It was early in the season when I saw my friend Jim, who was just finishing his ride as I was about to start mine. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and always looked forward to talking with him. He’s an accomplished, serious rider as well as an engineer who built up his own titanium bike. More than that he’s a really sharp and witty guy. He always has something insightful to say about riding or fellow riders.

But he’d had a serious health problem which I immediately asked him about. I was glad to find out he was recovering well. Jim was more excited about getting back to riding, though, and said, “It’s going good, I’m getting better. I’m one cog up.”

After we talked a few more minutes he left, and as I went on my ride, I was thinking about his comment that he moved up a cog. It’s simply rider-speak for riding one gear larger (i.e., actually achieved via a smaller cog to create a larger gear ratio) from what is a de facto default gear many riders use while riding around on mostly flat terrain. It was also a shorthand way for Jim to say he was going faster on his ordinary rides.

If you ride a standard 52 x 39 chain ring with a 12-28 tooth, 10 cog cassette, for example, you might be spinning a gear such as a 52 x 19 at 80 RPM’s, which would have you riding at about 17 miles per hour, or maybe a 52 x 21, a smaller gear, at the same cadence which gives you a speed of 15.5 mph. These are just examples, though realistic ones. You might use larger or smaller gears. Many riders are in the same gear every day on the easy parts of roads they regularly ride.

If you ride a compact double, usually a 50 x 34, you might spin the 50 x 19 at a cadence of 75 to go 15 mph (24 kph), or a cadence of 85 with the 50 x 21, or you might be in a larger gear such as a 50 x 17, or more. Whatever gears or cadence you routinely use, you get the idea. Most riders have some idea what gear they’re usually turning, as it’s from this base most riders select smaller gears for climbing or bigger gears for tempo, intervals, time trialing and sprints if they do that.

If a rider finds himself up one cog, though, for most of his riding, that would put the rider in our original example in a default gear of 52 x 19 up to the 52 x 18 (let’s assume they have the 18 cog on their cassette) at the same cadence of 80, which would give him a speed of 18 mph.

It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but a good portion of training rides often happen at this default gear, where we’re spinning a moderate gear at what is really a medium cadence. If most of our riding, without much extra effort, is one cog up at the same cadence from what we usually ride, this can represent significant progress.

While this simple act of riding a slightly bigger gear can seem too basic for elite racers or even for accomplished riders, it shouldn’t be overlooked. To state the obvious, pedaling a bike faster is ultimately about turning the cranks faster or turning a bigger gear—better yet a combination of both. But many riders and even some racers don’t always think about their gearing that much.

An experienced rider after a group ride told me she’d been struggling during the ride trying to turn a bigger gear. When I asked her what gearing she’d used, she said, “I don’t know, I just click into whatever one I feel like.” She told me she had no idea what the gearing numbers were, or what they mean. She never learned about them. I was surprised. She didn’t ask, so I had no suggestions for her.

Although her lack of interest and knowledge about gears didn’t usually harm her riding, she might have been able to solve her problem and ride better had she learned something about gears.

Many beginners find gears mysterious and intimidating. But gears and how to utilize them are worth learning about especially in relation to your own riding. Gears allow you to individualize your approach to riding, something that can make you a better rider and something that strikes me as essential for racers. I say that with the caveat that there are probably racers out there much faster than me who don’t even pay attention to their gears, so I realize I should be careful about laying down imperatives. There are plenty of edicts about gears as with all things cycling which many cyclists, including me, violate. So unconventional isn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

But back to the gears and what paying attention to them can do for you. My friend Jim was able to note his progress as he returned to riding by paying attention to the gears he was using. That’s not a small thing. We are bombarded as cyclists—especially racers—with commands to pay attention to heart rates or watts and training zones and to design workouts that way, but not so much gearing. And while most workouts, especially those for high intensity speed and power—things that interest racers the most, are designed via either training zones or related data, you can also do workouts that are, for want of a better term, gear based.

You can do big gear workouts or small gear workouts, both of which are included to some extent when you do intervals and sprints (usually big gears) or high cadence work (usually small gears), so you will reap rewards from the work, and you should find your speed and power increased. But you can also directly structure a ride or a workout, particularly on the stationary or turbo trainer, based on gears and cadence. This may boost progress.

You will find those who insist spinning a small gear is superior to using big gears or vice versa, that you have to choose one method or the other as a dominant one, particularly if you race. But there are racers who utilize gearing all the way across the spectrum who are successful, so again, beware of these hard-and-fast commandments. For racers, what most of us care about is going faster, so if you explore all ranges of gearing and work on this, you’ll eventually find what gives you the most speed for your effort. Isn’t that what you’re after?  

Here’s a handy chart to check out gears, cadence and speed:

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