Most road bikes these days at the entry level point are fitted with 8 speed drivetrains. This is nothing new of course as they’ve been around for a while in various guises – most commonly Shimano 2300, now on newer bikes replaced by the Claris groupset.
So look at the most common entry level road bikes and what they’re equipped with. The ‘big three’ brands all have 8 speed components on their lower end road bikes. Now when I mean lower end, I don’t mean price – because one of these beauties will set you back somewhere in the €600-800 range. As well as that there is a proliferation of cheap and nasty 7 speed ‘road’ bikes out there, or bike-shaped-objects as we call them, which pricewise are cheap, but to be avoided at all costs.
So why is it a curse. It’s simple – apart from if you live in a completely flat country (which fortunately we don’t), 8 speed equipped road bikes are in my view not suitable for beginners, and it’s down to gearing, and specifically the jumps between gears. This is fairly ironic as this is the market that these bikes are aimed at. Actually it’s completely backwards and I’ll explain why.
As any experienced cyclist will tell you, shifting on a 10 speed is always smoother than 9 speed, and 11 speed smoother than 10. For the uninitiated, the gearing is controlled by the sprocket on the back, or cassette to use the technical term. It’s smoother with more gears because the gaps between gears are smaller making the transition from gear to gear better. So take for example climbing a decent hill, nothing too steep but a good drag. You want to work up through the gears nice and smoothly, with even steps. Easily done on a 9/10/11 speed. Not so easy on an 8 speed, especially at the top end. To make matters worse, on these ‘beginner friendly’ bikes, commonly the manufacturers use an 11-32 cassette, which is fine in that you have a nice low gear in the 32 , but have a big gap (4 teeth) between it and the next gear. This is a killer for beginners.
Now bear with me while I get a little more technical. Take a look at these common cassettes. The numbers refer to the number of teeth. The smaller the gaps the better/easier:
8 speed: 11-13-15-18-21-24-28-32
9 speed: 12-13-14-15-17-19-21-24-27
10 speed: 12-13-14-15-17-19-21-23-25-28
11 speed: 11-12-13-14-15-17-19-21-23-25-28
Here’s an analogy. Imagine walking up a long set of stairs. At the start the steps are nice and evenly spaced, short steps. No problem. But as you get to the top and you start tiring, the steps are now much more widely spaced, you have to jump three before you get to the top.. That’s what riding an eight speed is like. If you want a set of steps that are nice and even all the way then go for a 10 speed, 11 speed if you can afford it and 9 speed at the least.
A couple of years ago I actually bought an 8 speed bike. I was working abroad and just wanted something cheap and cheerful to train on. I nearly lost the will to live! Definitely wasn’t feeling the love, that’s for sure. For a while I couldn’t figure out why – but soon enough I figured it was that pesky 8 gear setup..
My buying advice: if you’re just starting out, avoid the 8 speed bikes. Especially if you’re living somewhere hilly, riding an 8 speed will just turn you right off! There’s enough value out there in the used market right now to get up and running with a very nice 9 or 10 speed, almost definitely for far less than you’ll pay for a new 8 speed bike.
Don’t fall to the curse of the 8 speed!