Home
What size gears do the Tour de France pro riders use? We take a closer look at their sprockets

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.

peter sagan bike4.JPG

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.

- Peter Sagan's Specialized S-Works Venge race bike

peter sagan bike17.JPG

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…)

bettiol cannondale supersix evo16.JPG

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.

- Alberto Bettiol's Cannondale SuperSix Evo race bike

bora team bikes43.JPG

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. 

bettiol cannondale supersix evo15.JPG

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.

- Which chainset is right for you?

alex dowsett canyon 4.JPG

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.

alex dowsett canyon 7.JPG

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.

Trek Tour bikes1.JPG

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.

Tour de France 2019 Campag chainset Landa - 1

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.

canyon speedmax tt bikes22.JPG

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.

Summary

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.

- Struggling on the hills? If you need lower gears to make climbing easier, here's how to get them — and you don't need to spend a fortune to do it

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.

15 comments

Avatar
imajez [121 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

"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."
Was this  article written by a teenage intern? 
A teenager who has no experience of disc brakes either, because this...
"It also means a lot less work for the mechanics because they’re not continuously swapping cassettes! (More time to bleed disc brakes then…)"
...is something, you very, very rarely need to do. They are mostly fit and forget. Particularly when compared to cable rim brakes. 
 

Avatar
pushthis [2 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

im using a triple chain ring with a deore mtb and 10 to idk some pretty large number of teeth..

i go from trail riding to downhill road with this drive train in the same ride.

an added feature of chain rings i dont think anyonehas mentioned is the ability to suddenly pop down the chainring, which is like 2 cogs in the back. with a triple in the front and the deore clutch system in the back i can downshift very fast and up shift very fast.  on dogged off road uphill forays this is a big deal. or if i have to hold somthing i can change a gear.

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds [3322 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains, it's absolutely hilarious when you see pros grinding away turning themselves inside out on a bottom gear that is still ridiculously too high for the terrain. They surely must know from past experience the effort they'll be putting in and how fatigued they're going to be at the end of a strage that has an HC finish? Yes, even the top dogs on some of the climbs didn't have low enough gears!

Wanna know why in part Froome does so well and he caned dirty bertie in the mountains? Consistency and a significantly lower gear, Froome is not fighting the bike as Contador does, some say AC is a graceful rider, not really and it's totally unimportant, when Froome can sit and spin he has an advantage compared to AC being all the bike.

On the Tourmalet there was a point were the stage leader at the time was doing 12km/h, I think it was only Buchmann that was riding smoothly out of the lead group, no rocking of shoulders like everyone else, maybe he had a significantly lower gear, maybe not the outright power/stamina to pull away but I reckon his not having to fight the bike and rocking and rolling saved him a significant emount of energy.

It's exactly the same as years gone by as the pros had the option of much bigger sprockets (Suntour made 30/32/34/36s) and smaller chainrings back then but they wouldn't use them hence the 2-3mph zig -zagging when they could get off and walk faster. I watched with stifled laughter when the big boys went up Honister pass in 2013 and I could have passed all of them just going for a bimble up the slope.

Maybe they need to go back to a triple up front hahahaha

Avatar
Mungecrundle [1570 posts] 3 months ago
5 likes

If only there was some way for pro riders and their teams to spend months training over thousands of miles, invest obscene amounts of money on testing different setups and employ race strategies based on actual experience of racing bicycles.

Avatar
Mungecrundle [1570 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

.

Avatar
fixedwhip [16 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
imajez wrote:

"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."
Was this  article written by a teenage intern? 
A teenager who has no experience of disc brakes either, because this...
"It also means a lot less work for the mechanics because they’re not continuously swapping cassettes! (More time to bleed disc brakes then…)"
...is something, you very, very rarely need to do. They are mostly fit and forget. Particularly when compared to cable rim brakes. 
 

