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Following up on this question, I had a look on the specifications of 'long haul touring bikes', such as the Trek 520, Salsa Marrakesh, and Surly Disc Trucker. One thing that surprised me was that they are all equipped with Shimano Sora/Alivio — "upper-entry level parts, 9 speed only", while these are bikes in the 1.5 k€-2 k€ range. For comparison: similarly priced road bikes typically have mid-range products — Shimano 105/GRX600 (11-speed), and flat handle bar bikes would have upper-range transmissions — Shimano XT (12-speed).

These transmissions are considered to be "upper entry level" ranges. Why not use higher product ranges? I understood that mid-range products are manufactured with better materials and tighter tolerances, so that should have a positive impact on reliability for long trips?

What would be the reason to use this kind of transmission rather than for example a 10-speed based system (Tiagra or Deore(XT) trekking for example)? Or older products from upper ranges with 9 speed (to provide more "refined" component, and that could be easily replaced if it they need a replacement during a tour)?

Is it linked to durability, availability of spare parts across the world or simply compatibility — to use brifters and MTB products? Or is it simply cost saving because all the money went into manufacturing of high quality frames? What is the experience of those who have experience with this kind of usage?

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  • Good question. Maybe they wanted triple chainrings for wider gear range. The current Shimano 105 and upwards groupsets only have single or dual chainrings. But the Shimano Tiagra would totally be an option and yet they didn’t use it. Maybe their customers just don’t want/need smaller gear steps and lower weight.
    – Michael
    Jan 22 at 13:39
  • Related: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/82571/…
    – ojs
    Jan 22 at 19:06
  • 3
    Is there a significant overlap of 9 speed setups with bikes that have bar-end shifters ? 10 speed is where MTB and road groupsets start to diverge in compatibility.
    – Criggie
    Jan 22 at 22:00

4 Answers 4

24

Tourers benefit from triples, and if you're going to run a triple, 3x10 doesn't offer much on top of 3x9.

There are two technical reasons to prefer triples. The first is gear range:

  • A typical 1x11 setup gives 11-42T at the back, for a difference of 3.8:1
  • A 2x10 drivetrain might come with 46/30x11-30 (that's GRX, meant for gravel bikes - road setups are geared a little higher but a similar range), for a difference of 3.7:1. Some 2x10 mountain setups go wider.
  • The stock 3x9 Sora on mine was 50/39/30x11-32, for a range of 4.8:1 (and you could put 11-34 on the back easily, stretching this still further)

You may well be slogging up hill for long periods, laden, so you need low gears. The top end of mine sees less use but there are certainly sustained descents where it's useful.

The second, that has been a great help to me, is fault-tolerance. There are 2 factors here:

  • A 9-speed derailleur works tolerably well even if not set up perfectly and it's easy to index. Even with a slightly bent hanger or axle you can get a good range of gears without ghost shifting (when my axles was bent, I could get both ends OK, but had some ghost shifting in the middle of the cassette. If you trash your derailleur and can only get something even more basic, you'll still be able to ride even if it's not perfect.
  • Parts break unexpectedly. Normally this is cables. My RD cable usually lasts around 5000km, but has been under 4000km. I get about 50km of warning, when I think "that's funny, I adjusted it not long ago". Bike shops can be much further than that apart, and carrying a spare inner doesn't always solve it as the outer can be damaged. But with a triple, you can lock off the RD and get quite a long way on a wide-ratio 3-speed. I've done 200km that way.

Closely related is durability of all drive-train parts, but that's been addressed in other answers already.

In addition to the technical reasons to like triples, look at the availability around brakes.

High end groupsets normally come with hydraulic braking. Decent hydraulics can be very nice, but cheap ones are horrid (I've got some on my MTB and I'm seriously considering getting rid of them - performance is poor and they're a pain to service; I may even have a leak). But even good hydraulics have failure modes that are hard to deal with at the roadside; they're also prone to fade if you have to ride the brakes on long descents.

A lot of tourers come with cable discs. I've had my issues with these too, but sintered metal pads on cables are as heat-proof as you can get for those long heavy descents. A spare cable can be carried and there's never any need for bleeding. Short of trashing a caliper or lever most things can be fixed at the roadside, and any old bike shop could do something about a broken lever.

While bar-end shifters help separate the braking from the gears, some of us like brifters on tourers, and anyway, high-end groupsets only come with brifters.

