Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Saving" Your Gears: a False Economy?

SRampagnolo Drivetrain
Just as one might ration out provisions in anticipation of hard times, so will some cyclists engage in an act I will refer to as "saving gears." Allow me to explain. Say you're doing a long, unpleasant climb. Almost straight away the gradient is pretty bad, in a "hits you over the head with a shovel" sort of way. And you know there's more of that to come. So you start downshifting, clicking through the gears with manic desperation in order to cope with the steepness of the climb. But in doing so, you take care to resist the temptation to use your absolute lowest gear. Why? Well, because as the climb progresses, you don't want to run out of gears at a moment you need them most! So, mentally you set that bail-out gear aside. Hidden under your mind's floorboards, it is your emergency water supply in a drought; your last crust of bread in a famine. 

And then, only in your darkest hour, when you go around that bend where you expect the climb to level out only to find that it steepens obscenely, just as you're about to despair and pass out from the effort, you remember that one last gear and you switch to it, and the mere relief its presence brings allows you to soar toward salvation. It is this that saving gears is all about. 

Some might call it a false economy. Why not spin in a comfortable gear all the way up, rather than torture and overexert yourself needlessly? And no doubt that is wise. Yet our nature, some primeval instinct within us, compels us to keep a reserve for hard times. Just in case. 

I contemplated this today, as I saved my lowest gear for the hard bit at the end of a long and tedious hill. Though I hadn't done this climb in some time, I remembered that stretch well. I dreaded it physically and steeled myself against it mentally. And, fastidiously keeping away from my biggest cog, I spun in a gear that kept me all right, but not as comfortable as I could have been, waiting for that moment when the climb would try to surprise me with its last flick of nastiness and I, in turn, would triumph over it with a flick of shifter. 

In this manner, I pedaled, and I huffed and puffed, and I anticipated. I watched the clouds above and the fields below, the birds soaring and the sheep grazing. I pedaled and I anticipated until something happened that I hadn't counted on… 

I began to descend. 

That last hard bit must not have been as bad as I remembered, since I never noticed when it came and went. And now my bail-out gear, having gone unused, sat there sulkily, gathering dust, as I flew down the other side of the hill, then made my way home. The joke was on me. Or was there a joke in this at all? My legs did not seem to find it funny!

41 comments:

  1. You hit it right on the nail there. I won't hesitate to use my lowest gear (22/25) to warm up on a climb to find my rhythm. Upshift as the need comes up.

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  2. I think there's also an inherent sense of challenge and personal competition. I know on certain climbs I use it a personal training metric - if I can get up this grade in X gear, my climbing legs are good, and if I'm below Y gear, I'm having a super weak day.

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  3. Your mind is odd and overtly dramatic as it interprets the everyday.

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  4. I find myself saving a gear or two early in a long ride. But when I'm 80-100 km into a ride with lots of hills, I'm in the lowest gear that works, even if it's the absolute lowest. And on my last ride like that, I confess to getting off and walking for a few dozen feet. In my defense, it was a couple of 18% grades.

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  5. I did away with my bailout gear altogether, in order to have more gears available with more closely spaced ratios. My bailout used to be a 32T cog matched to a 28T front "granny" ring. Now it's 28T matched to 28T, for 1:1. That's my bailout, and I don't hesitate to use it, even at the bottom of a steep climb!

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    1. Not surprised. My lowest is a 34:36t does me just fine, and you're a stronger rider.

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    2. Hey Somervillain, What is your current gearing set-up? Just out of curiosity...

      Spiondizzy

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  6. What about just walking your bike when the hills are way too steep and unrideable? This must be the worst shame and disgrace in roadie's world. When mountainbiking, I used to do it quite often.

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    1. It's not about shame or disgrace. When you're covering long distances, walking is just not practical time-wise. Plus it's FUN to do it on the bike.

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  7. Stand up and use your leg muscles!

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    1. Actually, the advantage of standing up is that it makes the muscles of the upper body more available. I rarely stand on climbs, but when I do I use the upper body to swing the bike from side to side. This is what I was taught decades ago when a young racer. By engaging additional muscles I can usually get over steep grades faster and with less effort than fitter riders who insist on standing but then just let their weight slowly sink the pedals. If you're not going to use the upper body when you stand up then you would be better off downshifting and sitting. (Always assuming you've got a gear to downshift to.)

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  8. "I used to think the brain was the most important organ...then I thought, well look who's telling me that."- Emo Phillips

    All that tortuous leg-punishing you've been doing off the bike might well be having positive effects while on the bike.
    Hiking makes *me* ride stronger. Herself, too.