While I agree with you that this article is quite poorly written (paragraphs repeating each other, weird grammatical errors) because they never proofread anything they write, you are wrong about the disc brake bleeding. I remember reading that the mechanics sometimes bleed the brakes after every race to keep everything in top condition. While they are mostly something you never have to consider, things are a bit different for professional teams.

Avatar
Welsh boy [699 posts] 3 months ago
3 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains, it's absolutely hilarious when you see pros grinding away turning themselves inside out on a bottom gear that is still ridiculously too high for the terrain. They surely must know from past experience the effort they'll be putting in and how fatigued they're going to be at the end of a strage that has an HC finish? Yes, even the top dogs on some of the climbs didn't have low enough gears!

Wanna know why in part Froome does so well and he caned dirty bertie in the mountains? Consistency and a significantly lower gear, Froome is not fighting the bike as Contador does, some say AC is a graceful rider, not really and it's totally unimportant, when Froome can sit and spin he has an advantage compared to AC being all the bike.

On the Tourmalet there was a point were the stage leader at the time was doing 12km/h, I think it was only Buchmann that was riding smoothly out of the lead group, no rocking of shoulders like everyone else, maybe he had a significantly lower gear, maybe not the outright power/stamina to pull away but I reckon his not having to fight the bike and rocking and rolling saved him a significant emount of energy.

It's exactly the same as years gone by as the pros had the option of much bigger sprockets (Suntour made 30/32/34/36s) and smaller chainrings back then but they wouldn't use them hence the 2-3mph zig -zagging when they could get off and walk faster. I watched with stifled laughter when the big boys went up Honister pass in 2013 and I could have passed all of them just going for a bimble up the slope.

Maybe they need to go back to a triple up front hahahaha

That's a lot of bollocks for one post, even by your standards.

Avatar
JF69 [55 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
Welsh boy wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains, it's absolutely hilarious when you see pros grinding away turning themselves inside out on a bottom gear that is still ridiculously too high for the terrain. They surely must know from past experience the effort they'll be putting in and how fatigued they're going to be at the end of a strage that has an HC finish? Yes, even the top dogs on some of the climbs didn't have low enough gears!

Wanna know why in part Froome does so well and he caned dirty bertie in the mountains? Consistency and a significantly lower gear, Froome is not fighting the bike as Contador does, some say AC is a graceful rider, not really and it's totally unimportant, when Froome can sit and spin he has an advantage compared to AC being all the bike.

On the Tourmalet there was a point were the stage leader at the time was doing 12km/h, I think it was only Buchmann that was riding smoothly out of the lead group, no rocking of shoulders like everyone else, maybe he had a significantly lower gear, maybe not the outright power/stamina to pull away but I reckon his not having to fight the bike and rocking and rolling saved him a significant emount of energy.

It's exactly the same as years gone by as the pros had the option of much bigger sprockets (Suntour made 30/32/34/36s) and smaller chainrings back then but they wouldn't use them hence the 2-3mph zig -zagging when they could get off and walk faster. I watched with stifled laughter when the big boys went up Honister pass in 2013 and I could have passed all of them just going for a bimble up the slope.

Maybe they need to go back to a triple up front hahahaha

That's a lot of bollocks for one post, even by your standards.

 He has a point.

Pros have been grinding away their knees on too large cranks & too small cassette sprockets  on mountain stages for decades.

In some sections at ridiculously low speeds for their super-fit conditioning.

Granted it’s not as bad as it used to be in the past, even for the riders’ knees

(eg: the state of Hinault’s knees meant that he’s not been able to go fir a decent spin for decades),

but when even a powerful rider like Sagan can’t consistently keep up in the mountain stages it makes you think. 

Avatar
crazy-legs [1143 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
Quote:

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains,

For amateurs, I'd go the other way. The vast majority of people on Sportives, charity rides, challenges etc have no clue of what gearing they're on, many don't understand the numbers or ratios and an awful lot are, at any given time, riding a completely inappropriate gear for the terrain or conditions. Mostly too high - you can see it in group riding where about 3 wheels back there'll be a guy pushing 50-11, surging up the arse of the guy in front, braking, pushing, braking.

