A Look At Gearing For Gravel- Part 1: by Grannygear
When I was building up my first gravel bike, the V2 Salsa Warbird, I was a bit perplexed on what gearing to run. Generally speaking, there are two types of gearing…road and MTB… and they are certainly not the same. The Warbird was obviously not a mountain bike yet it was not a road bike either. MTB set ups do not really play well with road shifters, chain lines, etc, anyway, so it was going to be road based, but how do I get this right? I had to take into account who I am (I’m not real fast but I am not terribly slow) and where I live (we got hills). Like tires, gearing is very specific to the situations you find yourself in. In fact, even more so. Tires are terrain ‘sensitive’ shall we say, but the tire that works well for my riding conditions works well whether I am in shape or not. Gearing is more complicated than that.
Some folks are bigger and heavier than others. Some are more fit. Some climb all day and some live where there are almost no mountains at all. Are you bikepacking with extra weight on the bike? Will there be a lot of open road miles? No single gearing combo is ‘right’ for everyone and everywhere. How low a gear do you need? How tall? 2x or 1x? If there are to be compromises, where should they be?
“It is”, as the King of Siam said on stage, “a puzzlement”.
I ended up stepping ‘out of the box’ with some custom gearing and I have been steppin’ that way ever since. Now, however, I find myself looking to evolve my gearing choices. What I am running at the present is not quite getting it done. This came into a sharp focus as I was facing a 3 mile long, 1800’ climb up a rocky, rutted, fire road, 35 miles into a 55 mile gravel ride. Yep. That hurt. I brought out the ultimate low gear that every cyclist has: Two feet, walking.
Now that was an extreme situation that is not typical of my rides, and I am not sure I want to build my gearing around that kind of climb, but there are ascents in the local hills that make me feel a bit over-geared. I also ride at elevation every now and then, like 7000’ and up but I do not LIVE at elevation. That hurts. Even a moderately steep grade is challenging in that thin air. Would I like ‘one more gear’ on those days? Yes, very much. But how to get it? And is that enough, that one more cog? It is not difficult to get a lower gear these days, but at what cost to overall riding performance? Should it be a smaller chain ring set or a bigger rear cassette? Both? And how much top end am I willing to shed in the process?
So I am going to ‘talk out loud’ a bit as I work through the decisions I have made and then embark on a journey towards meeting some new goals.
Come along if you like and see where this ends.
As I said, it began with that Warbird. I was used to running a compact crank on my road bike, that being a 50/34, a popular choice in Southern California for road riders. We have some pretty long climbs here. A typical, serious road ride will average 1000’ gained for every 10 miles ridden unless we keep it flat on purpose. My rear cassette at the time was an 11-28 (I am now on an 11-32). I knew that if I were going to be riding this gravel bike thing up any of the steeper fire roads we have, than I would need deeper gearing than my road bike has. 1x drive trains were happening on MTBs with the SRAM 1×11 systems with that 10-42 cassette. Road 1x was just being introduced, something I was pretty skeptical of…and still am. To me, a 2x system seemed proper for the widest range of gears and less gaps between cogs. It also was traditional in other ways I was more comfortable with and that might be a bit of a blinder for this old race horse. Staying 2x seemed to make sense, but 1x had it’s appeal.
“On the other hand…” Tevye, the Dairyman.
I was also aware that a 50/34 road compact crank would be a bit silly on a gravel bike, not due to the 34T ring, that might be okay, but because of that 50T big ring. I seldom spin out a 50/11 on my road bike so I sure was not going to do so on a gravel bike with a 40mm tire on there. So the typical compact road crank seemed wrong for gravel. At the back end, a 11-32 wide range road bike cassette was really not low enough even when matched to the 34T front small ring. So I would end up too tall on the high end with that 50T and not low enough on the low end with that 32T cog. Perfect….not! The Shimano 11-34 11spd cassette was not out then so that was not an option, and even if you added that in to 34T front ring, getting you to 1:1, there still is that 50T big ring overkill going on. In any case, I was using SRAM Rival 22, and if you look at the manufacturer’s ratings for the stock Rival 22 longer cage rear derailleur, you would see it topping out at a 32T cassette. Hmmmm.
