Thursday, April 12, 2018

12 Speeds - You Know Where This Is Going

Well, they did it. Your "Goes to 11" drivetrain is now obsolete, as Campagnolo this week has introduced the first 12-speed drivetrain for road bikes. We knew it was going to happen eventually, right? I mean, it's been a whole ten years since they introduced the Nigel Tufnel-pleasing 11-speed system, which was about eight years after the introduction of 10-sp. And 9-speeds had been introduced by Shimano just four years prior to that. (Shimano had arguably kicked off this arms race by getting us into 8 speeds in 1988).

Okay, if you're like me (and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you are) you probably don't have an 11-speed setup. You may not even have progressed past 8 or 9, and you probably aren't feeling a major lack in your life as a result. Also if you're like me, you probably wonder about the benefit of cramming more and more cogs into the limited real estate between a bike's rear dropouts. Whether it makes sense or not, 12s are here, and there's no question that Shimano will have to respond in kind with their own 12-speed system within the next year or so. SRAM is practically already there, having recently introduced a 12-speed MTB system designed for use with single-chainring cranks.

12 speeds. Go ahead and count 'em. You know you want to.

In a short 1986 film about the Taylor Brothers, the builders of some truly fine British bicycles through the second half of the last century, Jack Taylor can be seen lamenting the state of racing bikes of the mid-80s with their 7-speed freewheels, saying that in his day they only rode 4s, and that 5s were already too many because it put the chain too much out of alignment. Just too many gears, he said, "you don't know which one you're in." I think a lot of us who cut our teeth on 5s and 6s would argue there's nothing excessive about them, and that 7s are probably just about perfect. But at some point, adding more gears just becomes gratuitous.

I have several bikes in my collection that have only 5-speed freewheels (and only 120 mm between the dropouts) and a couple with 6 or 7. The non-retrogrouchy commuter I've been using has an almost anachronistic-seeming 8-speed cassette, the Rivendell has 9, and I'm almost embarrassed to admit I have a retro-modern Mercian with 10 (but no 11s). To my mind, the main difference between all of them is that with more speeds, I find myself doing more shifting, but of course I don't go any faster. With 5 or 6, I get myself in a gear that feels right for the general terrain and just ride the damn bike without worrying about it. I've read where the late great Jobst Brandt did the same. It does not distract nor detract in any way from my rides.

In an old Rivendell Reader interview (R.R. 6), Brandt said, "I use down tube shifters and use a 6-speed freewheel because 5-speeds are dead. . . I'm not preoccupied with always being in the right gear or following some unwritten precepts on cadence and the like. I ride a gear that's about right and leave it at that. . . The range of gears hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, only the number of gears in that range. I don't believe they are useful, necessary, or any good for the design of the rear wheel. Five or six is plenty, nine is gratuitous hardware and multiple redundancy."

With each additional cog, the chain, spacers and cogs keep getting thinner. As a result, they've managed to fit these extra gears in with only a small increase in cassette width. But even that small increase has also meant an increase in the dish of the wheels, which is generally not a good thing for wheel strength. Not only that, but now that so many new bikes and wheelsets are made for disc brakes, the spacing has grown on both sides. If I'm not mistaken, many road bikes today are pushing 135 mm between the dropouts. This can create issues with crank width or Q-factor -- as the chainstays have to flare out farther and farther to accommodate the growing hub width, unless there is some radical re-shaping of the stays, Q-factor has to grow to keep the cranks from hitting them.

Another issue is that as cogs, spacers, and chains continue to get thinner, they become more prone to wear, and much more sensitive to derailleur alignment issues. If someone is using the latest electronic shifting, supposedly those systems keep themselves adjusted, but that's a high cost of admission for new technology that just solves the problems created by other new technology.

So, why the push to add more cogs? As usual, the claim is that you can get a broader gear range while still keeping the ratios close from one cog to the next. Campy's new 12s cassettes are available in 11-29 and 11-32, and there are single-tooth jumps for the first seven cogs. The last five cogs have jumps from two to four teeth. Clearly, they could make a straight-block "corncob" racing cassette that would go from 11-22, but they currently don't, and I have no idea if they have plans for such a thing, or if anyone is even calling for it. But proponents are already saying that the extra cog has a "substantial effect on smoothing the gear ratio spread" -- as if it's a huge and worthwhile improvement over 11s, which itself was hailed as such a huge improvement over 10s for the very same reason, and so on, and so on.

