Haute Route Gearing – Bigger Better?


A friend of mine just posted something on Facebook about his gearing choice for Haute Route Pyrenees this summer, which made me think about this all-too-crucial decision once again. Back in 2013, when I thought I was The Man, I sauntered into Haute Route Alps with a compact 50/34 and an 11-25 cassette on the back. That turned out to be a drastic mistake, with me frantically clicking to find that ‘next gear’ half way through the first stage. I toughed it out the whole week though, more out of pig-headedness than any sort of rational thought. 

The friend in question has bought himself a ‘sub-compact’ chainring that is 46/32 and he will stay with his 11-28 on the back. It was basically a decision between playing with his rear end or front end, I think. He will have plenty of gears to choose on the long, endless climbs of Haute Route Pyrenees this year, but I’m afraid he’ll run out on the flats (in a group) or downhills, when he wants to pedal them.

Another friend, who is doing HR for the first time, has just bought himself an 11-30, and I know there will be many there this year with 11-32s (not really a road option when I did my first one back in 2013). 

I have a final friend who used to ride Haute Route with a 52/36 chainring and I think a 28 on the back. I’d be interested to know how he’s gearing these days…Rich V?

download-1.jpgMy big concern with going bigger and bigger each year on the cassette is that I’ll go slower and slower. I don’t think my cadence will miraculously increase by 10 rpm just because I have a bigger ring on the inside of my cassette. That being said, that 25 was real hell, and I very often hit that ‘cadence wall’ where I was grinding so slowly that I was losing speed exponentially (like you do when you do low cadence drills on hills). I like to think it cost me a podium place, but since I finished 124th, that’s possibly not the case.

I will stay with my tried and true 11-29 Campy set-up, unless someone can talk me into something else. I don’t feel like I’m old enough or weak enough to move ‘down a notch’ just yet. You’ll know in September sometime if I’ve made a fatal mistake once again.

If there are any Haute Route riders reading, It’d be good to know what you’ve got planned.

26 thoughts on “Haute Route Gearing – Bigger Better?

  1. I have not done a HR, but i have done a cent cols challenge. I chose a compact up front and an 11-32 at the back for the pyrenees. Absolutely no regrets. I have always been fastest on the flats and i dont miss anything with this setup.

    Good luck with your HR!


  2. I typically use 52-36 with 11-25 in the Alps, but I have a pretty low cadence compared to most of the other cyclists in the race. For stages like a ventoux or anything with sustained sections of 10% or more I do prefer the 11-28 then. That said, my recommendation to most doing an Haute Route for the first time is definitely go as small as possible, so compact with 11-30 or 11-32. I would not go smaller than a 50-11 for the biggest gear.

    • Noticed that cadence in March! I actually have a client who might possibly have a lower one than even you – he seems to refuse to leave his big ring.

      Will you run an 11-28 in the Pyrenees or go with the 25?

  3. Interesting topic. On my first HR in 2013 I was running 50/34 to 11-29. Worked fine and was happy with it. On my latest HR in 2018 was running the same gears, and felt like I had the lowest cadence in the group, and was suffering. My weight was the same, fit better and I believe I have become faster.

    So it must be about what your ratio is relative to riders around you.

    • I feel like I’ve replied to you already, Olli, but it has disappeared! What you bring up is a good point all around, I think. It’s hard to compare one HR with another in many respects. I wonder, for example, if the field is getting stronger over the years? This would make sense, given the seriousness more and more people attached to training.

  4. I’d never heard of a 46/32 before. Interesting. I may have opted for that one in 2013. Or maybe even electric! 😎. I think my cassette was a 12-32 when I did HR and it could have been at times a bit better. By the way, with you spending so much time in Ventoux, there was(is?) a great little 11 bedroom place at the base of Ventoux in Sault (the easier way up) for sale. Perfect for cyclists.

    • Back then I didn’t even know that 32 was an option. Sort of wish I had…

      Do send that place’s name over if you can. We don’t use that ‘side’ very much, but you never know.

  5. I don’t like anything about that 46/32… that just seems unnatural. I’ve got a 50/34 and 11/28 on the climbing bike and a 52/36 and 11/25 on the fast bike. Both setups are perfect for what I use them for and I wouldn’t change a thing. The 11-25 means I don’t have a hole for the 3-4 tooth jumps at the low end of the 11-28 cassette with the bigger chainrings. I can, almost literally, climb anything with the 50/34 and the 11-28 cassette.

    • Much depends on the rider, obviously, but I’d like to think I could handle a week in the big mountains with 11-28, too. Haute Route is pretty special, though, and your legs are raw after a couple of hard days. I understand the desire for more teeth!

  6. Actually the choices for set up was either a 48/32 or a 46/30. When combined with a 11/28 cassette the 48 gave me only a 4% improvement based on gear ratios, the other option was the 46 which doubled that to about 8%.

    As for the flats, i have another Friend who dug out some bike gear ratio calculations from Machers.net that indicates a loss of 4 kms per hour with a 46 versus a 50 assumming the same cadence. For me it was all about climbing, not too worried about losing 4kms at my age.

    That being said, i’m doing Zone 4 training and not finding it too different on the indoor trainer, haven’t taken it outdoors yet but we will see to that on Friday when i do a Tempo ride.

