Bike Gears Explained

On the surface, understanding your bike gears is pretty simple. You push the lever one way to make it easier to pedal, and the other to go faster. choosing the right gears to install on your bike however can be much trickier.

Most of us just end up riding the gears that came with our bikes, but if you don’t think about swapping out for different scenarios, you might end up making things much more difficult than they need to be.

The gear ratios you want to use for a hilly cycling holiday in Mallorca are not the same as the gears you want for a time trial, criterium, club ride or city riding. Our complete guide to bike gears takes the mystery out, and will have you joining in with all the other bores banging on about ratios in no time at all.

Front Gears (Chainrings/Crankset)

The front gears are referred to as chainrings, or as a crankset, or by the less jargon-savvy cyclists, ‘the front ones’.  Actually, the whole assembly with the crank arms and the front gears together is properly known as the ‘crankset’, or sometimes ‘chainset’. Most cranksets have either two (called a double or 2x), or three (called a triple or 3x) chainrings. Single (or 1x) chainrings are gaining popularity, particularly among mountain bikers and cyclocross riders, but are still a fairly niche application.  On the crankset, the smallest chainring is closest to the frame. The smaller the chainring, the easier the pedalling. As we move the chain away from the centre line of the bike, the pedalling gets harder but you go faster. Typically the chainrings are identified by mentioning their position (“inner”, “outer”, or, in the case of a triple “middle”), or by their size “big ring”, “little ring”. On a triple they’re usually called “outer/big”, “middle” and the smallest one has a special name – “granny gear” or just “granny”.

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Rear Gears (Cassette)

The gears on the rear wheel are called ‘cogs’ and when you put a few of them together in ascending size and attach them onto your back wheel, they are referred to as a ‘cassette’. Most bikes built in the last few years have between 8 and 11 cogs in the cassette. The largest cogs are closest to the wheel and the gears are numbered from the inside out. The larger the cog the ‘lower’ the gear and the easier it will be to pedal, but the slower you will go.

How Many Gears?

When we talk about how many “speeds” a bike has, there can be some confusion. The marketing department likes to multiply the number of cogs by the number of chainrings because big numbers are impressive. But the fact is there’s actually a lot of overlap, so a 9×2 doesn’t really have 18 gears.  People who actually ride bikes only refer to the number of cogs in the cassette, so an 8 speed, a 9 speed etc… They may also mention whether they have a single, double, triple crankset, or they may simply say “9×2” or “2×9”.

Derailleurs

‘Derailleur’ is pretty hard to pronounce, but – fortunately – pretty easy to understand. The chain gets moved from one cog to another or one chainring to another by means of a derailleur. The front derailleur is a fairly simple device that simply pushes the chain off of one chainring to be picked up or ‘caught’ by the next.

The rear derailleur is a little more complex as it has two jobs. Like the front, it guides the chain from one cog to the next, but it is also responsible for maintaining chain tension and taking up the slack when we move from bigger gears to smaller ones. The rear derailleur has two little gears (actually called ‘pulleys’) in it, and the chain makes an ‘S’ turn through them. The upper pulley (closest to the cassette) is referred to as the ‘jockey pulley’ and the lower pulley is called the ‘idler pulley’. The pulleys are held in position by the ‘cage’.

You’ll find it’s much more difficult to shift your front gears while the chain is pulled really tight, so you should lighten your stroke a bit when switching chainrings. The rear derailleur is much more effective at switching gears while pedalling hard. It is important to note however, that in order to switch gears the chain must be moving forward.

With both the front and the rear derailleur, when the shift cable is pulled, it will move the chain to a larger gear.  When the cable is released, it will move the chain to a smaller gear. Just remember that larger gears at the rear mean easier pedalling but more torque, and larger gears at the front mean harder pedalling but more speed. Going from “easier” gears to “harder” gears is called “upshifting”, and the reverse is called “downshifting”.

Teeth & Bike Gear Ratios Explained

11 cogs on the rear cassette and two on the front chainring essentially gives you 22 different options (though some of these may cross over so not strictly true).

The key element that will determine how hard you work is the difference in the number of teeth (the wee pointy bits that hook through the gaps in your chain) between the front chainring at the front and your selected rear cog.

Let’s take my bike as an example:

The chainring (front) on my bike is 50/34T. That means the outer ring has 50 teeth and the inner ring has 34 teeth.

The rear cassette is 11 speed 11-32. This means there are 11 cogs ranging from 11 teeth up to 32 teeth (the exact cogs are 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32).

The combination of your selected chainring and cog determine the gear ratio.  The gear ratio, combined with the circumference of your wheel and tyre determines how far you will travel with each revolution of the cranks.