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  9. It depends on.....

    your personal mental setting I suppose.
    I ride a very ugly trail regularly and tried all possible methods to tame the beast.
    Spinning the "comfortable" gear led to chaos because I rode a too high frequency, knowing it all the time.
    All efforts to slow down were futile and I ended in a meadow faking a mechanical problem (what a shame).
    So, I believe it depends on your mental set up wether you are capable to adapt you to the gear or not.
    If you, like me, could not muster this discipline you will always be better off in changing gears and saving a reserve to reach the summit.
    I never mused about this since this article appeard but I don´t think it is genetically anchored.
    Using the "economic" strategy you maybe reach the goal but you will never win the race and that´s what life was all about.
    For my opnion economic strategy in hill climbing is wrong because of the rewarding descend or summit in contrast to a very long flat run where less recovery is granted.

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  10. I get around this problem by rarely ever climbing hills that require me to use anything approaching my lowest gear - there are advantages to doing most of your cycling in a generally flat city like London.

    That said, I cycled from north to south Devon last year, which involved quite a number of hills. It was my first cycle touring holiday, and I'd taken far too much stuff - my panniers were *heavy*. I spent most of my time in my lowest gear, wishing I could go lower.

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    1. When you're doing big miles, especially when you're not used to them, there is also the tiredness factor. At the end of a long ride, I am always in lower gears than I started with, holdig terrain constant.

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  11. Last weekend I did a 1200 foot climb in 2.2 miles (metric conversions, anyone?) and I was in my 34/30 at the start and couldn't have done it any other way. I rode a 1000+ climbin 4.5 miles a couple of days before that and I kept 3 extra gears in case I got tired. It was nice to know that I had extra gears, just in case.

    So, in short, I save them when I don't need them yet but some climbs are so close to my limit that I have no choice.

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  12. ".......under your mind's floorboards"
    great stuff!

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  13. I've lately been riding an old touring bike, one whose gears were sufficient when I was 21 years old. The lowest is 28T granny, 28T rear. I routinely use the granny gear and still have to stand in the pedals to hoof it over these ungodly steep VT hills. Yes, I used to save one gear in reserve, but I'm happy to just keep riding this old bike. I'll be swapping gears when they wear out.

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  14. I have even lower gears than you do and am not shy about using them. Sometimes when I'm still on the hill I'll find myself shifting back up because I'm not as tired as I would have been in a higher gear. It's only a bicycle ride. What are you training for? Is there a test?

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  15. and then you have a singlespeeder...

    I totally "save" a gear or two for hard times, though I am learning to do that less and less mtbing and meter out my effort better. but I also like to use it as a gauge of how my fitness and leg strength is coming along.

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  16. Totally unrelated to your question about gear saving: How on earth did you get your cassette so clean?

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    1. Easy: That picture was taken when the cassette was new : )

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  17. One disadvantage to this that I have found, is that if you save your lowest on the really steep bit, you can't use it without risking popping off your chain completely.

    This happened to me recently on holiday on a rented bike. Chain came off as I was attacking a very steep incline. I don't know if its me, the crap bike setup or both, but when you are putting a lot of stress on the chain, shifting down causes it to slip. Not very pretty!

    Its easier to shift up if needed, although as you said, instinctively most people don't do this. I have learned to slip down to the lowest just in case, then slip up if I can take it...

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    1. This is true - bikes don't seem to appreciate having their gears changed under duress - particularly the front gears. Changing gears in anticipation rather than retrospectively is better, though this may not always happen in practical situations. Whenever I have not changed down sufficiently in advance, I prefer to get off and walk rather than torture my bike.

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  18. I used to save the lowest gear for years and years.
    25 years ago I climbed this way the Stelvio with 39/23 (at this time 26 was the max. cog I had... long time ago). For the last 5 years approx. I have used all gears (now 30/27... getting old and fat!) and some times I still am a little bit stressed not to have a gear "in reserve"... In fact my reserve today are S-lines, hopefully not with cars coming.

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  19. Does this mean you will retire the sulky, dust ridden gear or seek out steeper climbs?

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    1. There are many use case scenarios for having a sub 1:1 gear, so I'll definitely be keeping it.

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    2. Everyday I travel the same route and some days I can make it up the hill w/o using my lowest gear and some days I require it….There are so many variables which explain my variations. In general I'm stronger as my milage increases but am glad to have any gear I need on those days I'm low on fuel.

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    3. Very true. Initially, my main reason for wanting gearing that low, was that I was physically unable to climb some hills otherwise - due to a lack of strength, exacerbated by my then-inability to stand out of the saddle. Today I can push a considerably higher gear if necessary and falling over at a standstill even on the toughest hill is no longer a serious concern. Still, for my purpose and style of cycling (I like doing long rides and prefer to pedal at a high cadence), low gears are useful and improve my cycling experience.

