Wide Range Road Drivetrains: Worth the Weight?

Wide Range. 11-28. Compact. 130 BCD. No doubt you’ve heard these terms thrown about at the bike shop and seen them on online forums, but how do they affect your ride? Simply put, all these terms relate to how hard you have to pedal, and when. Different sized chain rings and cassettes can help you climb, shave seconds off your time trial, and give you the jump when the city limit sign looms ahead. Customizing your gearing to the terrain and riding style you prefer will go a long way towards your evolution as a cyclist, and it’s a lot easier than it sounds.

Recently, road component manufacturers have been bringing wider and wider gear ranges to market. Cog sizes that a mere five years ago were only found on mountain bikes are becoming commonplace on the road. Compact road chainrings, which are most commonly seen in a 50/34 tooth combination with a 110mm bolt circle diameter (BCD), evolved in an effort to do away with the triple chainring road crankset by offering nearly the same low gear as a triple but with the superior shifting performance of a double. Climbers and touring cyclists quickly realized the benefits of smaller chainrings, but for sprinters and flatlanders, the lower gearing was a disadvantage. Now, however, with the availability of wide range cassettes—having large cogs of 28, 30, or 32 teeth—even your TT bike can be geared to attack the climbs in your area.

Are wide range cassettes the answer for everyone? No, but for many cyclists, they will solve the problem of being overgeared in the hills and undergeared in sprints.

Use the following information to determine which chainring/cassette choice will work for you. By comparing gear ratios of various combinations, you’ll get a better idea of what to look for. If you are a sprint specialist living in Iowa, you probably won’t need me to tell you a 53/39 crankset with an 11-21 cassette is the way to go. Conversely, if the only flat roads you see are in the valleys between three-thousand meter peaks, a 50/34 crankset with an 11-28 or even 11-32 tooth cassette will keep you happy. Your ideal probably lies somewhere in between.

 Wide Range Cassette AvailabilityShimano 11-speed cassettes are offered at the Dura Ace 9000-series level up to 11-28 tooth/12-28 tooth, at the Ultegra 6800 level up to 11-32 tooth.

Campagnolo Super Record cassettes are available in 12-29 tooth configurations, and Campy Centaur cassettes in 12-30 tooth.

Sram cassettes are offered in 11-32/12-32 tooth versions (WiFli) at the PG1050 and PG1070 levels.

Chainring Teeth/Cassette Teeth Combinations

  • In gear inches and (gain ratio)
    • 53/12=116.6” (8.7)
    • 53/11=126.6” (9.5)
    • 50/11=119.5” (8.9)
    • 39/28=36.6” (2.7)
    • 39/32=32” (2.4)
    • 34/32=27.9” (2.1)

Higher gear inches or ratios result in more forward movement per crank revolution, along with more effort required from the cyclist.

Chainring Weight ComparisonsSram Red chainrings

  • Standard 53T 141 grams
  • Compact 50T 129 grams
  • Standard 39T 31 grams
  • Compact 34T 28 grams
  • 53/39=172 grams
  • 50/34=157 grams

Cassette Weight ComparisonsSram PG1170 11-speed cassettes

  • 11-26: 245 grams
  • 11-28: 256 grams
  • 11-32: 301 grams *32 tooth cassettes require a wide-range specific derailleur

 Chainring Sets With Cassette CombinationsSram Red chainrings and Sram PG1170 cassettes

  • 53/39+11-26=417 grams
  • 53/39+11-28=428 grams
  • 53/39+11-32=473 grams
  • 50/34+11-26=402 grams
  • 50/34+11-28=413 grams
  • 50/34+11-32=458 grams