Help, My Bike Has Gears!
May 7, 2013 9:10 AM   Subscribe

After many years of riding single-speed cruisers with coaster brakes, I'm upgrading to a hybrid road bike. What do I need to know?

Snowflakey details: I used to live in a California beach city, where it was always 70 degrees and the roads and bike paths were well maintained. I commuted to my college campus by bike, logging about 4 miles per day. I usually brought a notebook and maybe a textbook or two, which easily fit in my bike's front basket. The bike was heavy and my pace was slow, but I didn't really care because my commute was so short.

I moved from California to Chicago, IL, and quickly realized the cruiser was not an appropriate city bicycle: it was slow and uncomfortable, and because of its cheap construction it fell apart when I started to commute 6 miles to work. I learned my lesson, and decided to purchase a Specialized Vita, which is a women's road hybrid. It seems perfect for my needs (fair-weather commuting, picking up food from the farmer's market, running errands around the neighborhood). The only issue: this is more bike than I'm used to, and I want to transition from beach cruiser to "serious bike" as smoothly as possible.

I'm 5'1, female, and I exercise about 6 hours a week, so I'm in fairly good shape. I'm also pretty informed about urban bike safety, and always wear a helmet. I'm mostly concerned about changing gears, braking, upgrades, and maintenance.

Gears: I drive a stick shift, and I understand that my bike gears are conceptually similar, except that there's more redundancy and I'm the engine. Much of the stuff I've looked at about cadence is over my head, and seems to be geared towards triathletes. I really just want to know which of my bike's 3x8 gears are appropriate for Chicago's flat streets (I understand this will be a ballpark estimate), whether I need to switch my gears while biking around the city, and how to tell when I'm pedaling at a non-ideal rate.

Braking: I remember from my childhood days that using just the front brake is a good way to flip over the handlebars. Should I use both brakes all the time? Should I mostly use the back brake? How do I brake quickly to avoid any hazards?

Upgrades: I've already purchased front and back "be seen" blinky lights. I'm planning on getting a handlebar mirror, horn, basket (for my small purse), and a rear mount so that I can use a crate or panniers (to carry groceries). Should I consider upgrading the tires and saddle eventually? Do I need fenders? Is a back fender necessary if I've got a crate on the back? Are there any other upgrades that will make my ride more awesome?

Maintenance: Beyond regular (annual?) tune-ups at my local bike shop, it seems that I need to oil the chain and keep the tires inflated. How do I oil the chain? Do I need to buy a pump, and do you have any recommendations? Is there any other maintenance I should be doing regularly.

Thanks in advance!
posted by therumsgone to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I remember from my childhood days that using just the front brake is a good way to flip over the handlebars. Should I use both brakes all the time? Should I mostly use the back brake? How do I brake quickly to avoid any hazards?

The front brake has the most mechanical advantage (engineers can feel free to correct me), so your stopping power is way better than just the rear brake. The reason people flip over the handlebars is in emergency-stop situations and they don't have their arms braced against the handlebars. If you brace your arms correctly, you won't flip. I always use front brake for stopping, the rear for slowing, and both for OMG stop nows.
posted by Think_Long at 9:17 AM on May 7, 2013

One little tidbit in your "upgrades" category: if you plan to carry groceries or other stuff, the Pletscher two-legged kickstand is your friend. So sturdy. So much less cussing :]

Yes, you'll need to buy a pump, because you want to make sure your tires are aired up before each ride. Properly inflated tires give a smoother ride and make it easier to pedal. The maximum PSI should be molded or stamped on the tire itself.

Gears: when you feel like you are grinding your knees, pick an easier gear. I mostly ride a singlespeed in a not-totally-flat area, so I feel like in Chicago you probably won't need most of your gears. Just keep in mind there's no prize for it being hard to pedal.

