By Tom Southam
The other day I finally did something I should have done a long time ago. I put (or rather Andy, our team mechanic, put) a 42 tooth chainring back on my bike. After an absence of what seems like almost forever (9 years in fact) I feel truly reunited with a great friend.
I can remember the moment that I had to concede defeat and begin my long and painful separation from the 42 tooth inner ring. When, after many successful years in the youth category happily and smoothly turning a 42 over, (firstly as my big ring as an under 14 when the maximum gear was 42×12, then as an inner ring when I went up to 50×15 in under 16 and on to 52×14 as a Junior) I moved into the senior ranks and onto the World Class Performance Plan and was told I would have a 53/39 on my Trek.
I’m not an Old-School devotee or anything like that; there are few bits of kit I really hanker after on a bike. I think bikes have to be a bit fluid to work really well, as in you should be able to change them around to suit what you are doing and where you are. Nothing is really ruled out (except Oli Beckinsale’s mud guards, which frankly bring the tone right down in training). I would say though, for what I, a British-based Elite rider does, the 42 inner-ring is just perfection.
I learnt quickly while I was racing pro in Italy that there are no real hilly races in the U.K. and when and if we do ever go up what might be called a hill, we didn’t actually race up them. The hills here just aren’t long enough for anything more than a quick sprint up to the top. A 39 is great when you have to sit down and tap out a rhythm for 40 minutes, or when you have to haul yourself up the Mortirolo and still have something left in the legs to race the next day. But let’s be honest, we here in the UK are mostly better off having a bit of something to lean on.
That is exactly what I found when I put the 42 to use last week. While others would drop down into the 39 for the incessant drags and sharp kicks the Bretons liked to litter the finish circuits with, I’d see their bodies flop down as the huge drop from the 53 to the 39 scuppered their stance and strength. Then, as we crested the drag, they would twist and bow uncomfortably in their seats as they twiddled their gears around before eventually caving in and losing the wheel in front in a desperate scramble for the big ring.
I, however, would calmly slip from the 53 to the 42 barely noticing the difference between ratios, allowing me to maintain my regal air of cool while powering past the little men. Then, as we would crest the drag and the attacks would stretch out the line, I could quite happily remain smoothly turning the 42 over the top of the hill and even down the other side. I didn’t have to drop a wheel, I never felt under or over geared.
I was totally calm as I had lost my inner ring fear. It might be odd but I often worry that by being in the little ring I am exposed to being smashed by someone who just stomps by in a bigger gear. It just doesn’t seem like you can do anything in a 39 apart from go up very steep hills or spin around on a recovery day. Having a 42, however, empowers you: There is no hill I race up or train up that you can’t get up really on a 42, and if there was such a hill I wouldn’t be near the front end of the race anyhow.
It is also, as I discovered today to my pleasure, an ideal gear in which to roll around the Mendips on for three hours. Even on my recovery days I get pretty sick of trying to go about on the 39. It feels like I am having to pedal too fast and am in danger of falling forwards off the front of my bike, as one does when their chain slips right off. It’s just not comfortable to roll, whereas the 42 does just that: On the flat, over drags, even if it needs to be leant on a few times on the climbs, it is still a generally more pleasing sensation than twiddling about, going nowhere or knowing you are wearing the pins out more than necessary in the 53.
Nowadays though the 42 is hard to come by, and when you do put one on it looks enormous. But I like that a lot, as I am sure it scares the weaker people, and that’s half the battle won right there.