Want lower gears on your gravel bike? We do, so we set about combining some parts that aren’t supposed to work together to get a massive gear range. Ssshh, don’t tell Shimano.
Gravel bikes are over-geared.
Out of the box, your typical gravel bike has a 50/34 chainset and an 11-32 cassette, giving a range of gears that’s fine on roads unless you’re riding somewhere very hilly, but with limitations you very quickly bang up against when you venture off road.
That bottom gear is far too high. When I head out of Cambridgeshire to the gentle slopes of Suffolk I find myself wanting something lower for longer climbs. When he tested Trek’s new Checkpoint David Arthur — who is much, much fitter than me — found he had to get off and walk when riding the Cotswolds. "Compact chainsets have no place on gravel bikes," he said in a road.cc office discussion of the issue.
In gear inches that typical 50/34 & 11-32 set up has a low of 29in and a high of 123in — a 428% difference between smallest and largest.
Not only is 29in too high, but so is 123in. You’re never going to use that top gear off-road and you’re not going to get much use from it on the road either. (I could digress into a rant here about component makers supplying almost nothing but pro-class top gears on bikes that will never see a sprint for the line, but that's a topic for another time.)
Let’s try and cook up a better gear selection.
The arithmetic of gearing makes a change of sprockets the most effective way to get lower gears, and in the last few years Shimano and others have made available 11-speed cassettes with ranges of 11-36, 11-40, 11-42 and even 11-46, all with the same sprocket spacing as our gravel bike’s 11-32.
But there’s a problem: no Shimano road derailleur is rated to work with a sprocket larger than 34-tooth. How about a mountain bike derailleur? Nope. For some reason known only to Shimano, their 11-speed road and mountain bike shifting systems aren’t compatible. Back in the nine-speed days you could use a Deore XT rear derailleur on a road bike if you wanted to, but that’s not the case for 11-speed. What to do?
Well, Shimano’s assessments of derailleur capacity have always been conservative. When Shimano say something won’t work, that often means it won’t work to the high standards Shimano sets, not that it won’t work at all.
And this is what we find with Shimano’s latest GS line of 11-speed 'Shadow' road bike rear derailleurs. The £58 Ultegra R8000 medium cage derailleur (RD-R8000-GS for fans of part numbers) is not supposed to be able to shift to a sprocket bigger than 34-tooth, but YouTube is full of backroom tinkerers demonstrating that it works just fine with an 11-speed 11-40 cassette.
The 105 GS rear derailleur looks geometrically identical to the Ultegra, but is typically £20-£30 cheaper. Could this be a cheap way of getting really low gears on a gravel bike?
To find out, I bought a 105 RD-7000-GS rear derailleur (£36.95), an SLX CS-M7000 11-40 cassette (£40.77) and an 11-speed Shimano chain (£19.01). I thought about pushing my luck and going for 11-42, but I wussed out. Maybe another time.
The cassette is a big beast of a thing. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to just how huge a 40-tooth sprocket is, never mind the 50-tooth and bigger sprockets now available for mountain bikes. Rotor’s 13-speed system includes a 52-tooth sprocket. When Ah were a lad, that were a chainring!
The 11-40 cassette fits straight on the hub of my Prime RR-28 wheels in place of the 11-32, and the 105 R7000 GS rear derailleur substitutes perfectly for the 105 5800 GS unit. To give the derailleur the best chance of handling the big sprocket I dial the B-tension ‘angle of dangle’ screw all the way in, pulling the body of the derailleur as far back as it will go. I tweak limit screws and cable tension and run carefully up and down the gears.
Success! It shifts just fine to that huge sprocket, clicking into place as if it were designed to.
I’m still running the original chain, so I try shifting the front mech into the big ring. Bad idea. It’s immediately obvious that things are going to go seriously wrong if I try to use the big/big combination.
I ditch the original chain and fit the new one I’ve bought. At this stage I don’t have the chainset I want to use, but I want to ride this weekend. The existing chain would probably work fine with the 46/30 chainset I’m waiting for.
Out on the road and the trail, the difference is soon obvious. I keep glancing down, thinking I must be getting close to the lowest gear, and finding I’m actually in the middle of the cassette.
This isn’t very surprising. The 34/25 combination on the old set-up, 37 gear inches, was two gears from the lowest. In the new set-up’s 34/24 (38.3 inches) I still have four lower gears.
My proving ride takes riding buddy Al and me down a narrow, wet bridleway into the village of Linton, home of the excellent Linton Kitchen cafe. We’re in the middle of a drought, but the leaky water tower at the top of the hill means there’s always a stream here to flick mud up at you.
Fuelled by coffee and carrot cake, we tackle the bridleway in reverse. My state of fitness could be accurately described as woeful, but nevertheless, it’s a doddle. The average gradient of the top section is about 10 percent, which by Cambridgeshire standards makes this a Proper Hill™, and climbs on trails never have perfectly even gradients. I pootle up it easily. Al zooms on ahead. Not having a 34/40 low gear he doesn’t have any choice, I tell myself. It’s nothing to do with him being a lot fitter than me. Ahem.
