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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling:  Understanding Gears, How They Work, Why there are so Many, and What Will Work Best for You.

Someone typed this into a search engine and ended up clicking on one of my posts:

“21 sp. bike vs. 27 sp. bike, which is faster?”

At first I thought, “Seriously?!”  I had a change of heart once I got my ego out of the way and thought about the question as if I were a noob asking it.

Understanding bicycle gears can be a daunting task for someone brand new to cycling.  After all, they put all of those gears on there for a reason, right?  But why?!

The truth is, a 14 speed race bike is just as fast as a 30 speed transmission on the same bike frame, kind of.  The difference between the two is that the 30 speed will have more options after one shifts out of the highest gear.  In other words, if both bikes have a high gear of 11 teeth and a big chain ring with 52 teeth, both bikes will have identical top-end speeds.

However!!!  

Top end speed isn’t near the end of the story.  I happen to be in the speedy class of cyclists and I rarely use the high gear.  While I’m speedy for an old fart, I’m not a pro.  The rest of the gears on the cassette are vastly more important than the little one.  On my good bike I have two chain rings up front (52 & 36 and 10 cogs in the back (11-28)all gears, chain rings up front and cogs in the back, are identified by the number of teeth they have).  I can climb anything up to a 25% grade with that setup – so, 20 gears:

Then there’s my Trek 5200 T.  The “T” stands for Triple.  It’s got three chain rings on the front and nine cogs in the back…  27 gears:

Now, what will be faster?

The 20 speed bike is… See, there tends a lot of overlap in the gears on a bike with three chain rings – different gear selections giving one the same basic results when pedaling at a consistent cadence.  For this, we can use my gearing for an illustration.  First the 27 speed triple:

Take, for instance the combination 52 (front chain ring)/15 (back cassette) and then look at 42/12…  Two different gears, almost the exact same speed at a cadence of 90 rpm.

Now let’s look at the gearing for a pro compact double:

Definitely some overlap, but not as much as the triple and what overlap there is spreads over two chain rings instead of three….

The real reason gearing is important and that there are so many, is that picking the proper gear for your comfortable cadence and the existing conditions is what cycling is all about – especially when you’re cycling in a group.

My three favorite gears at home are 52/17, 52/16 and 52/15.  When I’m riding with my friends, these are the three gears I spend the most time in.  Those three gears match my comfortable pace on flat ground, with a cadence of 90 rpm.

However if you look at the 27 speed triple, you’ll notice a much larger hole in the three gears starting at 21.5 mph in the big ring (52 t).  This is because the triple had a nine speed cassette, so the most efficient use of gears requires jumping increments of 2 teeth per cog to get all of the gears on the cassette.  In other words, at my comfortable speed, I have fewer gears to choose from – and that makes riding a little more difficult when trying to maintain a consistent speed whilst riding with my friends.

Now, I do spend a lot more time in the middle 42 tooth chain ring when I ride the Trek, because as you’ll note looking at the chart above, the 42/15, 42/14 and 42/12 fit my riding preferences a little better.

Gears, cadence and riding with a group and the difference between riding a bike and cycling 

This post is designed to get one to look at gearing with a finer understanding than most bike riders will have and help you avoid what bike riders do:  Stick it in a gear and mash it for whatever you run into – only when the pitch heads up does the frantic downshifting start.

That is most definitely a good way to get dropped on a regular basis when you’re in a group.  They put all of those gears on a bike so you can use them, so don’t be afraid to.

I pick the easiest gear I can comfortably pedal to keep up with the people I’m riding with.  Pedaling an easier gear, with more revolutions (within reason), means I can accelerate quicker and I won’t fatigue my legs trying to horse the pedals around on a bigger gear.

I love the way the concept of cycling was first explained to me:

It’s like lifting weights.  How many curls can you do with a 40 pound weight?  Five?  Ten?

Now, how many curls can you do with a five pound weight?  You can go all day.

Cycling efficiently is based on the same principle.

