Bike Gears Explained: Guide For New Cyclists

bike gears closeup

In most cases, you can find new riders rotating their pedals manually and tediously as they grind their way on the trail or road, almost unable to push the bicycle to it’s destination. These people’s riding experience would be great if they could learn how to use their gears in the right manner.

Are you new to cycling? Are you wondering about the best gear to use for your bike rides?

Worry not. This article is meant to introduce you to different speeds and the best way to utilize them.

Bike Gear Basics

Here’s a look at some of the more common bike gear knowledge that you should know.

What are the bike gears & why do you need them?

Gears are those aspects that enable us to ride quickly, move up a hill with more speed, and easily give you maximum enjoyment. It does so by determining the relation between the cadence, pedaling rate, and drive wheel turning rate.

They convert your manual input at the pedals to output at your wheels.

As a cyclist, the gears are there to allow you to maintain a comfortable pedaling speed (or cadence) on your ride, regardless of the terrain (or gradient) that you encounter on your ride. This is something that is not possible when riding a single gear bike.

Where are the bicycle gears?

There are various gears on a bicycle but are generally either located as front or rear gears. Beginners need to understand these gears and what they offer riders.

Below are the two categories of bicycle gears.

Front gears: These front gears are also known as chainrings, Crankset, or the front ones. The Crankset is commonly comprised of crank arms and front gears.

There are two types of Crankset; the double or triple chainrings (2x and 3x), respectively.

The smallest chainring is near the frame, and the lower it is, the easier it is to pedal. When the chain moves away from the center, pedaling becomes hander, but one moves faster.

How do you identify these chains? Generally, chainrings are identifiable by their position or size on the bike.

They are inner, outer or middle, big or little ring.

Rear gear (Cassette): These are gears on the rear wheel of the bicycle also cogs. When several of them are put together in ascending order on the rear wheel, they are known as cassettes.

During the past few years, most of the bikes manufactured have about eight to eleven cogs in their cassette. The gears are numbered from inside out with the largest cogs closer to the wheel.

The larger the sprocket, the lower the gear, and the easier it is to pedal but generally move on a slower speed.

How many gears for a bike?

When we talk gears, we are generally referring to speeds. The number of speeds that a bike has can be confusing.

While most marketers usually multiply the number of cogs with chainrings, most bike riders refer to the cassette’s number cogs as the speeds. Thus, a bicycle with 18 gears is known as an 18-speed bike.

Generally, bikes have one to twenty-seven speeds. However, ten and fifteen speeds have become basically obsolete in recent years.

How do you tell the number your gears are?

For a bike with three speeds, it is pretty easy to tell as there is only one shifter labeled 1, 2, and 3. However, if your bicycles have ten and above speeds, it may be challenging to tell it has two shifters; left and right shifters.

For instance, if you have an 18-speed bike, your left shifter is labeled 1, 2 to 3, while the right shifter is labeled number 1 to 6.

How many gears do you need?

Now that you understand how gears work and different kinds of gears, you may be wondering how many you need for your bike. The answer may vary depending on the reason for purchasing your bike.

However, despite the many reasons, the number of gears does not make your riding experience better. In my experience, increasing the number of gears is a marketing hype that marketers use to attract more clients to purchase the bike.

Now that there are bikes with more than 20 speeds, do you need that many speeds? The answer is no.

Instead, what you need is an excellent range of gears. For moving up a hill, you need low gears and high enough gears that will allow you to keep on pedaling while moving down a slope gently.

As such, your gear range just needs to be good, and their numbers are irrelevant.

How do you know the gear range your bicycle has?

There is a misconception that you can know the number of gear range your bike has by the number of gears it has. It is not often true that the more gears that one has, the wider it is the gear range.

The only way to know your bike’s gear range is by taking your bike for a ride test. Go up the high hill you all anticipate to climb in the future and move down very fast.

Why do you need to test in a hilly place? This is because, in a flat area, you are likely not to use gears at all.

How do you use these gears on your bike?

There is no need to have various types of gears at your disposal and fail to use them, and use them appropriately. There are various designs of shifters available in the market and may be operated differently, but they are all easy to use after getting used to them.

Gears on the left-hand side are for the front wheel while those on the right are for the rear wheel.

How do these gears on your bicycle work?

  • Speed inches

These gears convert the riders’ effort to output at the cranks located at the rear wheel. Then, your pedaling speed (cadence) is transformed into various gears at the rear wheel based on whether the rider is on high or low gear.