Now, the thought of a cyclocross crank made a lot of sense to me regarding the top end of things. A ‘cross crank typically runs a 46/36 front ring combo. A 46/11 would be plenty tall enough. But that 36T small ring that is part of the deal on a ‘cross crank was going in the wrong direction to get a low enough gear. Drat.
So I ended up with the 50/34 crank and an 11-32 cassette just because I did not know what else to do. And it was like I expected. Too tall and yet not low enough, even though I was still enjoying the bike.
Now at some point I was running this by Guitar Ted and explaining my dilemma. He suggested I try thinking outside the box which immediately appealed to my tinkering nature. You see, I came from an era long before programmed shifting ramps and pins and special BCDs (Bolt Circle Diameters) that locked us into certain combos and because of that we could mix and match gears to fit. And while we have gained shifting performance that would make one weep if we had to go backwards 20 years, we also lost flexibility. Guitar Ted said he was running a ‘cross crank in a typical 46/36 set up but had fitted a SRAM 11-36 11spd cassette to his bike with a stock Shimano Ultegra mid cage road rear derailleur. He had found that it ran very well with only a slight tweak to the B tension screw on the derailleur. That combo had a lot of appeal. It solved the big ring issue and would give me a 1:1 low gear, something I hoped would be adequate.
So now I had a plan. I obtained a set of 46/36 chain rings and a SRAM PG-1170 11-36 11spd cassette. I found that I did not even have to change the chain length as the reduction in chain ring size allowed for the bigger cassette. Bonus! And with only a bit of massaging to the B tension screw, it shifted up and down the cassette very, very, well with the stock Rival 22 derailleur. I would say it was 95% as good as stock which was certainly good enough for me. On the trails, that 1:1 low was pretty nice and the top end was more than tall enough. As well, I found out how much better a close crank ratio is. With only a 10T step-up in tooth count from the small ring to the big ring and vice-versa, that awkward drop we have come to accept on the standard road compact crank just went away. And that 36T small ring was really good for keeping the chain well up into the middle of the cassette rather than drifting down to the bottom cogs as speeds came up. Conversely, the big ring was small enough to allow for staying in it longer than a 50T would. Me likey.
Out back, an 11-36 11spd cassette keeps the gaps between gears decently small as compared to a wider range set-up which is nice for the road and the more spinny-spinny rides.
And that is where I have left it for the last couple of years, transferring that set-up to the Lynskey. 46/36 crank…11-36 cassette…stock derailleur. But, it was not always low enough. It did not happen a lot of the time. I am pretty fit so I can manage a 1:1 gear up most of the climbs here and there, but sometimes I really, really, really, wanted one more gear. Just one. If the day was long enough and the trail steep enough, it could be a challenge that, while possible to achieve, was very inefficient at keeping the legs surviving for the next climb and the next, etc. On top of that, SRAM can’t build a good shifting road front derailleur to save themselves. No wonder they went to 1x. I have had SRAM road groups in three different levels on multiple bikes and none of them shifted the front rings anywhere near the level of even low line Shimano. Finicky, high effort, and inconsistent…pick all three. Which was odd because the old XX 10 spd MTB stuff shifted amazingly well. Who knows? So I would ride and ponder. How can I get a bit lower and also get it to shift better? How much lower is enough? I really did want to stay with 2x. Hard to beat that big ring when you are spinning down the road and I do a lot of road miles on the gravel bike connecting the dots.
So I decided to take this improvement process a bit at a time. First on the list was improved shifting Then I would see what a bit more ‘out of the box’ thinkering might get me with the 2x system.
