Terminology of shifting

With little experience, kids new to riding with gears quickly figure out how to find "easier" and "harder" gears. Adults can easily select these, too, but describing "bigger" and "smaller" gears or "shift up" and "shift down" can be a bit of a confusing and contradictory process, no matter your age.

The main concept in speaking the language of gears is the difference between a physical gear (i.e. chainring or cog) and the gear ratio. The physical gears are what you shift to determine the gear ratio you pedal against. You can shift the front or rear derailleur to select a different chainring or cog. These shifts change the gear ratio. The trick is that moving to a bigger chainring makes a bigger gear ratio (a "harder" gear), while shifting to a bigger cog makes the opposite, a smaller gear ratio (an "easier" gear). This is where the confusion arises.

So let's lay out the common terms used in describing the range of gears.
Ordinary bicycle.
  • Chainring. The large gear in front attached to the crankset; either 1, 2, 3 different chainrings depending on the style of bike. Also referred to as the front (e.g. "shift up in front") or something related to the front derailleur; or a ring (i.e. big ring or small ring).
  • Cog. The smaller series of gears in back; ranges from 1 on a single-speed bike up to 11 or 12 on new road bikes. Also referred to as the back or rear (e.g. "shift up in back"); sprocket; cassette; or cluster.
  • Teeth/tooth. The number of teeth on a gear. Commonly 50, 52, or 53 teeth are on the big chainring in front with a road bike, and 11 or 12 teeth are on the smallest cog. Often abbreviated as "T" as in 53T chainring, but also often omitted to call a chainring simply a 53. Chainring combos are usually referred to as 53/39 (big ring, slash small ring), and cassette series are usually referred to as a range from the smallest to bigger cog, as in 12-25.
  • Gear combination. The number of teeth of the chainring and cog that is being used. It's usually expressed as 53×12 if the chain is resting on the 53T chainring and the 12T cog.
  • Gear ratio. The mathematical ratio that compares the combination of the front and rear gears: Gear ratio = Chainring ÷ Cog. For example, if the chain is running on a 53T chainring and a 12T cog, the gear ratio = 53 ÷ 12 = 4.4167. Note: the nomenclature for gear combination makes it look like you multiply the numbers (e.g., 53x12), but in reality you divide them to figure gear ratio.
  • Gear development. Also commonly referred to as roll out, this is the distance the bike travels with one full revolution of the pedals. It is the product of the gear ratio (chainring ÷ cog) and the circumference of the rear wheel (wheel diameter × π). Therefore gear development = (chainring ÷ cog) × (wheel diameter × π). For example, riding in a 53x12 with a 700/23 rear wheel wheel results in (53 ÷ 12) × (26.3 inches × π) = 4.4167 × 82.6 inches = 364.8 inches, or 30 feet 4.8 inches. The reason for calculating gear development is to account for different wheel sizes that bikes use, such as the variety of common wheel sizes on mountain bikes.  
  • Gear inches. Still used to refer to gear sizing in track racing, this concept is a throwback to the days of the ordinary bicycle and indicates the size of wheel that would be necessary on an ordinary bicycle to match the gear development of a modern bike. That means, instead of using a combination of gears like on a modern bike, what size wheel would be required on an ordinary bicycle to cover the same distance with one revolution of the pedals. It is calculated as: gear inches = (chainring ÷ cog) × wheel diameter. For example, (53 ÷ 12) × 26.3 inches = 116.2 or just short of 10 feet. Since you'd need legs more than 5 feet long to pedal an ordinary bike this big, you can see why gears were invented!

To summarize the key parts of those terms, the chainring and cog combination determines the gear ratio (gear ratio = chainring ÷ cog). Because people use similar wheel and tire sizes, gear development is not often used when taking about gears, and gear inches are usually reserved for track racing.

So why all the terms, definitions, and math? As I pointed out earlier, we still haven't gotten to what it means when someone says, "Shift up!" or "Use a smaller gear." So let's get to the point.

If someone says smaller or bigger, take this to mean a smaller or bigger gear ratio; unless chainring or cog is specifically stated, bigger and smaller gears refer to bigger or smaller gear ratios. That means that a bigger gear means a harder gear to push and a smaller gear is an easier gear to push.

