Horrible Hundred

The Lowdown on Gearing Down

This season my shop has seen a steady stream of dudes asking if there's "any way to gear down" their road machines. Seems some sort of geologic phenomenon has tilted all the climbs a bit more skyward, to the point that these hardmen are crying (very quietly, mind you) "Uncle!"
Most gals, on the other hand, buy bikes with low gears to start with and don't have to suffer their way up those same climbs. Nor do they seem compelled to stomp the heart out of their riding mates. It proves there is a double standard, one that is clever and one which is, uh, less clever.  Let's say you've already got a compact crank with 34/50-tooth chainrings and a 12-27 cassette. But with
that ever-tilting terrain, the 34x27-tooth low gear ain't quite low enough. What is one to do?

If you're the proud owner of 9-speed rear gearing, and it happens to be Shimano, you can do lots.

---Ditch the short-cage derailleur and put on a heretofore forbidden long-cage MTB derailleur. Yes, on your road bike. Use at least a Shimano LX for good performance. Shimano XT-SGS and XTR-SGS work a bit better and weigh less.

---Add an 11-32 or -34 cassette and a longer chain.  Your same 9-speed shift levers will work fine with this new stuff. Then go pull stumps as a new training method.  If your buddies razz you about that pie-size gear cluster, show 'em how it works by chatting your way side by side up the nastiest climb in your area. Slowly up your cadence (and speed) while they leave behind a trail of blood, sweat and tears, wishing they had those gears.  What if you're running a Shimano 9-speed drivetrain with a triple-chainring crank? You can make the same cassette and rear derailleur changes. Remember that a long-cage road derailleur (105, Ultegra or the rare Dura-Ace with the giant jockey wheels), will not handle cassettes with a cog larger than 27 teeth. Well, okay, you can probably squeeze on a 28 cog, but one more tooth won't help much. You need to have 32 or 34 teeth to make a significant low-gear difference.  I know you Campy folks are crying foul about now. But remember, Campagnolo has been pushing 10-speed stuff for years, does not have a corresponding mountain group, and you'll play hell finding any of those nice 13-29 9-speed cassettes Campy used to make if you're still running 9s. If a 30x29-tooth gear is not low enough, I don't know a solution.   Campagnolo represents itself as racing equipment and they mean it. Shimano, with its vast participation on the mountain bike side, presents many more gearing options.  Let's hope Shimano never quits providing us with 9-speed components. That would be a sad day.

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