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Cycling Tip of the Week: Use Your Gears!

Gears—The Neglected, Misused Bicycle Part

The single most important—and neglected—parts of a bicycle are its gears. When people look to buy a new bicycle, they often look at the frame and the wheels, maybe squeeze the brakes, but rarely do they inquire into the quality of the gears. What's more, most people don't make proper use of the gears they have. I've seen far too many people on old bicycles that would function fine were it not for the rusted, useless gears that slow them down and hurt their knees. Not only that, but I also often see people riding uphill in their hardest gear, or simply riding with their chain crossed to the point that it is rubbing on the derailleur. Fortunately all these issues—buying the right gears, maintaining your gears and riding in a good gear—are incredibly easy to remedy.

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Buying the Right Gears

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If you are in the market for a new bicycle, check out my previous post, Cycling Tip of the Week: Choose the Right Kind of Bicycle, for some tips. That will give you a sense of what kind of bike—hybrid, racing, mountain, etc.—is right for you, but it won't help you with the right kind of gearing. Unless you purchase a single-speed or "fixxie" bike (bikes with only one gear), you will want your choice of gearing to be a top priority.

First and foremost, ask yourself what kind of riding you will be doing. If you never plan on riding up or down hills, then a bike with 1 to 7 speeds will be more than sufficient. However, if your rides will include any kind of incline, then good gears will make life a lot easier. The most important thing to consider is gear range; that is, you want to be able to get into as low a gear as possible for going uphill, and you want to get into as high a gear as possible for going back down. Typically, a triple chain ring on the front of the bike gives you a good range of gearing, with a 8, 9 or 10 speed cassette on the back (I know, the lingo might be a little confusing, but it's good to know the terms when you are in a bike shop). The chain rings are the circles with teeth on top of them that the crank is attached to. The cassette refers to the circles with teeth that is attached to the rear wheel, and that the chain engages when you pedal.

Aside from gear ratio, the other important consideration is gear quality. High-end gears, such as Shimano Dura Ace and Campagnolo Record, are extremely light and smooth, but there are lots of affordable, reliable options. For racing, I recommend at least a Shimano 105 group (group refers to the chain, front and rear derailleur, cassette, cranks, chain rings, bottom bracket, brakes, brake levers and "hoods"). But for commuting, there are plenty of groups that will work just fine.

If you own or buy an old bike, the first thing you should do is test out the gears and replace the parts, such as the derailleur, that no longer work. It's amazing how a 30 year old frame can ride like a dream provided you spend $50-$100 to replace a few parts. A new chain and cassette, for instance, can dramatically improve shifting performance.

Maintaining Your Gears

Once you have the right gears, you'll want to maintain them. Part of the beauty of bicycles is that they are astoundingly easy to keep humming along; some lube, a pump and a few hex wrenches are enough to prevent and solve most problems. The main thing you'll want to do is lubricate the chain around once a month, or immediately after riding in the rain. To lubricate the chain, insert a drop of lube in between each linkage in the chain, and then wipe off any excess lubricant when you are done. Aside from that, you'll want to make sure that your brakes aren't rubbing the rims, and that the derailleurs are properly aligned (shifting should be smooth, fairly quiet, and there shouldn't be any clicking or skipping once the shift is complete). If your bike isn't shifting properly, the best thing to do is to take it to the bike shop for a simple, inexpensive adjustment; often times, the cables sag and need to be tightened, or the derailleurs themselves need to be adjusted. The home mechanic can easily make most of these repairs; have a cycling friend help you, or take an introductory class on bike repair (REI, for instance, offers them).

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Using Your Gears

Okay, so now you have good gears and are maintaining them properly; the last step is to use them correctly! There's nothing too difficult about this. If you have a triple chain ring, for instance, you want to be in either the middle or the big ring on flat ground, the big ring downhill, and the middle or small ring going uphill. How do you know if you are in the "right" gear? Well, ideally you want to be pedaling anywhere from 70-100 revolutions per minute, so if it feels like you are struggling, and you aren't going up a 20% incline, then you should shift into an easier gear.

Lastly, you should avoid crossing your chain. Crossing your chain refers to situations where you are in, for example, the big ring on the front, and the easiest gear in the back (technically, the smallest tooth cassette). This causes the chain to rub the front derailleur, and it also reduces the life span of chain and cassette.

If you follow these simple steps, cycling can be even more fun and rewarding!

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