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Old 07-07-08, 08:20 AM
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On to riding the bike – Cadence and Gears

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that, over the years, quite a few of you older ‘newbies’ have looked at the young folk on BMX bikes, their legs spinning around at a rapid rate and their bikes seeming to be getting nowhere fast, and thought “what a silly waste of effort!” But those young folk, with their legs spinning around, have something to teach us. Getting your legs moving a bit faster is the key to riding easy and riding well!


The rate at which you spin those pedals around is called “cadence”, and most experienced riders would tell you that a rate of about 80 revs per minute or better is a good goal to aim at. You won’t achieve that straight away, and don’t be too disappointed if it takes you a fair while to achieve. Different folk build up to it over different lengths of time, so it’ll come with practice. Hours spent riding is what gets you there. Just slowly, over time, build up the pedal rotation speed whilst keeping it to what feels comfortable and ‘right’ for you.

Simply put, a higher pedal rotation speed makes the riding easier, because it gives you more momentum and makes it easier to handle the ‘harder stuff’ like riding up hills or handling a head wind. When you are pedalling faster, and need to change gears for a bit of harder riding, you can still maintain your speed of travel. With a slower pedal rotation speed you tend to slow down too much when you change down, and then the riding gets harder.

So be sure to think, right from the outset, about getting those legs spinning around a bit more quickly. Your aging legs CAN do it, as most of us here can attest. Many of us have started off just like you, if you’re thinking that you might not be up to it.

Changing gears

The sheer number of gears on modern bicycles can be daunting to many folk. One of the most common questions asked by newbies is “How do I know what gear to use?” The answer to that is rather simple. Your legs tell you!
The general rule of thumb which will probably help you is:

“2 on the front and use whatever is comfortable on the back.”

The other general principle which will best help you use the gears effectively is:

“When you are approaching a steep hill which will have you needing to use the smaller and lower gears, change down on the front before you start climbing.”

Lets look at those gears a bit more closely, to explain it all.

You’ll likely have 3 cogs on the front ‘crankset’. The smallest of those is for the harder going. For climbing steep hills and riding into stiff breezes. The middle cog is where you’ll do most of your riding. The largest cog is for the really easy (and fast) going. Long, flat sections, maybe even with the wind at your back. Going downhill if you want to pedal rather than coast. That sort of thing. (Remember we just said, in our rule of thumb, that “2 on the front” is where you basically ride?

The rear (gearset) group of cogs is on the rear axle, and those are what you change most. You move up and down into higher or lower ‘gears’ so you can keep the leg pressure pretty much constant on the pedals. They are there to smooth out the need to ‘work harder’ when the going gets heavier. It is easier (albeit slower) to travel in a lower gear than to travel in a higher gear.

When your legs start to tell you that the going is getting a bit harder, change to a ‘lower’ (i.e. bigger) gear on that rear gearset. When the going gets easy again change back up to a ‘higher’ (i.e. smaller) gear. You’ll work it out soon enough, and when you get better and more comfortable with it you’ll start to anticipate the gear changes, and change before you put any noticeable extra strain on your legs at all. You’ll be riding longer and further then, because you won’t be tiring yourself as quickly.

Don’t ‘cross chain’

If you’ve understand the general gist of what was described above you’ll likely be realising that it’s really like having three separate sets of ‘gears’. Low, medium and high range, sort of. The front crankset gives you that. Most of the time you’re in ‘2’ on the front, and you don’t change that very often. Instead, you do most of your gear changing with the rear ‘gearset’.

It’s kind of important, though, not to have that chain stretched all the way from the small inner cog at front to the small outer cog at back, or from the large outer cog at front to the large inner cog at rear. If you find yourself doing that then you aren’t using those front gear changes effectively. It’s not good to ‘cross chain’ in that fashion, because it puts extra stress on the chain and causes extra wear and tear.

You have seven or eight cogs (maybe even more) on that rear gearset, right? Then think of them in this way.
The larger inner cogs are for harder and slower. The middle cogs in the gearset are for more ‘normal’ travel and speed. The outer smaller cogs are for the easier and faster riding. That matches up pretty well with how we are thinking about the front cogs, doesn’t it? Good. You’ve just now realised why the small cogs are at different sides front and back. They match up better that way for how you need to use them, so you can avoid cross-chaining.
If the going is harder and heavier, and you’re on that small front cog as a result, stick to using the larger (inner) and medium (middle) cogs at back. If you’re on ‘2’ at the front, where most of your riding happens, you can pretty comfortably use any of the cogs on the rear gearset without cross-chaining badly. If you’re up into easy and fast going, and on that big front cog, stick to using the smaller (outer) and middle cogs on the rear gearset.

It’s all easy enough. It only looks complicated because I described and explained it in detail. You just passed ‘Advanced gear changing 101’ if you followed it.

Last edited by Catweazle; 07-07-08 at 08:31 AM.
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