Dr Hutch: Who cares how many sprockets you’ve got

"Like most bike riders, he thinks the God-given number of gears for a bicycle was the number pertaining when he got his first grown-up bike"

I was out for a ride with my friend Bernard last week. There haven’t been as many of these of late, partly because it’s been cold, and partly because I’m trying to train for a marathon.

Last time I ran a marathon I developed a theory (admittedly without much evidence) that you could train for running by going cycling. It turned out that you couldn’t. So this year I’ve backed off the biking a bit and done more running.

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This means that I can’t physically lord it over Bernard in the way we both enjoy. I have to provide distractions, to prevent him noticing this.

“Sorry,” I said, “I’m exhausted — I was up all night celebrating.”

“Not like you,” he said.

“Celebrating what?”

“You didn’t hear? Campag has patented 12-speed gears! We are finally going to get another sprocket.”

There was a prickly pause. “You’re deliberately trying to vex me,” he said.

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He was 100 per cent right. Never mind 12-speed, Bernard couldn’t see why we needed 11-speed. Or 10, or nine, or eight. Like most bike riders, he thinks the God-given number of gears for a bicycle was the number pertaining when he got his first grown-up bike.

“I know,” I said, “you’re going to tell me we never needed more than seven.”

“Riders today don’t develop the proper technique,” he said. “They lose touch with basic skills.”

“Skills such as?”

“If you grew up on seven-speed at least you knew how to walk up a steep hill in cleats,” he said.

For myself, I’m not quite as reactionary as my friend. I appreciate the efforts to which the component manufacturers are going to keep pace with my declining abilities.

Thanks to the continuing drip-drip of extra sprocketage, my climbing feels much the same as it has always done, just as long as I don’t cross-reference my sprightly cadence with speed, power or youngsters.

I like to think that the only thing preventing the advances up to this point was an understandable concern that I’d break the thinner chain required. That danger is safely behind us now. As I decline further we can all can look forward to 13, 14 and 15-speed.

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(Though 13-speed won’t make any difference, since the pros will decide it’s unlucky to use that 13th sprocket, and we’ll all copy them to show what a deep respect for cycling traditions we have.)

Best of all, more sprockets mean that people don’t talk about their bloody gearing set-ups any more. “Well, I’ve decided to run 12-19 straight.”

“19 bottom? Wow. I thought I’d need the 21.”

“I’ve gone up to 23, but I’ve taken out the 16.”

And so on. It was interminable. When I get to hell it’s going to be bike riders talking gearing.

The only refuge from it was swapping cassettes around in car parks before races, something that you could always enliven by dropping them, so that the sprockets and spacers scattered in all directions, invariably including rolling under a parked car.

I’m not an unequivocal fan. But the doubts I have are not quite as principled as Bernard’s. My concern is not with newcomers and their defective skill-sets, but with old-comers and their garages full of kit, all of which is about to get a whole sprocket further away from the day it was wheeled proudly out of a bike shop.

I doubt I’ll upgrade everything when 12-speed arrives. Once, I’d have felt I had to, for the “performance benefit” and the fashion. But these days I do most of my riding in Cambridgeshire, so I only really need two sprockets — one for upwind and one for downwind. The rest are just there to drip road grime onto the carpet when I get home.

But it’s progress. And it’s the best sort — it’s progress I can ignore, but which will annoy Bernard all the same.