Keeping on this same theme, shifting up means shifting to a bigger gear ratio—a harder gear to push—and shifting down means a smaller gear ratio—an easier gear.

The trick is to pay attention for references to the cogs, though. If someone says, "Shift your cassette up," this does not mean the same as, "Shift up." Instead "Shift your cassette up," refers to going to a bigger cog in back, which is actually shifting down to an easier gear.

So why don't cyclists use the terms easier and harder to describe gears? Who knows!?
They just don't, and it's terminology that usually is reserved for beginners, so as you get used to the phrases and the meaning becomes clear, it's no longer a problem.

But to give some examples of the many variations, here are a list of terms and phrases that refer to bigger and smaller gears.

Shifting to a harder gear (bigger gear ratio)
  • Shift up
  • Put it in the big chainring
  • Drop down your cassette
  • Use a bigger gear
  • Use a smaller cog
  • Put it in the 12 (or 11; i.e. use the smallest cog)
  • Use the big meat (big chainring)

Shifting to an easier gear (smaller gear ratio)
  • Shift down
  • Put in the small ring
  • Go up your cassette
  • Shift to a smaller gear
  • Use a bigger sprocket

Putting on the Sunscreen

Let's face it, somehow bike racers have a skewed vision of vanity. When was the last time a cyclist showed you his "great" tan lines? If you know many bike racers, it probably hasn't been long at all. But we all know that too much sun isn't good for you.

To help keep all the time in the sun in perspective, there's a great sunscreen info graphic on InformationIsBeautiful.net that has a very good description of sunscreen—what is protects against, how much to use, how long its protection lasts—and the types and dangers of skin cancer. It's definitely worth taking a look so you know what type of sunscreen to buy, how much to use, when to put it on, and what you're trying to avoid by using it ... least of which are those tan lines you worked so hard to get.

Post-race Recovery

Riders have long sought out how to train better. With a lot of work going into workouts, the focus is also turning more and more to the recovery necessary. The demands of professionals riding the Tour de France are about high you could imagine and recovery during the event is a key determinant of success over the three weeks of the race.

Cyclingnews.com has an excellent article covering Mark Renshaw and his recovery routine for between stages. It's a good insight into professional racing, the importance of recovery, and multitude of details that are covered to help athletes perform at their peak over the course of the race. It's a balance of sleep, diet, massage, clothing, rest, media and fan obligations and much more.

The Church of Strength Training

We all know how contentious relations are in the Middle East and in places around the world due to religious differences. People fight over land and differing beliefs, yet little seems to change.

In the world of bike racing, strength training is the religious war. When the weather gets cold, coaches, trainers, and athletes head inside and start to beat their keyboards (in place of their chests), sling insults, and proclaim how strength training is the prodigal son or a false saint.

I could leave you in suspense as to my position, but I won't. I sit right on the fence.

(I'm sure that was totally unsatisfying if you were expecting a tirade for or against strength training. But the reality is, it all depends. Yes, like most things in life, the issue is not black or white.)

First, the argument against strength training. For those of you who love strength training, you'll hate this part. For the scientists and data junkies, login to PubMed and get your search on.  (1) There is a lack of research showing definitively that strength training helps with cycling performance. It's easy to cherry-pick studies that show an improvement in VO2max, increased threshold, maximal power production, etc., but they are limited, have flaws in methodology, don't show significant differences, and/or haven't been reproduced. (2) The lack of specificity in most strength training means it doesn't translate to cycling performance well. (3) It takes energy to do weight training, and that is energy that could be used to do more specific training or to recover faster. (4) Cycling is an aerobic sport. That's it. An athlete's maximal strength has little to do with cycling success. Even at peak wattage, a cyclist is producing only about 50% of his/her peak force. Increasing this wattage further is a product of improvements in the person's energy systems, not muscular strength.

Next, the argument for strength training. (1) If you can't physically turn the pedals, you need to get stronger. And you probably have a hard time getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom. I'm not sure you should be worrying about riding a bike in your condition. (2) You can't generate power if your core isn't strong enough to support/stabilize the force your legs produce. Well, actually, that's not very relevant since generating maximal force is not really required to perform well in a sport whose success is based on your cardiovascular performance. (3) Maximal force is correlated with standing start performance. So you're a kilo rider? Oh, you only ride road races. Did that 50m gap at the start line ever win you a race? (4) If you're injured, you can't train....

