What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Gears are Just the Beginning

Imagine yourself in the Alps or maybe the Rockies, long before the word derailleur had been invented, struggling on a single fixed gear. Now consider the array of equipment choices we have today, praise the innovators, and read more about how we can make the pain more tolerable by better understanding how to use the tools.

By John Howard

Can you imagine what it must have been like in the early part of the 20th century before the word ‘derailleur’ even had a meaning? In those days riders had to climb the big mountain passes on a single fixed gear! A bit later they got the choice of two cogs, one mounted on either side of the rear fixed hub. As they approached a steep climb they had to dismount, remove the rear wheel and switch to a larger cog for climbing. Tulio Campagnolo had yet to invent the quick release hub, so the rear wheel was removed by quickly twisting off a pair of serrated wing nuts.

Eventually came the derailleur. Although primitive by today’s standards, the early derailleurs mated with heavy threaded steel clusters containing 3, 4 and 5 cogs changed the way racing cyclists performed and made dreamers out of many more touring cyclists. Now of course, there’s seemingly endless gear options, with Campagnolo providing 22 gears for racers, compact cranksets, and triple cranksets. But do we really make the best use of this plethora of gears?

Improvements start with acquired awareness, and follow with action. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but let’s review. Measuring revolutions per minute (RPMs) is the standard method of determining the cadence of the legs. I encourage my training clients to pin down their most effective pedal turnover rate based on a number of constantly changing variables. Those numbers are further enhanced when the bicycle industry brings us new toys to play with, like cadence and power monitoring, along with high-tech trainers. Even though I love the simplicity of old school equipment, let’s face it, every mechanical advantage has the potential of making us better riders.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
There is no single optimal cadence that works for everyone, and that particular cadence may change for each rider depending not just on terrain but also cycling discipline. On the awareness side, consider that our individual turn over rate is based on all of the nuances of grade, load, wind direction and let’s not forget, effective training. The type of cycling that you are engaging in must be factored. Track racing for example requires higher cadence and a high level of efficiency. Track riders should spend more time dialing in higher rpms on rollers in an effort to train fast twitch muscle fibers just like I did before setting the bicycle speed record of 152 MPH.

Cyclo-Cross and mountain bike competition on the other hand is a more brute power oriented discipline requiring bigger, often explosive efforts. This – you guessed it – require rapid continuous shifting to optimize speed over difficult terrain. Fine tuning the shifting will also keep the rear wheel from spinning or hopping on particularly precipitous climbs. Road racing is a more steady state power oriented discipline, but which still requires a sort of flow state shift to hold the heart rate as steady as possible for as long as possible.

Criteriums require more explosive jumps to close down and create aggressive race winning breaks. If these jumps are accomplished in large gears with too few shifts, the effort will be sluggish and predictable to others. The element of surprise is best accomplished with rapid-fire shifting which will certainly save energy and keep the muscles from loading up from too much power applied from over-gearing. Don’t ever forget that learning what ratios work best for your body type can save you energy that you can use later! Throughout this mix of conditions we also have the consideration of crank length. Shorter arms will produce a faster rollover, but typically with less power. That is why you see the shorter arms on track bikes and they are also a better call for the deep cornering found in crits.

It is an oversimplification to say that increasing or decreasing RPMs will improve efficiency. What I recommend is varying the RPMs to train the muscles, spanning the range from rapid turnover, to work the neuro-muscular through very rapid turnover, say 110-120-130, contrasted with a slow power coaxing ‘mash’ in consideration of the different racing conditions listed above. With this approach you can explore a variation of torque and power and eventually find you own territorial preference. This realm is essentially a function of your own percentage of fast vs. slow muscle fibers, and every one of us bikers is shade different, so exploration is a key element of training.

Cadence Optimizing Tools
The evolution of the mechanical side of things, from heavy steel to lightweight alloy and titanium cassettes with ten and eleven cogs gives you the means to more accurately gauge the ebb and flow of the terrain, but are you really utilizing those cogs? A recent innovation, Shimano’s Di2, in my opinion represents another technical leap. In plain language, the Di2 electronic shifting system permits us to maximize our cadence. By maintaining a smooth steady speed, with an efficient personalized cadence, we can avoid overtaxing our muscles and cardiorespiratory system.

While using my Di2, I find my shift rate is up. I’m actually shifting about twice as much as before, fine tuning my RPMs to every grade and wasting far less energy in the process. Regardless of whether you use electronic or manually activated cables to shift your gears as you climb, I invite you to shift more and work less. Climbing, which is defined as anything that pitches up irrespective of the percentage, is our real test. I find that by shifting more, I’m less sporadic with my RPMs. The tuning of cadence can complement your form in a big way.

Also of particular value in terms of improving and enhancing the quality of the stroke is the CompuTrainer Spin Scan program. The real-time feedback showing you the pedaling force over each pedal stroke provided by the CT Scan will help you to correct any pedaling irregularities and evening out the power distribution over the pedal stroke. For example, it can allow you to work on boosting the drive from your hip flexors, thus improving the lift of your stroke. You can actually train your muscles to pick up the stroke quicker, thus lowering your torque angle and enabling you to raise torque and balance your stroke. This will magnify the distribution of both for a more focused pedal circle.

Ask yourself, if you could ultimately lower your heart rate and simultaneously add a higher sustained power output causing you to become more efficient, would it not be possible to successfully cat up or get closer to the podium? By maximizing your shifting from constantly adjusting levels of subtlety, your muscles can pick up momentum more quickly and while avoiding that horrible bogging effect of overload.

Just think about it, our bodies are really pretty puny. In measuring human energy, we use watts, a tiny quantifiable value compared to say horsepower. Using our own level of “forcepower,” our bodies can light up a small row of light bulbs for a relatively short period of time. For this reason, we need to make the process of riding a bike as efficient as possible. Effective use of gears and a greater understanding of the limitations of our own physical packaging is the most logical means of making that process work for us.

About John:
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.

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