Notes from a Novice #5: Shift is NOT a 4-Letter Word – Part 1

It’s been a while since my last blog. I’ve written and re-written this one and finally decided there was so much I wanted to talk about that I had to split it into two parts otherwise I didn’t think the reader could hang in. And Part 1 is still pretty long. So without further ado…

When you bought your bike, you thought you would just get on and ride, right? Well if you bought a kid’s bike with a banana seat that brakes when you pedal backwards or a “fixie” (slang for a bike with one fixed gear) you would do just that. But you probably have 18-20 gears. You need to use them! Use them all until they wear out!

Often times when I see a newer rider falling back I find them doing one of two things:

  • mashing slowly in a really hard gear or,
  • spinning rapidly like a wheel in a hamster cage.

The “masher” is in too hard a gear where their cadence is really low and the “spinner” is in too easy a gear where their cadence is really high. As a novice rider the “masher” doesn’t have the leg strength to use that hard a gear and the “spinner” isn’t getting enough power out of the wheels to make the bike really go. How do we fix this? We find our personal cadence and shift, shift, shift in order to keep that cadence.

So what is cadence? It’s the rate at which your pedal goes around. Just like RPM on a car. One of the keys to riding longer and well, better, is to keep a steady cadence. There is debate in different books/blogs about the “perfect” cadence, but it seems that somewhere between 70-95 is generally accepted as appropriate. Too much below that for extended periods of time and the “masher” will wear out his/her knee joints. Too much above that and the “spinner’s” heart rate will soar, making him/her less efficient in the long run when they are out of breath.

When I started riding last June, my average cadence over a ride was in the low 70’s. As I have gotten stronger – and better at shifting – my average cadence is now pretty religiously in the mid-80’s without my even thinking about it. I’ve asked a few of the stronger/faster riders in the club and they say that their sweet spot is in the low 90’s. As I start to work on speed I might find that my average cadence will bump up a little more. We shall see. Most books/blogs will tell you to not to obsess about cadence, but rather to find your “sweet spot” – what feels comfortable to you – and try to stay there. Watch a good cyclist in the group and you will notice that their cadence doesn’t change much whether they are going uphill, downhill or on the flats. (Unless it’s a super steep hill where their cadence will slow or they are in a “go zone” trying to pick up more speed to pass other cyclists where their cadence will increase.) The key to keeping your cadence steady is to shift up and down so that the tension on your pedals stays roughly the same.

How can you track cadence during a ride? The easiest way is a bike computer. If you have a computer on your bike you probably have a magnet on the spoke of a wheel. That magnet tracks the rotations of the wheel, which tracks distance and speed. To track cadence you need a computer that reads from a magnet attached to your crank. That tracks how fast/often your pedal goes around. If you don’t have the bucks for an upgraded computer setup with a cadence meter, the next time you are on a ride, find someone with a cadence meter and see if they will work with you. They can tell you how fast their cadence is and you can try to match it. Once you start paying attention, you will be surprised how quickly you will be able to FEEL your cadence. And once you figure out what feels good, you need to start shifting so you can stay there.

I have Shimano shifters. Before I understood any of the math I quickly figured out on my bike that the shifter on the left handle bar moved the chain between the two chain rings up front. Small shifter changed to the small chain ring, making it easier to pedal. Big shifter changed to the big chain ring, making it harder. Thanks Shimano for that big/small thing. I guess that was intentional. By process of elimination, I figured out the right shifters moved the chain on the cassette in the back. Again, without knowing the “why”, I quickly learned that the big shifter made it easier to pedal and the small shifter made it harder to pedal. When I looked down occasionally, I noticed that when it got easier to pedal the chain was moving to a larger sprocket closer to the center of the bike and when it got harder the chain was moving to a smaller sprocket farther away from the center of the bike. Didn’t really care why. Yet. I also figured out, by accident one day, that on the right shifter if I tap it lightly once, the chain moves one sprocket in the back. But if I hold it in for a count of about 2, then it moves the chain 2-3 sprockets in the back. (Keep that in mind for later. That little tidbit we will use in Part 2 of this blog.)

Now, I can’t tell you exactly how your bike works. The concepts will be similar, but the components can make it function differently. For example, I test rode a bike that had two chain rings up front and a cassette with 10 sprockets on the back. Should be the same right? Little did I know, but it had SRAM shifters. I thought I might never figure out how to get out of the gear it was in when I left the bike shop. Still can't tell you how I did it. Let’s just say that they work very differently than Shimano.

Whatever components you have on your bike, you need to learn what makes it easier and what makes it harder to pedal. Read the manual. “youtube” it. Go to a parking lot and try it all until you memorize it. Whatever works for you.

In Part 2 of this blog I’m going to go into some more technical points of how you can find out how the gears are actually ordered on your bike and why. That way you really can know how to use them all. Plus I’ll share a few more shifting techniques I’ve figured out.

For now let’s just talk about relative shifting and some times on the ride when you want to shift up (harder) or down (easier), even on a novice ride.

1) Approaching a Stop

So you’ve found a nice cadence and you are really rocking along when the ride leader yells “stopping”. Think for a moment about what kind of force you are pedaling with. More than likely you want to shift down (easier) before you come to a complete stop. That way when you go to start again from the full stop you are in a gear in which you can actually turn the crank. You can spot the novice rider – or the not-so-novice rider who just made a “rookie mistake” – by how easily they can take off from a dead stop.

2) Approaching a Turn

If you want to get a little more speed out of a turn, as soon as you start to round that corner, shift up (harder) one gear and maybe even get out of the saddle a little. That little bit of extra force will propel you around the corner with more speed. Then shift – and sit – back down after the turn. Of course, be cautious about the other riders and how fast they are going and what line they are taking. But this is a good technique to get through that left turn in a big intersection a little quicker.

3) In a Go Zone

If you feel like “airing it out” in a “go zone”, you will want more power. Sure you can increase your cadence a bit, but also shifting up (harder) will give you that extra power to go faster. Just remember tip #1 when it comes time to stop.

I can’t help myself. Another couple things about “go zones” while we’re here. If you are a newer rider and you find that you are dropping off at the end of the route every week, don’t “go” in the “go zones”. Powering up to those harder gears will zap the strength in your legs until you get more stamina. Also, if you are in the middle or back of the pack chatting away on the front half of the ride and letting the ride leader break that wind the whole way for you, it’s really poor form to “go” in the “go zone” and then drop right back to your chatting position. Volunteer to take a turn up front.

4) Putting Away your Bike

My brother who has ridden road bikes for decades gave me this one. He’s an engineer so he is more than meticulous. When you aren’t riding your bike, put it in a gear that has the least amount of tension on the chain, extending the life of the chain. That would be whatever gear makes the chain the straightest (i.e. the least pull on the chain). For a bike with two chain rings up front, that would likely be small chain ring and about middle on the back. For a bike with three chain rings up front, that would likely be the middle chain ring and middle on the back. Look at your bike and decide.

So don’t be a “masher” or a “spinner”. Experiment with trying to find that easy cadence that feels good and doesn’t make you pant like a dog on the easy parts of the ride. And shift ‘em like you got ‘em.


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