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RAGBRAI Training: Do you have gears on your bike? Learn to use them!

  • 24 March, 2023
  • Andrea Parrott

This topic came from one of our readers. He was asking me to explain using gears, cadence and pedaling advice while riding. Let’s first tackle cadence. Cadence is a term meaning how many times both legs go around a pedal stroke per minute. Given a constant gear and speed, when you pedal faster (higher cadence), you have to put out less force, because speed is a combination of speed (or cadence) x force (or torque for you engineers). The slower you pedal, the more force you need to put on the pedals to go the same speed.

In general, new cyclists tend to pedal too slowly, around a cadence of 60 RPM. This is typically considered too slow. I’ve heard that people tend to pedal at 60 RPM because that is the same pace at which we tend to walk – 60 steps per minute. I don’t know if that is true but sounds logical. But this is considered too slow for cycling because it causes us to use too much muscular force when we pedal. If we pedal too slowly for too long, it can fatigue our muscles sooner than if we pedal a little faster and use less force. It is recommended that we pedal closer to 90 RPM for long rides, although anything over 80 is better than pedaling slower than this. This may seem really fast if you aren’t used to it, but I would encourage you to focus on spinning faster if you are someone who tends to pedal slowly. People who pedal slowly are often referred to as ‘mashers’ while those who pedal quickly are called ‘spinners’. Don’t be a masher!

So, given this, how do you pedal faster? The best way is to use the gears on your bike properly. Again, if you are new to cycling you may not completely understand how to select gears on your bike. If you don’t, you need someone with experience to show you how. You can use varying combinations of the front chainrings and gears on the rear cassette to select the level of resistance and cadence you are wanting. Learn how to use your gears and then practice. This will come in handy for the hills you will face on RAGBRAI.

I try to avoid using the terms ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ gears when talking about bikes, because some people think higher means bigger. But the problem with that is that when looking at the rear gear cluster on your bike, the bigger the gear, the easier (‘lower’) it is. The opposite is true with the front chainrings. So to avoid confusion, I use ‘easier’ and ‘harder’. When you use a higher – oops, harder – gear, you have to push harder while you spin more slowly. This can tire your legs out especially on uphills. Use an easier gear and pedaling gets easier.  Choose easier. You will be pedaling your bike for many hours a day for seven days in a row. Why make it harder?

Now when it comes to hills, this is when you definitely need to change gears. When going uphill, the resistance on your pedaling becomes harder due to gravity, so to compensate, shift to an easier gear to maintain a good cadence even while going uphill.  If you don’t shift you end up bogging down which is really tiring to your legs.  Keep them fresh by spinning. When you get to the top you should shift to a harder gear because now you have gravity on your side and there is much less resistance on the pedals, so shifting to a harder gear lets you keep pedaling without ‘spinning out’. Or, you can just coast down the hills if you choose.

Headwinds are like hills in this regard. When riding into a headwind, choose an easier gear. When riding with the wind select a harder one.

If you want to work on increasing your comfort with spinning faster, do this when you are out riding and training. Consciously think about how fast you are pedaling. Some bikes and computers actually tell you what your cadence is. If yours doesn’t, you can estimate it by counting pedal strokes for 15 seconds and multiply by four. Practice pedaling faster than you normally do, even if it for a minute at a time. This will feel foreign at first but by doing these higher cadence drills, it will begin to feel more natural with practice.

Now one last thing. There are lots of opinions out there on how to pedal your bike. I’m assuming some or many of you may have clipless pedals or toe clips. This allows you to apply force to a greater portion of the pedal stroke than just pushing down if you have regular pedals that don’t attach your feet to the pedals. If you don’t have these clipless pedals, you have to apply all the force on the downstroke (think 1PM to 5PM on a clock face). With your feet attached, you can begin pushing as your feet come up over the top of the pedal stroke (11PM – 1PM) and also across the bottom of the pedal stroke (5PM – 7PM). Cyclists refer to this as ‘pedaling in circles’. Try it next time you are out for a ride. Just envision your feet going in circles and I guarantee it will increase your power and speed. It will also smooth out your pedal stroke and make it less jerky. Don’t be a jerk!

One thing I do not recommend is trying to ‘fix’ or ‘outthink’ your pedal stroke. Some people say to pull up on the upstroke, or pedal in triangles – push down, pull back, pull up. When I try this is just makes my pedal stroke really jerky and I have to pedal slower because I have to consciously think about telling my feet what to do instead of letting my brain do it automatically. And your brain is really smart. If you’ve been riding for a while, it’s figured out how to efficiently make your feet go around. If you envision ‘pedal in circles’, your brain will figure out how best to do it. Think about this for a second (literally) – if you are trying to tell your legs to push down, pull back, pull up and you are pedaling correctly with each leg at 90 RPM, that means your legs are going around every 2/3 thirds of a second. I don’t know about you but I can’t think “push, pull, pull” for each leg every 2/3 of a second.

Get out there and play around with your gears and cadence. It will pay dividends. And remember, don’t be a jerky masher, be a smooth spinner.

For more information on training for RAGBRAI, check out my last 14 years’ worth of training blogs here.

Also, if you have questions about training that you would like me to address in future blogs, please send them to me at cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

Thanks for reading,
Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com. He can be contacted cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

News Flash: David is the proud recipient of the 2023 Newbies Award.

2 Comments

  1. Rob Fuller

    Do leg muscles and gear ratios have a relationship all on their own steeped in muscle memory? Recently moving from a 7-speed to an 11-eleven speed I felt the need to change gears two at a time. “Relax legs” I say now, and click patiently through the progression. It is as if I had been bounding up the stairs two steps at a time (like I did in my youth) and now just one at a time (like I do in, um, not my youth?)

  2. NoraTones

    Thanks for the article. Reading about optimizing bicycle pedaling using gears and pedal speed was fascinating. Still, my mathematical abilities are limited, and delving into the mechanics of calculating revs and torque overwhelms me. During college, I often turned to services such as https://edubirdie.com/math-problems-writing-service to solve complex maths issues, so here I`ll wait for help from more experienced bikers. However, the advice to focus on pedaling efficiently, using gears, and maintaining a smooth rotation rhythm resonates with me. I believe that understanding these principles can significantly improve the cycling experience and performance. Thanks again for sharing these valuable tips!

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