One of the many new things you may need to relearn about cycling is where your power comes from. Your thighs pump your legs to turn the pedals; your core acts like a wall for the thighs to push against. So at first glance it seems pushing your muscles to the limit is the best way to move those pedals faster. But the food you’ve eaten powers those muscles. So, pushing them too hard will exhaust your energy which will inevitably slow you down. How do you ride, then, without constantly exhausting yourself?
The answer is cadence. Cadence is the rhythm of your feet as they turn to push the pedals. A good rider will balance cadence power output. Given a flat smooth road and a windless, generally, a very fast cadence (say 120 revolutions per minute) may help to avoid exhaustion, but won’t move your bike very far forward for the effort you’re putting out. A very slow cadence (say 50 rpm) will likely involve pushing hard on the pedals with each downstroke, and pulling up hard on the upstroke — it might move your bike forward faster, but it will definitely exhaust you. (Read my prior article on why higher cadence is better.) The answer is to modulate your cadence based on road conditions and your fitness level. How do you modulate your cadence?
And that answer is effective use of gearing and fitness. The first and easiest step is to learn to use your gears. Assuming you have a road bike with two front cogs (together, “the chainring”) and ten or eleven rear cogs (together “the cassette”) — a very common set — practice using your front gear as a macro adjustment and your rear gear as a micro adjustment:
- When descending, be sure the front gear is in the large chain ring.
- When on flat or rolling hills, use large front chain ring if you have a tailwind (wind aiding you by pushing you in the direction of travel).
- When on flat or rolling hills, use the small front chain ring if you have a headwind (wind hindering your by pushing you backwards).
- When climbing, be sure the front gear is in the small chain ring.
How you do this is dependent on what kind of components your bike has. (See REI’s article explaining gears.) But the front controls on most road bikes are on the left side. Usually, you have to force the derailleur to push the gear UP onto the large ring, so the “faster” gears are achieved with a bit more effort on the gear lever, while to gear DOWN you are releasing the pressure, so the shift is more like a click.
Once you’re in the correct front cog, use the rear cogs to micro adjust your performance. If you find yourself sweating, huffing, and using too much muscle power, you may want to push the rear gear UP into a larger (higher) cog. If you find your legs spinning like mad while all the world passes you, you may want to RAISE the gear by pushing the rear gear DOWN into a smaller cog.
Gaining a basic understanding of the mechanics is important, but the only way to do it is to try it out. (See this article for an explanation of how to shift.) Don’t be shy to play with your gears. Try riding on flats first in the big chain ring (front gear). Then try the same ride later in the small chain ring. Then micro adjust with the rear to keep your legs spinning.
You may notice a subtle difference in how you ride and the difficulty. This is, in part, because there is a big overlap in the “gearing ratio” (see prior link) — some of the same gears are represented by different combinations of chain ring/cassette gearing.
Here’s a quick list of common gear combinations which may help gel the whole thing in your brain:
- The “easiest” gear combination for climbing is the chain is all the way TOWARD the bike (small chain ring, largest cassette cog);
- The “hardest” gear for descending is the chain all the way AWAY FROM the bike (large chain ring, smallest cassette cog).
There are two combinations which you should avoid: largest chain ring and largest cog; smallest chain ring and smallest cog. This is called cross chaining. In these configurations, you put the most stress on the chain. Better components can do this no problem, but if you’re dropping your chain a lot, check to see if you’re doing this.
The takeaways are this:
- Big front chain ring: climbing — Small front, descending.
- Large rear cassette: easier — Small rear, more power.
- Maintain a cadence which does not exhaust you, but moves you forward at the desired pace.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Next week, I’m going to write about fitness and cadence and give you some target cadences which should help with your understanding. Also, you can get a good cadence meter for your bike pretty cheap — apart from your speed, cadence is a good metric to help gauge your cycling (though I’d invest in a heart rate monitor first).