Saddle: if you like yours, keep it; if you don't, start looking for a different kind.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:18 AM on May 7, 2013

The best bike gear is one which lets you pedal at a comfortable speed, not spinning your pedals really fast, nor pushing against massive resistance. You should get comfortable changing gears regularly, and will begin to feel when you're in the wrong gear. Generally you'll want to change the rear gears more often, keeping the front gear in 2 or 3 unless you need to climb a steep hill. When changing gears remember that you need to function as the clutch: only try to shift gears when you're not putting much force through the pedals.

If the gear system isn't set up properly the chain might come off if you're in too high or low a rear gear; depending on the design of the gear system it should be possible to adjust the limits to prevent this from happening. Also, if your are in a certain combination of front and rear gear, the chain can run at an angle relative to the bike, causing rubbing and a clacking noise. If this occurs try shifting the front and rear gears to align the chain better.

As for maintenance - see this incredibly useful PDF (which also explains how to adjust the gear limits to stop the chain slipping off):
posted by DrRotcod at 9:19 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The cadence stuff is mostly about saving your knees. Faster pedaling, but less force required. Ideally you don't want to have to really push that hard to pedal -- so you shift to an easier-to-pedal gear ratio when the going gets tougher and to a harder-to-pedal gear ratio when it's easier.

Sheldon Brown's articles for beginners are a good place to start, and should have answers for a lot of your questions about things like braking technique.

As for the saddle and tires -- unless you're uncomfortable, no reason not to keep them. Look into proper adjustment for the saddle in particular (it may take some tweaking before you're really happy with it, and this can change over time and even based on what shoes you're wearing!)
posted by asperity at 9:19 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm inclined to disagree with Think_Long about breaking, if you're on a bike with excellent brakes and thick grippy tires using just the front breaks when going fast will almost always flip you over the handlebars. Best to use a combination of both when you need to stop quickly, and adjust the pressure in your hands to compensate for changes in the balance of the bike
posted by DrRotcod at 9:21 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Avoid switching to the gears that are on opposite ends of the chain ring at the same time (ie. biggest front chainring and smallest rear chainring). The resulting angle of the chain makes it more susceptible to the chain coming off. If the chain does come off you can often re-rail it in motion by changing to the middle gears of the chainring.

Just like a car low gears easier for starting off and going up hills. Cycling in high or difficult gears builds leg muscle but can also be very hard on your knees. Chicago is pretty flat though so you don't really need to worry to much about gears.

Oil your chain by using chain lube and wiping it with a rag afterwards. This works the oil into the chain, removes excess that will just collect dirt and increase chain wear, and keeps it off your pant leg
posted by srboisvert at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2013

One thing you should work on is getting in the habit of downshifting (shifting into a easier-to-push gear) as you're stopping. It'll make it easier to get going again, and doing it after you've stopped is a pain.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Gears: This is largely a fly-by-wire/how you feel at the present time kind of thing. As you gain speed, pedaling will obviously become easier, so it makes sense to shift to a higher gear. It really just depends on how fast you want to go and how much effort you can put into the pedals. The optimum will always change. I have a 3x6 bike, and I mostly just change the front gear - I use the middle or low position to start from a stop, and shift up as I gain speed, and try to shift back down if I need to stop. I just use the rear gear for fine-tuning.

Brakes: you're right that you'll go over the handlebars if you front brake too much, but your front brakes are the most effective at actually stopping you, so you will want to use them, especially if you're coming to a complete stop. You'll also want to use the rear, obviously, but you may be able to get away with just using the rear if you're only slowing down a bit.

Accessories: only reason to really get a fender is to prevent butt stripe, so if you've got something back there that blocks water/road sludge kicked up by the rear wheel, you should be OK.
posted by LionIndex at 9:24 AM on May 7, 2013

Gears: you should be in a gear low enough that you can maintain a good brisk cadence without it feeling at all labored. Get a sense for what a cadence of around 60 to 80 rpm feels like and then shift your gears accordingly to maintain that rhythm. As for "will you shift gears when riding around town"--yes. Once you get used to the gears that will sound to you like a silly question because you won't have any fear of shifting gears. You'll shift gears pretty much every time you ride the bike anywhere; just as in a car you'll want to be in a lower gear to start off with and then shift upwards as you gain speed.

