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Commuting 101: Using Lower Gears

by Warren T

Recent changes to my routes have meant more hilly terrain during my rides. During this time I’ve used gear combinations which I have never used before. I should say that I never dared use before.

For some reason, over the last few decades I’ve come to think of using higher gears as the manly choice. Heaven forbid someone catch me slipping down to “granny gears.” Somehow, in my mind, I settled upon the idea that higher gears meant a better workout and lower gears were the wimpy way out. One particular hill has changed all of that.

The stretch of road in question doesn’t look that impressive on a map, it is only 0.3 miles long. The paradigm shift came with the fact that less than a half mile uphill with a 29% grade isn’t so easy of a ride in higher gears. My first trip up that hill found me set in my ways and struggling to muscle out the climb. It wasn’t fun. During my second trip I down shifted and remember my inner monologue going something like “well, that’s why they made those gears… I made it to the top of the hill quicker and with, seemingly, less effort. Sure, I was pedaling like a mad man, but my speedometer showed an increase of 1.5 MPH over the previous day’s hammer-fest. Since that trip I’ve taken to dropping down to even lower gears and hills don’t seem so daunting anymore.

Seeking to justify this change in attitude, I harnessed the power of the internet and searched for “Bicycle RPM Gears Fat Strength” and came up with some very interesting information. According to this wonderful article at Active.com, “Why fast pedaling makes cyclists more efficient,” higher pedaling speeds are more economical and burn more fat. High pedaling rates also preserve glycogen in fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning more energy available during the closing moments of a race.

In one case the cyclists pedaled their bikes at 50 revolutions per minute (rpm) while using a high gear. In the second case, the athletes pedaled in a low gear at 100 rpm. The athletes were traveling at identical speeds in the two instances, so their leg-muscle contractions were quite forceful at 50 rpm and moderate — but more frequent — at 100 rpm.

As it turned out, the athletes’ oxygen consumption rates were nearly identical in the two cases, and heart and breathing rates, total rate of power production, and blood lactate levels were also similar.

However, athletes broke down the carbohydrate in their muscles at a greater rate when the 50 rpm strategy was used, while the 100 rpm cadence produced a greater reliance on fat.

And then there’s Lance. The Wikipedia entry on Lance Armstrong mentions his riding style.

Armstrong has a low lactate threshold and can maintain a higher cadence (often 120 rpm) in a lower gear than his competitors, most noticeably in the time trials. This style is in direct contrast to previous champions (such as Jan Ullrich and Greg LeMond) who used a high gear and great strength to win time trials. It is believed that a high cadence results in less fatigue in the leg muscles than a lower cadence requiring more severe leg muscle contractions. Ultimately the cardiovascular system is worked to a greater extent with a high cadence than with a lower, more muscular cadence. Because the leg muscles are taxed less with a high cadence pedaling style, they recover faster, and the efforts can be sustained for longer periods of time. Armstrong dedicated a significant portion of his training to developing and maintaining a high cadence style.

So there it is, I’ve embraced hill climbing and do my best to maintain my typical average MPH while using a lower gear. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a significant difference, but I’m enjoying hills more. And … one thing to keep in mind is that one of the benefits of getting to the top of a really nasty hill is riding down the other side.

 
Burley nomad 269

14 Responses to “Commuting 101: Using Lower Gears”

  1. mike says:

    the cadence/efficiency thing is a bit of holy grail nonsense. pedal what feels comfortable is the latest research, if i get really motivated I might dig up the citations.

    what’s actually interesting to me is gears affect one of the biggest obstacles to my commuting, sweat. If you don’t have easy access to showering and changing clothes commuting is all about not sweating. So what causes less sweat?, mashing big gears or spinning the 27 like a madman.

  2. Quinn says:

    Granny gears Rock! just yesterday I set my 29er up as a 2×9 (22/36 x 11-34), I love the fact that I can sit down on a climb that my buddies are hammering, because they won’t a smaller chainring than a 34 on their bikes. and I don’t know about you but, 1 I like to mtn bike not mountain walk and/or push my bike up a hilly street.

