Is there a magic gear I should switch into?
August 22, 2009 6:53 PM   Subscribe

How the crap do you ride a bike?

I didn't have a bike growing up but have been trying to learn. It is not going well. My bike has 1-3 on the hard gears and 1-6 on the lower gears. I am unable to get myself up hills at the same pace as people I am riding with (ie, barely keep the bike up pedaling as fast as I can manage; usually have to dismount and walk the entire thing). Going downhill, I go way too fast.

I have a light commuter bike and am good at doing bike machines and the like at gyms as well as jogging. Is this the wrong bike for me? Am I basically SOL until I move somewhere flatter and figure it out? For the record I've been biking almost daily for around 3 months now and in substantially better shape cardio-wise than the people I bike with. I feel like I am missing something.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're in the wrong gear ... probably two low of a gear to climb the hills.

See if this link helps you out: Bicycle Gearing
posted by frwagon at 6:56 PM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am unable to get myself up hills at the same pace as people I am riding with (ie, barely keep the bike up pedaling as fast as I can manage; usually have to dismount and walk the entire thing).

This comes with practice. Make sure to be on the lowest gear.

Downhill, try upping the gear and LIGHTLY putting pressure on the brakes--do not tap on the brakes. It should slow you down.

Being good cardio-wise isn't your problem--you need to get used to how a bike works. Since you didn't grow up with it, this may take you longer than people might otherwise expect.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:57 PM on August 22, 2009

Actually, frwagon is probably right about upping the gear a little to go uphill--it will be harder in terms oh how hard you pump, but you will have to pedal less fast. If you're used toexercise bikes, where more exercise = pumping harder, this might be better for you.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:59 PM on August 22, 2009

A bit more info, to give you some ideas - I ride casually... (I'm going to Left and Right to refer to each shifter, just like that article does)... I cruise in Left3, Right4 on flat surfaces... Uphill, I'll drop to 2-4, and if that's still too hard of a pedal, i'll go to 2-3, then 2-2. Rarely do I go any lower. When I'm downhill or looking for speed, that's when i start going up to 3-6, and get real power out.
posted by frwagon at 7:06 PM on August 22, 2009

Yeah you're definitely in too easy (low) a gear if you're just spinning your legs. As someone who bikes maybe a thousand km a year in daily life, when you're coming to an uphill:

1. Speed up.
2. see how you're doing
3. if needed, go down about 2-3 gears (in your right hand shifter, that is)
4. see how you're doing.
5. if you need, shift down on your left hand.
6. goto 2.

Do the opposite for going downhill. It will take some time, and if you can find a flat place to practice it'd be handy, just shift gears and get a feel for how much they impact the pedaling 'force'.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:12 PM on August 22, 2009

Although it's not scientifically accurate, the following rules of thumb may be helpful:
  1. If your legs hurt, shift down to an easier gear but keep your speed the same (pedal faster).
  2. If your lungs hurt, shift up to a harder gear but keep your speed the same (pedal slower).
  3. If your legs and your lungs hurt, slow down some.
  4. If neither hurts, speed up a bit. Or enjoy the ride!

posted by FishBike at 7:28 PM on August 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

For climbing, pick a gear that feels a little difficult. Not too hard that your legs are barely moving, and not too easy that your legs are spinning too fast. In terms of your cardio fitness vs. your perceived slowness, it is probably a combination of your unfamiliarity with the optimal biomechanics of transferring power from your legs to the pedals, along with the bike itself.

When you ride, do you push the bike side to side? Do you move your upper body? Do you grip the handlebars too tight? Do you tense your neck and shoulders? The thing that is making the bike move is the pedaling. Nothing else. Don't try to use your whole body to make the bike go. If you stand and pedal, switch up a gear, and keep your upper body still.

Why do you say you go way too fast on the downhills? Do you feel that you're not in control?

Refer to the front gears as chainrings (big chain ring, middle and small--not numbers) and the rear gears as cogs (big cog, etc.).
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:31 PM on August 22, 2009

Toe cilps or clipless pedals make it much easier to go up hills. I use Power Grips, which are great.

You should really ask one of your more experienced cycling friends to take a critical look at what you are doing—there are too many things that we could miss here if you are using the wrong bike or your form is off.
posted by grouse at 7:48 PM on August 22, 2009

Maybe do a quick check that both wheel rotate freely, and don't rub against the brakes. In addition to what others have said.
posted by unmake at 8:01 PM on August 22, 2009

One more tip on choosing gears, you want to aim for a cadence of 90-100rpm (3 revolutions of your feet every two seconds) while you're actually pedaling, particularly when powering up a hill. Any slower than 80rpm and your legs are inefficient and you'll strain your knees and much faster than 110rpm and you're just wasting effort bouncing your legs up and down.