Braking: your front brake is by far you most effective brake (which is why it can also send you over the handlebars). You should use both rear and front brakes in braking and learn to get a feel for the front brake so that you don't lock up the front wheel. If you try to use the rear brake only you'll find yourself skidding merrily forward in many situations where you'd much rather be coming to a stop.

You need fenders if it ever rains where you are and if you don't like having a great streak of mud up your back.

You'll want to both clean and oil the chain reasonably regularly. There are some handy-dandy chain cleaning tools you can buy from places like and You'll find that it's inevitably a bit of a messy job and you'll want a lot of cotton rags at hand. Lubing the chain after you've cleaned it is the easy-peasy part. Just crank the chain around and around a few times while inverting a little bottle of chain lube over first one side then the other of the chain.
posted by yoink at 9:25 AM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: There's a lot of questions here.

Much of the stuff I've looked at about cadence is over my head

Pedaling less than 60 rpm is generally going to cause knee pain over extended timeframes. However, I don't think it'll matter for 6 miles. It's certainly not a good thing for you, regardless. Pedaling faster than ~100 rpm tends to waste power (not important to you) and tends to cause inexperienced cyclists to bounce in their seats (more important to you). It's quite common to develop a "natural" cadence that you actually find it hard to deviate from. So long as your natural cadence is in the 60 rpm - 100 rpm ballpark, I don't think it's worth worrying about until you want to improve your performance.

I really just want to know which of my bike's 3x8 gears are appropriate for Chicago's flat streets

Don't think of gears as being "right" or "wrong", think of them as making pedaling easier or harder. If you find yourself pedaling too hard, shift down. If you find yourself pedaling with no resistance and bouncing in your seat, shift up. I don't actually even pay attention to what gear I'm in when riding. The one exception here is cross-chaining - using the smallest front gear and the smallest rear gear ("small-small") and the biggest front gear and the biggest rear gear ("big-big"). This isn't bad for you, but it tends to make a lot of noise and causes premature wear on the bike. I consider that, at most, a secondary concern and is something to worry about only later on.

Should I use both brakes all the time?

A lot of new cyclists find that easiest. It actually works out that's not mechanically optimal, but the difference is so slight as to not worry about.

Should I mostly use the back brake? How do I brake quickly to avoid any hazards?

The rear brake is the less powerful brake because of weight distribution. I won't get into the details, but if you want to stop fast, use the front brake. If you want to stop slowly (or just reduce your speed), use the front brake lightly or the rear brake. Many experienced cyclists don't ever use the rear brake. Again, I wouldn't worry too much about this and would suggest using both brakes just so long as you don't get in a habit of only using the rear brake.

Should I consider upgrading the tires and saddle eventually?

Unless you're uncomfortable, I wouldn't spend the money. When you're uncomfortable, you'll know how you're uncomfortable to know what you get. Saddles and tires aren't "better" or "worse", they're different. You might want a narrower saddle or a wider saddle. You might want narrower tires or wider tires. Until you ride more, you won't know these things. Plus, it's cheaper to wait!

Do I need fenders?

I'm from Seattle. Here, the answer would be if you want to ride outside June - August, yes. In Chicago, I'd suggest yes, but you could probably get away with them by just not riding when the road is wet. However, I don't like to not be able to ride when I want to.

Is a back fender necessary if I've got a crate on the back?

Yes, as a courtesy to the rider behind you.

Are there any other upgrades that will make my ride more awesome?

A proper headlight and not just a "be seen" blinky. For one thing, most "be seen" blinkies really aren't that bright unless you get the brightest on the market. For another, you'll notice car drivers treat you a lot differently with something like a 650 lumen headlight than a blinking light.

