Can I manage the Alpes with a 11-28 cassette?

In my previous blog articles, I have talked about my experience of climbing Alpe d’Huez for the first time (here). Back then, I did not really know that much about the science of cycling; I just hired a bike and off I went. However, when coming back to the Alps two years later with my own bike, I realized the difference between an 11-28 cassette and an 11-32 or even an 11-34 cassette. In this blog article, I would like to share this experience with you and give you my recommendations for your next cycling trip to the mountains.

My body – a good Power-to-Weight ratio for climbing

To start, I would like to share some details about myself. I am 185cm tall and weighed 72kg at the time of writing. I have an irregular training schedule as I enjoy playing various sports such as football and volleyball, in addition to cycling. As a result, my preparation for the trip to the French Alps consisted of only 50km of flat cycling once a week, which is not sufficient for the demands of the Alps. However, my low weight gives me some confidence. I have been the proud owner of a road bike for two years now. I purchased a used BH road bike, which is not exceptional but came equipped with an 11-28 cassette. At the time of purchase, I was not familiar with cassettes and did not give it much thought. The cassette has been sufficient for flatter or hilly terrain, and I did not realize the limitations until I reached the French Alps.

It gets tough once you reach the mountains

A 28 cassette only becomes problematic when you reach mountainous terrain. Once you hit the climb and you are slowly clicking down the gears as you are losing your momentum, you quickly reach your 28 ring. That’s it, you cannot go down any lower. While with my power-to-weight ratio this seems to be just fine for gradients up to roughly 7%, but once it gets steeper, the grind starts. Climbing the iconic Tour de France climbs such as the Col du Galibier, Croix de Fer, or Alpe d’Huez, you will always face an average gradient of 7-8%. So it seems fine on paper, but actually, it is not! Those average gradients of a mountain can be very deceiving, as there are often flatter sections in between those climbs, reducing the average gradient significantly. Most notably, this is the case for the Croix de Fer, which has a long descent in between, making the climb an average of 5% on paper! When I rode it the first time and did not check the altitude profile, I thought this is going to be a relaxed day out. Quickly did I realize that only those descents brought down the gradient of those climbs, and actually, you find long and hard steeper sections. By steep, I mean average gradients of more than 9% for longer than one kilometer! And those are the times where you wish for a lower gear and an 11-32 cassette. While the other climbers are spinning seemingly effortlessly their way up the climb, you will have to compensate a lot with power.


Your pulse will not be the problem, your muscles will be

I noticed that when I spin twice, people with a larger cassette can spin three times; that is how much difference the four additional teeth can make, which I find fascinating. A bigger cassette is, therefore, really important in the Alps. When I told the locals I am riding with a 28 cassette, they looked at me in disbelief, as hardly anyone does not have at least a 32 cassette. But as always in life, you can achieve everything if you just grind hard enough. I managed to ride La Marmotte with this bike, tackling the Col du Glandon, Col du Galibier via the Télégraphe (from the hard side), and Alpe d’Huez, which are more than 5000 altitude meters in one day. Even though Alpe d’Huez at the end was really hard and I was out of juice, your willpower can carry you everywhere. My girlfriend, who has a worse power-to-weight ratio than me and hardly trained before going to the Alps, has managed some climbs with an 11-28 cassette. The main problem she has been facing, and also I have, is the power in your legs fading away quickly. It is not your pulse that is going crazy; you just will not have the power to keep spinning anymore. Therefore, my girlfriend needs to take some more breaks for her muscles to recover. So as you see, it is possible to do it, but you will face the problems of your muscles crashing eventually, even though your pulse is still absolutely fine.

Get the right casette before you buy the bike

So, should you get your bike changed before you go there? As always, the answer is “it depends”! I have inquired about getting it changed, but since the derailleur and other parts would also have to be switched, it would not be a quick fix. Bike shops gave me an estimate of around 300€, which I definitely found too much. I guess it depends on how serious and competitive you want to be. For instance, I ride without any Strava and just enjoy the surroundings. I could probably go up faster with the right gears, but since I do not care too much about my climbing time, it really does not matter that much to me. But this might be different for you! Therefore, when buying a bike you would like to take to the mountains, it is worth inquiring about the cassette beforehand and potentially getting a 32 cassette fixed on the bike from day one.

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If you have any questions, then let me know. And should you want to feel like a Tour de France rider and ride some stages of the Tour de France, then check out our offer here.