On the big ring and carbon clinchers

Reader feedback is always satisfying to receive. A recent email posed two questions: how to put into practice the advice put down here to use the big ring at least once on every climb; and your author’s view on carbon clinchers for climbing. Firstly, then, the big ring. Climbing in the big ring is more of a state of mind. As noted here, your author recently swapped in new cassettes with a taller range to allow more big ring climbing (30-12 previously and now a 28-12). This was largely a redundant move as similar ratios to, say, a 50×25 combo can be achieved by staying in the small ring and clicking down the cassette. But there is something satisfying about being able to tackle a climb in the big ring; if you start the climb in a big gear it forces you to do something a bit more interesting on the climb than just sitting and spinning. You might even find yourself at the top of the climb still in the big ring, having even dropped it farther down the cassette.

Shifting into the big ring part way up a climb, on a flatter section, can also mix things up – especially for sprinting over the top while standing, or just sitting down and grinding it out. Yes, it is anathema to the ‘sit and spin’ rule for climbing, but it does keep it interesting – and is good for the legs to try some new techniques (strength work in particular). Plus, as studies have suggested, there is a wide range of cadences that can be considered optimal, and it varies depending on the rider (it may also be self-selecting). If you want to go faster, there are a number of ways of getting there – not just spinning. As Robert Millar has written, “In reality, climbing mountains has always been more about feeling and sensations than doing what you are told…” Your author feels better grinding it out than developing a smooth spin, so those are the sensations that are being heeded for now. Overall, for the big ring, there might be some small advantage to having more teeth pulling on the chain, but it is ultimately about using it as a tool to push yourself a little bit more.

Secondly, on wheels, it is worth keeping in mind that, according to Jim Gourley in his book ‘Faster’, dropping 1lb of weight will save 1 second of time per 1 mile of a climb (at 7% pitch or above). That is not very much, even over longer climbs. Physics is a bummer when you want to justify dropping $1,000+ on a set of lightweight climbing wheels (and carbon clinchers are not always lighter than aluminum options). I must confess, dear reader, to be slowly developing into an equipment curmudgeon for my riding. My criteria are now primarily based on whether my bike and its components work reliably and consistently with the minimum of own or bike shop intervention (my pet peeve is the aluminum freehub bodies on ‘high end’ wheels that shave a few grams but make cassette changes, which I like to do relatively frequently, a frustrating and time-consuming exercise due to pitting in the splines). Once the bike takes care of itself, I will supply the performance aspect – such as it is.

Having a set of high-end event or race wheels is a cool thing. It adds to the ritual of the big day and it can be satisfying to load them up with a specially chosen cassette, some handmade tyres, and a set of latex tubes (for those not using tubs or tubeless). They can even make you feel fast, which in turn can actually lead to going faster (the placebo effect). There are thousands of cyclists sporting carbon clincher wheels and doing just fine, despite any attendant issues with braking tracks and the overall infant nature of the technology that has serious drawbacks. They may be just fine for you, but your author will be staying away. My next set of wheels – coming soon – will be decidedly old school with an emphasis on reliability and serviceability. If the budget allowed, a ridiculously light set of carbon tubs would be my preference, for dusting off only for special hill climb events, but that is a luxury (and that gluing can get pretty messy). Yes, high end wheels are nice, look great and feel really cool. In and of themselves they will not make you go much faster at all. But if they inspire you to hit the hills in the big ring, then you will go faster – if that is your goal. That way, you can ride upgrades and up grades. For your author, I will stick with the latter.

Merckx versus Thevenet at the Tour in 1975. Merckx probably used a 44t or a 42t for his 'small' ring.
Merckx versus Thevenet at the Tour in 1975. Merckx probably used a 44t or a 42t for his ‘small’ ring.


3 thoughts on “On the big ring and carbon clinchers

  1. Big or small ring: I spent a lot of time spinning my way up my local wall in an attempt to beat an arbitrary time in my head. I never improved. Then I decided to leave the road bike at home and use my fixed commuter which involved a bit of mashing.

    Two weeks later I returned and used my road bike like a fixed and voila, my arbitrary time was not only achieved but smashed. Lesson? For me I was spinning at the cost of power. Spinning also tired me out at the beginning of the climb where as mashing gave me a more even distribution.

    As you say, I believe it is all very personal. As I did, try different things and see what works for you.

  2. Yes – this is all very personal. For me the best solution is high cadence. If I end up smashing the watts with low cadence the fatigue creeps in much more faster than other way around.

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