42.21 by Tom Southam

Forty-three nineteen. Krabbé’s twenty was clean as a whistle.

Tim Krabbé – The Rider


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

One day in March 2005, I was out training with a group of Spanish pros near Madrid. It was a fairly decent group; there was David Plaza, from my team, Pablo Llastras from the team I always think of as Banesto even though it hasn’t been Banesto since 2003, and the great Pavel Tonkov.


It’s always cool to be riding with senior professionals when you are a young pro. But while most guys are just pros – no different to yourself, there are others who you really want to make a good impression in front of.

So when Tonkov first rolled up next to me on one of the longer climbs of the day, I was keen to impress. Here’s the thing about Tonkov though; he isn’t much of a talker, and when he does talk he’s not the easiest person to understand.

Tonkov is Russian and when I met him he’d been living in Spain for a number of years, having spent his racing career riding for Italian teams. As such he didn’t speak either Spanish or Italian but a sort of mixture of the two, which he delivered in a thick Russian accent.

My attempts at small talk therefor soon faded to silence, and I was left to concentrate on cycling. It was then that I noticed that riding next to Pavel Tonkov is a sort of optical illusion.

Judging by my own effort on the climbs, I felt like we were riding pretty fast: my legs were spinning around, and my lungs feeling like they were getting less and less oxygen in them each time I took a breath.

Yet, when I looked across at Tonkov I was shocked to see that he seemed to be barely pedaling. Instead of speeding up a climb he looked more like he was languidly cruising at 12km/h along a flat road. I double checked: my heart rate was climbing, my legs spinning round and my head dipping as my shoulders tensed as if expecting an explosion – all the signs that I was going fast. But then I looked back to Tonkov: his legs slowly turning over, face calm, body settled.

Eventually he must have noticed my befuddlement, as he leant over to me and spoke,

‘Trenta-nove?’ I clearly understood the Italian for the number thirty-nine.

‘Si,’ and then I heard him start to laugh.

’Trenta-nove es para la bambini’

I’d just been told that a 39 tooth inner ring was for babies (in two and a half languages). In response, I asked him what he rode. It turned out that he rode a 42 all year – except for the big mountain stages; he put a 41 on for those... 

I was a little embarrassed, not because I was in a lot more difficulty than my much more accomplished riding companion, but because I had always subscribed to the 42 tooth inner ring. For one reason or another though, I could no longer seem to get them put on my bikes anymore.


It was no use telling Tonkov this - the damage was done; he probably just assumed I was slow and undergeared. Tonkov was part of the old-school, a product of the Eastern Bloc sports system, that churned out champions who were as hard as they came.

Since then though, the idea of anyone running a 42-tooth chainring has become almost a completely forgotten concept. No one rides a 42, and most people seem to think that by riding ‘standard’ (a 39) over any sort of incline they are being really brave. But what happened to change things so radically?

First there were mountain bikes that had tiny gears and triple chainsets, and suddenly there was Lance with the windmill legs flying up Sestrières. Then there were special long rear mechs designed to accommodate super low gears, and suddenly everyone in the world was racing uphill in the smallest gear they could find.

Improvements in technology should rightly get passed down from the pros to the amateurs. Cyclists everywhere buy magazines, and watch tips on Youtube that suggest that they should be using low gears to climb, citing the likes of Contador, or Wiggins, who are regularly seen fitting very low gears for mountain stages, as their examples.

But let’s look at where the professionals race. I nearly wept when I rode up the Zoncolan on a 36.27. I would recommend anyone who has to race over climbs that take over twenty minutes that they do not try an imitate Pavel Tonkov, and they get the lowest gear they need – out of pure necessity. But the truth is the terrain we have in the UK is very different to the Dolomites, or the Alps. 

The fact of the matter is that for so long the 42.21 or 23 (if it was winter) was all you needed.  Before that in fact, riders (like Tim Krabbé) were used to climbing on a 44, or 43 – with a twenty on the back. I’m not trying to be an old-school devotee, or refute change just for the sake of it – a lot of things in cycling have changed for the better. But, I would argue that there is still a case for thinking about the gears that you ride, and a strong case for the 42 to be on more people’s bikes.

Small might seem good because it is currently being sold by bike manufacturers, it might seem acceptable too, because you’ve seen Contador spinning a 34x32 up some impossible gradient in the Dolomites, but is small relevant to you, really?

It might feel comfortable to ride on compact gearing, so you can sit down and twiddle your way slowly up a climb without hurting your legs too much. But the best sensations that I ever had on a bike weren’t about comfort – I can get that in bed, or in my seat in the corner of the pub, the best sensations were when I felt strong, when I felt like the effort I was putting in was directly proportionate to the speed that was coming out. That is exactly what you get from riding a slightly bigger gear, and making an effort.

Pushing a slightly bigger gear might be uncomfortable for a bit, it might take some getting used to – but it’ll make you stronger, and then the enjoyment that you can get out of your bike riding will be even greater.

If you haven’t ridden a 42 for a while that first few times that you drop down into the little ring is an amazing sensation. There is no great drop, no split second of pedaling through air, just a smooth transition and power under your feet.

In a race situation it is sublime: when you crest a climb and the race is strung out and you no longer have to grind your way back into the big ring, losing precious metres getting back up to speed as you do so. 

And even in a non-race situation the 42 is amazing. It is little known mechanical fact that odd numbered chainrings do not roll as well as their even numbered counterparts*. A 39 does not roll well; it is like first gear in a car, you only ever use it to get out of it again as quickly as you can. 

With a 42 there is never a moment of too big or small, there is no state of flux, there is just a little bit of a push needed on the odd steep climb, and the rest of the time you’ll be rolling cool. 

*I could be making that up, but I like to think it is true. 


Tom Southam

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