Is my gear selection right? Ask Ella

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In the bike shop I would at times have ladies coming in and looking at the drop bars with trepidation. Quite often after explaining how they worked to shift the gear, the next question that followed was “so how do those work again?” Gears on the road bike might look simple, but right from the start of the riding journey they can add much complexity and variation to the ride.

I mean the questions don’t stop once you’ve worked out the basics like how to do it in the first place or to anticipate the need to change so you are not shifting too late or with the gears under too much load. Am I picking the wrong gear and grinding away when I should be using a higher cadence? Plus how do I know what cadence I should be riding at anyway? Do I need a compact?

So many areas to look at, but let’s try and keep it simple and go through some of the key concepts one by one:

Gear Selection

Strength versus aerobic
In some gear ratios, it may feel like the equivalent of doing leg presses, you’re really pushing down and churning those pedals with all your power —put that into the strength category. In others you are turning those pedals at a faster rate, spinning more to get the bike moving – that’s the aerobic side. The key is not going too far either way, you don’t want to spin like crazy without getting anywhere or grind away and leave your leg muscles so fatigued that you’ll feel like stopping the ride when it’s barely begun. You can’t judge what is right based on the person beside you. Just because they are flying along in the big ring doesn’t mean you should be, their bodies, fitness, training and aims could be completely different so it is a matter of finding the level that suits you.

Amy Pieters leads Anna van der Breggen and her teammate Kirsten Wild on the VAMberg on her way to winning the best climber's jersey.

Cadence is basically the rate of your pedalling. It is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute (RPM). Higher cadences usually imply an easier gear, while a harder gear implies slower cadences.  To maximise efficiency you are looking for the cadence that produces the most power with the least stress on the body. But that’s not a straightforward formula, and there is no cover all answer to the question of what is the optimal cadence to be riding at. I try to average 85-90 rpm, it isn’t always appropriate and doesn’t always happen, it’s really down to the individual and the situation. As coach and former professional rider Alison Powers put it in her article on cadence: “There is no one cadence that is optimal all the time. Different situations will dictate different cadences. Wind, fatigue, climbing, descending, sprinting, etc., can alter what would be our optimal cadence.”

Climbing gears
It may seem obvious that if the road turns up you are likely to be reaching for the gear lever to make it a more comfortable ride. Though, its not the case that the only useful purpose for gears is to shift it into an easier setting so you can keep the bike rolling when you are on a long climb. You can use your gears to give you a chance to use different muscles, vary the pedalling speed and also to help you break up the climb by changing position and standing.

If you want a few more tips on climbing you can check out this article with hints for going uphill by Powers, but one of her points is that often people stay seated for the duration of the climb because they think that if they stand it will make them more tired, but with appropriate use of your gearing this doesn’t have to be the case: “This is true if you accelerate when you stand. Any time you accelerate, you will make yourself more tired. The secret to standing and pedaling is shifting into one (or two) harder gear(s) before standing. This way, once standing, you maintain constant speed and are able to use your body weight to push down the pedals.”

Gear changes gone wrong, dropping the chain
Sometimes a gear change can go wrong, and its not that hard to deal with if you have just gone the wrong way and are either spinning like crazy or almost grinding to a halt on a climb. However, a dodgy gear change is a little harder to deal with when it results in a dropped chain. There are some hints to help you fix it, maybe even without getting grease on your hands, in this neat video from Specialized.


Gearing choice is about more than making the right selection from the gears you have available on your bike, as its also thinking about what equipment you actually need to make sure that you have the best gears available for the job. If you find yourself trying to shift and having no more gears left on more than the odd occasion this may be something you need to consider. Powers runs us through the options:

On a road bike, there are 3 major gear/crank options that are dictated by the size of the chain rings on your cranks. Standard gearing is a 53 tooth big chain ring and 39 tooth small chain ring (53/39). A mid-compact is 52/36 and compact is 50/34. The cassette on the back wheel also offers gearing options. They can range from an 11-21 to an 11-32. The bigger the second number, the easier gear the cassette offers.

So what’s the advantage of going compact and should I consider it? The advantage of going to a compact crank set is it makes climbing, especially steep and/or long climbs, easier. With the easier gearing, you are able to sit and spin your legs at a higher cadence and get to the top of the climb with a little less effort. However, sitting and spinning does not always equal faster; just a bit easier.

Climbing cold but smiling


There isn’t a specific gear that can be used for a certain hill or for a certain rider, it’s definitely an individual thing. One way to put it is that you have a fuel tank and you need to know how much you can do on that tank. Using your gearing wisely can help you stretch that tank further.

Got a burning cycling question on another topic you want answered? You can send us an email on, or drop us a line on Facebook and you just may find the answer in one of our upcoming Ask Ella columns.

Sheyleigh has a love for adventure on two wheels, cycling with friends and taking on the odd punishing challenge, like Everesting. She is a Specialized Women’s Ambassador and Cycliq brand ambassador, with a passion for helping beginner cyclists find their pedals. You can follow Sheyleigh’s expeditions and more on her website.

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