Gear inches are a measure used to determine the furthest that the bicycle moves at every pedal stroke. For instance, the number of inches that the bicycle rolls forward at every complete spin of the cranks is typically described by gear inches.

With gear inches, it is possible to know how challenging or simple the speeds are. The range of 20 inches is an indication of smooth gears; 70 inches are medium while 100 and above are difficult.

  • Gear range

It is the percentage of the total ratio provided by the bike system. In other words, a percentage range of 300% would give a ratio of 3:1.

If you use the uppermost gear, you will move about three times faster compared to when you use the lower speed per pedal stroke.

When to use which gear?

Imagine you are pedaling up a hill at high speed. One would be required to apply a lot of force on the pedals as you move to the top.

However, at a lower speed, your energy input on the pedals is smaller, but it is possible to spin faster.

The energy you put in every instance is equal, and the work performed the same as the force-distance. That is to mean, if you input half the force required, you all be required to pedal twice faster.

Given that there is a boundary to the amount of force that your leg can generate, there comes the need to change speeds to minimize the desired level of energy input and boost your pedaling speed.

Thus, simply if you are moving up a hill, it is wise to use lower gears, and when moving down the slope, you apply high speeds.

Bike Gear Ratio Basics

Front chainring (front gears): Most bikes nowadays come with either a 53/39 tooth chainring on the front or what we call a compact which can either be a 50/34t, 50/36t or a 52/36t. While these combinations are the most common, there are occasions where gearing such as a 54/44t is used.

Knowing the area you’re riding or going to, goes a long way in picking the right gear combination.

The size of gears on the front of the bike is calculated by the number of teeth on the chainring. The more the number of teeth on the front chainring, the more power is required to push that gear, or the higher the top end speed is.

If we break this into categories, we are provided with a compact (50/34t), a semi compact (52/36t) and a standard (53/39t) crankset.

Rear cassette (rear gears):  While the front gears have limited options, the rear gears (cassette) can confuse the average cyclist. The most common gearing range on the rear is marked again in the number of teeth on the cassette.

Your typical rear cassette combinations come in a range of sizes. 11-23t, 11-25t, 11-28t, 12-23t, 12-25t, 12,28t. These are of course the most common, with newer bike models and rear derailleurs now able to run up to a 30t on the rear cassette.

Of course, this entirely depends on the number of gears you have on the back of the bike, is to what cassette ratios are available. The higher the number of gears available, means the closer the number of teeth can be between each step or each gear shift.

This is called the step between gears. Allowing a closer step between each gear allows better controlling of your cadence, so you don’t get stuck in either a too easy or harder gear ratio.

Picking the right gearing for the conditions (Gear Ratio vs Gradient)

If we take an area with a basically flat terrain compared to an area known for its mountains and hilly terrain, then you’ll need completely different gearing. For example, if you’re cycling in Boulder, then you know that the area has climbs (such as Pikes Peak which climbs above 14,000 feet) with an average gradient of 6.5%.

So you’d use completely different gearing for hilly and mountain area like Boulder than a flat area in Kansas.

So how do you pick the correct gearing on the bike for your  terrain? So, if you’re in an area known for being quite mountainous (like Boulder), then you expect a lot of climbs with steeper gradients.

And that means your lower gear needs to be able to provide you with an easy enough gearing to get you up the climbs while still allowing you to control your cadence, speed and heart rate better while climbing.  Combining a 50/34t or a 50/36t with a 12-28t gives even the most novice of cyclists the ability get over the climbs. 

Keep in mind that using smaller front chainrings allows you to pick and choose the combination on the rear cassette in much more detail. Usually, the more gradual the climb, the closer the number of teeth of each gearing can be used on the back such as an 11-23t or 12-25t.

Because you are riding at a more controlled speed you want to have better control over your cadence, heart rate, and power.

With a climb that changes gradient more rapidly, you need to compensate this with a broader range of teeth on the rear, such as an 11-28t. Since your cadence is going to be changing quite dramatically on the steeper sections you need to account for this with an easier gear, while still having the lower number of teeth for the lower gradients.

This also comes into context on descending, a cassette such as an 11-28t will allow the 11t to be used on a descent, giving you a slightly higher top end speed, that a 12-28t can’t give you but still proving enough “harder gearing” for the faster or downhill sections.

If you’re looking at flatter area for riding, then you’ll find that your gear choice is a lot easier. Typically a larger front chainring combination such as a 53/39 is the popular choice here because you are riding on flat terrain a higher average speed, compared to that of a hillier area.

