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Bike Gears – and why you love them

Learn to use your Bike Gears

Remember when you asked your friend, the one that’s really into biking, to explain bike gears?

“Well, there’s high gear,” she calmly began, “and low gear.”
“The front gears, the back . .” she continued, now rising from her chair.
“Hard Gear! Easy Gear! Fast Gear. Slow Gear…”
Was she becoming agitated?
“Large-gear-small-gear… SHIFT DOWN to go UP! Shift UP to go DOWN!”
Samantha please, you’re making a scene.
“CHAINRINGS-DERAILLEURS-AND-COGS!”
OH MY!

Though she was knowledgable (and passionate, apparently), your friend’s explanation did little to help you. When my students ask me to explain gearing, I use a different approach. “Listen to your legs” I say. I want my students, and you, to understand gearing by how it feels.

So let’s put the physics lesson aside and discover how your biking experience will improve when you make friends with your bike gears.

Why you love them
The gears on your bike — that is, the changeable gears on your multi-speed bike — allow you to choose how much pressure it will take to turn the pedals. (Nice!) By using your gears to “dial-in” the perfect match between your body and the road you’re riding, you’ll be able to pedal smoothly and without strain.

Pedaling Iron?
Pedaling against tons of resistance is not the way to become a fitter, stronger rider. Let’s compare a workout at the gym to a ride on your bike — at the gym, you might do 10 reps with a heavy weight. On your bike you’ll do thousands of reps with your pedals. Pedaling against too much resistance will quickly exhaust you and make you sore.

Learn to use your Bike Gears

You’ll do 10 reps at the gym, but 10 thousand reps in the park!

Shift and ride
Using your gears is not a sign of weak character or lack of resolve. Gear shifting is a fundamental biking skill that contributes to improved fitness and years of pain-free riding. Yes, you can ignore your gears. Yes, you can get by shifting only if absolutely necessary. But these are restrictions that will limit your enjoyment of biking, which will in the end, result in less riding.

Sounds good. How do we begin?
For the most part, I’m going to help you figure it out on your own! Start by looking at your bike.

Tour de Bike: Find your shifters
Somewhere on your handlebar is a lever, a twister, or something else that you’ll use to work the gears, probably two of these; one on the left and one on the right. These are your gear shifters. No matter which type of shifter you have, they all do the exact same thing.

Bike Gear Shifters

Gallery of Shifters – Which kind do you have?

Tour de Bike: Find your chain and sprockets
It’s helpful to understand that the shifters on your handlebars are not your gears, just as the switch on the wall is not your light bulb. Look at your bike. See how the bike chain wraps around those toothy sprockets? Those sprockets, the cluster of them on the rear wheel, and the 2 or 3 you’ll find up front by the pedals, all that stuff? THAT’S YOUR GEARS! *

Bike Gears - Front and Back gears

HERE’S YOUR GEARS – So many sprockets to choose from!

Notice how the sprockets range in size from small to large. When you “shift gears”, the bike’s chain “shifts” to a different sprocket. It’s the size of the sprocket that affects how the pedaling feels.

Uhmm, you’re losing me
Sorry, let’s get back to how pedaling a bike feels. Mostly people talk about how hard or easy it is to turn the pedals. But think it through; if it’s harder to turn, or spin the pedals, you’ll spin them at a slower rate. Experienced cyclists focus on this spin rate, called CADENCE. A light, comfortable, and fairly rapid cadence is a great indicator that you’ve selected a “good” gear.

    • If you’re finding it strenuous to turn the pedals, you’re in the wrong gear.
    • If your legs are spinning wildly fast, you’re also in the wrong gear.
    • Shift gears to keep your pedaling light and easy, using neither excessive force nor a wildly rapid cadence.

Let’s see cadence in action . . .
You’re riding along on a gorgeous smooth flat road on a mild spring day. Your pedals are rotating nicely, almost effortlessly at a carefree cadence. Your bike computer tells you you’re doing 15 miles per hour and you think “Boy I love biking.

Then it happens; the terrain changes and you’re climbing a hill. You haven’t read this post, so instead of changing gears, you figure you’ll tough it out and get some real exercise. You push a little harder on the pedals, but the hill is long, your muscles tire, and little-by-little both the bike’s speed and your pedaling cadence slow. The hill gets steeper, (don’t they always?) and now you’re pushing the pedals with all your might. Red-faced, exhausted and barely able to turn the pedals, you dismount and walk up the hill. Later, you notice swelling in your knees and soreness in your legs. “Biking“, you grumble, “is just not my sport.

As you’re walking up that hill, another group of cyclists rides past. They’ve got gears and they know how to use them! They start up the hill, and just as they sense their cadence slowing, they do a gear shift. Their pedaling becomes a little easier and they’re able to maintain their comfortable cadence. Their bikes are going a bit slower, but their legs are doing the same happy work they were doing on the flat. As the hill continues they shift as often as needed, their focus always on their effortless and rapid pedaling cadence. They roll slowly past you and easily clear the crest. You can hear their gears shifting back the other way as they pick up speed on the other side of the hill.