Beyond regular (annual?) tune-ups at my local bike shop, it seems that I need to oil the chain and keep the tires inflated. How do I oil the chain?

To a first degree, get "dry teflon chain lube" and follow the directions. I oil the chain about every 250 miles or whenever it rains out. A bit that isn't obvious is to clean the chain as well. If you just oil your chain, you'll start to accumulate chain grime from all the old oil/grime.

Do I need to buy a pump, and do you have any recommendations?

Absolutely. Tires lose pressure even if they are perfectly inflated and in perfect shape. This can be slow or fast depending on the size of your tires (larger tires deflate slower), but it will happen. I check tire pressure on every ride out of habit, because my (small) tires lose ~10 psi every couple days. I suggest a floor pump like this. Your bike may have a Presta valve or a Schrader valve, so make sure the pump either accommodates both or accommodates the one you have. Here's a page showing you the difference.

Is there any other maintenance I should be doing regularly.

Most bikes will go ~2000 miles without needing any maintenance beyond tire pressure and oiling the chain (at that point, the chain tends to start to wear out). If you ride less than 2000 miles a year, I suggest just taking your bike to a bike shop and asking for a tune-up. Until you ride more than that, the effort to do the maintenance at home isn't worth it. Once you're at that point, you'll know how much you like to do maintenance yourself (if you enjoy it at all), and you'll know what you need to do.
posted by saeculorum at 9:29 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I bike commuted in Chicago for years.

Gears: The short but unhelpful answer is, whatever feels right. You shouldn't be struggling to turn the pedals over, but you also shouldn't be spinning wildly. You don't need to shift gears that much, because the city is flat, but you may want them due to traffic. Start at a very easy gear at a traffic light, and then shift up until you feel some resistance, shifting up again when that begins to feel too easy. Don't worry about your cadence. It will come naturally.

Brakes: You should generally apply equal pressure to both brakes. The front has more stopping power. There is a specific emergency technique called a the Quick Stop, that involves squeezing the front brake about 3x as hard as the back, while sliding as far back as you can go over the rear wheel to prevent skidding.

Upgrades: I highly recommend fenders for inclement weather, which abounds year round in Chicago. If not for yourself, than for anyone who might be riding behind you! Upgrade your saddle if you feel the need to.

Maintenance: A year is fine for tune ups, although I'd get the first one after a month for a new bike, as the spokes may need adjustment after initially riding. Like others have said, get a good quality lubricant (I always liked Pedros). Lube the chain and wipe off excess with a rag. If its super dirty, you can repeat this process to help clean it.
posted by voiceofreason at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: Congratulations on your new bike/love affair! It's an exciting time. I'm actually about to purchase a new bike this week.

I'm no mechanic, but I have been riding and maintaining my bicycles for 12 years. Here's my take. I would also highly recommend Zinn and the Art of Mountain (or road) bike maintenance

Shifting: I never used my Granny (the smallest of your front chain rings) on my former bike, whether I was on flat ground or steep hills. I would use my two larger chainrings (typically my largest except if I'm on a prolonged, steep hill). But essentially, you want to feel resistance as you pedal (a sign that you're increasing your pace) without wearing yourself out. You can adjust as necessary and you may find yourself in higher gears as your legs get more accustomed to the commute.

Braking: Yes, use both brakes all the time. Check your pads every 2-4 weeks and replace the pads when the wear reaches the marker line on the pads. This is a good thing to learn how to do. Besides worn out pads, your cables may need tightening, particularly in the first few months of riding. This can be easily done.

Upgrades: Get a quality ulock like kryptonite and consider a second. Lock both tires to the frame and the frame to a bike rack. You probably already know this.

Tires: Slick tires for road riding get better traction than knobbies (for roads, not trails). I typically check Nashbar.

Fenders: If you plan on riding the rain or snow and you want to stay dry/clean, then I would get fenders. They do sometimes need tweaks if they rattle, but they're usually worth it.

