Cycling in the French Alps: What gears should I use?
Our thoughts on gearing to enable you to make the most of your cycling trip to the French Alps
BreatheBike have been organising cycling trips in the French Alps from our Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley base since 2008. In that time we have had many riders visit us and the general feedback is that the climbs are longer and harder than they ever imagined.
Our mantra is that any climb is possible with the correct gearing.
I'm sure I'll be okay with the same gearing I use at home, I've had a look at the climbs on Strava
When we moved to the French Alps I too was in this catergory. Having raced in the UK in the late 80's on 52/42 and a straight through cassette 13/14/15/16/17/18 I thought that the advent of the compact was for someone who's idea of training was riding to the shop and back. Not so!! The first time I rode over the Col de la Colombiere, a Tour de France regular, was back in October 2007. I was on my new Pinarello with a compact 50/34 and an 11-26 cassette. At the time I was unfit and over weight and the morning turned into an afternoon and an epic struggle over my first 'Hors Catergorie' alpine Col. By comparison I ride over the same Col today with a compact and rear cassette on 12-30, in half the time it took back in 2007, with a higher cadence and overall more enjoyable experience.
You are a very strong rider, BUT.......
Its possible that you will get over one Col on a standard chain set, and maybe the second, however the third and the fourth in the same day? For example lets have a look at the 2016 Etape du Tour. The route from Megeve to Morzine is over 4000M of climbing over 146KM. There is hardly a flat piece of road on the whole route. Now the direction does take you over the easier side of both the Aravis and the Colombiere and you may think what was Mike on about? I could have used my standard set up. However when you reach the Ramaz and finally the Joux Plane on a standard chainset you will be grinding your gearing as your cadence drops to 40 rpm with your legs screaming. Trust me. The only rider to have successfully ridden with a standard chainset on one of our trips was an elite rider from Team Isle of Man who had Mark Cavendish as a team mate in the Delhi Commonwealth Games road race!
Make your ride enjoyable!
Isn't it great when you look down at your back cassette and see that you have one last cog left? Very few of us can pedal a cadence like Chris Froome, however it will certainly help you with a cassette up to 30 or 32 at the back.
You are coming to cycle the Alps to enjoy it...... not endure it.
July 2018 update
With the latest Ultegra and Dura Ace set ups its now possible to have a much wider gear ratio. I've now moved to 52/36 11/34 which allows me to pedal down the mountains and also have one in reserve for those brutal climbs such as the Romme, Plateau des Glieres and the Colle San Carlos