Cassettes – Wide or Tight?

I met up with my biking friend John T after work today. He was excited because he made a major change on his bike: he got a new cassette.

He’s excited about it because the largest cog on the cassette has 27 teeth. It replaces the original cassette that came with the bike, that had a 23t large cog. Last summer, he managed to climb “Heart Attack Hill” west of Austin with the 23, but he’s sure he couldn’t do it now, after several months of low-mile riding. He thinks the 27 will make it easier for him to climb.

I’m sure it will. When I got a new cassette more than a year ago, the bike shop found one with a 28t cog. A 26 was the largest that came with my bike. I couldn’t climb Heart Attack Hill with the 26, but I can with the 28 (and better conditioning).

In fact, my cassette has a wide range. Its smallest cog is an 11, so its progression is 11-13-15-17-19-21-23-26-28. Yes, nine speeds. I like it, because I can really fly in the big ring with the 11t cog, and the 28 gets me up the hills. But lots of bikers hate wide range cassettes.

Their concern is with the gaps between some shifts. I have two-tooth jumps in most gears. A lot of cyclists will tell you they prefer one-tooth jumps — that wider gaps like I have make it hard to figure out just what gear you should be in, and that means more shifting between the big ring and small ring up front.

So, the more gears you’re running in back, the tighter your cassette will be. Another option would be a triple up front with a tight range in back. The small front ring will get you the granny combination you’ll need for climbing.

Both John T and I run 50/34 compact cranksets up front. We’re not racers. We’re not climbers. We both need help on the hills. For us, a wide range cassette works.

What do you run on your bike? What do you see as the pros and cons of wide range versus tight range cassettes?



  1. Mel Hughes says

    I have been running an 11-28 10-speed rear cassette all last summer. (I am also using an Ultegra triple crank.) But recently I read an article where someone was talking about the SRAM 11-32 10-speed cassette for a great climbing bike. (He also had a triple crank!) So when I started my winter cleaning/overhauling of my main bike, I put an 11-32 on it. I haven’t had a chance to give her a good road test yet. But I plan on it in the next few days!

    About that 9-speed – when I originally upgraded this bike, I went from a 7-speed to a 10-speed. I don’t really know what I expected. But what I have found is that there are a lot more intermediate gears I really don’t in truth need. In all honesty, I think an 8 or 9-speed may be optimal. Like you, I am no racer. I find the minor shifts up and down to be more of an annoyance than something useful. I find myself ending up in the lower gears fairly quickly when climbing. On the flats, I am in the smallest sprockets more than anything else. The need for incremental shifts is truly wasted on me! In fact, my next bike I is being built as a 9-speed. In retrospect, I am wondering now if I should have just opted for the 8-speed…

    Anyhow, give me a wide range cassette and a triple crank and I feel as if I have a more than even chance of meeting and enjoying elevation challenges!

  2. says

    My commuter has 11-26 in the back (8speed) and a 40/52 in the front, but that’s going to change soon because the 40 is stock and way too hard to spin up hills.

    The Trek has a triple up front and 12-28 in the back, and the Fuji is a compact 34/50 and 10 speeds in the back (Ultegra) but I have no idea what range…

    I have bad knees and need to spin up hills, which are numerous on some of my routes. BUT I’ll still be able to hit a high top speed.

  3. says

    For Hugel I’ll put on a 11×26 and I run standard cranks 39×53. So the 11×26 is on my bike from November to February. Once the race season starts up I put back on my race cassette and run 11×23 till November.

    I prefer to ride the Austin hills with the 11×23, but that also accommodates my hill riding style of standing. My fastest times up Courtyard are with the 11×23.

  4. says

    Not being a racer I value range over pure top end. My triple is 48-36-26 with a 11-32 in the back. The bike is made for loaded touring though so the low end gears are essential for getting rolling when packed for the road. Who wants to try to start 70 pounds of bike and gear from a dead stop on a 5% grade in 39-23?

  5. says

    Try a singlespeed! 😀

    I prefer wider spacing and fewer gears. I feel like with my triple/9spd combo on my normal commuter I have way more gears than I need – I hardly ever use the granny or the lowest gears. I even feel that way on my geared mountain bike – if I can’t get up a hill in the middle chainring, I’m probably also having major traction issues because the hill is so steep.

    Quite honestly I think a 10-speed would be good enough for me – though with recent advances, I might elect to have that organized with 1 chainring and a 10-speed cassette!

  6. says

    I run a 12 x 27 9-speed cassette on my road bike, with 30/39/53 chain rings. That combination allows me to stay in the middle chain ring for most everything I encounter. I rarely need to shift down to the granny, and only occasionally up-shift to the the 53 if I’m really hauling.

