Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Northern Nevada
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You have good advice so far, but I can't help thinking you're making this much more complicated than it really is (my wife, an occasional rider, has been doing the same thing for nearly 20 years).
The short answer is "pedal in a gear that's comfortable for you." If you're straining to get the pedals to go around, shift to a SMALLER chainring or a LARGER cassette in back. If your legs are spinning too fast, go to a LARGER chainring or SMALLER gear in back. But don't think about that--just do what feels appropriate. You're not likely to break anything, so if you try something and it's wrong, do the opposite. You'll work it out.
To get the feel of things, I agree with the post that said to start with the middle chainring. Put the chain on that and then forget completely about the left shifter. Do ALL your shifting with the right one, moving the rear derailleur, for an entire ride, or an entire week or whatever it takes. When you've got that down, experiment with the left shifter, which moves the front derailleur.
One fine point to remember: Most experts agree it's best to stay in a gear that lets you pedal at 80 to 100 revolutions (complete revolutions of the crankset, 360 degrees) per minute. If you're straining and can't reach that cadence, shift to a lower (easier) gear. If you're going faster than that, shift to a harder (higher) one. Don't try to work it out in your head in advance, though. Just move the lever, and if things get worse, move it the other way. There are only two directions; you'll soon figure out which one is right.
As for the numbers, forget them. They aren't of any use, and I've never heard anybody say, "I was in the 2 and the 6" or whatever.