Coach Morgan: Cycling - Effective Gearing and Shifting

One of my junior elite athletes spent the beginning of her first competitive season struggling to perform on the bike. She was a competent handler, and her watts at lactate threshold were solid on the trainer — so what was the problem?

It soon came out that she didn’t really have any idea when or how to shift to make the most of the gears on her bike. After making some basic adjustments, she qualified for USA Triathlon Junior Elite National Championships in her first year of competition, where she placed 48th out of one of the most competitive field of girls the event had ever seen. I’ve since discovered that many triathletes have the same struggle — even those with years of experience. I developed the following guidelines for her and other athletes new to the sport, or just looking to improve efficiency on the bike. While the following are tailored more toward draft-legal triathletes and group riders, they can be applied to age-groupers as well.

Before we begin, some important terminology:

Power: Literally the amount of watts you are producing with each pedal stroke, most of which hopefully goes to forward motion.

Cadence: How fast the legs are spinning, measured in rotations per minute, or rpm. Generally needs to stay in between 90-110 rpm, with the exception of sprint, reaction or “attack” efforts. Can be measured with most cycling computers, paired with either a cadence sensor or power meter.

Spinning out: A term that cyclists use to explain the feeling of not being able to go any faster in a certain gear or losing control of the pedals because they are not efficient past a certain cadence.

Rolling resistance: Essentially the momentum lost as a tire is rolling due to deformations in the tire, which can be intentional (as in knobby mountain bike tires designed to create traction) or caused by external factors (chip seal, gravel and the like).

Last, before we dive into the guidelines on gear use and shifting, a brief note. One of the things I will encourage throughout these guidelines is maintaining a cadence of 90-110 rpm (sometimes higher). There are three primary reasons for this:

  • It generally increases fat efficiency (the ability for the athlete to draw from fat stores, rather than glucose).
  • It generally increases use of the aerobic system, which increases the body’s ability to process out lactate acid as it is being produced.
  • It is more forgiving to less-than-perfect pedal strokes.

A note to those who currently train and race at a cadence below 90 rpm — chances are, if you make the switch to higher cadence, it will actually be harder at first. That is because, on some level, your body has trained itself to be more efficient at that lower cadence. The human body is an amazing adaptation machine, and it can adapt to just about anything, even things that aren’t necessarily ideal. Just know that it is unlikely it will reach its full potential for efficiency without making the switch.

This article is not geared (no pun intended) toward coaching that change, so I encourage athletes who need to make this adjustment to talk to a local USA Triathlon or USA Cycling Certified Coach about what steps to take. Also note that there are extremely effective low cadence workouts out there, so just remember there is a time and place for everything.

Now … let’s talk gears!

The first aspect of gearing that we need to look at is simply how to know when it is time to shift. Below are a few situations when it is appropriate (read: borderline necessary) to shift gears. Always remember that there is an exception to any rule — the following are simply guidelines:

  1. Any time you cannot get your cadence above 85 rpm — at this point you need to shift to an easier gear one gear at a time until you can spin at 90-110 rpm. What causes this? Generally it’s an opposing force — gravity, wind, rolling resistance, etc. — though you will see in the first example that sometimes it is situational:
    1. The pack or athletes you are pacing with are going at a slower speed that does not require a harder gear, requiring you to either spin slower or gear down to maintain your cadence and position in the pack. This is your opportunity to recover. Take advantage of it! (Unless, of course, your workout plan or race strategy states otherwise)
    2. You have started (or are about to start) up an incline (or the rate of incline has increased).
    3. The wind has either picked up or changed direction (or you have changed direction moving into the wind), meaning you have greater wind resistance going against you.
    4. Poor road conditions (gravel, chip seal, cracks) arise and increase rolling resistance, meaning you have to produce more power to move forward at your prior rate.
    5. Any time you are “spinning out,” especially when you are in a race. This means that for your current cadence ability level (how fast you can effectively pedal), you are unable to use the current gear to its maximum capacity. Now it’s time to gear up, unless you are intentionally working on high cadence technique.
    6. When you are being dropped from your group (or not meeting a power/pace goal) and your current gear/cadence combination is insufficient to stay with the pack or the goal.

When it’s time to shift, there are a few things you can do that will make your shifting smoother and more efficient. The most important thing to remember is that your chain will only move to the next gear once you “pedal through” the front part of your stroke, so all aspects of your stroke at the time of shifting are important to the efficiency of the shift. The four most important rules to remember are:

  1. If you are shifting to go uphill, shift right before your cadence starts to slow down.
  2. If you can, shift right before you pedal through the front with your dominant leg. (Do you have a leg that generally manages strength exercises, learns new techniques more quickly or has better balance? That’s your dominant leg.) Yes, ideally in the long run you don’t have a dominant leg because both of your legs are equally strong and amazing, but this adjustment will be easier if you start with the one that is currently dominant.
  3. Speed up your cadence 5-10 rpm right before shifting if at all possible.
  4. Keep pedaling!

The smoother your shifting, the more efficient it will be. Choppy shifting leads to dropped chains, damaged gears and lost momentum. Generally speaking, I also recommend that newer riders don’t try to shift more than one gear at a time — in other words, shift, pedal through, shift, pedal through, and so on. There are component sets designed to be able to smoothly shift through multiple gears at once, but again, only when used appropriately.

Test all of the above on the bike (it’s not a bad idea to test new shifting techniques on the trainer first, so you can learn and make mistakes in a controlled environment), and you will eventually develop instincts that will tell you when and how to shift automatically when you are riding. It’s important to remember that these are introductory guidelines, and do not necessarily apply to every situation or cover every aspect of the topic. Always check with your coach before you implement new tactics into your training and racing — there is a time and a place for changes, and not every technique is right for every athlete.