One guy on a charity ride I work on actually said he used the highest gear possible because it meant his power meter gave higher readings - presumably because the strain gauges were being bent to their maximum even though he was only doing 9mph...

And then as soon as they get to a climb, they're banging down 20 gears to reach the lowest possible gear which they'll twiddle at 3mph up to the summit before banging everything the other way again, back up to top gear.

Avatar
Woldsman [337 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
pushthis wrote:

im using a triple chain ring with a deore mtb and 10 to idk some pretty large number of teeth..

i go from trail riding to downhill road with this drive train in the same ride.

an added feature of chain rings i dont think anyonehas mentioned is the ability to suddenly pop down the chainring, which is like 2 cogs in the back. with a triple in the front and the deore clutch system in the back i can downshift very fast and up shift very fast.  on dogged off road uphill forays this is a big deal. or if i have to hold somthing i can change a gear.

Aye. My jazzy bike has a compact chainset and 12-30 cassette, which has got me round all the lumpy sportives in my part of the world.

When I’m carrying a bit of stuff - and not at my fittest - the 5703 road triple and XT cassette on my other bike becomes the preferred option. (Lower gearing on a rear hub that isn’t overly dished, avoiding cross-chaining to get the gear I need, with wear spread across three chainrings and the option of dumping the chain on to a smaller chain ring when coming across a cheeky hill etc.)

I’m stocking up on spare chain rings though. How long before even Tiagra does away with the road triple in that groupset...?

Avatar
bob_c [67 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

Riders use different gear setups depending on each specific stage e.g. Ewan had a 54t up front in preparation for a slightly downhill sprint. It would be interesting to look at a particular rider's setup for a few different stages. I'm pretty sure Sagan wouldn't have had 42/28 as his lowest gear on Tourmalet but he might go for that on each flat stage.

Avatar
CXR94Di2 [2739 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
JF69 wrote:
Welsh boy wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains, it's absolutely hilarious when you see pros grinding away turning themselves inside out on a bottom gear that is still ridiculously too high for the terrain. They surely must know from past experience the effort they'll be putting in and how fatigued they're going to be at the end of a strage that has an HC finish? Yes, even the top dogs on some of the climbs didn't have low enough gears!

Wanna know why in part Froome does so well and he caned dirty bertie in the mountains? Consistency and a significantly lower gear, Froome is not fighting the bike as Contador does, some say AC is a graceful rider, not really and it's totally unimportant, when Froome can sit and spin he has an advantage compared to AC being all the bike.

On the Tourmalet there was a point were the stage leader at the time was doing 12km/h, I think it was only Buchmann that was riding smoothly out of the lead group, no rocking of shoulders like everyone else, maybe he had a significantly lower gear, maybe not the outright power/stamina to pull away but I reckon his not having to fight the bike and rocking and rolling saved him a significant emount of energy.

It's exactly the same as years gone by as the pros had the option of much bigger sprockets (Suntour made 30/32/34/36s) and smaller chainrings back then but they wouldn't use them hence the 2-3mph zig -zagging when they could get off and walk faster. I watched with stifled laughter when the big boys went up Honister pass in 2013 and I could have passed all of them just going for a bimble up the slope.

Maybe they need to go back to a triple up front hahahaha

That's a lot of bollocks for one post, even by your standards.

 He has a point.

Pros have been grinding away their knees on too large cranks & too small cassette sprockets  on mountain stages for decades.

In some sections at ridiculously low speeds for their super-fit conditioning.

Granted it’s not as bad as it used to be in the past, even for the riders’ knees

(eg: the state of Hinault’s knees meant that he’s not been able to go fir a decent spin for decades),

but when even a powerful rider like Sagan can’t consistently keep up in the mountain stages it makes you think. 

 

Sagan cant keep up in the mountains because he is significantly heavier than the true climbers. 

