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This is a difficult question, and those in need turn to Sheldon Brown who, despite his passing in 2008, is still regarded as the greatest bike mechanic who ever lived.  Sheldon gave us the definitive answer.

This is a difficult question, and those in need turn to Sheldon Brown who, despite his passing in 2008, is still regarded as the greatest bike mechanic who ever lived.

You only need 1 gear

Even a single speed bike will move you faster with less effort than walking – bicycles are efficient machines. Sheldon pointed out that if you come across a hill that’s too steep you could get off and push. So you only need one gear, unless…

You need 2 gears

You might find a single high gear annoying when you want to set off quickly down the shops, and a low gear isn’t any fun when you want to go fast on a flat road. SRAM solved the problem with their Automatix hub range. It has a low gear for setting off which automatically changes to a higher gear when you hit a fast cadence – and because it’s fixie, you get two gears and a brake with no cables.  You only need two gears, unless…

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You need 3 gears

Internal hubs are a practical option for town bikes like Bromptons or the classic Burgers Dutch bike – maybe some of us don’t want to spend our Sunday afternoons covered in grease, cleaning our mountain bike gears. Three gears work nicely – a pulling off gear, a low gear for hills, and a high gear for the flat. So you only need three gears, unless…

Sheldon gave us the definitive answer.

You need 11 gears

Maybe you live in Scotland, or similar environment where there are lots of very steep mountains and no one has bothered to build Alpine roads that zig-zag gradually up the side. If your only options are to take your Santa Cruz Bronson straight up the mountain, you’ll be comfortable with 1×11 gears.   This gives you a choice of 11 very low gears to choose from, depending how steep any bit of that mountain happens to be when you get to it. Going down the mountain just let gravity and the Bronson do their job. You only need 11 gears, unless…

You need 22

Forget off-roading – you’re sticking to the asphalt. You’re taking your Trek Emonda SLR on your bike club’s 50 mile Sunday ride, so you opt for the compact 2 gears at the front, coupled with 11 gears at the back, offering high enough gear ratios that you won’t embarrass yourself in the sprint. But your bike won’t blow you any kisses when you’re dancing on the pedals up a 15% incline.  If you find yourself in crying on a climb…

You need 27

If you’re more concerned with enjoying the view from the saddle than the view from the podium, opt for a triple gear up front and nine gears on the back wheel. It’s a more comfortable ride, but be prepared to spend more time covered in grease carefully cleaning your drive chain.  Maybe you should have opted for that single speed after all.