    My commuter, on the other hand has a 12 x 32 cassette mated with a single 42 tooth chain ring up front. Obviously, shifting isn’t as crisp on that bike. I call that one my “father’s Plymouth” of a bike, but it performs it’s purpose excellently.

  7. Jeff says

    Wow…very timely post! I just got a new cassette/chain yesterday, as I had over 9,000 miles on the chain and was way overdue.

    I agonized over the decision. I have a compact 50/34 crank as well, with an 11-26 9-speed cassette originally. Shop recommended strongly that I go to 12/25, reasoning that I’d have more usable gears within the range I need most here in flat Florida. I mostly used the 12 anyway, rarely used the 11, and rarely got off the big ring, so seemed to make sense.

    Nice new Ultegra cassette and Dura-Ace chain (got a good deal on both) didn’t seem to be playing nice with my Tiagra front derailleur, however. Plus turns out my crank is not true (I can actually see the wobble as the chain goes through), so now I’ve got a new set of issues!

  8. Rick says

    Have an 11=23 cassette 10 speed and triple crank. When I upgraded components last year, the big ring up front went from 52 to 53t. Was surprised that it took awhile to get used to the bigger ring because of the extra stress on this old man’s joints. Eased into it over a couple months and now I like big ring power when it’s needed.
    But I also found I prefer the smooth momentum from rear rings only a tooth apart.
    The triple is a nice option. I only use the 30t on the steepest climbs. The drawback is a triple 10-speed from Ultegra requires a narrower chain and more frequent adjustment.

  9. says

    My Hybrid: 26/36/48 front crank and 9-speed 11-32 cassette. 32 teeth means I can climb all day, but 48 on the front end means I get dropped all day.

    My Road Bike: 50/34 front crank and 10-speed 12-27 cassette. It’s a compact much like Jeff’s original setup, which means I lose cool points when the roadies take a closer look at me. A more hardcore set would add a couple of teethon the big ring. Right now, I kinda like that 27-tooth back ring!

  10. says

    I run a 52-39 double, with 12-27 or something, but I think I’d rather have a triple with 11-23… reason being: it can be annoying when you’re in a group and you don’t have the gear you’d like to ride.
    like: I’d have the 15 which I’d ride at 80 rpm or the 17 which I’d ride at 95 rpm, but i’d rather ride the 16 at 87 rpm (numbers are bs, ofc). With a narrowly spaced triple, this would be no problem and I’d still be able to get over the hills.

  11. Mel Hughes says

    Well, more than a few days has past. But finally Spring has arrived in the Upper Cumberland area. I finally got a chance to try out my new rear wheel with its SRAM PG-1070 11-32 10-speed cassette. After too long off the bike, all I can say is, “How did I ever climb hills without the 32 tooth cog?” It probably won’t be necessary later in the season. But right now, my knees and lungs sure do appreciate it!
    If this is something that is interesting to you, remember that I have a long cage rear rear derailleur. Even with that, I had to find a longer B-Tension Adjusting Screw to move the upper guide pulley away from the cogs. My rear derailleur is a Dura-Ace RD-7800 GS. It is only supposed to be able to wrap a 27 tooth cog at the maximum. Shimano is typically conservative in their specs. I could have more easily used one of the new, light weight 10-speed mountain bike derailleurs like a Deore XT M-772 GS which has a stated 33 tooth cog maximum. But with the longer B-Tension adjusting screw, the Dura-Ace is working fine.

  12. Slee says

    I like wide rang and tight spacing! Oh well. Frankly, I’m an amazingly wimpy road rider. I just switched to a compact crank because I just simply can’t get up the hills/mtns in north georgia with an 12-26 and a 39t chainring. Maybe a triple would have been better… I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet though. Road riding is a tiny % of my riding anyway, Trails are just night-and-day more fun for me and at least I can return the favor of leaving a few friends in the dust there do it to me on the road.

  13. TJ says

    • Scott Jangro says

      Here in New England, the Mt. Washington climb is one of those bucket-list items, and the regular guys (as opposed to pros) who do that tend to put on gearing like you describe. Mountain bike rear derailleur with a 34×32, or even 34×34 as the max climbing gear.

      A few years ago, I did a ride in VT called the 6 Gaps (It’s in Bicycling Magazine’s recent top rides per state article.) The gaps are just long and steep, mostly 6-12%, with a 15-20%+ bump at the end, and pretty much impossible without near 1:1 gearing.

      Then there’s “Everesting”, but that’s a different subject, perhaps for a blog post.

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