When you’re riding on the flat you just have the wind that affects the gearing choice. Picking a larger chainring on the front will allow a higher top end speed with a tail wind, and combining this with a straight block cassette (smaller step between each gear) allows you to fine tune your cadence constantly.  While still allowing small enough gearing for the head wind sections.

Because you don’t have the change in gradients on a climb, the choice of gearing you will use becomes tighter, rather than larger jump between each gear shift.

To make this more complicated, if the area you are riding lacks windy conditions and the average speed is constant, an even closer gear ratio is possible. Gearing such as 54/44 can allow a slighting larger gearing for stronger cyclists, while still providing a lower gearing with the 44t front chainring if the wind picks up. 

And just a refreshed on some of these terms – The term gradient refers to the terrain that you are riding your bike on. And the term gear ratio refers to the relationship between sprockets and chainrings, for example ‘53×12’, or the sprockets on a cassette (11-25).

When do you shift your gears?

Now that you know how gears operate, are you wondering when is one required to change gears? The answer to this question is simply anticipation.

Focus and look ahead and forecast how the gear is likely to change the likelihood of being needed to shift the speed.

  • When nearing a sharp corner: as you near a tight turn, you all anticipate the need to reduce the speed, thus requiring you to change into a lower speed, enabling you to accelerate after negotiating a corner pretty quickly.
  • Riding to the top of a hill/towards the wind: if you are moving up a mountain or into the wind, it is logical that ones’ perceived force increases; thus, it is logical that you all be required to change to the lower gear accounting for that.
  • Making a stop: if you are approaching some traffic rights, you may be required to make a stop, It is, therefore, essential to shift into a more comfortable speed such that you can accelerate more quickly after the lights switch to ago.

Do’s and don’ts when shifting gears

  • When you are at a halt using the external drivetrain: it is not advisable to shift gears when you are on a halt using external drivetrain. Instead, you should continue pedaling to assist in a smooth shift as you gradually change across a variety of gears to get to the suitable one.
  • Avoid cross-chaining: do you have several chainrings? It is advisable to evade being either on small to small or large to a large combination of sprocket-chainring. Such extreme angles will place the chain to increase the high weight on the drivetrain.  
  • With hub gears/ gearboxes, make a shift: if you are using these gears, it is possible to shift when at a halt. They are sensitive to changing below the load such that they assist in unloading the cranks slightly as you shift.

Two primary types of the gear change mechanism

  • Derailleur gears: it is also known as external gearing because all the sprockets involved are visible. Most of the market’s bikes are made up of external drivetrains that have been refined into a simple, lightweight, and efficient system.

Gears are shifted on the cassette by the rear derailleur, in return shifting the chain up and down the cassette. As the derailleur moves to shift the gears, it pushes the chains against ramps, moving it onto a larger or smaller sprocket.

The bicycle may also have a front derailleur. It is responsible for shifting the chains between chainrings that are attached to the cranks.

The front gears provide a large jump, efficiently changing the range of your gears such that they are more suited for high speed, flat terrain, or slowly climbing. As you modulate your effort, the cassette allows you to pick your gears precisely within the range.

  • Hub gears: are also known as internal gearing, as they are all hidden within the wheel hub. They work using planetary to change the speed of the hub casing and the wheel concerning the drive sprocket’s speed. They have a single chainring and rear sprocket.

You can find this type of gears mostly between 2 and 14 speeds; weight and price increases based on the number of gears that your bike has. They are most popular among commuters who want a robust and relatively maintenance-free drivetrain.

Three tips on how we use gears when cycling

  • Avoid cross-chaining: in other words, it means having a combination of either little/little or big/big. Cross-chaining can stress the drivetrain causing premature wear of the components. You may find yourself cross-chained for a short while, but it is essential to avoid such incidences. The fundamental rule to follow is to ensure that when you are on a big ring, use only the smaller two-third of the cassette. If you are on the inner or middle ring, use only the inner two-thirds. Lastly, if you are on the granny gear, restrain yourself to the most significant two or three cogs.
  • Shifts anticipation: Like any other motorist on the road, keep an open eye on the road and shift even before you are required, to maintain smoother power output. Besides, you will be able to change when there is less stress on the drivetrain, supporting a steady shift. If you are approaching a stop sign such as a red light, it is recommended to downshift several gears and anticipate getting going again as smoothly as possible.
  • Keep pedaling: it is much better to maintain a constant and steady power than bursting and coast riding. While it may feel as if you are exercising, putting all that weight in your muscles is not recommended at a sustained effort. Spinning light and fast will result in putting out the same amount of power; however, it will shift the weight to your cardio-vascular system necessary for endurance activity.

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