By and large, pro cyclists follow the tried-and-tested mantra when it comes to setting up their bicycles, and the same is true of their gearing. But just what gears do the pros use? We went sniffing around the team trucks rig
For many years pros have reliably stuck with 53/39t standard chainsets because they race at very high speeds and need big gears. Most consumer bikes have moved over to 50/34t compact and 52/36t semi-compact chainsets because us mere mortals aren’t blessed with the awesome talent of the pros.
(If you need a primer on the basics of gears and all the lingo, check out this article).
Cassettes have varied much more over the years, largely as a consequence of the steady increase in gears, from the old days of 5 and 6-speed to the 11- and 12-speed setups that are currently used in the pro peloton. As the number of gears has increased, so too has the range, with bigger cassettes increasingly common, partly as a response to race routes that are getting ever harder as race organisers attempt to find even more cruelly savage mountains to send racers up.
What’s being used at this year’s race? Let’s start with Peter Sagan. He’s a powerful chap and handy in the sprint, so he has geared up for more potential top-end speed. He has a non-standard Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 54/42t chainset which should give him some added oomph in the last 200 metres of a sprint finish.
It’s a chainset gear that looks out a little odd these days, but 20-30 years ago a 52/42t chainset was pretty standard.
That is paired with an 11-28t cassette. That is positively humongous compared to the 11-21t cassette that was common a few decades ago when you'd be lucky if you got an 11-23t for the mountains. Since Shimano went to 11-speed though, the 11-28t cassette has become ubiquitous.
Why? Because 11 sprockets offer both increased range whilst maintain small steps between the sprockets, ensuring the rider is rarely out of their optimum cadence range. It also means a lot less work for the mechanics because they’re not continuously swapping cassettes! (More time to bleed disc brakes then…)
Talking of cassettes, another trend we’ve noticed this year is the increased use of Shimano’s 11-30t option. It's the sort of cassette size you once only saw on amateur bikes, not pro race bikes. It was introduced at Dura-Ace a couple of years ago and is the biggest range cassette ever made at this high-end level. With some of the steep climbs on this year’s route, a few riders have decided to go with this wide-range cassette from the off. Such as Alberto Bettiol with his Cannondale SuperSix Evo.
The number of gears on a road bike has increased over the years, with the cassette expanding from 6-speed back in the day to 11 -and 12-speed of today’s modern groupsets. Back in the old days, you’d be lucky if you had a 23t big sprocket on your cassette - imagining grinding up a mountain on that! - but today we’re looking at 11-30t becoming common on pro bikes.
You can get wider range cassettes of course, and it’s probably only a matter of time before we see them being used by the pros especially if race organisers continue to try and search out every steep road to race on.
Sticking with Bettiol’s bike, he has taken the opposite strategy to Sagan’s sizing up and sized down. He keeps the regulation 53t outer ring but swaps the 39t inner ring for a 38t, which we presume is to give him a lower gear in the mounts. One tooth might not sound much of a difference, but you’re looking at 1.27” as opposed to 1.30”. In a race where margins matter, it might just help him out.
Bucking the trend for big chainrings is SRAM’s new Red eTap AXS groupset and X-Range gearing. It has sought to create a groupset that provides a wider range of gears with smoother gear progression (smaller gaps) via the use of a 10t sprocket and smaller chainrings. The biggest it offers as standard and seen on Alex Dowsett’s bike above is a 50/37t chainset and 10-28t cassette.
If you’re thinking that smaller chainring is going to leave Dowsett spinning out on the faster roads, think again. The 50x10 maximum gear is bigger than a standard 53x11t groupset. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cassette, the smallest gear is lower, allowing for higher cadences on steep gradients.
Even so, we spotted a few SRAM sponsored Trek-Segafredo riders sporting what appears to be a prototype Red eTap AXS chainset with standard 53/39t chainrings, so clearly not all the pros are happy with SRAM’s new spin on gearing.
Campagnolo sponsored riders will have a similar choice of gears to choose from. A 53/39t chainset is common with a smaller 36t inner chainring available for mountain stages. Cassette options include two choices, an 11-29t and 11-32t. Campagnolo’s latest groupset is 12-speed and one benefit is that the first seven sprockets go up in single increments. That’s ideal for finding your perfect cadence.
What about 1x?
The death of the front mech has been long speculated in some parts of the bike world, but it’s rarely spotted in the pro ranks. A few riders have dabbled with 1x, with varying levels of success, and of course, there was the ill-fated Aqua Sport Blue team which solely used 1x drivetrains.
There are benefits to a 1x system. There’s less duplication of gears that you get with a 2x groupset, it can be lighter and more aerodynamic, and it’s arguably one less component to potential failure. But it hasn’t caught on mainly because while the range on offer with current groupsets is agreeable, the jumps between the gears aren’t. There’s also the issue of the chain dropping off without a front mech to act as a retention device.
Today’s pro road racers are provided with equipment vastly superior to 10-20 years ago, but it’s the range of gears that have been the most interesting trend as the groupset has evolved. As the number of sprockets has increased the gear range has increased. Are riders getting soft or courses getting harder, or are the wider gear ranges enabling ever harder courses to be raced on?
The three big groupset manufacturers are still focused on the needs of the pro racers and delivering groupsets to meet their needs, and then sell them to the public. But there just aren’t many normal people that need a 53-11 gearing. The requirements of the pros are very different to people like you and me.
This is slowly changing though. Outside of the pro peloton, we're starting to see a shift in focus from the equipment manufacturers to meet the growing diversity of modern cyclists that are less influenced by pro racers and more by their riding, whether long-distance road rides or adventure and gravel bikepacking. Largely thanks to adventure riding we're now seeing much wider range groupsets with more realistically usable gear ratios for the many people that don't go racing every Sunday, but what gears to help them out on challenging terrain and let them conquer every hill.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.