Shifting Gears: What You Need to Know

Shifting Gears: What You Need to Know

Close up of a Bicycle rear wheel with details, chain and gearshift mechanism, in morning sunlight.

How Well Do You Understand Your Gears?

Multi-speed gears let you ride against strong winds and climb uphill comfortably with no problem – something you won’t be able to enjoy if you ride a one-speed. Multi-speed gears also enable you to go downhill a lot faster.

Cadence or Pedaling Speed

Each cyclist has an ideal pedaling speed or what we call “cadence”, as well as an ideal amount of resistance that comes from their pedals. When you pedal at your ideal cadence, you exert the greatest amount of power that you can efficiently sustain. You can choose your cadence by shifting gears. The factors to be considered when selecting the gear you need include the wind conditions, the slope of the road, and of course, your body’s riding condition, too.

Imagine that you are walking. Your legs work like pendulums that swing as you take steps. An adult’s legs swing at an average of 60 times per minute. Do this test: Stand up and lift one off the ground. Swing it back and forth. It should be effortless when at the natural state. You would notice that if you try to go either faster or slower, you have to exert some muscular effort.

When you are riding a bike, your legs function like connecting rods in an engine. The bike’s pedals allow your feet to go around so you pedal faster than your walking pace with no added effort.

Higher or Lower?

Higher gears add more resistance to the pedal. If you choose a gear that is somehow too high for the conditions, you will have to go into a slower cadence. Of course, going slower than your ideal cadence wastes your energy. Also, doing so puts you at a higher risk of joint damage and muscle strains.

On the contrary, lower gears allow you to spin to a faster cadence as the pedals are easier to turn. Pedaling faster than your ideal cadence lets you enjoy faster speeds but you will also get tired faster if you try to maintain that cadence  too long. Some inexperienced cyclists pedal at a very high gear and a cadence that is too slow, believing that it is better exercise as they have to pedal harder. This, of course, is not true.

Let’s compare this to two athletes – one power lifts and the other swims. The first athlete lifts a 300 lb. barbell for just half a dozen times at a very high force to finish a few repetitions. The swimmer, on the other hand, moves his hands and legs through the water with very little resistance, exerting less effort but with more repetitions.

Now, pushing at a slow cadence in a high gear is similar to powerlifting, which is great if you’re trying to build up muscle mass. But overdoing it can hurt you. It also does very little for your heart and lungs. Spinning at a faster cadence in a lower gear is like swimming, with the higher number of repetitions making your legs flexible. It is also highly aerobic. It allows you to ride for long hours without your legs becoming sore. The more you “spin” the easier it becomes and the more comfortable you get riding.



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