I got an Orions 10-speed for my 15th birthday—my first real grown-up bike. It was serpent-green and had curly drop bars. It looked way cool, but I was confused and intimidated by the dual shifters. I fumbled around and eventually chose one speed at random, deciding that one would do just fine. I rode that bike for close to a decade, and I never learned how to properly use the gears. It wasn’t until I got my orange rocket with its sexy old-school Campagnolo downtube shifters that I finally learned how powerful a bicycle could be.
When I started working at the bike shop a couple of years back I was a little shocked to learn that my delayed learning curve was not unusual. Many folks, beginner cyclists in particular but even some long-time riders, don’t know how bike gears work. Most, but not all, are women—I am guessing because frequently, we just aren’t taught or expected to understand mechanical things, and are conditioned to be intimidated by them. (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 it makes my day to hear someone say wow! when they realize how those confounding gears can ease their riding experience.
Why use gears?
Gears are there to make riding easier, not more difficult. If you want your ride to be 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 feel awful and probably wreck the car, right? Same deal for your bike. Skilful gearing will make you and your bicycle happy.
But seriously, you say…27 gears?! Who needs that many speeds?! You do. And here is why: the more speeds you have, the smaller the increments between speeds are, and the more fluid and subtle your shifting will be. Instead of going chunka-chunka-chunk, your gears will go click-click-click-purrrrrrrrrr. It will feel sweet as butter, and you will be able to ride with much less effort because you will spin easily (if slowly) up steep hills, and find just enough satisfying resistance on the downhill swoop to motor you most of the way up the next hill. When you learn how to use them you will get way more mileage out of every cinnamon bun you feed into your engine, which in turn will make the ride to the bakery that much more fun. Gears are not hard, and you don’t need to be an engineer to use them. Gears are for lazy people, like you and me.
How do you use all those gears?
The most important thing to know about shifting gears is, don’t overthink it. There are all those numbers, all that upshifting and downshifting and low gears and high gears and hands and sprockets and…STOP THINKING ABOUT IT! The math will make you dizzy and all that calculating can make you fall off your bike. I’m going to use that car analogy again (even though i don’t actually know how drive standard but i think this is how it works): you don’t need to stop and calculate the grade every time you change gears in a car, right? You simply feel the gravitational shift in your body, sense the response of the machine, and adjust accordingly. Use the Force, Luke. Stop thinking and ride.
So first, do that: try not thinking about it (typical annoying advice from a zennie). Look up at the cherry blossoms, NOT down at your feet. Ride the bike up and down a few hills and experiment—see what happens when you shift your right (rear) shifter, and your left (front) shifter. If you shift in the wrong direction you’ll know it right away, and you’ll shift it back the right way. Ah ha! You’re doing it. 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 on your bike. This is your ‘gross’ adjustment. Within each of the 2/3 gears on the front, you have a range of fine adjustments that can be made on the rear cogset.
Your right shifter moves the chain over the cogs on the rear wheel (remember R for Right and Rear). You probably have 7 or 8 or 9 cogs (or ‘speeds’) on the back, and these allow you to fine-tune the gearing so you are running at perfect effort and efficiency. The more speeds you have on the rear wheel, the more subtle and fluid your shifting will be.
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 gear, i.e., the one you need to ride up a steep hill. At this point, your chain is pulled in onto 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 will need to fly down that big hill with bugs in your teeth. At this point, your chain will be out on the outermost chainrings on your bike.
Your shifters should switch easily. If they don’t, your derailleurs (the parts that physically move the chain) may need adjustment, or your gear cables may need lube or replacement. If you have to strain to change gears, it is time for a chat with your friendly local bike mechanic.
How do I know what gear I should be in?
As I’ve already yammered on about, the way to know what gear you should be in in any given moment, is simply to feel it in your body (in other words, achieve a state of Oneness with your bicycle). With practice, that will come. But the next obvious question is, ok so, how do I know when to switch the front and when to switch the back? That’s a good question, and a little tougher to explain.
While there is actually no hard-and-fast rule for how and when to shift gears, you will want to avoid what is called cross-chaining. Cross-chaining 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 puts a strain on the chain and the gears. Your bike will make an ugly ratcheting noise, and sometimes the chain will jump right off the cogs on one end or the other and then you will have to stop and get all greasy and say lots of spicy words while putting it back on (i still manage to do this now and again and get really annoyed at myself). The best way to guard against cross-chaining is, of course, to stay attuned to your bike, Luke. Remember the Force. The moment you feel your chain starting to rattle, scrape, or strain, flip the left (front) shifter into the next major gear.
If you have shifter-indicators, you can 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 when I am making a very fast gear change from a steep downhill to steep uphill, I tend to shift with both hands at the same time, moving quickly through the gear range. I want to get from high gear to low gear as fast as possible, to maximize my momentum and conserve that cinnamon bun energy. When the terrain change is more gradual, you will want to shift more subtly, one hand at a time.
So once again, I harangue—don’t think about it too much. Just give those gears a shift. Once you get comfortable with your shifting you will be able to go faster and arrive at the opera on time, without unsightly sweat stains on your cummerbund. Skilful gear-shifting is what will make you look and feel like a bike pro.