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What Number of Bike Gears is Right for You

There is a beauty in simplicity; in keeping things easy and basic. This is essentially what most traditional beach cruisers are. Traditional beach cruisers are typically built as what is called a single-speed bike with back-pedal or coaster brakes. This means that in order to stop, you simple press back on the brakes, and in order to shift gears you, well, you don't. Riders of a basic, traditional cruiser bike have only one gear in the front, connected to the bike's bottom bracket and one gear in the back, connected to the rear wheel in the bike. Everything else comes with the power of one's own legs.

This style of single-speed is great if you are just buying a bicycle for use around a campground or non-hilly neighborhood because that simplicity is all you really need. But when you start exploring further out, when you start wanting to take your bike on longer trails and through hillier neighborhoods, you are apt to find that that lone bike gear doesn't quite cut it. That's when you're probably going to start really wondering just how many bike gears would be perfect for you.

Understanding the Basics of Bike Gears & Gear Ratios

The Crankset

In order to find what is the right number of bike gears for you and your riding style, it may help to first better understand bike gears. As noted above, there are two places where you will find gears. The front gears are those connected directly to the bottom bracket. They are also more formally referred to as chainrings or the whole system together (meaning any chainrings plus the crank arms that are connected to the pedals that you press down to move the bike) as a crankset.

A crankset can have one, two, or three chainrings connected to it. These together are referred to as a bike's front gears. The size of the chainring is determined by how many "teeth" it has. These teeth are the little mountain-like protrusions that go all the way around the circle that is the chainring. Each of these pointy teeth is a place where the bicycle chain will catch on. When you pedal a bicycle, what you are doing is pushing the bicycle chain around the front chainring and as it rotates, the bicycle chain, connected with the rear gears, spins the back wheel and this force propels you and the whole of the bicycle forward. Each full pedal stroke you make equates to a full revolution of the front bicycle gear the bicycle chain is on (when you are operating on a one-to-one ratio).

Note, this is a simplified explanation of how the bicycle works, but things get more complex as we add in the rear cassette to be explained further down.

Traditionally, most mountain and road bicycles and quite a few hybrid bicycles will come equipped with three chainrings within their crankset. Each of these three chainrings will be of a noticeably different size. There will be a very small inner chainring, a slightly larger middle chainring, and the noticeably largest chainring on the outside. The smallest chainring is often referred to as a granny gear because it is the easiest to pedal while the outer chainring will take more effort. It is becoming increasingly more popular, however, to skip out on the innermost (smallest) chainring and just feature a mid and large-size chainring.

The smallest chainring gets referred to as a granny gear because, remember, with each pedal stroke, you are moving the bicycle chain around all of the teeth of the chainring the chain is currently on. So when you have that bicycle chain on the innermost chainring, the granny ring, you aren't having to pedal much to make a full revolution as there is a smaller number of rings. But on the other hand, each tiny turn of the chainring is not going to send you very far, so you have to overall pedal more on a small chainring to go the same distance as pedaling on the middle or larger outer chainring. Again, to be explained further down.

A bicycle with two or three front chainrings will have a shifting device to control the changes between those rings typically on the left handlebars.

The Rear Cassette

We're just getting started with bicycle gears! In addition to paying attention to how many front chainrings a bicycle has, you must also look at the rear gears. Some bicycles, such as most of the bicycles we make and sell, will only have multiple rear gears with only a single front gear. We'll get into why later, but first, the cassette:

The rear cassette contains multiple chainrings installed really close together -- only here they are rarely called chainrings (even though they look and act exactly as the chainrings in the crankset). Within the bicycle industry, the tiny chainrings that are a part of the rear cassette are called sprockets, gears, or cogs (there are some technical differences between these terms, but generally they can be used interchangeably). Initially confusing, yes, but it does help easily differentiate when you need to order a new part or bring your bicycle in for repair.

Different bicycles will have a different number of sprockets within their cassette. Most cassettes will come with between 7 and 12 individual sprockets. Just like with the front chainrings, which of these sprockets (mini-chainrings) the bicycle chain is on will determine how difficult it is to propel yourself further and how far you are likely to go with each stroke. But things here are backward.

Instead of the smallest toothed ring being the granny ring, in the rear cassette, it is the largest toothed ring that works as a granny ring. The larger rings are also more commonly referred to as climbing sprockets when they're a part of the cassette. The way the cassette arranges the different-sized rings is also different in the front compared to the back.

  • In the crankset, the smallest ring is on the side closest to the bike while the largest ring is on the side furthest from the bike.
  • In the cassette, the largest ring is on the side closest to the bike/hub of the wheel and the smallest ring is on the side furthest from the bike.

Most bicycles sold as new on the market will have the shifting mechanism for the rear sprockets located on the right side of the bicycle.