Maintenance: The most critical and frequent maintenance jobs are chain and crankset cleaning and lubrication, tire pressure maintenance, and brake adjustments. Yes, get a pump. Check your tire walls for recommended PSI and pump to that. You can go to a local bike shop or amazon to purchase citrus-based degreaser and chain lube. I prefer dry lube to wet. Just keep a close eye on your chain and clean it whenever you see dirt/grease accumulation. Once a month is pretty good. perhaps less if you're riding less.
posted by SpicyMustard at 9:31 AM on May 7, 2013

Response by poster: I'm marking some of the more comprehensive questions as "best" but all have been helpful! Please keep them coming :-)
posted by therumsgone at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2013

I really just want to know which of my bike's 3x8 gears are appropriate for Chicago's flat streets (I understand this will be a ballpark estimate)

Mine is 3x7 (ordered from lowest to highest resistance - 1 is lowest resistance, etc) and I usually ride at 3x6 on flat streets or mixed-use paths (my seventh gear is sort of fucked or I'd be on 3x7). Depending on how strong your legs are and what your endurance is like, you might find yourself starting at, I don't know, 3x4 or whatever. This is a feeling-out process. You'll figure out what works for you pretty quickly.

whether I need to switch my gears while biking around the city

Switch to lower gears for uphills, higher gears for flats and downhills.

and how to tell when I'm pedaling at a non-ideal rate.

Again, it's something you'll feel. A good rule of thumb is if you feel like you're doing too much or too little work (either in terms of how hard you're pushing or how many RPMs your pedals are doing), you're in the wrong gear. The gear-shifting process is an intuitive one and becomes second nature before long - you won't even realize you're doing it.

I remember from my childhood days that using just the front brake is a good way to flip over the handlebars.

Others have covered this, but I will echo: You'll flip if you're at speed and then do an abrupt stop with just the front brake, but there aren't really many circumstances under which you'll be doing that (the only one I can think of is if your rear brake fails somehow, and even then you should be trying to come to a gradual stop).

Should I use both brakes all the time?

If you can help it, yeah. Using only one brake will put an uneven amount of wear on it compared to the other.

Should I mostly use the back brake?

Use both brakes whenever possible. This is another you'll need to feel out, but bear in mind that you don't need to jam on the brakes. Lightly grip them to slow the bike down. Coaster brakes, if memory serves, don't really allow you much finesse - either the brake is on or it's not - but you have a lot more freedom with grip brakes. You won't just be using them to stop but to slow down as well.

How do I brake quickly to avoid any hazards?

Grip both brakes tightly. This should only be done if something jumps out in front of you or whatever.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2013

Rim brakes don't work as well when they're wet, so if you're used to a coaster brake bike, that can be a real shock (scary and dangerous). If you're riding in the rain, get in the habit of trying your brakes periodically even if you don't need them, so that you know how well they're working and to keep them a little dryer.

Gears are, as everyone else has said, basically a matter of what feels comfortable to you. I think new or infrequent bikers tend to use a gear that's too high— so when you're shifting, try to err on the side of lower gears (that is, faster-but-easier pedaling). This also helps out a little with the "I forgot to downshift before stopping" situation deadmessenger mentions.

If you're in a flat city and aren't in a hurry, you can probably avoid shifting very much until you feel more comfortable with it, but I expect you'll pick this up pretty quickly once you start riding the bike regularly. It's normal to change gears pretty often, just like in a car.

