A Commuter Rides a Century: 4 Quick Tips for Shifting Gears

Follow Active.com Editor Brian Kendall as he trains for his first century ride. Check out his last entry here.

For a long time, I pretended my 9-speed road bike was a fixie.

I’m sure this type of inefficiency enrages experienced cyclists, but I used to avoid shifting gears like Mark Cavendish avoids hills. A steep incline or sudden decline would remind me that such a luxury exists, and I would shift once or twice to relieve my struggles, but I typically stayed firmly within a small gear range.

As for the front chainring? Well, I hardly even knew my left shifter existed..

However, once I started riding more frequently—and for longer stretches—my Darwinian need for survival necessitated a change.

But to save you from suffering through the same exhausting and painful lessons I did, I’ve compiled a few tips you can employ on your next ride.

1. Find Your Cadence and Try to Stick With It

Unless it’s on a dare, it would be torturous to attempt 100 miles using merely three or four gears. The wind, terrain and general exhaustion are all obstacles that shifting helps alleviate.

But when should you switch gears?

The easy answer is to change gears whenever pedaling is becoming either too hard or too easy a task. You need to discover that middle ground.

Start by trying to find a comfortable cadence and stick with it. If it’s too difficult to keep a strong cadence, switch your rear cassette down a couple gears and see if it helps. If it’s suddenly becoming too easy and you find your legs spinning at far too many revolutions per minute, shift up a gear or two.

As you find your cadence, you’ll ultimately get in a groove and find yourself switching to higher gears (physicists call this phenomenon momentum).

Think of it like a standard transmission car (for those who can still drive a stick). Once you get those four wheels rolling, you pop it into higher and higher gears until coasting at greater speeds becomes far more efficient.

You can put the pedal to the metal in a low gear and get nowhere fast, but the engine is still working just as hard. You need to switch gears to take advantage of the engine’s full power.

Your legs are essentially the engine that make the bike go, and once they get going, using higher gears increases your efficiency.

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