  3. Ghost Rider says:

    Glad to hear you “saw the light”…hammering a big gear just because it is “manly” is a great way to ruin your knees, too, and is terribly inefficient on top of that.

  4. Aidan says:

    High cadence is the way to go! My riding buddy chides me for getting out of the saddle to climb short to medium hills (without down-shifting). He says his racing buddy tells him its inefficient. My response has been that it likely is from a caloric viewpoint, not that we N.Americans need to conserve calories, but that it feels easier because I am switching muscle groups. Thoughts?

  5. la says:

    29% grade? Do you bring a ladder with you? ;-)

    I have often noticed better results when spinning in lower gears (I used to almost never use the big ring on my compact crank on the road bike, even at 25mph in group rides). I think I got messed up by some training videos I did though, time to speed the cadence back up.

    I did NOT know that it burned more fat though. That’s definitely a motivator for me!

    As far as standing on climbs….I only do it on the MTB when I didn’t downshift when I should have, and on the road bike when I need a burst of speed going uphill. Very inefficient, but it lays power down pretty quickly.

  6. bikesgonewild says:

    …you’ll notice young mr contador used a 34 X 30 as a low gear in the short (12.9 km) extremely steep TT on monday’s stage of il giro…

    …being that the man’s job is racing a bicycle, i guess it’s fair to say he needed that very low gear for his commute to maintain that maglia rosa…

    …as an aside, i’d love to know what kind of cadence contador was pedaling at, on the steepest sections (24 %) of packed gravel…

    …& back when watching armstrong & ullrich going head to head whether on a climb or powering along in a TT, it was almost painful to see jan pushing those big gears…somehow it just made sense that lance would recover faster…

  7. Jason says:

    I have a big hill to climb on my return commute every day and I’m definitely better about using my low gears with a year’s experience under my belt, but this is a good reminder that I should continue to experiment. I almost never use my smallest chainring- tomorrow I’m going to see what I can do by using it and ramping up my cadence.

  8. Jason says:

    I have a pretty big hill on my return commute, so I’ve learned to take better advantage of my lower gears in the last year, but I think I can probably do better still. For whatever reason my tendency has been to never use my lowest chainring (maybe for the same macho reasons you mentioned above). Tomorrow on the way home I’m going to experiment with using it and upping my cadence.

  9. ethan says:

    Commuting to work by bike has really begun to change how I think about biking. It doesn’t have to be a mad dash. I don’t have to work up a sweat. I don’t have to be a badass. I have to pay attention to traffic. I have to enjoy the ride.

    My ride home is almost all up hill. I’m still evaluating the best route, but I have to admit that I gave up on the highest gears really quick.

  10. Avraham says:

    My first (partial) commute (about a year ago) I started out fast and my legs tired after a few minutes. I knew I was out of shape, but that made no sense. Then I remembered reading about cadence, continued with a more moderate pace, and finished my commute (35 minutes).

  11. will says:

    Absolutely,

    This strange macho fixation with using big gears on hills is silly.

    As someone who spends a lot of time on long Alps climbs, I wouldn’t get caught dead without my dinner-plate back ring.

    It’s the difference between enjoyment and bonk.

    The othe day even some pros were using a 28 on the back in the Giro mountain time trial.

  12. Low gears = a Good Thing

    In training, I tend to ride a 90-110rpm, but on race day, I lock right into 101-112rpm (WORK those shifters!). I can keep it up longer, go faster, and find that when I get off the bike, I’m warmed up & ready to run.

    My Sturdy Commuting Bike doesn’t have the tightness of ratios to maintain that though, so when commuting, I ride 80-100rpm. I try to keep it in the to half of this band, but don’t fret so much.

    In fact, I’m pretty much obsessed with cadence – it’s THE number I pay any attention to on the cyclecomputer. Whenever I’m out I’ll invariably pass someone struggling along into a headwind / up a hill at something like 60 rpm

  13. As one of the other commenters mentioned, I too am curious whether high RPMs or high gears tend to cause more sweating. May have to do some research on my own for that question!

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