Being a runner previously, I had a tendency to mash the pedals (as many runners do).  I taught myself to spin my legs a lot faster because I was told cycling would be easier if I could learn to enjoy the faster cadence.  Those who let me in on the secret were right.

I took a full winter on the trainer and developed myself into a spinner from a masher.  Mashing hard gears makes one work twice as hard as a spinner to hold a good line in a group.  Accelerating to match a surge is so much easier as a spinner, it’s tough to not describe it using over-the-top language.  The trick is that this reality has it’s limits, and that’s where a balance must be struck.

When we “put the hammer down”, if we’re in an easier gear we’re pedaling a little faster.  We’re only able to pedal so much faster before we have to upshift to a harder gear.  On the other hand, if we’re already pedaling in a gear that’s too hard, if the group surges a little bit, not only is it hard to make up the gap, it takes more energy to do it and that can be a problem over the course of a long ride.

The Wrap-Up

Without getting too involved and long on this post, and taking this too much further, bikes don’t have all of those gears for nothing.  It’s not some conspiracy to make old bikes obsolete (for the most part, there is some of that going on), it’s not to keep you buying new bikes, and it’s not some ego-driven “I gotta have the most gears!” thing….  Having all of those gears on the fast race bikes allows riders a wider range to match their cadence to the speed they’re riding.

Finally, one last little tidbit:  If you notice, as the gears get bigger on the back, the smallest four or five gears get bigger at a slower rate than the last four, five or six bigger gears.  This is done on purpose.  The smaller the gear on the back, the harder it is to pedal.  The smaller gears or “cogs” get bigger one tooth at a time (see the nine and ten speed charts above), then they start jumping two teeth and finish with three teeth increments.  When riding with the faster groups, we get into those smaller gears rather frequently.  It’s not rare for us to be cruising down the road at 28+ mph (52/13 gear).  When you get to the smaller gears, it’s better for “feel” to jump only one tooth at a time, as it relates to cadence because jumping two teeth would be too much of a change.  Notice the speed differences between the gears, again using the charts above…  The difference between 52/17 and 52/19 is 1.8 mph at 90 rpm.  The difference between 52/16 and 52/15 is 1.5 mph at 90 rpm.  A two-teeth jump compared to a one-tooth, and they’re only separated by three-tenths of a mile an hour.

So that gets down into the real nitty-gritty about why they offer so many gears on a bike.  They’re there to match a decent cadence to any terrain.  Someone who may not ride as fast may only use a few of gears, but I can assure you I use all of mine, especially on the 20 speed Venge.  While I could live with fewer gears… I’d rather not.

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Don’t Forget the Electrolytes…

I jumped another gear on the trainer last week so my workouts were a lot tougher than normal.  I was sweating buckets by the time I was done.   I’ve also been trying hard to watch what I eat so I can hit March at my mid-season weight and I’m only a few pounds off.  To aid in this, I completely cut out the Gatorade I drink all season long to keep my electrolytes where they need to be.

All of a sudden I felt tired.  Lethargic, sore… I looked back at my workout history and found I’d taken a day off the week before – I shouldn’t be that tired yet.  And that’s when it dawned on me…  I drank a quart of Gatorade and the aches went away.  I also felt looser and more vibrant.

My friends, don’t forget the electrolytes this time of year.  I sweat just the same riding on a trainer so I need my electrolytes.  Without replacing them I feel like I’m… well, my age.

Cycling:  If faster is what you want, now is the time.  How I get Ready for Summer Two Months before Spring even gets Here….

I know, I know… It’s only the second week of January.  Most of us in North America and many in the Northern Hemisphere are cooped up indoors, pounding out miles on trainers and rollers hoping just to maintain some semblance of fitness, so how could now possibly be the time?  Oh, it is and the fact that we’re stuck indoors is a positive, because some of this is gonna suck…

This post is going to ouch on my experience and deficiencies when it comes to cycling – your experience and deficiencies my be different, so the results may vary.  Additionally, results will be effort-based.  No effort, no results.