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  • Thanks for the explanation: out of curiosity, what is the proportion of tourers that use "flat bar" derivatives (either with bar-ends or butterfly?) Reading you, it looks like drop bars are actually quite constraining if you want to tour in hilly/mountainous areas (on roads). First because road transmissions are less skewed toward speed rather than torque (even with a comparable range), and second for the separation of braking and transmission. I imagine that some would rather have a MTB/trekking transmission than a drop bar, if they had to choose only one.
    – Renaud
    Jan 23 at 18:14
  • @Renaud I was only thinking of drop bars. I know people with flat bar tourers, but I reckon butterfly bars are always after-market, and I rarely see them. Drop bars don't inherently force road transmissions, and I know from experience that Sora and Alivio (9 speed) are compatible - I can borrow the back wheel off my MTB, and while I haven't tried it I'm pretty certain I could swap on an MTB triple crankset (I know I could fit a smaller chainring). Then of course there are gravel groupsets these days, with MTB-like ratios but built for drop bars.
    – Chris H
    Jan 23 at 18:21
  • But sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off converting my trekking hybrid to drop bars for touring, and getting an endurance road bike instead. I would have been glad of the weight saving yesterday, for example
    – Chris H
    Jan 23 at 18:22
  • True, it was a bit of a disgression. MTB transmission are still ahead of gravel transmission in term of range, so I was wondering how popular they were among tourers — no those who go to developing countries though. To give an example, the M8000 3x11 had 40/30/22 front, 11/40 rear, that gives a range of 661% (with highs and lows that more suited to touring I think). The latest 2x12 from Shimano are at 620%, but they may be less good on the fault-tolerance and durability sides). The trekking range (Alivio to XT) has 600% in 3x, for comparison. And GRX tops at 500%.
    – Renaud
    Jan 23 at 21:45
  • 1
    @Renaud already by 11 speed you're getting into serious durability concerns, but that range would be nice at times
    – Chris H
    Jan 24 at 11:51
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Another detail not mentioned in other answers is spare parts availability. Drivetrain parts at 9-speed and below are much more cross-compatible with each other than current middle to high tier parts, and commonly available because cheap bikes are popular. Together it means that when you need spare parts on a trip, there is a better chance that the nearest repair shop or sports store has something that fits. The same applies to V-brakes, 1 1/8” headsets, QR hubs, etc.

0
10

The answer is a little slippery because while it's not the case now, there was a period of time where the Microshift Shimano mountain 10 bar-ends didn't exist yet and so the spec options became very limited if you wanted to mass produce a 10-speed bar-end shifter bike with a 34 on the back, since none of the road rear derailleurs in the Shimano lineup could do that, and the mountain ones need mountain 10 cable pull. (You could use a mountain 9 RD and it would work perfectly, but it's a frankenbike on paper then and manufacturers don't love that). Some touring bikes made it out into the world in those years taking advantage of the SRAM road 10/mountain 10 cross-compatibility and came with full SRAM groups, which itself was mediocre for touring bikes in terms of wear life of the parts, and was a fairly expensive way of doing it at the time.

The Microshift bar-ends have always been kind of blah compared to the action of the Shimano ones. The detents are indeterminate and can require fiddling that the shifters they copy don't. There have been yet other times when companies had the option of speccing either Microshift bar ends for Shimano mountain 10 once they became available or staying with SL-BS77, the Shimano 9 bar-ends, a Dura-Ace level part that show it by being essentially the best and most durable indexed bar-end or thumbshifter that has ever been made. Those are no longer in production and in my opinion the quality of the Microshift parts is a little better now (incrementally), so again the answer is a little different at this moment compared to the past.

Note that some jump to the logic that if the demand for the bikes is there than the parts will follow. That is true to some extent but it's not automatic in the cycling industry. Loaded touring bikes are a fringe category from a commercial perspective and there's a lot of impetus to borrow parts from other applications.

Above concerns aside there are arguments that loaded touring bikes suffer from each generation of narrower chain. Each increase has required more finicky adjustment and increased the cost and hassle factor of maintaining the bike. With touring bikes it's always hard to accurately estimate how many that are sold live mostly garage-bound lives, used very occasionally for vacation or other special events, and how many are taken advantage of for their station-wagon factor and become heavily ridden commuter/utilitarian bikes. Generally speaking there is a tension between the two groups, where one would very much like to have the latest and greatest with the most dialed and luxurious contact points and where long-term wear life is not much of a concern, and another where the more stripped down and basic the running gear can be the better as long as the functionality is there. You can find examples on various bikes of both groups winning, i.e. for the last couple decades you can find examples of loaded touring bikes that go all-in on the vacation set via-à-vis STI and road triples etc, and the bikes are thusly bad at climbing mountains or going forever. Some have even really copped out and gone to compact double. A lot of the impetus now with keeping the bikes at 9 is using 9-speed chains and shifting as a line the sand where going further isn't worth it on a loaded touring bike, especially for the cost on a bike category where some segment of the market is viewing the purchase even at that price point as a budget-stretching one-bike-to-do-everything and not as a vacation luxury item.

In my view, the "right" number is almost certainly 7, because then you get the advantage of a much stronger rear wheel due to the wider, more even bracing angles and better non-drive-side tension. In the average case scenario, that is more valuable on a loaded touring bike than all the advantages of going to a bigger number. A good counterpoint is we can now see that hanging the 34t cog over the drive side hub flange à la mountain 11 was an option all along that for no good reason just didn't happen back in the day, so the "right" number is actually 8 or 9 but on cassettes that don't exist.