The thing is, the very same arguments for bumping us up to 12-speeds are likely to lead us to 13 before too long. I mean - you still have cogs with two or even four-tooth jumps between them (as if that's a bad thing), and at some point somebody is going to say you can reduce that further by adding another cog. Since they've so clearly embraced the philosophy of planned obsolescence, the only logical result is that they continue adding another cog every few years. One could argue that at some point they'd stop because you'd eventually get to where adding more cogs just starts getting ridiculous. 

The thing is, some of us think we passed that point a long time ago. 


  1. Apollo 13, 13th section of Denmark to Sweden trenche sunk tunnel, perhaps the next jump will be to 14...

    Needing a new wheel I pondered long and hard about the sweet spot in number of cogs, it looked like cost and wear started to rise considerably after 9. Chains as thin as kitchen foil do not seem to last too long.

  2. I have 2 bikes.
    One with 2x5 speeds, but given the short chain stay, it is really only 6 speeds, not 10.
    One with 1x1.
    Somehow I survive.

  3. i drew the line at 7sp. When i looked into 8sp, i noticed that the addition of an 11T or 12T cog was the only difference. i don't need a higher ratio (i seldom even go to 15T.) It was hard enough to find a freewheel that started at 14T. (And yes, i still use freewheels.) Most of my fleet use 6sp friction-shift anyway, and i don't worry about breaking chains.

  4. I stopped at 9 a long time ago. Single digits for me.

  5. My first bike had a S-A 3-speed hub gear. My first new bike had a 3-speed Simplex derailleur, which I upgraded to 4 speeds. This was in the 1950s. When I got back into cycling in the late 1970s the first bike I got was a classic "10-speed" which I eventually upgrades to 12 with a Shimano Ultra 6-speed freewheel. My next new bike was a 1981 with 12 gears (Campag Nuovo Record) and I eventually added a Shimano 7-speed freewheel to it. Not that I needed closer spaced gears, but I was getting older and could no longer live with a 42-21 bottom gear. A couple of years ago I bought a used MTB for casual riding. 27 gears, index shifting, no skill required. Riding that I honestly don't know what gear I'm in and by the time I feel I need to shift, I could shift 2 or 3 gears and it wouldn't matter. While having such a large number of gears available would benefit a racer, it's overkill for the average rider. But I guess it's what sells new bikes.

  6. I have six bikes:

    three with 9-speed cassettes (Mercians)
    one fixed gear (Mercian)
    one single speed (Fuji)
    and a 1981 Trek with 126 mm dropout spacing and a 5-speed freewheel. I spaced the right side for 5 and moved a 5mm spacer to the non-drive side. The result is a wheel with almost no dish.

    Two of the 9 speed cassettes are on Phil Wood hubs, which have less dish than other cassette hubs.

    I'm happy with all of them.

  7. i ride a single speed, 56 gear inches. perfect from 1-14 mph, 17 if i push. couldn’t be happier. chainline is perfect.

  8. My 10-speed with tens of thousands of miles on it still has the original freewheel AND alloy chainrings. My 8-speed from 2007 wore out its first cassette within 3 years. I never considered such things as disposable before and I'm not interested in making things even more fragile.

  9. I had to double-check the posting date of this article to see if it was an April fool's joke; sadly, it wasn't. 12 cogs, and presumably an even thinner chain, is, however, another cruel joke inflicted on cycling. It's solving a problem that doesn't exist. Most people can easily find the right gear for the terrain with their existing drivetrains. In fact, I'd say that if you're endlessly stressing about dialing in to the "perfect" gear while riding a bike, then I'd say "you're doing it wrong".

    My one bike is a mid-80s vintage mountain bike with 3 cogs on the front and 7 on the back. 21 "speeds" is enough for me.

  10. KISS, keep it seven stupid ! #freewheels, remember the days of buying individual cogs, removing shims to reduce slop, even repacking bodies !

  11. Still riding 3 speeds... I do have newfangled 8 speed can hub on my city buke. Touring bike has a 7 speed cluster. Still have a 5 speed cluster on the old race bike.


  12. The problem is availability. Good 5 or even 6 speed freewheels in an array of ranges aren't really being made anymore. I know there are a couple options, but the pickings are slim. And the longer they are out of production the scarcer the old stuff gets. If you ride a lot, these things wear out.
    When my last cluster started getting sloppy I decided to build the bike with a "modern" 10 speed drive train. I just got it on the road. The extra gears seem pretty pointless, and the whole system seems entirely less reliable. The clicky brake shifters are convenient, but not worth all that. But as cogs wear out finding a new 10 speed cluster shouldn't be as annoying as finding new freewheels was.
    The disc brake trend is concerning. Do I need to start stocking up on brake pads?

