the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

October 31, 2009

Thirty Four. Just a number?

Filed under: bike — danmilner @ 9:45 pm

It’s just a number: thirty-four. Just a number, but it holds a legacy. It’s become the dividing line between them and me. It’s not age, it’s not time, and it’s not miles per hour. It’s teeth on a sprocket, the number of teeth on my largest rear sprocket that has pushed me further and further out on a limb. Who would have thought the humble thirty-four would reap so much havoc?

Years ago I used to ride with an XT rear cassette. It ran 8 sprockets from 11 to 28 teeth. Then came 30. By the time I fitted a 32-tooth cassette I told myself that was it, that was enough. I’d never need a lower gear than that, not with a 22-tooth chainring up front. After all 19 gear-inches is a lung-pityingly low ratio. At least that’s how I saw it, even for the first couple of years after moving to the French Alps, a place where ‘hills’ are formidable and men smell of… well, just smell. As an XC rider training for the Cristalp marathon I had the legs to push a beefy gear up hill and I was loving it. And anyway I had no other option, 32 was a lot of teeth on an 8-speed cassette.

And then Shimano threw a spanner in the works. The 11-34 cassette spanner to be precise.

Suddenly there was a lower gear, so low, with so much torque in fact that pedalling up the hour-long climbs that decorate my adopted home valley became nigh-on hour long wheelies (unfortunately the only time I can really wheelie very well). With 34 came an incredulously low 16.8 gear inches. Climbs became more bearable, lungs could relax a little. All worship the crawler gear!

But from the 34 a legacy was born.

I adopted a more leisurely pace up hill. After all what’s the rush? My priorities changed. Quad size paled in the shadow of simple stamina. My rides became more about simply getting out there, about riding with mates who also spin low gears, about getting to the top no matter how long it took and riding back down again.

Several years later I find myself chasing the back wheel of Tom Ritchey, pedalling the fast and swooping singletrack that is his back yard. His Scott Spark has no 34-tooth sprocket. He rides fast, rarely dropping from his middle chainring to power up the short climbs in the rolling hills south of San Francisco. Tom has big legs. The terrain he pedals is different to the Alps. He has no hour-long climbs to test his mettle. He has no need for a 34-tooth sprocket. And with the difference in terrain, comes a difference in muscle build. While I am rarely beaten by the big climbs of the Alps, I am now a nobody when it comes to ‘normal’ mountain biking. My legs and my lungs cant deliver that kind of unadulterated power, at least for more than a minute. The 34 has pushed me into a corner, and like an addict I have lapped up its easy-to-digest rewards. Only after a week of chasing riders in California do I feel like my legs are starting to build, that muscles are remembering what it was like before The 34.

Now I see double chainsets are sweeping aside the triples of old, even in the OE market, creating the kind of stir that has echoes of the 34 tooth cassette. I’m worried. It’s us and them again: those mashing huge gear inches with big, bulging thighs and those with the spindly, twiggy legs spinning away in crawler gears. So do I go Sram XX-style big and middle chainrings, or SLX all-mountain middle and granny? I guess there only one-way to find out: I’d best go for a ride.


Little trouble maker


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