My biggest shortfall when it comes to riding fast is wanting to push harder on the pedals.  That’s overly simplistic and it’s only part of the issue, but for our limited scope and the time of year, it’ll do.  The whole enchilada is pushing harder on the pedals in an efficient manner.  Once I get to a point where fast starts hurting, I run out of “want to” fast, so to fix that I train to push harder on the pedals, efficiently – and for me, that all starts on the trainer.

The trainer is the perfect place to work on this, if one has the proper trainer.  I’ve got a few trainers and I can tell you, the cheaper trainers don’t offer enough resistance to build fitness – maintain, maybe, but not build.  Rollers?  Forget about it.  Also, this post isn’t really for racers.  Maybe Cat 5’s, but for the faster guys, you’re beyond me and most trainers – you’d have to get into the smart trainers that can deal with elevated resistance.

So here’s my big tip for what I do to go into Spring stronger than I was when the last season finished:  I push hard gears on the trainer.  Two days on, one easy day.  Rinse and repeat.  Basically, I know what 20 mph feels like on the road.  I ride harder gears than that.  On the one hand, and before you ask, yes.  It sucks.

On the other hand, it beats playing catch-up the whole month of March or April.

I know I want to be pedaling my 52/12 gear, dabbling in 52/11 when March rolls around, so I start out easy for five minutes and then shift into 52/13 for 35 minutes before warming down for five.  After a week, my 52/13 becomes the easy gear.  Five minute warm up, upshift to 52/12, 35 minutes, five minute warm down.  On the easy days I pedal the easy gear the whole time.

Now, for me, that 52/12 on the hardest setting my trainer has, really starts to suck after a week, so I take a little more time and even take a day off here or there so I can keep my legs fresh and my motivation to progress up.  By the end of January, though, I should be dabbling in that 52/11 gear now and again.  By the end of February, I’ll be pushing that gear for the full 45 minutes at 90 rpm on the hard days and it will hurt.  But I’ll be ready for Spring and a lot of my friends will be playing catch-up to me.

The point is this:  You can pay now, or you can pay later…  Winter on a trainer sucks anyway.  If I pay now, I actually have something to work for instead of just cranking the pedals around as if I were on a hamster wheel, and I can have fun when I start riding outside, building up for the summer.

 

New Report goes beyond just saying Cycling doesn’t Pose a Threat to Men’s Health;  It says Faster is Better.

A new study, reported on by Newsweek and published in the Journal of Urology shows cycling doesn’t affect a man’s “sexual and urinary health” any more than running or swimming does (which one would assume is none at all – at least this one).

In the past, reports existed that supported the notion that cycling could cause erectile dysfunction.  While those reports were discredited as “lacking scientific rigor”, the myth persisted amongst the, well, let’s call them “the information deprived”.

In any event, this new study shreds the notion and goes one better to say that any negative attributable to cycling is vastly outweighed by the benefits.  Better still, the study split cyclists into two groups based on intensity, those who rode more than three times a week and 25 miles per ride and those who rode less… and:

Higher-intensity cyclists, somewhat counterintuitively, had better erective function compared to low-intensity cyclists

Hang on a second and let that sink in just a little bit.  I know I almost had to pick my jaw up off the floor – it’s a rare day a study bares that out, let alone the point actually makes a report about the study.  In a world where seemingly everything that comes out looks at how little one has to do, it was nice to see the hotrods get a nod and a pat on the helmet for once.

The only problem they did come up with for cyclists came in the form of genital numbness, or in less technical terms, numbnuts.  Scientists did find, and I really don’t want to know how, that spending approximately 20% of the time out of the saddle helped immensely.  I can, of course, corroborate this finding – and to tell the truth, I really don’t plan on explaining how.  Just know it’s good to jumble the jewels now and again with a quick shake out of the saddle.  What is important here is the why.  Numbnuts are caused by a saddle that restricts blood flow to the chestnuts so that’s why riding out of the saddle helps – it gets the blood flowing in the nether region again.  So, either get a harder saddle or spend some time climbing peaks out of the saddle.