Allegedly he weighs 73kg, 4kg more than Froome, 8kg more than Nibali and 11kg more than Valverde.  

Heavier riders tire quicker carrying the extra weight- its apparent even with 4kg- bloody hell I weigh 25kg more than Sagan.indecision

Avatar
JohnnyRemo [314 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

When Robert Millar (as was) took part in a Q&A at a training camp with some of the leading young Scottish riders back in the day he started by saying "Don't ask me what gears I use in TdF mountain stages as it has no relevance to you whatsoever..." 

Avatar
JohnnyRemo [314 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
CXR94Di2 wrote:
JF69 wrote:
Welsh boy wrote:
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:

It's pretty clear that the bravado of the modern pro and amateur cyclist is STILL killing them in the mountains, it's absolutely hilarious when you see pros grinding away turning themselves inside out on a bottom gear that is still ridiculously too high for the terrain. They surely must know from past experience the effort they'll be putting in and how fatigued they're going to be at the end of a strage that has an HC finish? Yes, even the top dogs on some of the climbs didn't have low enough gears!

Wanna know why in part Froome does so well and he caned dirty bertie in the mountains? Consistency and a significantly lower gear, Froome is not fighting the bike as Contador does, some say AC is a graceful rider, not really and it's totally unimportant, when Froome can sit and spin he has an advantage compared to AC being all the bike.

On the Tourmalet there was a point were the stage leader at the time was doing 12km/h, I think it was only Buchmann that was riding smoothly out of the lead group, no rocking of shoulders like everyone else, maybe he had a significantly lower gear, maybe not the outright power/stamina to pull away but I reckon his not having to fight the bike and rocking and rolling saved him a significant emount of energy.

It's exactly the same as years gone by as the pros had the option of much bigger sprockets (Suntour made 30/32/34/36s) and smaller chainrings back then but they wouldn't use them hence the 2-3mph zig -zagging when they could get off and walk faster. I watched with stifled laughter when the big boys went up Honister pass in 2013 and I could have passed all of them just going for a bimble up the slope.

Maybe they need to go back to a triple up front hahahaha

That's a lot of bollocks for one post, even by your standards.

 He has a point.

Pros have been grinding away their knees on too large cranks & too small cassette sprockets  on mountain stages for decades.

In some sections at ridiculously low speeds for their super-fit conditioning.

Granted it’s not as bad as it used to be in the past, even for the riders’ knees

(eg: the state of Hinault’s knees meant that he’s not been able to go fir a decent spin for decades),

but when even a powerful rider like Sagan can’t consistently keep up in the mountain stages it makes you think. 

 

Sagan cant keep up in the mountains because he is significantly heavier than the true climbers. 

Allegedly he weighs 73kg, 4kg more than Froome, 8kg more than Nibali and 11kg more than Valverde.  

Heavier riders tire quicker carrying the extra weight- its apparent even with 4kg- bloody hell I weigh 25kg more than Sagan.indecision

Merckx was even heavier than Sagan (74kg) but could dominate partly because there were no ultra-low ratios back then - 42x24 was the "norm." The tiny guys couln't compete as they didn't have the power to mash those ratios  in the mountains.

 

Avatar
STATO [568 posts] 2 months ago
1 like
imajez wrote:

"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."
Was this  article written by a teenage intern? 
A teenager who has no experience of disc brakes either, because this...
"It also means a lot less work for the mechanics because they’re not continuously swapping cassettes! (More time to bleed disc brakes then…)"
...is something, you very, very rarely need to do. They are mostly fit and forget. Particularly when compared to cable rim brakes. 
 

 

Id be amazed if disc brakes in the Tour dont get bled at least every rest day, if not also after a demanding stage.  This is professional racing, just because you and I can go years without touching brakes doesnt mean team mechanics wont be using every moment available to keep the bikes working as fresh as possible, and cleaning and bleeding brakes will be one of the things they do just like they used to replace inner brake cables and pads every few days.