If you have a half-decent speedometer, it will tell you what your cadence is and I highly recommend getting one to train you into the habit of always being in the correct gear until it just comes naturally. Initially, 90rpm will seem quite fast (hence the need for the meter to tell you where you're at) but once you're used to it, it's all good.
posted by polyglot at 8:02 PM on August 22, 2009

Going downhill, I go way too fast.

Having a good set of well-adjusted brakes can make a difference in the smoothness of your descent. Nothing like going down a hill on brakes you're not sure of, or that are slipping slightly or shaking. Make sure they are in good shape and have been adjusted by a quality repair shop (or a knowledgeable, experienced friend.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:37 PM on August 22, 2009

If you're in good cardio shape, improved gearing techniques should help you a lot. Take a close look at frwagon's link to gearing for an excellent summary of the mechanics, FishBike's 4 rules for guidance on how you should push yourself, and polyglot's reminder of cadence.

All this talk of 2-left and 4-right etc. is rather imprecise even though it's necessary. Two bikes that have differently sized chainrings and cogs will not give the same resistance at the same numeric settings. The examples we're all giving here are ballpark estimates, not exact requirements for you. Don't feel that you must go for the biggest numbers and the most macho gearings: good form, good cadence and a nice balance between power and ease is a highly individual setting. Do what is good for you and your knees now, rather than trying to match what someone else can do.

(A friend of mine, much taller and fitter than me, tried my bike at my usual flat setting of 2-4 and concluded that I wanted to kill my knees as soon as possible. He uses much less resistance, goes faster, and tackles hills better.)

I'd add that taking advantage of momentum will help you up hills a lot. Approach the hill at the fastest speed you can manage, and try getting the hang of shifting to a lower gear BEFORE you start going significantly slower and losing momentum.

On the flat, try a resistance combination that will let you pedal smoothly at 90-100 rpm. This may take some experimentation. frwagon is comfortable cruising at 3-4, but even assuming you can get a high cadence at that level of resistance, this could put a lot of stress on your knees if you're not used to it. Try anything from 2-3 to 2-5 and see how it feels.

Once you're comfortable going fast on the flat, speed up a little as you approach the foot of the hill by shifting down a notch on the right and increasing your cadence. Now try to maintain that cadence and your current speed as long as you can while going up that hill. If pedalling starts feeling harder and your cadence and speed drop, drop your right resistance one notch again.

At a certain point, you may find that you've dropped down to 2-2 or 2-1. This is where you can shift the left control to 1 so you drop to the smallest front chainring. This will either:

1) give you enough breathing space to finish the hill, or
2) leave you feeling as if you're spinning like a hamster while gaining very little ground

It may be too late for you if option 2 kicks in, and you will probably have to get off and walk your bike one more time. But if you keep coming back to this hill, playing with cadence, gearing and momentum, you should be able to find a combination of elements that lets you either get up the hill in a relatively low gear, or you will get to a certain point in low gear, then shift to higher gear (bigger numbers on the right, but leaving the left in 2) and stand up in your pedals to get up those last few feet. But as you get more adept and more fit -- and cardio fitness on an exercise bike does not always transfer smoothly to real world cycling -- you will have to stand less and less unless you start tackling some very challenging hills.

If and when you want even more geeky detail: gearing and tackling hills.
posted by maudlin at 9:39 PM on August 22, 2009

My bike has 1-3 on the hard gears and 1-6 on the lower gears.

You are just in the wrong gear. The first link above explains it well, but I'll try to sum up. The 1-3 gears on your left are your front rings, switching these will results in a large change. As a simple rule of thumb, in uphill terrain you would want to be in gear #1, for a flat area #2, and prolonged or dramatic downhill #3 on the left shifter. The other shifter is used for fine tuning, as it has more gears and they are closer together size wise. So a very steep uphill, 1-1 (lowest gear in front and back respectively), for a medium uphill 1-3 , etc. If you think in linear terms of 18 speeds , the left shifter is like shifting 6 gears at a time while the right shifter is shifting only 1 at a time. Typically, you will find an appropriate gear on the left side for the type of terrain you are in, and do most of your shifting on the right side. If you are in a relatively flat area, you might be able to get away with staying in gear #2 on the left (front) and doing all of your shifting with the right shifter (back). Knowing specifically which gear to be in at a given time is just a factor of practice and learning your particular bike. Give it some time and practice going through all the gears on a flat area until you really understand the shifting system.
posted by sophist at 9:46 PM on August 22, 2009

Minor followup to sophist's info: The #1 (easiest) gear in front is the smallest gear. The #1 (easiest) gear in back is the biggest gear.