Learn with your legs
You’ve got enough info right now to go out and start experimenting with your gears. Head out to the park and try a few learning exercises with your gears . . .

Get the bike going, then move your shifter a few clicks in one direction and take note of how the pedaling resistance changes. Try shifting in the other direction. How does that feel? Pay particular attention when going up or down hills where the bike is naturally going slower and faster; the effect of choosing the right gear will be easiest to recognize on hills. Note that you have to be turning the pedals while moving the shifters.*

Bike Gears - Gear cluster

When you “shift gears”, the bike’s chain “shifts” to a different sprocket. This chain is on the 3rd from the largest sprocket

Pull over and stop to look down at your bike’s chain and see which sprocket it’s sitting on. Look at both the front and rear gears. Think about the size of the sprocket and how pedaling felt on that sprocket.

Begin to be purposeful in your shifts. “My pedaling is too hard, my cadence too slow. I want to shift to a gear that will make my pedaling lighter, faster”. Change gears as conditions of the ride and the speed of your bike change. Work toward keeping your cadence steady and even, both up and down hills.

Feel free to experiment with both of your shifters; the shifter on the right (to shift the “rear” gears), and the shifter on the left (to shift the “front” gears). They work together to create the full range of options available to you. There’s more to learn about how front and rear gears work together, but for now, I’d like you learn by feel instead of by rules and ratios. If you get out and ride, you’ll discover all the rules. Meanwhile, it’s your bike and you should enjoy it. (Here’s a tip: Listen to your bike; if the chain is making an unholy noise, try shifting to a different gear.)

The rewards can be yours
Changeable gears allow us to scale the task of moving the bike to fit your strength, your stamina, and your ability to spin your legs. Watch the experienced riders in the park; they’re pedaling nicely, rapidly, smoothly. They rarely coast — they pedal up the hills and they pedal down the hills. They’re generally comfortable, sometimes chatting with a buddy. They do several laps and are back the next day for more. They’ve each found the sweet-spot where their personal ability is matched to the task of moving the bike. Yes, they’re very fit people on great bikes, and that accounts for their fabulous speed and momentum. But the rewards of matching the task to our human ability is available to all of us through the use of our gears.

Let me know how it goes!
Lance
Feb 16, 2014
edited May 27, 2015


Ready to learn more? I’ve intentionally kept this post non-technical, there is more to learn. Here are a few links when you’re ready for more:

Start with this VIDEO from Design Squad at PBS-kids

A brief VIDEO from the League of American Bicyclists

Sheldon Brown’s AFRAID TO ASK

A complete and technical treatment on WIKIPEDIA


My intention in this post is to introduce the benefits of changeable-gear bikes to those who have little experience or understanding of gearing on a bike. There are widespread misconceptions (“gearing is for wimps”) and dyslexia-inducing terminology that make the subject off-putting to new ears. I want new riders to first experience the “feel” of changing from one gear to another. Vocabulary, math, and subtleties can come later, after they’ve learned to love riding.

*Most of your bikes will look like these photos; lots of different size sprockets mounted to the rear wheel. These most common systems use a DERAILLEUR to move the chain from one sprocket to another. You may have a different system, such as an internal hub system. If you do, you probably know you do. For your bike, the discussion about sprockets won’t apply. Everything else in this article and the benefits of changeable bike gears is still applicable to you.

About the author

Lance Jacobs

A native New Yorker, biking has been part of my life from my paper route in 5th grade, through my international tours on 4 continents. Now, as a League Certified Instructor (LCI #3507), my focus is on studying and teaching the best way to ride in NYC's unique street environment. I love cycling and I love my city. I believe riding our streets can be stress free when approached with some solid skills, some basic knowledge, and the right frame of mind.

2 comments

  1. Matthew Moritz

    I like the simple, supportive explanation you’ve used without going into the technical details that are fiddly to explain, even to mechanically inclined people. I’ll definitely be cribbing your script.

    One other way I’ve seen of teaching this that eliminates a lot of the fiddly language is to boil it down to “the closer the chain is to the frame, the easier the pedaling gets”. I’m always working that one into my own lessons.

  2. Dave Topham

    Hi Lance —

    Nicely done! Proper shifting techniques are often hard for “newbies” to master so keeping everything as simple as possible is very important. Like you wrote, details might be picked up later — or never even needed. Comparison of gearing to the old high wheelers and details like “F / R x W dia” don’t make pedaling easier or cycling in general more enjoyable. Years ago I learned (and have taught since 1980) to “listen to your legs.”

    A point which even “newbies” can easily understand is that a normal walking cadence of 160 to 180 steps per minute equals 80-90 RPM on the pedals so if you can walk a fair distance there is no reason why you can’t bike easily, cover a lot more distance, and have a good time doing it.

    Keep up your good work — and I will be interested to read new posts on your article.

    Dave Topham, LAB M-LCI # 39

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