We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Gears

This week I ran a cycling program for my bike club called: “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Gears“.  I have talked about gears and cycling for a number of years but this is the first time I pulled together a program that dealt with the topic en masse.

Audience and Do we Need Another Post?

A quick Google search indicates more than 500,000 hits on this topic – so why another post?  Firstly as a reminder for me when I do this instruction in person.  Secondly because the audience for this post is the person who is keen to learn but is trailing behind in a 20KM ride and the thought of riding 50KM seems absolutely daunting.

As always, if you have improvements (e.g. Phrank has no idea what he is talking about, don’t listen to him), comment away!  As well, take a read of the 500,000 or so other resources on the internet; including some of the better ones I stumbled across, see the conclusion section below.

The Big Gear is Connected to the Little Gear

Bikes typically have two sets of gears: front and back.  The front one is called the crank or the chain rings and the rear one is the cassette.  The numbers of gears vary: 2-3 front rings 5-9 cassette rings are common.  Looked at on angle, both sets of gears look like a cone with the top loped off.  The front one has more lopping and a wider base and the rear one less so on both accounts.

The little gear on the crank is the first gear or number 1 with the reverse for the cassette.  From there the numbers ascend until you run out of gears to count (e.g. 3 on the crank and 9 on the cassette).  The chain connects the front and the back and transmits the power.

You Can Count on Your Gears

If you look at a bike, the first gear in the front, the small one, is closer to the bike.  From there the second and third are further away from the bike.  Just like in a car, a first gear is good for climbing hills.  Similarly, the first gear on the rear is also number 1 and it is also good for climbing hills.

Here is the tricky bit, watch carefully….

If you look at the rear cassette the cone is reversed or inverted from the front.  That is the big gear is close to the rim and the small (first) gear is furthest away from the bike.  This gives the bike its mechanical advantage.  For example, if you divide the number of teeth of the front gear by the number in the back you get a ratio of roughly how many fully pedal strokes it takes to turn the rear cassette once.  The following graphic does a better job of showing this ratio.  Assuming this configuration exists, for every turn of the front crank, the rear hub would turn somewhere between 0.8 and 4.0 times.

Mecahnical Advantage of a 3 ring crank X a 9 ring cassette.

mechanical Advantage of a 3 ring crank X a 9 ring cassette.  This gear configuration is for illustrative purposes only, your gear ratios will likely vary from the above.

The Missing Gears

The good news is that you paid extra for that 27 speed bike… the bad news, using all 27 is inadvisable.  Chains like to run in rings that are mostly parallel to each other.  They can handle a bit of an angle but not too much.  A cross geared bike will not only wear faster but is more susceptible for the chain jumping from one ring to another.  This is why it is important to get used to shifting through both the front and rear gears – so you can maximize the 27 gear POTENTIAL of your bike.

Proper and Cross Chain gearing. Image courtesy of REI.com.

Proper and Cross Chain gearing. Image courtesy of REI.com.

Cadence, Torque and a Little Downstroke will Do Ya

In an early blog, The Art of Riding Bikes, there is a discussion of the importance of cadence over torque.  Torque is the big strong guy grinding up the hill.  Cadence is the 90lbs lady passing him on the hill pedalling in a seemingly effortless manner.

You do need to apply torque to the pedal, some force is needed.  The analogy I use is: ‘apply as much force to the pedal as you would to a soccer ball being kicked to a two-year-old’.  Now, unless you like kicking balls hard at small children, this means a relatively light amount of effort.

Because the effort is less, something needs to compensate to provide power to the bike – this is where cadence and gears come in.  Try to keep your cycle strokes the same with a consistent force allowing the gears to compensate for the terrain or wind.  How many strokes?  Aim for anything between about 70-120 per minute with an ideal of about 90.  Your legs will tell you if you have too many revolutions per minute or if you can add a few more to the mix.

Put the Peddle to the … Little Metal Thing on your Cycling Shoe

The peddles are how we convert the up and down motion of your legs to the circular motion of the gears.  What is the best pedal to use, the answer is one you are comfortable with.  Before you stick to the tried and true flat pedal (available on kids bikes everywhere), to think about and consider adding toe clips, baskets or cycling cleats to your pedal ensemble.  They will help you transmit more energy with very little or no additional effort on your part.

At this point in the discussion I usually get dubious looks about attaching a bike to the bottom of one’s shoe.  To start, you will probably fall over due to unclipping at least once (ish) and it will take practice.  Some very good riders I know have forsaken the clip and they do fine.  A basket or cleat will take you further but you have to comfortable and trusting in the relationship.

A Shift in Cycling Style

Putting all of the above together takes practice.  Shifting needs to become simple muscle memory that you no longer think about.  To do this you need to get on the bike and start riding and shifting through the gears – both the front and the rear.  On a flat stretch, consciously practice working from the first gear front/back to the highest gears (e.g. 3/9) in the rear.

By becoming comfortable with shifting you can then better anticipate and be shifting up or down an instant or two before you need to.  By doing so, you can maintain that constant cadence and torque discussed above which in turns allows you to cycle for longer time periods and thus distances.

Alas you will run out of gears on some future hill that is a bit too steep.  At this point you have one of three choices.  Firstly get off and walk.  Due to a missed gear, a steep hill or other reasons (my dog ate my homework and so I had to walk my bike); sometimes the walk is the best answer.

Your second option is to traverse the hill.  Assuming the path way is wide enough, cut an angle back and forth across the hill rather than straight up it.  This will add some distance but cut down the angle of attack.

Send Your Nether-regions a Post

The final hill climbing technique is the post.  This is where you stand in the pedals and lift your tender bits off of the seat.  As an added bonus, the method also allows for blood to return to the pelvic floor thus reducing the discomfort of a allow a saddle to come in contact with your No-Sunshine Zones.  Posting is a short-term solution as you are switching from low-torque-high-cadence model to a high-torque-low-torque model.

Conclusion, Further Reading and Good Links

Once again, this post is meant to be used as a memory jog for me and a learning aid for the people I am standing in front of.  If you want to learn more, the internet has a plethora of material including posts that are a lot more technically accurate than the above (including strange algebraic symbols).

See you on the road!


I ripped off their graphic so the least I can do is point out an excellent article on their website: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/bike-gears-and-shifting.html

Coach Levi

Very good article cover many of the same topics as in the blog:


When in doubt, what have the wiki’ites to say about the topic:

Still More Links!

Bike Gears: How Do They Work


Are you using your bike’s gears efficiently?

Gearing 101 Tutorial: A bit technical and much more detail then the above.  http://www.cyclingsite.com/lists_articles/gearing_101.htm