My car has five gears. The first bike I ever had only had the one gear and I thought that all my Christmases had come at once when I got a bike with three gears on it in my early teens. So what on earth is going on with having a road bike with maybe 20 or 30 gears!?
It’s often the first thing that people ask when they find out that I have a “proper” bike. “Ooooo, how many gears has it got then?” Obviously, when I say that it has (in theory at least) 27 gears they seem to think that it must be fast because of the number of gears it has. Obviously, the bike is fast because it’s ridden by super athletic, muscle honed me (ha,ha I wish!) but the number of gears doesn’t make the bike actually go any faster. It just potentially makes it more efficient.
What are Chainsets and Cassettes?
I thought a cassette was a 1980’s tape that you used to record soppy song mixes onto as a moody teenager to give as romantic presents to girls. Surely that wasn’t just me? Well, it turns out that, in the road cycling world, the cassette is basically a posh name for the cogs (dammit! Sorry, sprockets!) on the back wheel. The cassette can have up to 11 sprockets on it with varying numbers of teeth.
Now, this is where it gets interesting if you are a geek and mind numbingly dull for the rest of us so please fell free to skip on a bit if you wish BUT – the number of teeth on each sprocket will help determine the gear ratios. Commonly sprockets are designed in the range 11-23T to 11-33T. This basically means that there are 11 sprockets and between 23 and 33 teeth on each one. 11-28T is pretty common and offers a good compromise of ratios but essentially the higher the number of teeth the lower the bottom gear will be and the easier the bike will be to cycle up a hill. (This is a GOOD thing!)
The chainset refers to the chain wheels at the front of the bike where the pedals are attached! You can get double chainsets ie with two chain wheels and triple chainsets as well with…..erm…you guessed it – three chain wheels. Again chain wheels can come with different numbers of teeth on them and, rather gloriously, the rule is the other way round from that on the cassette in that the fewer teeth the chain wheel has the lower the gear is. Confused yet? Well, you should be!
To a certain extent, unless you are upgrading your gears or buying a bike for a specialist purpose, you won’t really need to concern yourself with the thrilling complexities of gear ratios. A majority of road bikes come with a set of ratios that will work really well for 99% of the time. That’s good enough for me so let’s move on!
How to use road bike gear levers
In the good old days you used to have two little levers mounted on the bike frame and you sort of pulled and pushed them around a bit until the gears stopped grinding! How things have moved on – when I first got my road bike it took me about half an hour to actually realise how the lever worked and how they were integrated with the brakes. Duh!
So, there are two levers. The right one operates the rear cassette and the left one operates the front chain wheels. Rather joyously they work in opposite directions (!)
On the right lever – this one is the one you will use most as it controls the rear cassette. Clicking the small lever downwards (moving the smaller lever) moves the chain onto the smaller sprockets and changes up into a higher gear so your legs will go more slowly. Clicking to the side with the brake lever changes down into a lower gear where your legs will have to go faster!
On the left lever – clicking down with the small lever moves the chain onto the smaller chain wheel and your legs go faster. Clicking to the side with the brake lever moves the chain to the larger chain wheel and your legs go more slowly.
It’s not really that bad and you do soon get used to it but here are three examples to get you started:
Some useful examples
Below: Low gear – great for going up hills = front on small chain ring + back on big sprocket
Below: Middle gear – all purpose cruising = front on middle chain ring + back on middle sprocket
Below: High gear – great for going down hill = front on big chain ring + back on small sprocket.
If you have a double chainset at the front then you will spend most of your time on the smaller chainwheel and use the larger one for going down hill.
Finding the optimum cadence
Now the whole point of having gears is to keep your legs going round at an optimum speed or cadence. This should be somewhere between 70 and 100 RPM and often beginner cyclists find that they naturally pedal too slowly and put too much strain on their muscles. It takes a while to find your natural cadence but once you do, using the right gear at the right time and cycling at your optimum cadence gives much greater efficiency, pleasure and speed!
You will find that more experienced road cyclists seem to be almost constantly changing gear, making small adjustments here and there and are always looking for that optimum sweet spot. Obviously, road and weather conditions are constantly changing so similarly gears need to be adjusted frequently.
So basically you need to try to keep your cadence in a comfortable and efficient zone. That’s the aim! At the start, with so many gears to choose from this can be a struggle so for a start have a go at leaving your front gears on either the middle chain wheel if you have a triple chainset and on the smaller wheel if you have a double. Just concentrate on getting the correct gear at the rear for a start and you can add the combination of the front gears later when you are more confident.
