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.