Gimme the gears

July 17th, 2014

Shifting-GearsTrue confession.

I got my first ‘real’ bike for my 15th birthday: a serpent-green Orions 10-speed. It had sexy drop bars and I loved the colour, but I was  intimidated and confused by the dual shifters. I eventually chose one speed at random and decided that one would do just fine. I rode that bike for close to a decade, and I never learned how to use the gears.

When I started working at the bike store I quickly realized that many folks, especially beginner cyclists, don’t know how bicycle gears work. Most, but not all, are women—I am guessing because often, girls just aren’t taught or expected to understand mechanical things. I’m sure there are also plenty of guys who don’t understand gears, but only the bravest were willing to admit it and let me give them a lesson. I love teaching people how to use the gears on their bikes, and I grin every time I hear someone say wow! when they realize what those gears can do for them.

Why use gears?

Gears are there to make riding easier, not more difficult. If you want difficult, ride a fixie. Analogy for car-drivers: imagine driving your standard-transmission car around all the time in just one gear. It would waste gas and be unpleasant and probably wreck the car, right? Same deal for your bike. Gears make you and your bike happy.

But seriously, you say…27 gears?! Who needs that many speeds?! You do. And here is why: the more speeds you have, the more fluid and subtle your shifting will be. Instead of going thunk-thunk-thunk, your gears will go click-click-click-purrrrrrrrrr. It will feel good. And you will be able to ride with much less effort, because you can spin easily (if slowly) up steep hills, and get just enough satisfying resistance on the downhill swoop to motor you most of the way up the next hill. Gears are for lazy people, and when you learn how to use them, you will get way more mileage out of every cinnamon bun you feed into your engine.

So how do you use all those gears?

The most important thing, as my friend Ben West always says, is don’t overthink it. There are all those numbers and all that math, and there’s upshifting and downshifting and low gears and high gears and hands and sprockets and…STOP THINKING ABOUT IT! You will only make yourself crazy, and possibly fall off your bike while trying to scribble calculations while riding. I’m going to use that car analogy again (even though i don’t actually drive standard but i think this is how it works): you don’t need to think every time you change gears. You will feel the gravitational shift in your body, and sense the response of the machine. Use the Force, Luke. Stop thinking and just ride.

So first, try not thinking about it. Don’t look at your feet. Take the bike up and down a few hills and see what happens when you shift your right (rear) shifter, and your left (front) shifter. If you shift the wrong direction you’ll know it right away, and you’ll shift it back. Ah ha! Amazing.

But if you really want to know (and I know you do): here is how it works.

Your left shifter moves the chain over the cogs (or ‘chain rings’) on the front wheel. You probably have 2 or 3 of those. This is your ‘gross’ adjustment, and within each of the 2/3 gears on the front, you have a range of more fine adjustments that can be made on the rear.

Your right shifter moves the chain over the cogs on the rear wheel. You probably have 7 or 8 or 9 cogs (or ‘speeds’) there, and these allow you to fine-tune the gearing so you are running at perfect effort and efficiency.

Here’s the geeky math part. What gear you are ‘in’ is determined by the combination of front and rear gears. if you are in ’1′ (lowest/easiest) gear on the front, and ’1′ (lowest/easiest) gear on the back, 1×1=1 (wow) so you are in … yes, class, first gear. This would be the lowest, i.e., the one you want to ride up a steep hill. At this point, your chain is snug up on the innermost chainrings on your bike. If you are in ’3′ (highest/hardest) gear on the front, and ’9′ (highest/hardest) gear on the back, 3×9=27 so you are in 27th gear —the one you would want to fly down a big hill. At this point, your chain is snug up on the outermost chainrings on your bike.

So what gear should I be in?

The way to know what gear you should be in in any given moment, is simply to feel it in your body—which you will learn with practice. But the next obvious question is, so, how do I know when to switch the front and when to switch the back? A good question, and that is a little tougher to explain.