How to get in the right gear at the right time:
Always remember that the whole point of changing gear is so that you can keep a nice efficient cadence. So, with this in mind….
Look ahead and change early – this is one of the most important things as you have to change gear as your legs are rotating. You can’t change gear once the bike is stationary and you can’t change when the gear system is under heavy load such as when you are going up a hill. Look at the road conditions ahead and plan your changes accordingly. For example, when you are approaching a road junction you will need to slow down and also change down into a gear that you will be able to set off or accelerate away in. Similarly when approaching a hill change down at the foot of the hill ready for the climb as it will be much more difficult, or even impossible to do, once the bike is under load and you are climbing. Things are easier when you are descending as there is less strain on the gear system but you will lose speed if you are in too low a gear too late.
Change one gear at a time – don’t try to move both the front and back gears at the same time and, on the back sprocket just click one gear at a time. There is a chance of the chain jumping off the cassette otherwise or, at the very least, some nasty grinding noise and wear to the cassette.
Make sure you don’t back pedal as you are changing gear – I think this is possibly a middle age person throw back as, if I remember correctly, on the older three speed bikes as I had in my early teens you had to freewheel to change gear or, if the gears were being a bit temperamental, back pedal to get in gear. On a road bike derailleur gear set this will possibly result in the chain coming off so try not to!
Gear selections to avoid:
So, I did say that my bike has 27 gears, that’s 9 on the rear cassette multiplied by three chain wheels on the front. However, in practice some of the gear combinations will more or less be the same and also there are some combinations that simply don’t really work. Well, they will work but they might cause some grinding noises and excessive wear.
Basically, you want to avoid what’s known as “crossing the chain”. So, if you have the front on the biggest chain wheel on the outside and the rear on the biggest sprocket on the inside the chain is at a weird angle, is under strain and it will over time damage the teeth. You will probably find that the chain jumps around a bit as well and you will feel some resistance as you pedal.
Similarly, you will have the same problem if you have the front on the smallest inner chain wheel and the back on the smallest outer sprocket.
Below : Avoid crossing the chain
Gears in the real world
So, I’m not really sure how many of the gears of the theoretical 27 are usable but I do know that for 80% of my cycling I stay in the middle chain wheel at the front and over the course of an average ride I would probably use every sprocket from the rear changing quite frequently to keep my cadence where I want it to be.
If I am descending a really long and steep hill I will change to the larger chain wheel at the front and probably use the smaller two or three sprockets at the back only. I’m fine up to about 23/24mph on the middle chain wheel and largest rear sprocket so I only change to the large front chain wheel relatively infrequently.
There are few serious hills in my area and for most of the time I’m fine using the middle front and largest back for my local hills but, if there is anything unusually steep I use the smallest front and probably the largest 2 or three rear sprockets only.
So, in essence, I only use the nine mid gears and maybe three on the largest chain wheel and three on the smallest making a total of (let me just find a calculator……..) yes, there we have it…….15 gears in total.
My guess is that this is how a majority of road cyclists use their gearing system and it certainly works for me at the moment! I think the key is to keep it simple – use the middle chain wheel for most of the time and the larger and smaller ones only when experiencing extremes of down or up hill.
(Useful side note: I’ve now changed bikes and have a double chainset at the front. I spend a lot of my time crossing small and large chain wheels to get my optimum cadence which is currently a bit annoying! The solution is for me to change the cassette at the back and I’m aiming to be able to spend a majority of the time on the large chain wheel and just need to move to the smaller one for going up hill!)
Finally a word about cleanliness!
This post is obviously about using road bike gear efficiently and so wouldn’t be complete without a word or maybe more about keeping your gears clean and adjusted correctly. For a start shiny gears look cool and professional but, more than that, they will be quieter, smoother and last longer of they are not all encrusted with gunk! They do quickly pick up dirt and grit and you should regularly use a degreaser and chain oil to keep them in tip top condition.
Similarly, it’s very easy to keep on top of minor gear adjustments and quick and accurate changing makes a huge difference over the length of a long cycle ride. As the gears are used more the cables do stretch and it’s surprising how you can get used to having to nudge you levers more than once to get in gear. If necessary replace the cables and adjust to get a clean and smooth change each time – it really does make a massive difference!
Do you have any hints and tips on getting the most from your road bike gears? If so, leave me a comment in the box below – I’d love to hear from you!