When you first swing your leg over the saddle of a road bike, the rush of speed that comes from handling such a light weight nimble machine can be exhilarating. However, though it really is 'as simple as riding a bike' one of the things that beginners struggle with is how to use the gears efficiently.
The good news is that though the swanky levers might seem confusing at first, they'll make perfect sense in no time. Here are a couple of easy errors to avoid to help you get to grips with the system quickly...
Worrying about what does what
There are three key shifting systems: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. In each case, the levers work differently - we've got a guide to which way they need to be poked and prodded to increase or decrease resistance here.
Of course, it makes sense to read up on how your gears work before you get out on the road, and to have an understanding of what the levers do. However - it's all too common that beginners get themselves in a bit of a tiz over what does what. The best way to get to grips with your gears is practice. Before you head out to hilly terrain, ride around the block, and practice shifting up and down. If you end up shifting the wrong way it won't be a problem as you'll be on a flat road. Keep going until the penny drops - and it will - eventually shifting will be second nature.
Crossing the chain
First up: nothing awful will happen if you cross your chain. No puppies will die, and contrary to what many experienced roadies might suggest, everyone's done it and will no doubt do it again. However, it's a habit best avoided where possible.
Both of the images below show a 'crossed' chain. In the first, the chain is on the big chainring (most resistance) and largest cassette cog (least resistance). In the second it's in the small chainring (least resistance) and smallest cassette cog (most resistance):
This means that the chain is being forced to stretch, which can cause a nasty rattling noise and could result in the chain slipping. That and it's not very efficient so could waste your energy.
To avoid this, when in the 'big' ring, try to stay in the cogs which offer more resistance, when you need less resistance on a hill or when riding into the wind, drop into the smaller ring and use the lower effort gears on the cassette.
We've got more pictures and descriptions of ideal gear uses in this post How to Use Your Gears Efficiently.
Churning a high gear or spinning a low one
When you're using a gear that's too high, your cadence - revolutions of the pedals per minute (RPM) - will sink. The perfect 'RPM' varies per individual, but around 90RPM is usually quoted as a sensible base, though this may sink to 70 or 80 on a hill. Without a cadence monitor it's hard to know exactly what you're spinning at, though you can count revolutions once in a while to get an idea where you're at.
It'll take you a little while to find the cadence that works for you, but if you find you're pushing really hard, and really slowly, on the pedals then you probably need to use lower gears. Over-gearing can cause knee pain so really is best avoided. If you're spinning like crazy and going nowhere, you need to shift up.
You'll find more detailed advice on shifting gears for the hills here: How to Use Your Gears When Cycling Uphill.
Having levers set up so you can't reach them
One of the major issues women have when riding standard unisex bikes is difficulty reaching the gear and brake levers. Women generally have smaller hands than men, and our bikes often need to be adjusted accordingly.
The good news is that though out of reach levers present a major problem for women and can severely reduce confidence, it's very easy to adjust the reach to remove the issue completely.
If the issue is with the distance between the lever and the bar, you can adjust the lever itself. Unfortunately the method for this varies depending upon the system your bike is fitted with, but all you need to do is check which levers you have (just google your bike and check the spec sheet) and search for the user's maintenance guide. Or, ask your local bike shop.
The other option is to invest in a different set of handlebars with a shallow drop, these reduce the distance between the bar drop and lever.
Finally, if the levers are simply too far away, you'll probably benefit from a shorter stem and perhaps a narrower handlebar. The best option is to get advice via a bike fit, but you can also pick up tips on how to make adjustments here.
Not maintaining your gears
Ok, we can't all have a pro mechanic set our bike up on a stand for every ride. But looking after your gears will make for happier riding.
Cleaning your bike keeps the transmission smooth and reliable. Cables can also stretch over time, and gears do need adjusting - if one click is no longer resulting in a sharp movement into the next cog, then it's time to check your bike in for a service or go in a short maintenance course to learn how to do it yourself.
We hope that removes some of the confusion around getting to grips with road bike gears. The key to success, however, will always remain the same: practice. Which is great news because it means lots more bike riding!
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