There is actually no hard-and-fast rule for how and when to shift gears. You definitely want to avoid what is called ‘cross-chaining’, which is when you are on the easiest gear in front and hardest gear in back, or vise versa. When you cross-chain you are stretching the chain diagonally which is hard on chain and gears, and your bike will make an ugly ratcheting noise, and sometimes the chain will jump  off the cogs on one end or the other and then you will need to stop and get all greasy putting it back on (another confession: i still do this now and again and get really annoyed at myself). The best way to guard against cross-chaining is to stay attuned to your bike, Luke. The Force. As soon as your chain starts to rattle or strain, flip the left (front) shifter into the next gear.

If you have shifter-indicators, avoid cross-chaining by watching out for ‘duck feet’ or ‘pigeon toes’ – for example: 1 on left and 9 on right is BAD (duck feet). 3 on left and 1 on right is BAD (pigeon-toed). Adjust accordingly.

Whether it is time to shift the right or the left is mostly intuitive, but I just noticed this: when I am making a very fast gear change from a steep downhill to steep uphill, I will shift with both hands at the same time. I want to get from high gear to low gear as fast as possible, to maximize my momentum (and conserve cinnamon bun energy). When the terrain change is more gradual, you will shift more subtly, one hand at a time.

Good gear-shifting is what makes you look and feel like a bike pro. You will sweat less, and get there faster.

Try it. You’ll see.

Its not me. Its the bike.

July 11th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next person who leans out a car window and gushes at me, ‘oh i really admire you it’s so amazing that you ride your bike all over the island‘ is gonna get popped in the head. Listen: Its not me. Its the bike.

I am a five-foot-nuthin 51-yr-old woman. I’m no athlete, and I’m also no masochist. I’m a lazyass. I ride my bike because its fun and because it is easier than walking. Easier?! Yes. Riding a bike is actually supposed to be easy. And here’s another shocker: it’s not supposed to hurt.

Oh, I know. You have a big ol’ clunker of a bike. It has huge chunky tires, it is too big for you, the chain falls off, the tires are half-flat, and it is rusted to shit cuz you left it out in the rain all winter. It sucks to ride, so you don’t ride it. I wouldn’t ride your bike either. My neck and back would hurt, and I would sweat indelicately. Riding that bike would just be way too much work. Given the choice between riding your bike and any other way of getting there, I’d choose the other way. In my case most likely I’d hitch-hike, and you of course would drive your car.

You look at me with grave skepticism. Oh no, you say, a bike is a bike, and I’m just really not much of a bike person. But you, you are a superhero. Oh don’t make me barf. I say again, it’s not you. It’s your bike.

A bike that will be fun and easy to ride will be one that fits you, is in decent working condition, and has its tires fully inflated. That’ll work on the flats. But most importantly, if you want it to be easy to ride up a hill, you will need a good gear range, and you will need to use your gears. That my friends, is the ultimate secret to easy biking: gears. Gears will make it easy (if slow, but what’s the rush?) for you to ride up almost any hill, and they will allow you to continue to gain momentum on the downhill so you can whoosh halfway up the next one. A three-speed (or god forbid a single-speed) is not easier to ride than a 27-speed. It is harder. Gears are for lazy people, like you and me.

So you have a choice. You can smile wistfully and pretend that there is something genetically deficient in your body that makes you unable to locomote on two wheels instead of four. Or, you can lay down a minute amount of cash (in the big scheme of things) for a tuneup, a pair of thinner tires, or a new bike that is capable of getting you around without pain or hardship. You can have a bike that makes you think of excuses to ride it, instead of a bike that makes you think of excuses to not ride it. Any bike you actually ride is a good bike. But even if your bike was cheap or free, a bike you don’t ride is a rotten deal.

You can ride a bike or not ride a bike. I don’t care. Just, when you see me smiling as I spin slow and steady up a hill, don’t get all gushy at me. My bike is doing most of the work. I’m just along for the ride.

My heart is with the starfish

June 29th, 2014

galiano-island-purple-starfishThis is a hard post to write. The starfish are dying. Don’t panic: it is true.

