Does Bike Cassette Speed Actually Matter! 9 VS 10 VS 11 Speed & Cost To Upgrade?


Welcome to the world of gears! Cassettes, drivetrains, ratios; confused? Fear not, In this article we look to clear the murky water and find out which is the best option for triathletes out there.

Specifically, we will look at which is better for triathletes; 9-speed, 10-speed, or 11-speed?

An 11-speed cassette will have finer increments from one gear to the next, whereas with a 9-speed cassette those increments will be larger. For triathletes, having a consistent cadence is an important consideration and the 11-speed cassette will make this consistency easier to achieve. However, there are other considerations such as compatibility and price.

On a side note, do not waste your money on useless gear purchases and check out my Best Triathlon Battle-Tested Budgeting Gear

How Do You Know What Cassette You Are Using Now?

The easiest way to know which cassette you are using is to go and count how many disks there are. Typically you will have either 9, 10, or 11 of these. This will relate to the number of times you can shift the rear gears on your bike.

When we talk about the cassette, we are referring to the part of the bike that is attached to the rear axel that the chain wraps around. It is a set of stacked disks with ‘teeth’ cut into them.

Are 11-Speed Cassettes Faster?

11-speed cassettes are absolutely not faster than 9-speed cassettes. The factor that determines the speed of your bike is you; the rider. Putting an 11-speed cassette on your bike will not magically produce more speed. It will, however, allow you to find the correct gear more easily.

What Is The Advantage Of A Higher Speed Cassette?

Having a consistent cadence is the aim of any cyclist, regardless of the undulations in the terrain. Although the most comfortable and efficient cadence will change from rider to rider, most non-professional cyclists will aim for a cadence of around 90 rpm (source).

This means that if you are on the flats then you want to be in a gear that allows for that 90 rpm, when you come to a climb you need to shift into a gear that allows that same 90 rpm albeit at a slower speed.

Likewise, as you hit the slopes and start going downhill, you want to have a gear that is big enough to allow you to remain at that 90 rpm.

The advantage of a higher-speed cassette is that there are more options of gears, so you are more easily able to find the gear that allows for your target 90 rpm.

If you have a 9-speed cassette then the gap between gears is larger so you are more likely to find yourself in a gear that is either too hard or too easy, with nothing in between to choose from.

9-Speed, 10-Speed Or 11-Speed; Which Is Better?

Obviously, having more gear options is advantageous. It is a frustrating feeling when you begin to spin out too quickly and then when you change gears you find that you are having to put far too many watts through the pedals to reach your ideal cadence. From this point of view, the 11-speed cassette will give you more options.

Another benefit is that the increments between the gears is smaller which allows for smoother transitions between gears and a more comfortable ride.

Whether you will notice these differences is arguable. If you are moving from a 9-speed to an 11-speed then you will likely notice the increase in options, however, the biggest difference you will notice is in cost.

Will A 11-Speed Cassette Help Me Climb Hills More Easily?

It would be fair to assume that having an extra gear will help you to climb hills more easily but it is actually the number of teeth that make the difference. The lower number of teeth on the chainrings gives an easier gear, while the higher number of teeth on the cassette gives an easier gear.

When climbing steep hills you want the matching of a low number of teeth on the chainring and a high number of teeth on the cassette.

You will know this from experience yourself. This shows us that is it not the number of gears that is the determiner of how ‘easy’ it will be to climb a hill, but rather the number of teeth provided on chainset and cassette.

Also if you are looking for an easier climb, check out our post on How Much Should A Road And TT Triathlon Bike Weigh? Does It Even Matter!

Cost Differences Between 9-Speed, 10-Speed And 11-Speed Cassettes

The price of a 10-speed cassette is around 30 % more than the 9-speed Cassettes and 22% more moving up from 10-speed to 11-speed Cassettes, costing 70 USD for 9-speed, 92 USD for the 10-speed and 112 USD for the 11-speed cassettes.

The biggest difference you will likely notice between different cassettes is in the price. Below are the costs of the various options:

CassetteCost
ULTEGRA 9-speed CS-6500 12-27 Cassette$70
ULTEGRA CS-6700 10-speed Cassette$92
ULTEGRA CS-R8000 11-speed Cassette$112
Cost comparison of 9 Vs 10 Vs 11 Speed Bike Cassettes

While the difference between the 9-speed and the 11-speed of $42 does not look like a lot on the surface, bear in mind that not all components are compatible across these options. It is not a simple case of taking your 9-speed set up and replacing the cassette with a 11 speed one.

You also need to consider the chain size, the shifters, the derailleurs, and the fact that you may not even be able to fit a 11-speed cassette into a frame meant for a 9-speed cassette.

To give you an idea take a good look at the cost difference once you factor in the possible changes that you would need to make:

Bike ComponentShimano 9-speed
Cost (USD)
Shimano 10-speed
Cost (USD)
Shimano 11-speed
Cost (USD)
Cassette$70$92$112
Crankset$76$100$246
Rear Derailleur$35$50$100
Gear Shift Levers$165$407$460
Chain$23$35$36
Total$369$684$954
Cost Comparision of the complete 9,10 & 11 speed Bike Cassettes component set

This should also highlight the fact that if you need to replace any parts, it will be a lot more costly if you have an 11-speed setup rather than a 10-speed setup.

This is something to factor in when looking at your options.

If you are interested in reading more about how much bike components should cost and weigh, then check out our article: How Much Should Road And Tri Bikes Components Cost And Weigh? How Do They Differ !

Do They Use Different Chains?

Shimano provides different chains for 9-speed, 10-speed, and 11-speed. The reason for this is that the 9-speed chain is thicker than a 10-speed or 11-speed. So if you try to use it on a cassette it was not designed for, then it may cause rubbing or skip gears.

The same goes for the 10 vs 11-speed. Although you may see posts saying it is fine to use them interchangeably, they are slightly different widths, the 11-speed’s chain width is 5.62 mm while the 10-speed chain’s width is 5.88 mm (source).

The difference is slight, so you may well get away with it but if you want your drive chain to work in the manner it was intended then it is recommended to use the intended chain.

What Is The Best Setup For Me?

As we can see, it is not necessarily the number of gears that is the biggest factor in identifying the best setup, but rather the gearing system as a whole.

Below is a guide that you can use to determine which setup is best for you, based on your ability and the type of course you are looking to tackle; be that a hilly course or a flatter course:

Bike ComponentBeginner – Intermediate
Cyclist
Advanced
Cyclist
Front ChainringStandard Course 50/34 compact   52/36 “super compact”
Rear CassetteStandard Course 12/28 11/23 or 11/25
Front ChainringHilly Course 50/34 compact   52/36 “super compact”
Rear Cassette Hilly Course 11/30 or 11/32 11/28
Best Bike Chain & Chassett Sizes for all cyclist levels (Source)

For a more detailed look at gear ratios, check out the video below:

 Final Thoughts

As triathletes, we want to be as efficient as possible on the bike so that we can have the energy left for a strong run. One of the key factors in this is to keep a consistent cadence, whether going uphill or on the flats.

In order to do this, you need to be in the right gear. Having more gears to choose from means you are more able to stay at your ideal cadence. This means that an 11-speed setup is the best bet if you can afford it. Just remember that spare parts will be more expensive than on a 10-speed setup.

The other thing to consider for your setup is the number of teeth on the cassette you opt for, as this will be influenced by the type of course you most often cycle.

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