Also, no one has mentioned the size and fit of the bicycle itself. I didn't realize how big of an impact this could have until I finally got a bike that fits me right. Previously, I was riding a bike with a too-small frame, forcing me to work inefficiently on it. I thought cycling was hard and I didn't like it! Get into a bike store and find someone knowledgeable to help you figure out if your bike is the right fit for you. Now that I have a bike that fits me (it's a lot bigger than the last one), I love riding it.

On a related note, many people ride with their seat height too low. You want to have your legs almost fully extended at the bottom of the pedal stroke (knee ever-so-slightly bent). When the seat is adjusted properly, you can't reach the ground with both feet while sitting on the seat (normally you hop down or just lean to one side onto one tippy-toe). When your seat is at the proper height, your pedaling will be much more efficient.
posted by knave at 12:07 AM on August 23, 2009

I think you're overthinking gears. You can probably spend 90% of your time in the same gear, really, and only change for the most ridiculously steep hills.

I swear, people messing around changing gears thirty times per mile is the most ridiculous waste of time. Forget about them.

But yes, you will always need some braking to control your descent.
posted by rokusan at 12:41 AM on August 23, 2009

I may be late to the party, but no one has mentioned yet that you should make sure your seat is high enough. Your leg should be almost straight when the pedal is at it's lowest point and you shouldn't really be able to touch the ground while you're on the seat. Adjusting your seat properly will make a huge difference on hills, moreso than messing with the gears.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:28 PM on August 23, 2009

I disagree with martinX on the seat height. Your leg should NOT be "almost straight" with the pedal at the 6:00 position. And you should be able to put your toes (not a flat foot) on the ground, so you don't have to come off the saddle at a stop. If your seat is too high, your hips will dip back and forth as you pedal.

Seat height is not an absolute position, as with all things related to one's bike fit. Some people like to have more extension of the knee, some like less. My own seat height is not ultra high. Years ago, one coach/bike fit person told me to raise it a good couple inches, but after one ride, I put it back to its previous position.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:37 PM on August 23, 2009

I'd add that taking advantage of momentum will help you up hills a lot. Approach the hill at the fastest speed you can manage, and try getting the hang of shifting to a lower gear BEFORE you start going significantly slower and losing momentum.

This. And also, there's no shame in getting off and walking, especially if you're not looking to get all sweaty. On one of my regular routes there is an enormous hill that I ride really fast towards, go as far as I can without putting too much effort into it (usually shifting down to gear 1-2) and then walk the last little bit (where it goes into an almost 30 degree slope!). It takes more time, but also takes less out of you.
posted by symbollocks at 7:59 AM on August 24, 2009

I agree with computech_appolloniajames that seat height isn't absolute, apart from avoiding going so high that your hips rock (or, conversely, so low that you get knee pain or tendonitis). But the toes-on-the-road tip doesn't work for me. I'm 5'1" with short feet, so when I try to sit on my properly fitted bike and put my toes on the ground, I barely touch. It's not stable, it's not comfortable, and, unless my saddle and I go down to city hall to get a license, I don't think it's legal in this province, either. YMMV, obviously, but I find that getting off my saddle at a stop is easy and effective.

I want to correct part of my advice about gearing for hills. I rode north in Toronto today, which means that I hit quite a few hills and upgrades. What I'm actually doing when I approach a hill is NOT downshifting at the foot, but trying to maintain that high speed and cadence all the way from the flat to the point where I feel that I've started to slow, downshifting only when I feel that I'm losing appreciable momentum, but not a minute before.

The other advice still applies, but I want to point out that it's really easy to negotiate against yourself when attempting hills. I think those of us new to cycling either approach hills via brute force, staying in a relatively high gear and standing up in the pedals through most of it, mashing our knees into paste, or else we take the advice we've been given about gearing down and WAY over-apply (see: hamster on a wheel).

There is a balance, and when you're new to cycling and gearing, you will have to play around a bit to find out how your body works with your bike, but don't assume there's a numerical recipe you have to follow. I find that on the medium-difficulty hills I travel here, I never shift down to 1 on the left (my smallest, inner chainring in front). I may yet find a hill where that choice works for me.

After you've dealt with various inclines, hills and the subtleties of gearing for a while, you stop thinking about it so much, any more than you spend a lot of time thinking about shortening or lengthening your walking stride, or adjusting your posture, when you're walking up and downhill. You've got a lot of advice in the thread, but I'd suggest just going out and riding and seeing what works for you.
posted by maudlin at 3:15 PM on August 24, 2009

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