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Gears Explained



Kevin asked me recently if I would do this months article on gear. I said fine and I understand why he couldn’t do it.

“Why’s that matey?” he said

I relied “well no one’s going to listen to you writing about gear – after all you are the man who turned up for the Christmas party dressed as Batman!”

Anyway, a bit of swearing later he explained that it was gears & not gear that he wanted an article on, so after offering him my profuse apologies I set about my task.

Your drivetrain comprises three main parts:

The Crank with chain rings
Chain connects them together


There are three types of crank, double, triple & compact. Basically the smaller the rings, the easier they are to pedal, so for hilly rides you need smaller rings & you refer to the size of the rings by the number of teeth on the ring, so a 34 would be smaller than a 39 and would be easier to pedal on hills.

Double- This would be on most road bikes as standard. Two chain rings with the big one with 53 teeth & the small one with 39. Good for speed but will compromise your ability to climb hills.
Triple – This would be on most mountain bikesand hybrids as standard, but an option on a road bike – and it’s an option I am going to have on my next road bike. There is a weight penalty, but you have a gear for all terrain
Compact – Normally with a 50 teeth ring & a 34 teeth ring this is a compromise set up that gives you increased climbing ability without having to change a lot of parts. You would just take off the double & fit the compact in its place. You’re not going to have the gears to keep up with Bradley on the flat, unless it’s Bradley Walsh, but it will keep you going up the hills.


A standard road cassette would be 11-25 made up of 8,9,10 or 11 rings ranging from the smallest with 11 teeth to the highest with 25 teeth. A cassette, being at the back, works the other way round with the smaller rings being for speed & the largest being for hills.

To cope with our terrain, and to improve performance on the hills, it makes sense to change the cassette to one with bigger rings such as an 11-28 or even an 11-30.

Now you are able to be in easier gears on the hills.


Your chain connects it all together & it is advised that when you change your cassette you also change your chain as the two become paired together as they wear & if you put a used chain onto a new cassette it can easily jump.

Cleanliness is really important, as is correct lubrication, because when your chain is clean & well lubricated your shifts are faster & there is much less friction to reduce your pedalling efforts.

You also need to be aware of the role friction can play if you have your chain on the wrong combination of gears. If you had your chain on the small ring at the front crank & the small ring on the back cassette your chain would be coming off the cassette at such an angle that a large proportion of your pedalling effort would be used up in friction. Likewise your front derailleur needs to be kept trimmed so that your chain is never rubbing against the side of the jockey that it passes through.

Your chain is best kept in a straight line running parallel to your bike frame to minimise excess friction loss to help you up the hills.

And this is the point to bear in mind. If you’re going slowly up the hills with your legs burning, having to work really hard to maintain a very slow pace, it’s not you or your fitness – It’s your gears. 20% of the population cannot increase their aerobic fitness no matter how much they exercise. You can improve your muscle fitness, but for a lot of people your lungs & heart will use the oxygen a certain way & you’re stuck with that genetically.

Yes, you can get some weight off & that will help you climb hills & there are techniques that will help too, breathing, having a mantra etc., but the main thing that you can do today is look at your gears.

It makes a massive difference. If you look at how professionals cycle you will see that they pedal many more strokes per minute than we do. This is called the cadence & they will pedal at their most efficient cadence, around 80 to 100 strokes per minute. This is aerobically more efficient & produces much less lactic acid in the muscles. Lactic acid causes the stiffness you feel in your muscles the day after a ride and needs to be avoided if you are riding the day after, as we all will be on the Way of The Roses.

If you were to change your gears to make hill climbing easier you will find that you can pedal uphill with a higher cadence – and go faster than you did before.

I was cycling alongside Warren a few weeks ago on the first ride after Xmas and as I came alongside him I said a cheery “Hello” in the Kevin 3 lungs way.

I thought that he had a mantra going for climbing the hills and it seemed to revolve around the Free Range Chicken he was planning on preparing for tea because all I could hear was:

“Plucking Faster - then on every pedal stroke he said….d, so it went like this:

Plucking Faster…..d

Plucking Faster…..d

Plucking Faster…..d

Plucking Faster…..d

At least that’s what I thought he was saying.

A few weeks later, Warren’s changed his crank, cassette & chain and cycling with him again he was happy & chatty cycling along, chatting on the hills….all down to his new gearing….until he decided that it would be much more fun if he just rode into me & knocked me off and have done with it! Anyway, the wounds have nearly healed & I hope to be out cycling again soon.

I know that the thought of changing these parts is daunting at first but, like most things, it’s only tricky until you know how to do it. Over the years with 8 bikes in the house I’ve built up a few tools and now find the easiest way to clean my bike is to remove the chain & soak it. Whip off the cassette & crank rings and give them a quick wash & then put them back together. I used to put them in the dishwasher till guess who spotted them & banned them from there for evermore – don’t tell her about the tyres in the washer! 

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