Ask The Coach

Do I Need 22 Gears?

Gearing for Speed and Efficiency: The Benefits of 22 Gears

Q:

The other day I was having a discussion with a friend and he asked me whether 11 speed drivetrains on triathlon or road bicycles are necessary. As a matter of fact: isn’t 10 enough?

A:

Of course, many of us have raced with 7, 8 and 9 gears and we did just fine; however, that was what was available at the time. The recent innovation of 11 cogs at the rear of the bike coupled with 2 on the front, giving 22 possible gear combinations may seem a little over the top to some. Every industry is the same, whether it is cars, bicycles, home appliances or building materials, in that they develop products for a market that will buy, and bike manufacturers are no different. They are always pushing to make their products better: lighter, stronger, more aerodynamic or easier to use. Is this just marketing - an excuse to ditch your old bike and get the latest and greatest, or is this innovation helpful?

My answer is that if you are in the market for a new bike, opting for 11 speeds is the way to go, for a number of reasons.

1. Range of gears – Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo components have now determined that 2 gears up front combined with the 11 at the rear gives a very usable range for the majority of riders. Typical 9 speed cassettes would have a range of 12-23, 12-25 or 12-27 tooth cogs. The larger the difference in numbers of teeth, the larger the jump between gears. When riders started insisting they have an 11 as the smallest cog (or hardest gear) that meant even more of a gap between gears. For example, by increasing the number of cogs from 9 to 10 the space between each gear could remain constant. And going to 11 allowed another gear while keeping the desired easy and hard gears.    

Depending on where you live and types of courses you like to race, one of the more useful 11 speed cassettes is one that contains teeth from 11-28. For mountain races like Ironman Whistler it is just as important having a large enough gear for the high speed descents and maintaining pressure on the pedals as it is having a gear low enough to climb the final 30km back to the finish without grinding excessively.  As can be seen by the chart below; when progressing from 9 to 10 speeds, the corresponding 10 speed cassette had one less gap in the range. Or a rider is able to add other gears at either end of the range with only 1 less gap. Moving that same range to 11 reduced the missing cogs by one.

2. Optimum Cadence – Having a wide range of gears with minimal gaps or jumps between each gear allows the rider to pedal at their most efficient cadence. Some triathletes prefer to ride with a lower cadence like 75-85 rpm, while others prefer the opposite end of the spectrum 90-95 rpm. By being able to always find the appropriate gear that allows for a power output in the right zone and optimum cadence for whatever terrain and conditions appears on their ride or race, the experience is more enjoyable and ultimately faster.

3. Interchangeability - With the advent of 11 speed drivetrains the cranks were also improved in the sense that, for Shimano, front chainrings were interchangeable on the same spider between regular (53-39 teeth), semi-compact (52-36) and compact (50-34) rings. The impact here is that the easiest gears (36 or 39 -28) became quite easy without sacrificing the largest (52 or 53 – 11) There is a 7% difference at the low end, but only a 2% difference at the top. One also has to keep in mind that some gear combinations are repeated in the middle of the range. 

One final advantage of the 11 speed cassette or 22 speed drivetrain is improved shifting. The chain is narrower and the space between is therefore reduced making shifting crisper and lighter action. If you are looking for a new bike, there is no reason not to consider the latest options – they are that good!

LifeSport coach Dan Smith is a NCCP certified triathlon coach with over 20 years’ experience. has lead athletes to secure a spot in Kona and hit the podium on a consistent basis. Dan’s knowledge and expertise allows him to customize programs for beginner to pro athletes. Contact Dan to share your goals, race faster, or master the Ironman distance. 

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