Wait, what was that? If you're injured you can't train? Since when!? Since I've been lying here with my herniated vertebral discs. Since I pulled a muscle in my neck. Since I tried lifting a box my wife made me move and I may have torn my biceps. Since I broke my hip after tripping over a toy on the floor.

OK, I've been a little harsh on the strength training. It really doesn't help your cycling. But it can help you maintain muscle balance and be a part of good abdominal and back health. It can be part of a general strength and stretching routine that helps you get through life without injuring yourself in daily activities—or carrying your track equipment between the car and infield. And it can be a good weight bearing activity to help ensure you develop and maintain good bone density (cycling alone is great for cardiovascular health but often leads to decreased bone density if its the sole activity for a person).

So where do I come down on strength training? I think it is a good off-season activity for cyclists because they need the strength and suppleness to get through everyday life so they can keep riding consistently. And for long-term bone health, cyclists need to do a weight bearing activity. But for cycling performance, ride smarter. That may be better form on the bike, more hours, less hours, more intensity, improving 1 minute power, ... whatever. But you'll find the time and energy you spend on the bike will pay off more than the time and energy you spend doing strength work ... just as long as you stay healthy enough to stay on the bike.

USA Cycling 2010 Officials of the Year

Old school officials' patch
The work of an official largely goes noticed except for the start and results at a bike race. I remember officiating much of SuperWeek working 12 hours/day in temps of 90+ with about 6 hours of sleep/night by the time we'd eat and be able to get back to where the officials stayed. Sure you can find people who work more, but the point is, the time and energy of officials is often taken for granted unless something isn't correct.

Not that there's anything wrong when a job well done means an event goes smoothly and event personnel become sidelights to the races. But it's good to give a shout out to officials who work long, hard days, do a great job and rarely get noticed. So check out the USA Cycling 2010 Officials of the Year. I know a few of these people, and they're great people as dedicated to the sport as any racer!

Pinning Race Numbers: A Commentary

How to pin on race numbers—it's a topic I love, some for the rhetoric of the argument, but also because I think it demonstrates a person's perspective on bike racing and their ability and/or willingness to see it from different perspectives. So a little commentary on the topic....

(The following addresses the #1 technique for quality number pinning, but for a more instructional and comprehensive coverage of the topic, check out the original Race numbers: Pinning and Placement.)

Bike racers want their numbers to lay flat and not flap in the wind. They think that crumpling their number helps this. Let me give you the secret: 8 pins. Not 4 pins (and absolutely not 4 pins using the provided holes—this is cycling, not sailing club), not even 6. You get a handful of pins at nearly every race. Save a few. Then don't be lazy, don't whine, use 8 and this entire official/racer argument goes away, save the lazy bike racer.

But of course, bike racers are (by definition, I believe) lazy. So we have a problem.

For officials, seeing the numbers on riders whizzing by 5 deep at 25+ mph is an exercise in futility. A single line at 30 mph is no better, but this is the job of the official. Some officials are lazy, too (former racers?), and don't actually try to read all the numbers every lap, so they don't care how numbers are pinned. These officials should be stoned—they are the ones that take a millennium to figure out results because they have no practice at picking out 10 places in order at the finish. But most officials do care and spend the entirety of a race trying to decipher the perspective-bending Dali-esque attachments racers manage to make with their numbers. For them, crumpled numbers are the emblem of their nearly-futile task, not the cause of it. Sure, the stickler quotes the rule book, but one of the jobs of an official is educating riders. Aside from the occasional power trip, it's just part of the job.

So we have lazy bike racers and officials who've found a scapegoat for the nearly impossible task of reading thousands of numbers during a day.

The reality is that the rule is stupid for three reasons. First, like all other riders, I pin on my number, warm up, go to the bathroom, sit down, load and unload my rear pockets multiple times, and perform numerous other actions that WILL crumple my number whether or not I did it intentionally.

Second, the Tyvek material used for numbers reflects sunlight pretty well if you get the right angle. A poorly crumpled number (intentionally or incidentally) will probably have a few surfaces that reflect light and reduce the visibility of the number. However, a pristine number can reflect light across its entire surface rendering it completely illegible.