I wanted to begin by replacing the SRAM chain with a Shimano one. I had heard that was a better shifting chain. I grabbed a simple 105 11spd chain with the quick link system and fitted it to the bike ‘as is’, changing nothing else. That was already better. Upshifts were more reliable but hardly what I would expect from a modern shifting system. Still, I was encouraged. Next?
A better crank set: “Hello, Praxis?”
I had been using a set of inexpensive FSA chainrings after the SRAM ones wore out but there was not too much difference between the two sets in shifting quality anyway. I was pretty sure I could do better with some other rings on there but it is surprisingly costly just to replace chain rings. Sometimes you can buy a new crank set for just a little bit more money. And if I am going to change the rings, maybe I should just get on the phone and make a fresh start altogether as I bet the SRAM bottom bracket was about ready for retirement.
When you hear another person in the bike business compliment another company, and that specific compliment happens more than once, you can pretty much bet something is legit. That had happened regarding Praxis. Praxis is a small company that makes some very, very, cool parts. They have their own spin on how a crankset should be made and the 30mm aluminum spindle and forged chainrings keep things stiff and solid. While Shimano is the gold standard for front shifting quality for the masses, I have heard Praxis is a very close second. We shall see.
The Praxis Zayante M30 is their top of the line aluminum road crank. [ ] Above that is a Power Meter version and a carbon version. From the website:
Named after a famous redwood-covered road climb in Santa Cruz, our Zayante road crank represents a huge amount of technology in a “Comp” level package. The Zayante combines the benefits of a wide outboard bearing stance with a 30mm aluminum spindle. Add its beautifully sculpted hollow-forged alloy crank arms and you have a massive amount of stiffness and power transfer to flatten climbs. Praxis Works cold forged chainrings (included) and M30 bottom brackets (required and sold separately) round out the Zayante package for a super-efficient road crank with top notch Praxis shifting. The Zayante M30 can be installed in a BSA, BB86, 386EVO, BB30, PF30, T47, BBRight or older Specialized OSBB road frame.
- Hollow forged arms | Direct Mount 110BCD spider
- 165 / 170 / 172.5 / 175 lengths
- 46/36, 48/32, 50/34, 52/36 | 38T, 40T, 42T
- M30 Spindle | Requires Praxis M30 BB
- Works with 10/11sp chains
- Weight 712g +/- (172.5 with 50/34)
- Q-Factor 147mm
It is a pretty adaptable system and weight and stiffness are top notch for the cost. It also allows me to go 1x with that direct mount spider system and that is a bonus.
I weighed the old SRAM Rival 22 crank and rings and found I was knocking about 100g off bike weight with the swap. Nice! Installation of the Praxis bottom bracket was straightforward…gotta’ love threaded bottom bracket shells! With the Zayante all installed and torqued down, I checked the shifting in the work stand and found it to be very encouraging…sure and smooth.
Night and Day. East and West. Black and White.
What other opposites can I think of? To steal a line from Men In Black, ”Old and busted…New Hotness” or something like that. Out on the road the Praxis combo felt very smooth and ran quietly. Can I tell that it is stiffer or lighter over the old set-up? Well, not that I can swear to, but something is going on here because if feels very, very solid and smooth running. Shifting so far has been excellent, so much better that it almost seems silly that I put up with the old stuff for so long.
Now that I have a functioning baseline, I will be looking at options to go a few steps further towards my goals. Next time, let’s see what I can do with 2 chainrings and 11 cogs if I decide not to play by the rules.
NOTE: Praxis sent out the Zavante crank set for test and review at no charge. We were not paid, nor bribed for this review and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.
About The Author: Grannygear hails from SoCal and spent most of his cycling days as a mountain biker from the formative years of mountain biking all the way up to the present day. His day job is in the tech sector, but he has spent time writing about off road 4X4’s, 29″ mountain bikes, and cycling in general. Grannygear and Guitar Ted have worked off and on together since 2009 after a chance meeting at Interbike. With gravel cycling on the rise, Grannygear has been exploring how this genre’ works in SoCal and now does guest pieces for RidingGravel.com in his spare time.