The starfish are dying, right here on pristine Cortes Island. They shrivel and wither, their arms fall off, and then they are dead. They do not leave behind pretty exoskeletons to pick up on the beach and take home as vacation souvenirs. They collapse into bleached and rotting blobs, and then the surf comes and washes them away. There is no dignity in their death. Read the rest of this entry »

Beating Resistance

June 25th, 2014

wallI am locked in a fight with Resistance. She’s been kicking my ass for a while. Resistance lobs grenades at me, mortar shells, spit balls, and mean names. She shows up at my door every evening with a bottle of cheap wine and a stink bomb, hidden in bunch of fake roses. Every day she says: not here. Not now. Not you.

Resistance tells me to relax. Watch a movie. Smoke some weed. Take a day off, take a load off, take a vacation. Take a life off. Resistance whispers in my ear that I am not quite ready to do my life’s Work. Who are you, she says sarcastically, to do this? When I get riled she says hey, hey, don’t take it so personal. You can start your life’s work…tomorrow. Or the next day—I hear the weather’s supposed to be good on Thursday. Or maybe, the day after that. Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling in dreams

June 17th, 2014

fantasies__a_frank_n_furter_fanfic__ch_2_by_mistresstara-d57e4gl.pngBetween the madness of early morning birdsong, the braying of neighbor’s donkeys and peacocks, the pink-gold sunrise streaming through the forest into my bus, and the intermittent hot flashes where I wake all sweaty, mop down get chilly bundle up and go back to sleep — odd and intense dreams keep me entertained. Sleeping in my bus in the forest, my nights are busy.

Roshi Joan said, pay close attention to dreams. Not the content so much. Don’t worry about symbolism or story line. But pay very close attention to what you feel in your dreams. What you feel, and how you respond to that feeling, is the core of the dream and the stuff to bring back to waking life.

I usually don’t bore people by relating my dreams – an activity second only in tedium to detailed descriptions of acid trips — but this one was such a rocker I just gotta. Check it out: Read the rest of this entry »

Carmen changes a tire

May 29th, 2014

bicycle-tire-repair-kit-open_wm_2My sexy Panaracers were looking weary and scarred. Two years of assault by the thorns of New Mexico and the unpaved roads of Cortes Island meant the time had come to get me some new rubber.

Horny Gord at my bike shop recommended a pair of light and sturdy Continental Touring Plus tires. “They’re a little stiff,” he smirked. “Let me know if you have trouble getting them on.” I snorted. I’ve changed a million flats—and in the process, punctured a million tubes and sworn a million very bad words. I’m no mechanic, but my dignity would not permit me to let Horny Gord change my tires.

When I got home I turned the bike upside down, slid out the wheel, and popped in tire lever #1. Easy so far. Tire lever #2 sprang out and hit me in the face, but after fighting with it for awhile, I managed to pry the old tire off the rim. Then things got tricky. The new tire had a tight wire bead and every time I almost got it on, it would stretch tight and pop out the other side. I sweated (between hot flashes) as I tried to wedge it onto the rim. I cursed my ineptitude and typical female lack of training in simple mechanical tasks. I whined. My hands grew grimy and my sight grew dim. I was thinking I had to stop for the night. But then I had an idea: consult the Oracle. Read the rest of this entry »

Abandon hope

April 12th, 2014

1724123160_1385993729Sitting on the cushion, facing the wall. Eight hrs a day for the past four days. I notice that my facial muscles are clenched: tightness at the back of my jaw, tension around my eyes. Try to call up the slight buddha-like smile, thinking it might melt the furrow between my brows. Open mouth wide, crack, release. Think happy thoughts—no, stop thinking! Breathe slower. Watch breath. Relax. IGNORE the tension. Be with it, just be with it (oh shut up). Ouch. Start again… Read the rest of this entry »

Hot hot hot!

March 21st, 2014

menopausal-hot-flashesMy themostat is completely on the fritz. I honestly have no idea any more if it is hot or cold, or just my hormones messing with me again.

I sleep with a bath towel and an extra blanket by my bed. I keep the window open so the dry desert night air cools the room. I wake in a clammy sweat, grab the towel and mop down. Then I quickly get chilled, and wrap up in the extra blanket and down comforter. When I’m warmed up I strip off the blanket and go back to sleep. Read the rest of this entry »


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