This illustrates the third point that proper placement of the number is usually far more important than the surface smoothness for visibility of the number. Up on the back: bad. Down along the side of the jersey: good. Right side up? Yeah, I'm talking to you, genius—put your number on right side up. (Cat. 2 - Cat. 5 — I've seen them all do it this season.)

That all points to the fact that you need to learn how to put on a number like a pro. When you crumple the number, don't just wad it up and be done. You need to decimate it! So get comfy and start crumpling. And rolling. And flexing. Now repeat. Finally, find a nice edge and smooth it all out. Hey, don't rip it—that's way amateur. But when you're done, the thing should feel like silk and lay on your jersey like your head on a 600 thread-count Egyptian cotton pillowcase.

Once you take the pro approach the officials won't notice a thing but the high resolution outline of your number. Unless it's upside down. Or on your back. Or flapping like a sail from 4 pins poked through the 4 dummy holes.

So just use 8 pins, put it on your side, and get the race started already.

Standing Causes HR Increase

It's common to see riders standing when they are riding, whether it's going up a hill, accelerating, or stretching out. But if your goal is conserve as much energy as possible, it's also good to know to that your heart rate will usually increase when standing, even when putting out the same power.
Red = HR, Blue = speed
Yellow = power, Green = cadence

This graph from a recent ride caught my attention because it shows this tend very clearly. HR increases slightly while power, speed, and cadence all decrease noticeably during each of the three periods of standing. This graph is from a roller ride so the conditions are different with regard to speed and power change; speed and power wouldn't decline like this on the road, but I like to remain on the rollers so this naturally what happens when I'm stretching out. While the increase in HR is small, it's still noticeable and all the more telling since power declines.

The reason for this increase in HR is that you are activating additional muscles to do work, and a rise in HR can be expected when recruiting additional muscles to do work. But similarly, it means that you're using additional energy to supply these newly working muscles that aren't necessarily putting more power in the pedals.

So keep in mind: when max power is the goal, standing may be your friend. But when it's time to conserve energy, seated is the way to go.

Being a Bike Racer is a Lifestyle

While the focus of bike racing is often on a rider's talent, training, skills, or equipment, the often over-looked fact is that to be a bike racer requires a particular lifestyle. Hard work, lots of rest, singularity of focus, discipline, travel, lots of time away from home, sacrifice, compromise, good attitude, good team player, and not least of all, family and friends to support you through it all.

Because this lifestyle is one of the least talked about but most challenging parts of being an aspiring professional cyclist, I always enjoy hearing various stories the provide some insight. A recent story about Michael Creed entitled Why I never doped and my future in the sport does the obvious in talking about his perspective on doping, but I think the insightful part of the article is what you learn about his lifestyle as a new pro in Europe and what he's willing to do and not do for the sport. A view of a Tour de France hotel room (via @andykloedi) can be pretty insightful, too.

Keep an eye out for stories about cyclists and how they live day to day, between the races, at the races, when they see family and friends, and other insights that share about the lifestyle of full-time racers domestically and abroad.

What a Roadie Needs to Know to Race on the Track

Dan Currell and the crew at the National Sports Center Velodrome in Blaine, Minnesota put together a great guide for riders interested in trying out racing on the track. The guide is really designed for riders familiar with riding the road, but who need to know the differences and subtleties that will make learning to ride on the track a successful transition.

It covers differences of riding a road bike versus a track bike, the markings on the track, some basic rules of the “road” when racing on the track, equipment, gearing, leg speed, events, and more. If you're interested—or simply curious—about racing on the track, it's definitely worth a read.

Track Cycling – An Introduction: What a roadie needs to know to start racing on the velodrome by Dan Currell

Patience and Race Strategy

Author and coach Joe Friel has a great post over on TrainingPeaks.com addressing the often overlooked racing topic of patience. Road racing is not a sport of simply going harder the next guy. If you're looking for that try mountain biking or time trialing. But if you toe the line at a crit or a road race, it's good to understand that when you expend energy is very important to your success. The article talks about this in reference to a stage race, but the principle applies whether you're racing Le Tour or trying to make it to the end of the group ride for the first time.