Last week, we published a blog all about learning to ride with clipless pedals. The post was a popular one, so we thought we’d share some tips on cycling skills that will help you if you’re fairly new to cycling.
Riding a bike doesn’t need to be complicated – you can jump on and enjoy yourself without formal coaching, but there are a few simple skills that could help you to enjoy your early rides more. Learning to use your gears is one of them.
Your gears are there to help you, not to confuse you or make your life difficult. However, it’s not uncommon to see new riders pounding away at a high gear, because they aren’t confident shifting down, and likewise we also see some newbies spinning a very little gear because they’re having issues changing up.
The majority of bikes will have two or three front gear options, and up to 11 rear gear options. The left hand shifter controls the front gears, and the right hand shifter controls the rear gears.
The front gears – located next to your right pedal – make the most difference. If you’re going up a steep hill, you probably want to be in the smallest ring. On a flat or downhill road, you’ll probably want the largest ring.
The rear gears make much smaller changes, and can be used to get the resistance just right.
Here’s a video with the basics:
Avoid crossing your chain
One thing you don’t want to do is “cross your chain” – this means riding in a big front gear (the chain ring furthest from you), and large rear gear cog (the cog closest to you), or a small front gear (the chain ring closest to you), and small rear gear cog (the cog furthest from you).
Crossing the chain causes it to be in a diagonal line, and this might make a nasty noise, and will damage it over time through stretching.
Change gears gradually and gently
Clicking down from your biggest cog to your littlest cog in 5 seconds flat will result in a lot of clunking, and an increased risk of dropping your chain. Aim to change gears one at a time, slowly clicking up or down, and pedalling between changes.
When you do change gear, try to pedal softly as you change, especially if you are on a rough surface, as applying pressure mid change can also result in you losing your chain.
Gears and cadence
Cadence is a posh word for pedalling speed, and it’s measured in RPM – revolutions per minute. Your pedalling speed has a lot to do with your gears – if you are in a high gear, the resistance will be stronger, and you’ll pedal more slowly. In a low gear, resistance will be weaker, and you’ll spin your legs more quickly.
Cadence is a personal choice – some riders naturally prefer a lower cadence, whilst others ride with a quicker pedal stroke. However, it is recommended that you try to stick between 80 and 90 RPM.
The easiest way to track your cadence is to have a cycling computer. However, you can also count how many times a minute your pedal hits the bottom of a stroke over a minute. Of course, you’ll need to be concentrating to do this, and you won’t want to do it all the time, but with a bit of practice you should learn what the right RPM feels like for you.
If your RPM drops and you aren’t feeling comfortable, perhaps straining your legs to push the gear, you should drop to a lower gear. If you find yourself suddenly pedalling at 100rpm+, you could probably do with clicking up.
Changing gears for a hill
You should always aim to get into the right gear on the front before a climb – it isn’t a good idea to change the front gears when you’re putting a lot of pressure on the pedals.
You can shift between the rear gears as you climb, dropping gears if the incline gets steeper, and clicking up if you decide to get out of the saddle, using more power and often a lower cadence.
As a climb begins, try not to let your cadence slow down too much. On a very steep hill, you might have no option but to pedal slowly, but ideally, and especially on a shallower incline, you should aim to keep a faster cadence above 80rpm if you can.
As you reach the top of the hill, and the gradient becomes less steep, you can start to click up the gears, ready for what will hopefully be a descent.
Other situations where you should drop gears
Lower gears aren’t just useful for going uphill. You should also look to drop down a couple of cogs when:
Coming to a stop – for example, at traffic lights. The gear you were in when you were mid-ride, at full momentum will not be an easy starting gear at 0mph when you move away. If you try to move away in the same gear, you’ll either have to put a massive effort in to turn the pedals, or click down a few very suddenly – and changing gears quickly can lead to you dropping your chain.
Coming into a corner – the best way to corner is to brake to a comfortable speed before the corner, not to brake at all on the bend, and then accelerate out of it. If you’re in a high gear going into the corner, you will struggle to accelerate, so drop a couple of gears before hand
In a headwind – on a very blowy day, the resistance facing you is greatly increased. You can counteract this by reducing the resistance on the pedals. This can be frustrating, for example on a flat piece of road where you could usually pedal a high gear. However, you have to bear in mind that the wind will make a big difference.
When to use higher gears
The higher gears – those that create the most resistance – are for fast, flat or downhill stretches where you want to enjoy a bit of speed. Remember to keep your cadence at a healthy range, as pounding a high gear with low cadence will put more pressure on your knees. That said, some of the best time triallists in the world favour a big gear and low cadence, so if this is natural for you, it might not be a bad thing, but do bear in mind this isn’t really recommended, and if you find your legs becoming fatigued or achey, you should definitely look at a lower gear.
For more tips on riding skills and training plans, check out our dedicated area in How to Bike.