Not Evangelism

Monday, October 11, 2010

How to Fly: Spinning, not Grinding

There's a certain machismo to cycling and gears, the boasting and bragging rights that come from pushing an ever bigger gear.

The trouble is, it's not much fun to be grinding away in the big gears all the time, not desperately good for endurance; high resistance makes for anaerobic exercise, which is great for muscle building, but not sustainable over long periods. So for longer rides, the aim is to go for lighter resistance, easier gears, aerobic exercise, and possible to sustain for much longer.

When cyclists are training for particular events, they will put in a mix of high resistance work to build muscle and power, and low resistance work to build endurance. For the rest of us, it's about getting where we're going, and having fun doing it. Most of the time, casual cyclists are pushing harder gears than they need to, making cycling feel harder than it could.

A Brief Word on Gears

At the front of the drivetrain, the pedals are connected to the axle, and to one (or more) big chain rings.
On the rear wheel, there's a set of (one or more) gear cogs; at any one time the chain connects one chain ring at the front to one cog at the back.  As the pedals turn, so the front ring turns, moving the chain along, and turning the back cog, and so the back wheel.

If the front and rear cogs are exactly the same size, every turn of the pedals results in one turn of the back wheel; a 1:1 gearing.  More often, the chain ring is much larger than the rear cog, and a single turn of the pedals results in the back wheel turning more. As the difference increases, the bike goes farther forward with each revolution of the pedals.

The way that resistance works, it's harder work to turn a bigger gear, and easier to spin a smaller gear, which is why an easier gear is good for hills.

Spinning, not Grinding

The thing is, turning the pedals more quickly feels better. Struggling, grinding the gears is soul-destroying, agony. Also less safe: fighting to turn the pedals generally introduces a wobble, each leg moving the bike from side-to-side, out of control.

In the easier gears, the legs feel lighter; there is less effort to move the back wheel. With the right balance between ease and efficiency - that Beautiful Cadence - the bike fair glides along. And that's the point; bicycles, these clever machines, give wings to our feet, and we should use them to fly.

With modern bikes, we've got fingertip control of the gear ratio we use; we can adjust continually to find the one that suits the road conditions, find the gear that balances ease and efficiency. We can make cycling easier in a flash.

So forget the testosterone, stop bragging about gear inches and counting the teeth on your cogs. It doesn't matter. This isn't a race.

Shift to an easier gear. Set your legs free, and learn how to fly.

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