When I say "gear" I am not referring to drugs or training equipment, but actual gears, and you might by now know that I would be talking about bicycle gears.

As with any sport, there is a lot of lingo associated with the sport of cycling, and cycling is no different.

If you have ever done an indoor cycling session, spin class on your own bike, or had the opportunity to chat with a bunch of Cyclists / Triathletes / Mountain Bikers, you will certainly have come across phrases like, "...so I dropped it into the 53 and hammered it", or "...it was so steep I had it in my 39 / 23".

Gibberish to the layman for sure.

It is pretty simple to decode, so here we go.

The gearing set up on most Road bikes (triathlon included), can be broken into 2 main areas:

  • Front Chain Rings
  • Rear cassette / cluster.
1: The Front Chain ring -
  • The Front Chain ring more often than not made up of 2 chain rings - one big, one smaller.
  • The Big ring is often referred to the 53 (it has 53 teeth on it), while the Small ring is referred to as the 39 (it has 39 teeth around it).

2: The Rear Cassette / Cluster -

  • It can consist of between 10-12 rings.
  • The sizes generally start at 12 (the smallest of all, with 12 teeth), and end at 23 (the biggest, with 23 teeth).

So, when you are climbing a steep hill, you would be in the 39 / 21 or 23 or during a sprint for the finish line, you would be in the 53 / 12.

Now, it is important to know that there are 2 different wheel size, that have an affect on the gears found on the bike.
  1. 700 / 27 inch wheel - has a 53 and 39 at the front, with 12 - 23 found at the rear.
  2. 650 / 26 inch wheel - has a 55 and a 42 at the front, with 12 - 23 at the back.
If you want to know what gears you are running, it is as simple as bending down and counting the number of teeth on each gear ring.

This leads to the next question, which asks, "what gear should I be riding in?".

There is no easy answer to this question, because of the enormous difference between each cyclist, and the wide range of cycling ability.

In the Amgen Tour of California, during the Time Trial, some of the more powerful racers were pushing a 56 at the front, which is required to generate the serious wattage they are generating.

A novice cyclist would tend to spend more time in the big ring (53) at the front, and the big gear (23) at the rear.

This can be a problem when you have to shift gears to climb a hill, because the norm is to shift down to the small ring at the front (39), and this leads to an immediate loss of momentum.

The best way to determine what works best for you, is to actually ride the bike, practice different shifting patterns ( Shifting means changing gears up and down - making the resistance to your pedaling more or less).

Another great way to learn how the different gears affect your body and performance, is to do an indoor bike session, on an indoor spinner, on your own bike.

Try this Spinervals Session FREE, get a great workout, and get your shifting technique tightened up before you hit the road (Use Promo Code: 71AFE4AF on checkout).

Happy riding!

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at MyPypeline.com, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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