Other than cranky cajones, which we know are fairly common, cyclists have every reason to rejoice.  We still have things like saddle sores and chafing to be aware of, but the big problems appear to be a worry of the past.

Now, before you ask (or comment), yes.  I was aware of every double-entendre.  They were all on purpose.  ‘Cause we all need a little laugh from time to time, especially about a topic that begs for a chuckle.

Ride hard, my friends.  Heh.

I Owe Everything I Love to Recovery

I don’t care how one chooses to sober up, if one doesn’t clean up the wreckage that caused them to drink in the first place, you’re pretty much screwed – you’ll drink again.  It’s not rocket science; Quit drinking, clean up the disaster that I created, make amends for that disaster, do the next right thing in any given situation, don’t rest on one’s laurels, enjoy life.  That’s pretty close to the template, though I like to work a dozen steps in there, because it makes the process a lot easier.

My wife, kids, work, cycling, road trips, vacations, weekends, my bikes… happiness itself.  Without recovery, none of the good life I have is possible.  

Folks, I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again; I couldn’t deliver pizza well as a drunk (I never did show up to work loaded though, not once).  

Every day I wake up, I’m thankful I’ve done so sober.  I owe everything I love to recovery, and I have a lot to love.


 

 

Winter: ‘Tis the Season to get the Bikes ready for Spring

We’re dead in the middle of winter here in the northwest of the US-of-A.  We had a couple of nice days this week, but went back into the deep freeze immediately thereafter.  Thankfully, this next cold snap won’t be quite as bad as the last, though I’m not holding my breath about riding outside.  This is my favorite time to get the road bikes ready for next season with simple bike maintenance tasks that’ll have my bikes running like a top as soon as I’m ready for them in the spring.  Some tasks are pretty standard, others are more “off the beaten path”.

First, I like to take the bottle cages off and clean up the bolts.  See, I managed to freeze an old bottle cage on my Trek a while back.  It was so bad, the bosses had to be drilled out and new installed on the frame – fortunately I had that done when the frame was painted:

I take the cages off, clean up the frame underneath them, clean the bolts, lube them and install them…  I also put a dab of lube on the bolts themselves so they don’t rust from having water and sports drink dripped on them throughout the season:

wp-1456346601058.jpgNext, and this one is ultra-important, I like to clean out the frame inserts that hold the cable housings where they enter and come out of the frame – or on my Trek, I like to remove the cable ends from the frame so I can clean and lube them.  This is especially important for the rear brake line on the Venge and the rear brake and rear derailleur cable for the Trek:

You can see where that rear derailleur housing will be important for the exterior cable setup – over the course of a season that cable end will pick up a lot of road grime.  For the rear brake cables, they pick up a lot of salt from sweat.  If they aren’t cleaned up now and again, the salt buildup will make it difficult to remove the pieces later on.

Next up, I’ll take apart the cranks and clean them:

If I’m really feeling ambitious on a given day, I’ll take apart my wheel hubs and clean them up.  On another day I’ll take apart the steering assemblies and clean up all of the parts, apply new lube to everything, and put it all back together.

From there, I’ll swap out the old cables for new, if necessary.  I don’t change them out every year on the Venge because I don’t ever ride the bike in crappy weather.  The cables on the Trek are changed out every year.  And the last thing on my list is the plate on the underside of the bottom bracket that holds the derailleur cables for the Trek.  This plate, being exposed on the bottom of the bike, picks up a lot of sweat and road grime.  If this isn’t cleaned up regularly, the shifting will be affected – even to a point where the bike won’t shift properly.  I like to keep that part ultra-clean and lubed.

So, that’s my little “get the bike ready for Spring” list.  Obviously, with seven bikes to take care of, I don’t do all of that in one weekend.  I spread that out over the two or three months we’re stuck indoors.  If nothing else, it’s nice to take the bikes apart and get my hands dirty.  Oh, and the best part is that if I mess something up, I’ve got plenty of time to get the bike into the shop.

The Extra Mile

Climbing