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If you’re a rail trail rider who’s a bit intimidated or confused as to how or when to shift your bike to a different gear, we’ve got some news: you’re far from alone! In fact, you’re part of a long tradition of frustrated cyclists that stretches back over a hundred years to the very first derailleur systems.
There are probably plenty of reasons for this—we’ve all known the familiar clacking and scraping of a derailleur in need of adjustment, and our legs probably remember pedaling into a headwind or up a hill in too high a gear. But the answer isn’t just finding a gear that works most of the time and sticking with it. Bicycles are amazingly efficient machines, and if we’re not shifting gears, we’re not getting the most out of our ride.
To think simply and clearly about how to shift, a good first step is to avoid thinking about your gears as little numbers on your handlebars. While manufacturers provide these numbers to indicate the level of resistance a rider feels, they can lead to some confusing conversations on the rail-trail: “Should I be on 2 and 7?” “What are you on?” “When I’m on 3 and 2, my chain scrapes!”
Instead, we’d suggest just glancing down at your chainrings for a moment while you’re pedaling on an easy stretch of trail. You’ll likely see two or three chainrings—think of these as your basic ranges of speed. Just after the bottom of your pedalstroke, when you’re putting the least amount of tension on your chain, use your left hand to shift your chain to a smaller or larger chainring. This is the biggest jump you’re asking your chain to make, so it’s often the hardest or “clunkiest” shift. Once your chain is on the new chainring, you’ll feel a noticeable change in resistance. Shifting to a larger chainring means you’re in a faster range of speed: you’re getting the most leverage out of each pedalstroke, so you’re also feeling the most resistance. Shifting to a smaller chainring will do the opposite, making it easier to pedal, but decreasing the amount of leverage you’re getting out of each pedalstroke.
Attached to the hub of your rear wheel is a cluster of cogs called a cassette. The chain runs between your chainrings and your cassette. Instead of thinking about how many individual cogs you have on your cassette, try thinking visually about your chain as a straight line running parallel to your bicycle. When you’re on your small, inner chainring, the chain should be on one of the innermost cogs, so that your chain is running in a smooth, straight line. When you shift to your larger outer chainring, for the chain to remain parallel to the bike, you’ll want to shift towards the outer cogs on your rear cassette. You’ll find that you’re able to shift between 2 or 3 cogs on the rear cassette and still maintain a more or less straight chain-line.
Practice this way of thinking while you’re riding, and you’ll find yourself able to apply the right shift at the right time. Pedaling up a long hill or into the wind? Shift to your easier inner chainring, and make sure your chain is a straight line back to the innermost cogs on your rear cassette. Pedaling downhill with a tailwind? Take advantage of every bit of leverage by shifting to the larger outer chainring, and clicking your chain to the outermost cogs on your rear cassette.
Before long, you’ll find yourself looking forward to finding that perfect gear to get the most out of every moment on the trail.
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