Add the Derailleur & Now We Have Gear Ratios

There are going to be three general combinations of bicycles:

  • Single-speed bicycles with one front chainring and one single sprocket on the rear wheel.
  • Multi-speed bicycles with one front chainring and a rear cassette with a derailleur.
  • Multi-speed bicycles with two or three front chainrings with a derailleur paired with a rear cassette with its own derailleur.

The derailleur is the device that physically moves the bicycle chain between the different chainrings and sprockets. The front derailleur thus shifts between the front chainrings and the rear derailleur the rear sprockets or cogs.

How many bicycle speeds are on a bicycle is a mathematical equation that multiples the number of rings on the front crankset by those on the back.

  • So, when you hear the term "9-speed bicycle", that is referring to a bicycle that has one front chainring and a rear cassette with nine individual sprockets. Or 1 x 9.
  • Another common bicycle configuration is the "21-speed bicycle". This bicycle will come with three front chainrings and a rear cassette with seven individual sprockets. Or 3 x 7.

Another way to think of this is that bicycle speeds refer to the number of gear combinations a bicycle has.

Now comes the real math, gear ratios.

Both the front and rear chainrings work together to determine how much effort the cyclist has to use to propel the bike forward, and how far the bicycle will go with each pedal stroke. Here, what matters is how many individual teeth each of the rings the chain is on has.

If you have a bicycle chain on the 25-tooth front chainring and on a 25-tooth rear sprocket, you have a 1:1 gear ratio. This means that for every full rotation you make with the pedal, the rear wheel will likewise make a full rotation. This is considered a low gear. Whenever you have the chainring on the largest of the rear sprockets, even if you only have one front chainrings, you are operating in a low gear.

Low gears are easiest to pedal due to how torque is applied, but they won't take you very far as there are more efficient gear ratios. But that isn't to say that low gears are useless. Low gear ratios are ideal for when you are climbing hills (hence why that large-tooth rear sprocket is commonly referred to as the climbing sprocket). Additionally, lower gears are more preferable in uneven terrains, such as when you are going over loose gravel or rocks because you can feel more in control of the bike with the lower ratio.

Let's say you switch from the smallest 25t chainring on your crankset to the largest chainring which has 50t. Now your gear ratio is 50t (front chainring) to 25t (rear sprocket). Simplify the numbers, and you have a 2:1 gear ratio which will be written as 2.0 in bicycle terminology. A 2.0 gearing is still relatively low gearing and means that each time that you rotate the front chainring, you rotate the back wheel twice.

A high gearing would be if you switched down the rear sprocket to the smallest 10t sprocket. Now you have the 50t (front chainring) to a 10t (rear sprocket) for a 5:1 or 5.0 gear ratio. That would be the highest recommended gear and equates to every revolution of the pedal turning the wheel five times. To such will take quite the physical effort or torque, but it will also mean that you will go further, faster.

Choosing the Right Number of Bike Gears for You

Now that we have gone through bike speeds, bike chainrings, and gear ratio, we get to the real heart of the matter... how many bike gears is right for you?

You might think that having more choices is always better, so might as well get the most chainrings and sprockets as possible. Not so fast. With great options also come some significant disadvantages. More rings mean more weight and more bike complexity. This is especially true when you have two or three front chainrings as this adds the greater weight of the rings themselves as well as requires a front derailleur and full shifting system.

If you are looking to really go fast and enjoy road biking and all of its possibilities, then adding in those front chainrings can be beneficial as it will give you higher ratios while still offering small gear ratios for things like climbing hills where necessary. However, through decades in the industry and speaking with many, many casual cyclists, we have found a single front crankset combined with 7 to 12 rear sprockets (in other words a 7-speed, 9-speed, and 12-speed bicycle) to be the best combination.

The single front chainring eliminates the need for the entire front shifting system and yet still offers plenty of flexibility. This more simplified bike still grants a nice range of low to high gear ratios, making it possible for cyclists to easily bike through hillier terrain as well as zip down the flat pavement.

Or, maybe you're one of those people who really just wants to streamline it all. In that case, you might prefer the single-speed bike. Just know that here, you are going to want to pay attention to that sole gear ratio you are going to have. You might find yourself swapping the rear gear for something else depending upon the terrain you most often encounter (for example, you might swap to a higher-tooth sprocket if you are in a very flat area or a lower-tooth sprocket if you want more control in a wetter environment).

The Best Way to Know is to Experiment

In the end, the best way to find how many gears and what gear ratio is best for you and your lifestyle is to experiment. Contact us today to learn about our special 365-Day Test Ride offer that will allow you to really see how our bikes fit into your lifestyle. Visit our sixthreezero website to shop the various bicycle speeds we have in stock now! And remember, both front chainrings and rear cassettes can be swapped out in most cases. Allowing you to really experiment and find that perfect forever bike for you.


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