  13. Perhaps I'm thinking about this wrong, but if you really wanted to make a wide ranging gearing with small steps, wouldn't it make more sense to increase the difference between the chain rings? You could use a more robust drive train, like 8s or 9s. Then reduce or eliminate the crossover gears.

    What am I saying? You could never market that. We need MOAR COGZ!

  14. I'm happy to be a curmudgeon about many things. I was happy at 9 speed, and 8, and 7.

    10 was a "really? I have to?" moment when I bought a new bike that came with it.

    Next came 1X, which I thought stupid till I was *forced* into it by a bike that wouldn't accept a front derailleur. Okay, fine.

    1X, honestly, is great. I'm riding a "10 speed" again, just, all out back, and it weighs less too due to losing a shifter and derailleur.

    But? Having spent the better part of 30 years building wheels (tens of thousands by now), and fixing every known discipline of bike under the sun?

    Can we just stop with the collective hand wringing over wheel dish and how awful it is and how wheels are simply going to collapse due to not being symmetrically built? And yes, plenty of big name wheel builders make hay on this bullshit claim too.

    It's beyond tempest in a tea cup. It's just NOT a problem.

    Sure, to some geek with a slide rule and too much time on their hands, it's numerically, *engineerally* an issue. But when the rubber hits the road, wheels of all stripes, simply, don't fold, at least well built to fit their purpose, and not until ridden to the point of supreme insult.

    Not under hard riding, not under riders over 300 pounds, just, not.

    Yet the industry enthusiastically persists in selling brands of spokes that are "stronger than other brands" by mere percentage points, (though spokes rarely fail if name brand of any sort and built well) off center spoke bed rims, wider rear spacings to allow symmetrical building, all to solve a problem that patently, in the real world, just doesn't exist.

    So please, don't worry about the extra dish a 12 speed cassette creates, it's not going to ruin a damn thing.

    The fact that it exists, and we don't need it? Absolutely, that's something to get fired up about.

  15. I continue to ride my 1990 vintage 2x7 speed steel road bike with absolutely no envy of the 10- and 11-speed carbon fibre bikes owned by my companions. It fits me as though it was custom-made for me, and has at least 40k miles on it, still running the original Ultegra chainrings. The cassette has been changed once. I'm not interested in having more gears.

    When I bought my wife her first road bike last year, I went with 9 speeds...just not interested in compromising durability and reliability to get more speeds.

  16. The bikes I ride most often these days have either 7 or 9 cassette cogs, and the only difference I notice is that I have to throw the (friction) rear lever a bit further to shift. I never feel like "I don't have enough gears" when in 7 versus 9. In fact, one of them has a monster 12-36t cassette paired with a 30/46 double, and the jumps don't bother me at all. I just don't shift as often on that bike, as there's one sweet spot that handles a lot of terrain for me.

    I do have a couple of bikes with 10 rear cogs, but I don't ride them as often as the others since they handle duties that aren't in as much high demand. They are set up indexed, but I notice I have to overshift and shift back at one spot in either bike's cassette, despite multiple shops checking the indexing, derailleur hanger, and derailleur. I've run one of them friction when it got particularly bad, and I was always shifting just a bit too far, as I learned friction on 9. It sounds like the fact that I have these issues on my mind is why I don't ride these bikes as often, but that's not the main reason.

  17. Seven was plenty. Nine was unneeded. Eleven was just ludicrous. So what does that make twelve? Every ride doesn't need to be a clickfest. My single speed probably gets more miles than all my other bikes put together.

    As you keep adding gears you begin to approximate the curve of a continuously variable transmission. If a CVT is what they truly desire why not try to improve on something like the DaVinci hub? I would try to make it A, lighter and B, less homely.

  18. 11 speeds with a 32 teeth chainring seems odd for me. Wouldn't be easier to add a smaller ring instead? That's why my bike has a 22x34 granny gear.

    I love triple chainrings: a small one for hills, a big one for flats, and a middle one for mixed terrain. Easy-to-use technology that's proven and easy to service. Could it be that road racers don't like to use a front derailler?

  19. Funny, I was talking to my nephew, an 18 year old Cat 3 racer, mentioned that back in the day we all rode "ten speeds". He said "I have a ten speed!". Had to teach him that he really has a "twenty speed" but the reality is he has one speed: faster than me.

  20. Waiting for the day when the big bike companies just give up and add a motor to the damn thing.