moderate hill. If you are in bottom gear and riding below that cadence on a steep hill, you need a lower gear. – mattnz Sep 21 '16 at 4:12
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    just try and figure out what work for your. If you can go 50/11 well why not? you decide. – kifli Sep 21 '16 at 9:07
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    A good rule of thumb for gears is that if the feels right, then it is right. Unfortunately, only you can decide which gear that is! – Will Vousden Sep 21 '16 at 9:32
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There are many factors involved in working this out, which is why many people would say this is opinion based, and others say

What's "optimal" is whatever works for you. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 21 at 1:43

The main factors are

  • your strength
  • your weight
  • your muscular endurance
  • your aerobic capacity
  • how fast you are trying to go
  • what gear you're using
  • how steep is the hill
  • how long is the hill

With so many factors Daniel's comment is not surprising, and is actually pretty accurate.

Looking at various online sources, in general the cadence to aim for is at least 70 rpm. This probably higher than you're using; many of us climb at 50 to 60 rpm, which is hard on the knees.

To follow this advice you need to measure your cadence. You'll need a bike computer with a cadence sensor. Then climb the same hill multiple times in different gears, keeping track of your cadence and the time taken. Do the experiment at least twice to reduce the effect of random variations and the effect on your performance of training. An app such as Strava can do some of the record keeping for you.

Next make a plot of the times. Such a plot can show surprising things, but it will give you some knowledge about yourself. It may answer your question about gearing. If, for example, your times keep getting better as you go to lower gears, then you could benefit from having gears that are even lower.

The next experiment is to ride hills that have different gradients, in the same gear for all of the hills. Keep track of the time and cadence again, and make another graph. It may seem that this will give the same results as the first experiment, but in practice it does not; it gives you more information. An important point here is to include hills with a lower gradient (even as low as 3.5 to 4%), they give you a greater range of gears you can use, and are good for training on.

What to do with this information?

  • If your cadence is below 70, work to improve it. You can do this by riding less steep hills, faster. Also look into interval training to improve your strength. These approaches can avoid spending money on components that will only give benefit in the short term.

  • If your times keep getting better in lower gears, then spend the money on getting a cluster with bigger gears at the low end. Make sure your derailleur can handle the extra range before you do this. If it can't handle the range then you'll have to decide whether the extra cost is worth it to you.

If you look back at the variables listed at the top of this post, you'll see that every one of them can be changed. You can choose a different hill, with a different gradient. You can build up your strength, reduce your weight, build up endurance and aerobic capacity, choose a different pace, and choose a different gear.

By keeping track of your performance, you'll get feedback on how you're going. How it feels is not generally a good indicator of performance; I only ride by feel these days: sometimes I think wow, I destroyed that hill only to check the time and find I was way off my PB. Other times I've thought Uff, that was a struggle and found that I was minutes inside my PB.

In general, we get better power, and hence speed up the hill, with a higher cadence. But this is not true for everyone, as at least one of the linked articles will show.

As you develop, you will need to use different approaches to get improvements. Professional coaches frequently seek to introduce novelty into the training they give their athletes, so that the athlete has a new challenge, or training stress. It's when your training provides a new stress that your body responds with new growth. So when your improvement plot reaches a plateau, make a change. Instead of cadence, work on strength, or a different gradient, or shorter climbs.

Happy climbing.

Ps. I left out one important way of getting stronger and faster: ride with someone who's a bit faster, or chase someone who started a little before you. A little competition does wonders :-)

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  • An alternative to a cadence sensor is to make a mental note of your gear and use whatever you currently use to measure speed combined with a gear calculator. – Chris H Oct 4 '16 at 6:34
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    @ChrisH Yeah, I wrote all kinds of low tech and hi tech options into the answer, then removed them in favor of simplicity. I settled for recommending a cadence sensor because I've found it very beneficial, it helps one keep a steady pace (a speedo does too), and measures the thing that needs to change. And it's one less thing to remember :-) – andy256 Oct 4 '16 at 7:35
  • Good point. I'm easy drawn off into tangents, so know the value of a good clean-up. Perhaps my comment will serve as a footnote. – Chris H Oct 4 '16 at 7:54
  • Thanks for the great post, I am wondering though, what are the tell-tale signs that stress on the knees is unsustainable? If I was getting my best times by staying out of the saddle and with a cadence of, say 40, how could I tell whether or not I am one of those people outside the normal spectrum or whether I am going to destroy my body? – maxwell Oct 4 '16 at 17:16
  • Of course intense pain during or after the ride is an obvious indicator. Before that point there are usually symptoms such as discomfort at the back of the knee, in the tendons and ligaments all around the knee and knee cap, and discomfort inside the knee. During a climb these symptoms don't usually appear, because your system is flooded with endorphins. You'll tend to notice them after the ride or the next day. You may get used to such symptoms, thinking it's normal after a hard ride. If this is happening, consider making a change to a higher cadence to lower the load on your knees, ... – andy256 Oct 4 '16 at 23:35

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