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  • Isn’t the bad spoke angle problem on rear wheels kind of solved by newer, wider hubs (with disc brakes) and/or asymmetric rims?
    – Michael
    Jan 22 at 18:24
  • @Michael Those make it closer to symmetrical (make the distances between the flanges and the hub center relatively closer), so yes they give you more NDS tension in both cases, but with assymetric rims you're merely redistributing the bracing angles and with going to disc you're steepening one and the leaving the other as-is, so the net situation is weaker to side-loads, not stronger. There hasn't been a widening of rear hubs as it applies to these kinds of bikes - that only is true of boost bikes. Jan 22 at 18:30
  • RE those dura-ace bar-ends, everyone loved them, but, I have had a 100% failure rate with them (2 pairs, both broke internally, then herniated. (different rider, different bike). The microshift bar ends (4 pair) have never failed us, though we use the thumb version (same mech, different mount). I'm surprised by the longevity of 9 too -- but it's fine by me. I like 9 speed b/c I feel like the derailleur adjustments are a bit easier, and the compatibility between Shimano road/mtn shifter/derailleur is there. Makes frankenbike development so much simpler. It went complex and confusing after 10. Jan 23 at 1:09
  • 2
    @ChrisH On the list I've given: only the Salsa I've given uses bar-end. And I've seen that one of the versions of the Kona Sutra uses Microshift 10 speed bar-ends with Deore transmission, another version uses a Shimano GRX 400 with Tiagra brifters and TRP hydraulic brakes.
    – Renaud
    Jan 23 at 13:00
  • 1
    Personally, and I realize opinions differ, I think what's happened is that product managers have kind of the come to the calculus that since the Microshift ones are a little unlovely anyway, the better business decision is skip the whole conversation and go with STI since it's a chase feature in so many biker buyers' minds. Jan 23 at 16:38
1

A ridiculous number of speeds isn't the most advanced technology. About the only case where you benefit from more than 7 or 8 speeds in the rear is 1x drivetrains, which are most beneficial in mountain bikes because road bikes necessitate a 50+ teeth chainring to go at any reasonable speed with good efficiency, and multiple really big rear sprockets (biggest of them 50+ teeth) would increase the weight more than a second smaller chainring. Also on road riding you have plenty of time to switch between chainrings, but for MTB use you might not have.

In fact, I would argue that technology is going backwards in bicycles in contrast to every single other device like motor vehicles, computers, cameras, electronics, etc.

Long-haul touring bikes are very similar to other road bikes: you want the ability to ride at great speeds, plus the ability to climb steep hills. About the only difference is that riding those steep hills standing might not be so easy because riding standing necessitates rocking the bike, and rocking the bike takes lots of energy if the bike is loaded with cargo. So in contrast to 2x systems of road bikes, touring bikes very often have a 3x system to allow riding steep hills sitting, although with a very wide range cassette a 2x compact 34/50 system could be adequate.

Why would you need 10+ speeds on a touring bike? There's limited space on the rear cassette. Every new added sprocket makes the sprockets thinner and also makes the chain thinner. Thus you can expect them to last less with the same level of technology (although steel quality has improved so usually the higher sprocket count components are sold with better steel, largely negating the difference). Also more speeds usually mean more expensive components.

If for example you want 16% difference between sprockets, and 11-tooth small sprocket, this would put the big sprocket at 31 teeth on 8-speed systems and 36 teeth on 9-speed systems.

Another good question might be why other bicycle types find lots of sprockets so alluring? With mountain bikes it's due to the prevalence of 1x drivetrains that have clear benefits if you absolutely need the ability to switch gears quickly without anticipation in all conditions. With road bikes I'm sure it's due to road riders wanting to imitate their favorite road racing idol who uses N sprockets in the rear not because of needing N sprockets but because road racing is marketing the latest and "greatest" bicycle components. For regular road riding without imitating bike racing, 7-9 speed cassettes are the optimal choice. MTBs might want to use 10 sprockets or more due to using 1x drivetrains.

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  • 5
    I frequently do haooen to long for more sprockets on my 8 speed gravel bike. Not too much off-road, but on the road one simply cannot go at the cadence one would like to go. Frequently, I shift because the cadence already became unpleasant only to find that after the shift it is even worse and I have to shift back. I cannot agree that more gears are only to copy TV stars. Jan 22 at 15:53
  • 4
    In the old times road cyclists just were used to grinding and were fine with 12-25 cassettes and 8 or 9 speed is fine for that. But ordinary people want much wider gear ranges for the steep hills. Jan 22 at 15:55
  • 1
    Agree with Vladimir. The 10 speed 11–34 cassette on my cyclocross/touring bike has some uncomfortably big steps (13%, 15%, 18%). A 9 speed cassette would have even more of the big steps (though still none over 18%). On paper the differences don’t look that big but with the 11 speed 11–32 on my road bike I definitely have an easier time finding the “right” gear and cadence.
    – Michael
    Jan 22 at 17:46
  • 4
    MTB 1X is largely driven by the benefit of removing the front derailleur and freeing up space around highly stressed and crowded BB and suspension pivot area. This space is used by frame designers for a combination of suspension geometry improvements, weight savings and strength increase.
    – mattnz
    Jan 22 at 23:43
  • 3
    @MaplePanda I don't believe I'm unusual in finding my comfortable cadence reduces when tired - and on long tours your legs will be tired. I lose from both ends but especially the top
    – Chris H
    Jan 23 at 10:46

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