If your chain comes off regularly or it's hard to keep it from making the gronk-gronk-chunk-chunk noise it makes when it's halfway shifted, you can take it to a bike shop and have them adjust the derailleurs (or do it yourself, if you prefer; most bike adjustments are pretty easy and there are a zillion guides on the web). A happy chain should be nearly silent.
posted by hattifattener at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2013

Gears: Set the front gears to the middle gear (or chain ring, as the front ones are called) and never touch it again. In the rear, just remember that small numbers = easy, big numbers = hard. Start out in the small numbers and as you speed up, shift to he bigger numbers. If you find that it's too hard to start out even with the lowest gear in the back, then maybe change your front gear to the smaller (easier) chain ring. Or if you find out you never use the 2 or 3 smallest gears in the back, try moving to the bigger (harder) chain ring. I generally keep it on the big chain ring except when climbing a hill.

Braking: Do what feels right. Bear in mind that the front brakes are far more effective (maybe twice) compare to the back brakes. Once you get used to using the hand brakes and develop a feel for them, you'll know how much pressure to use to avoid overloading the front brake and lifting the rear wheel. (I find it hard to do myself, unless going down hill.)

Upgrades: I recommend getting a true "see" light, maybe 200-1000 lumens. I prefer a helmet mirror to a handlebar mirror; you can truly scan a full 360 degrees with a helmet mount mirror by just swiveling your head a bit. (I also recommend the helmet, but that's a personal choice that can lead to contentious debates.) I don't have a horn, but I have bells on all my bikes. I use them more for other bikes and pedestrians than for cars. If I want to "beep" at a car, I just yell HEY! Tires: Consider flat-proof or flat-resistant. If your bike has knobby tires, consider getting something more like slicks if you're running primarily in the city. Saddle: I'm a Brooks saddle guy (the expensive leather ones). To me, more comfy than any kind of padded saddle. I like fenders. They keep you and your stuff at least somewhat dry in the rain, help keeps the rest of the bike clean in dusty conditions, and they just look spiffy. Make sure you have a kickass lock.

Maintenance: Yes, get your own pump and learn how to use it. Know how to change a flat when out on a ride. For chain maintenance, you can by chain cleaner & lube at a bike shop. Just squirt a little on the chain once in a while (I do it at the start of a ride to avoid dripping under the bike in its storage spot).
posted by Doohickie at 11:46 AM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: Welcome to biking in Chicago! I think most of what you've asked has been covered, but I'll add that once you start riding regularly you might want to pay attention to the lights and your speed. That is, nobody likes stopping at lights but you can time your pace to allow yourself not to hit most lights. This falls in with the excellent advice of learning to downshift to an "easier" gear before you get to a light/stop. If you start off from a stop in a hard gear your knees will hate you.

A few Chicago resources you might find interesting:
The Chainlink is the bike community's message board. Ask for advice, make friends or find a group/ride you want to join. I started going on rides through a few different groups and have made a whole new group of friends who are passionate about biking.

We have a women-only critical mass named Critical Lass. Rides are once a month and change location, usually stopping somewhere for a beer/dinner at the end.

Dottie from Let's Go Ride a Bike has a lot of posts and videos about bike commuting in Chicago, what to wear in the winter, etc. She also often organizes a "Women Who Bike Brunch" once a month which are great events to meet awesome women and get advice (like on what are good routes, for example). In the summer we have picnics, which are more lightly attended but easier to make friends at.

West Town Bikes has open shops where you can come in and work on your bike alongside instructors, including a night for women only.

You mentioned riding on well maintained trails back in California. We have those! Have you ridden on the lakefront path yet? It's gorgeous and much less busy on week days and South of 35th. The North Branch Trail starts around Devon and goes through forest preserve (deer, nature, fresh air!) all the way up to the Botanical Gardens. It's a beautiful ride. Then there's the Green Bay Trail that runs along the North Shore closer to the lake. You can pick up the North Shore Channel Trail and head back to the city alongside a sculpture park in Skokie. This doesn't help with your commuting but there are options for getting out there and (mostly) away from traffic.

Lastly, my favorite bike-themed event of the year is coming up July 13th. Tour de Fat is a free one day festival put on by New Belgium in Palmer Square. It's super fun, and there's a slow bike parade in the morning which most people dress up for.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:54 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

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