    • Haute Route is a lot about the climbing, no question. There’s a lot of flat to deal with but it sounds like you won’t run out of gears on that set-up, I guess.

  7. Hey Gerry – this is an interesting discussion. I remember a few times in 2013 talking out our gearing selection. Especially the time trial up the Col de la Bonette. I was running Super Record 50/34 paired with an 11/27 cassette, while you had the 11/25 cassette and wished for a 27 a few times if I remember correctly. In 2016 I used an 11/28 and never saw a hill that needed more than that. I could spin up any hill that year including the time trial up the Col du Galibier, and the long 35km side of the Bonette. I think the 50/34 teamed with an 11/28 or if you really need an emergency gear, 11/30 is more than enough for anyone doing Haute Route.

    As for the 46/30 and 48/32, this gearing is designed specifically for gravel racing; not for the road. In Haute Route, you will only end up watching the back sides of the peloton leaving you in their dust as you spin out of your gears while they cruse along at 40-55 km/hr on the flats or between cols, or as they transition into racing from the neutralized starts. I remember riding stage one in 2013 just after the first timing mat when everyone was jacked up and ready to race, and we were climbing a gentle 3-4% grade at over 40km/hr and thought to myself this can’t last for long and for the next 45 minutes the pace didn’t slow down until we hit the first col, and then it got hard.

    Haute Route can be a very lonely 7 days of racing if you can’t keep up during the flats because of a bad gearing selection.

    • I did wish for that 27 – or even more – all through that week. The last 1.5 km of the Bonette was excruciating. If I finally get down to under 70 kg I’m sure the 29 will be enough to get me through this time. The Pyrenees this year doesn’t look as hard on paper, either.

      As for the sub-compact, I think I agree. I was just descending a gentle false flat last week and was rolling over 45 kph by myself (pedaling). That’s much more pronounced in a group.

  8. In 2016 on the Queen stage, when the racing started at the bottom of the Telegraph after the neutralised start, the peloton was rolling at 55-60 km/hr down the gentle 1-2% grade for about 35 kms before we got to the bottom of Lacets de Montvernier. I was almost spinning out of my 50/11 just to maintain pace with the group. I think if you use an 11/29 cassette paired with 50/34 compact chain rings you will have great gearing for anything the Pyrenees can throw at you.

    As for the weight thing. I’m currently stuck at 72kgs. I think as we age, the weight reduction practices we used when we were younger aren’t as effective. I’m not sure why this is such a surprise, given we all change physiologically as we age, so why shouldn’t we alter our diets to match these changes. Also, I don’t have the fear of an upcoming Haute Route as motivation to say no my cravings. That said, one thing I know for sure, beer and wine don’t help….. 🙂

    Enjoy the Ride…..

    • Guys guys guys, it’s not your weight, it’s your watts per kilo. Suspect most of fall in the 3,5-4 category here (me being around 3,5 when in shape).

      With that background – I’m sure most of us are fine with 50/34 – 11-28 on both climbs and flat. For the 4+ watts folks 52/36 will make you faster on the downhills – which have never been an issue for me and my 90 some kilos 🙂

      Someone mentioned a emergency gear. Don’t really get the concept, but if there is a place for them, it’ll definetly be the Pyrenees and the fluctuating percentages. Not so much in the alps.

      • You’re right, it’s not your weight, but losing 5 kg might be a more efficient way to go faster than gaining 50 watts 😉 Then again, this year it’s not working as well as in the past for me. Maybe I need to up the watts!

        Agreed on the gearing, at least for me and the average Mamil. In my business, however, I see plenty of people just going for the biggest ring they can get on the back ‘because they can’. I think this is a slippery slope.

        Are you doing HR this year, by the way?

        • Right now I feel that 5 HR’s is enough for me. I’m more into sleeping until 7 am and having an espresso with my lunch, which is not gel.

      • Yeah, I think we’re saying the same thing. It’s not about weight, but weight has a direct impact on Watts per Kilo. At my current FTP of 303 watts and a weight of 72 kgs, my watts per kilo is 4.2 vs 4.4 when I’m at my race weight of 68 kgs. To be reasonably competitive in races like Haute Route (top 100 overall or top 3 in my over 60 age group) I found I have to be above 4 watts/kilo. The elite guys are well over 5. And to win a Grand Tour, you have to be over an amazing 6 watts per kilo!

        As for emergency gears, I don’t believe in the concept. I’ve seen people struggle in their second to top gear and when asked why aren’t they in their top gear they actually say they keep that one just in case…..crazy.

    • I can remember many times when I ran out of gears on the flat (or slight downhill) in a group. I think that may have happened on the day of the epic descent into Italy in 2013. The road down the Vallée Clarée near the finish in Briancon. Another one was the same valley you are talking about but further up, before the Télégraphe. Plenty of places to run out of gears.

      • I used my old Road bike for this weekend which was relatively flat with a 50/34. I didn’t want to take a chance with my good bike as it was mostly work related with a handle bar first aid kit.

        To early to tell but so far but the new gearing is working out well. Climbs are definately a big improvement with more choice to run cadence on 6% grade over 80. I’ve always had a hard time getting cadence over 80. My Tempo ride last Friday was consistent with past tempo rides. Still getting a feel for it but you never know, may switch vack or bring both to HR. 😁

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