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    4. Bicycles are amazing, period! The very idea that I can move about at two, or three, or more the speed of walking and travel miles and experience things I could never experience in a car is incredible. It enriches my life. I think little about the gears I have simply because they allow my to go wherever I want to go. What else matters? For me, it's not a competition, it's just breathing in the miles, some days with a grimace and some days with a smile. My bike allows this and saving things does not connect as much as using things...

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  20. I like to get up hills as fast as reasonably possible. I hate riding in groups where everyone shifts down at the first whiff of an incline, and continue to downshift repeatedly, while churning away like hamsters.

    So that's another reason to reserve a gear or three.

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    1. "like hamsters" lol - another good reason to ride solo.

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  21. Of all the head games we cyclists use to get us over the top, I suspect saving the last gear is probably the most universally used and also the most denied. It has just a whiff of irrationality to it, not quite as bad as Jaques Anquitil taking his bottle out of the cage and putting it in his jersey pocket to lighten his bike, but enough that people almost treat it as superstition and hesitate to admit doing it..

    People say that to not use the gear till you cant go on without, keeps you from using it when it will do you the most good. Or that by holding this ace up your sleeve you deceive yourself into never discovering what you can really do, only hiding behind that which we hope will prevent us from revealing our weakness. I think that's all just semantic BS. Anything that keeps the cranks turning should be fair game and proudly so.

    Of course this little ploy has it's dangers too, if not used with a little common sense it has the potential to make you look like a dope unnecessarily. More than once I've ground my way up a climb in a group, one gear from the bottom, slower and slower, telling myself "just a bit farther" until I give in and push the lever over, only to have to ease up, not only enough to complete the shift, but to also drop my speed to the point that I'm now having to push my bail-out gear even slower than I was turning the previous cog. Lols. My friend Ben gets no end of joy out of suddenly "leaping" ahead of me on his fixed gear when I do that. It also loses some of it's magic if you use this little ruse on yourself more than, say, 300 times a day. Starts to make one feel a bit of a fraud in my experience...

    I sometimes reward myself for not resorting to, as the Mountainbikers say"Humping my Granny"(Horrible phrase, I absolutely refuse to use it) by promising myself a Hershey bar at the top of the mountain, there have been angry words at the summit a couple of times when it comes out that I was lying and didn't really have any chocolate but sometimes you have to be a bastard to get the most out of yourself. I always patch things up with myself and I return home joking and laughing like nothing ever happened. It's sweet really.

    "Back In The Day", when race bikes typically had something like a 42-26 low gear and the hills hadn't eroded to the gentle mounds we have now, climbing was an even more fraught and desperate endeavor. I vividly remember trying not to get dropped, pushing the biggest gear I could maintain at 40 or so RPM while sitting, till I thought blood was going to squirt out of my eyes, then shifting UP one and standing to let the dead weight of the rest of my near lifeless zombie corpse take a turn pushing on my Zeus Campy copy Super Record pedals. If you did it right you got a big enough burst of torque to momentarily accelerate enough to drop back down into the previous gear at a slightly elevated RPM that you tried to maintain for as long as possible. This cycle could go on and on till you thought you were going to blow your Fruity Pebbles into the woods. Compact cranks and the "Old Mans 36 Tooth Badge Of Courage" means I don't do that anymore.

    Another ploy for psyching oneself out that I've been using for a thousand years is to pedal in time to music in my head, pick something up-tempo that "loops" that won't make you want to kill yourself if it gets in your head forever, and try to keep it from dragging. I use The Kinks "All day and all of the night" and imagine Ray and Dave Davies standing behind me ready to kick my ass if I F up their song by dragging it down to where it sounds like Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River". Ray and Dave have gotten me over the top so many times maybe I should send them a check...

    Spindizzy

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  22. I'm saving the last cog for when I get OLDER.

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  23. There is an physiological or endurance aspect to this as well. While standing on the pedals gets you promptly over a short, sharp climb and spinning is best for a long climb within a short ride, the really long efforts, when you must conserve your stamina till the end of a long day, call for gearing that feels heavy but not crushing. I often stay on a tougher gear not because I wish to save the granny for later, but because I want to save my energy for later.

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  24. The lesson I would learn from this: The smallest gear may not be necessary at all and it may be beneficial to instead use an intermediate cog for finer shifts

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  25. Deliberately choose a harder rear cassette AND avoid granny gear, this will make you work hard. Over time it builds up strength and ability however if you aregue that cadence is key, then this doesn't help.

    A better tip however is to ride for yourself and ignore other riders, overtake or let them over you without throught - rather concentrate on your own pace.

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