If you are puzzled and frustrated by the number of gears on your bicycle, you are not alone. For most riders in our flat Chicago landscape, any number of gears above seven seems completely unnecessary. It is a rare Chicago cyclist who has ever used all the gears on their bike inside city limits.
Yet, not everyone wants a cruiser or a single-speed bike. Some folks just want a basic hybrid to ride around town. Most such bikes come factory-equipped with more gears than you can count on your fingers and toes, and few salespeople take the time to explain how to use them correctly. Consequently, many riders don't know how to shift gears for maximum benefit. (NOTE: In this post, we are discussing bicycles on which the gears are operated via externally mounted deraileurs, rather than housed inside an internally geared hub.)
Surprisingly, when you purchase a 24- (or 21 or 27)-speed bike, you do not get gears 1 through 24. Instead, you get three ranges of eight gears.
Here is how it works: most bikes have three front chainrings (road bikes generally have two chainrings) attached to the pedal crank. The small one is easy for climbing; the medium is moderate; and the large one is hard, for riding with wind on your back, or going downhill. These are operated by the front derailleur, which sits just above the chainrings, and is controlled by the left shift-lever on your handlebars.
For each of the threechainrings (or two, on a road bike), you get eight (or seven, or nine, depending on your bike) gears from the cassette, a set of cogs attached to the rear wheel. These are operated by the rear derailleur, which sits underneath the cassette, and is controlled by the right shift-lever. Here, the smallest gear is the hardest, and the largest is the easiest. This can be confusing, because it is the opposite of what happens with the front chainrings.
This arrangement of front and rear cogs gives you eight easy, eight moderate and eight hard gears. In a flat city like Chicago, you will probably be using primarily the moderate gear range. Most of us have a favorite gear or two in which we usually pedal. That's the gear that offers the most efficient cadence when you are moving at a good clip, but not pushing a gear that is too hard, or spinning in a gear that's too easy.
On a derailleur-equipped bike, you must be pedaling in order for the chain to move to another gear. Many bikes have shifter indicators, telling you what gear you are in. But after you've gained some practice, you will be shifting gears by feel.
As a rule, shift gears when the riding conditions change, using the gears on the rear of your bike (your right hand):
- when changing direction (the wind may now be in your face),
- when the road slope changes
- when you are forced to alter your speed.
For example, when you pull up to a red light, shift to an easier gear (using your right shifter), so that when the light turns green, you won't have to stand on the pedals to get going. As you begin to accelerate, shift back up to your preferred gear.
You may need to use your front gears (left hand) when road conditions change more dramatically. For instance, when you approach a steep incline (such as climbing an overpass), keep your chain in the moderate gear on the back, and shift to the smaller chainring in front (the left shift-lever) , As you scale the hill and the pedaling gets harder, you can gradually drop down to an even easier gear in the rear (using the right hand). Once at the top, shift back to the harder gear in front to get the most out of your descent.
Other things to remember:
- You don't really get 24 gears on your 24-speed bike, because some gear combinations are to be avoided. When riding in the small (easy) chainring in the front, avoid shifting to the small (hard) chainring in the rear. And vice versa. These positions cause the chain to cross over and subject it to undue stress. You may hear the chain grind as it rubs the front derailleur.
- Avoid shifting under torque (strain). When you need to shift, ease the pressure on the pedals somewhat to release the tension in the chain, and and gently pedal through as you shift, allowing the chain to move to the next cog.
- You don't have to shift one gear at a time. Simply move through the range of gears until you get to the one you want, and the chain will follow.