For fans of gear charts, this is where we started:
And this is where we are now:
In short, we’ve stretched the range from 428% to 538% with no downside except for a bit of extra weight. I think the gaps between gears are still reasonable; more on that later.
To go even lower (and wider) we’re going to need a change of chainset.
One thing I wanted to avoid in this project was trying to persuade road and mountain bike components to work together. There was a time when you could cross the streams easily, but Shimano’s road and off-road derailleurs now have different geometries, so you can’t use mountain bike mechs with road shifters without some sort of cable pull converter. That’s a level of bodging I wanted to avoid.
That means the chainset can’t be too small or a road front mech won’t work well with it because the curves of the cage won’t follow the shape of the chainring. I therefore settled on one of FSA’s Adventure chainsets in a 46/30 'sub-compact' configuration. That’s enough of a difference to be worth the hassle, but not so much that the shifting will be balky.
FSA makes several 46/30 cranksets, from the high-zoot K-Force and SL-K Modular units with carbon fibre arms to the inexpensive Tempo CK Adventure cranks that fit old-school square taper bottom brackets. In the middle, at a sensible price and weight, there’s the new Energy Modular BB386 Evo crankset (£200), with hollow forged aluminium arms, so I went for one of those.
Fitting was straighforward, with just one caveat: the position of its mount stopped the front derailleur going quite as low as I’d have liked. The front derailleur cage ended up a couple of millimetres higher than Shimano recommends.
That’s another reason not to use a mountain bike chainset. If you have a braze-on front derailleur it’s unlikely you’d be able to get it low enough for the 38-tooth outer of a typical mountain bike double — and of course you probably want a higher top gear than the 38 ring would provide.
The gear range
With the FSA 46/30 chainset, the resulting gear range is massive. Here’s what it looks like:
That’s a 558% range, much bigger than the 428% we started with and most of the extension is at the bottom of the range where it’s most needed. But we’ve also preserved a decent high gear for those zoomy road descents.
Only mountain bikes have lower gears. While single-chainring gearing has all but taken over on mountain bikes, some double-chainring bikes are still available, with gearing down to a positively wall-climbing 22/42 (around 15 inches, depending on wheel and tyre size).
Those systems sacrifice the high end though. With a 36/11 or 38/11 top gear (around 90 inches) you’re going to be doing quite a bit of coasting on descents.
Out back, the 105 rear derailleur clicks effortlessly and without fuss from one sprocket to another, even when it gets to the final 35 and 40-toothers that it's not supposed to be able to handle. Up front, the old 5800 front mech flips easily between the 46 and 30 chainrings.
This set-up is noticeably gappier than the one it replaced. There are a couple of 15 percent jumps between gears, and the gap between the two highest, provided by the 11 and 13 sprockets, is a whopping 18 percent. I can live with that, but if you're a finely-tuned pedalling machine who struggles to change cadence more than a few percent, you're going to find it a bit jarring.
The big advantage of a gear set-up like this is that it reduces the need to hit the redline every time you go uphill. Back when I was doing a lot of mountain biking, I was always the guy pootling along at the back while everyone raced up the first couple of hills. And I was the one with plenty in the tank at the end of the ride, sitting on the front towing everyone for the last 10 miles home.
Tweaks and alternatives
If Shimano's 11-40 cassette is just too gappy for you, SRAM makes an 11-36 11-speed cassette (£63.05) that shrinks the biggest gap by dropping a 12 between the 11 and 13. With a sub-compact chainset like the FSA that still yields some usefully low gears. SRAM says the 11-36 is only compatible with single-chainring gear systems, but that's almost certainly a matter of marketing rather than engineering.
If you wanted to go electronic, you could assemble a Di2 version of this transmission without breaking any of Shimano's rules. The XTR and Deore XT electronic rear derailleurs work with Ultegra and Dura-Ace Di2 drop-bar shifters. The Di2 rear derailleurs are rated for a 42-tooth sprocket in a 2 x 11 system, so you could go slightly lower than I have. I'd love to hear from anyone who's tried this.
If you wanted to save money, you could use a £22.95 Wolf Tooth Roadlink to extend the capacity of your existing rear derailleur. According to the manufacturer, the Roadlink will extend any non-Shadow GS rear derailleur to work with an 11-40 cassette.
I think the system I’ve put together provides the best wide-range gravel bike gearing currently available, at a sensible price. It's very handy that it can be put together in two stages and the most effective one — changing the sprockets — is the cheaper.
There are plenty of arguments for alternatives, though. People fitter than me like the simplicity of 1 X 11 systems and are prepared to sacrifice a bit of range to get an easy life, and more power to them.
It's a pity Shimano doesn't make it easier to put together a wide-range system like this. They could offer SGS versions of the Ultegra and 105 Shadow rear derailleurs, for example, with the capability to handle 11-40, 11-42 or even 11-46 cassettes. And they need to offer chainsets with smaller rings and front derailleurs that work with them. Maybe next year, eh?
Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.