The Hardest Gear

Let’s say I am in the hardest gear on each which means I would be riding on the 50 tooth ring on the front, and the 11 tooth ring on the back. To get our gear ratio we divide the number of teeth on the front by the number on the back:

50 ÷ 11 = 4.55

This is expressed as 4.55 : 1 meaning that for every 1 turn I make of the pedals at the front, I will turn the back wheel 4.55 times. This is the gear I would use on the flat. It is going to take quite a lot of effort to get it moving, but when I do I will move quickly.

The Easiest Gear

This would be the opposite end, the small ring on the front and the biggest on the back. The reason for this is that they are the closest together, meaning you get a really low ratio. On the bike I ride this is 34 teeth at the front and 32 at the back – so really close.

34 ÷ 32 = 1.06

1.06 : 1 means I am only just moving the back wheel through more than one revolution for every turn of the crankset. This would be the gear I am using on the very toughest of climbs allowing mean to spin the wheels quickly to get my cadence high.

Different Gearing Set Ups

Crank Set (Front Gears) 

You may sometimes hear cranksets referred to as ‘compact’ or ‘standard’.  A compact crankset typically has a 50 tooth (50T) big ring and a 34 tooth (34T) little-ring. Standard cranksets are typically 53T/39T.  In most cases, you can change your chainrings to have different tooth counts, but as a general rule you don’t want to have more than a 16-tooth difference between the big ring and little ring or you may have shifting issues. As for triples, they tend to run even smaller gears and more closely spaced 26T/36T/46T and 52T/42T/32T are common triple crankset configurations.  With 10 and 11 speed drivetrains becoming the norm, we’re seeing triples fall out of fashion and even single ring cranksets are becoming popular because of the wide range of ratios an 11-speed cassette can span.

Cassette (Read Gears) 

As mentioned earlier, today’s bikes typically come with 8 to 11 cogs in a cassette.  When choosing cassettes, you can choose a cassette that has a narrow range of ratios but closely spaced between each cog, or you could choose a cassette that offers a wide range of ratios but at the cost of bigger jumps between cogs.  Choosing a bike that has more speeds reduces the tradeoff some, and gives you more versatility. If you do most of your riding in a place that is generally flat, it’s probably best to opt for a narrow-range cassette with small ratio jumps as that allows you to really fine-tune your cadence and effort level.  If you live in an area that has more varied terrain, a wider-ranged cassette may be the better choice to help you get up those hills.  Wider-ranged cassettes with higher cog counts typically have the ratios more closely spaced on the smaller cogs, and then have the bigger jumps in the bigger “climbing” cogs to give you a little of the best of both worlds.

What Can We Learn From This?

The key learning from all this information is to make a conscious choice when you purchase a bike as to the gear range that you want.

If you are climbing, then the natural choice is going to be a compact crankset, or in extreme cases a triple, but think about the rear cassette. My first bike had an 11-28, but I really like keeping a high cadence on the hills, so on my new bike I have opted for 11-32. This means I still have a nice fast high gear, but the lowest gear is significantly easier to pedal. If you are a keen time trial rider then you may want to opt for a standard crankset, as it will give you a higher top gear. This paired with something like an 11-23 rear cassette would be great for flat course as it would give you very small changes between the gears meaning you could keep the cadence exactly where you wanted it.

The key is to know the kind of riding you are planning to do with the bike you purchase and choose the gearing accordingly. I have produced the chart below to help you understand the typical ratios available. Remember the higher the ratio, the harder/quicker the gear is going to be.

bike gears ratio table

How Do We Use Gears?

So now you’ve had a quick intro to how your gears work together, here are three final tips to take with you on your next ride.

  1. Avoid ‘cross-chaining’:  Cross-chaining is when you have a little/little or big/big combination.  This puts stress on the drivetrain and can cause premature wear of the components.  It’s OK if you occasionally find yourself cross-chained – say for a short, steep climb – but it is something you’ll generally want to avoid.  The rule of thumb to follow is that when on the big ring, only use the smaller two-thirds of the cassette.  When on the inner (or middle) ring, only use the inner two-thirds.  When in ‘granny gear’ limit yourself to the largest two or three cogs.
  2. Anticipate your shifts: Keep an eye on the road ahead and shift before you have to. You’ll maintain a smoother power output, and you’ll be shifting at a time when there’s less stress on the drivetrain – so your shifts will be smoother too. As you approach a red light or stop sign you should also downshift a couple of gears, in anticipation of getting rolling again as smoothly as possible.
  3. Keep pedalling!:  It is much more efficient to keep a constant, steady power rather than ‘burst and coast’ riding.  It sure feels like you’re getting better exercise when you make that big effort, but you’re putting all the load on your muscular system, which isn’t really good at sustained effort. Spinning light and fast ends up putting out the same amount of power, but shifts the load to your cardio-vascular system, which is good at endurance activity.

Additional Reading and Useful Links

RitzelRechner Gear Calculator

BikeCalc.com

CyclingTips.com – Understanding Gear Ratios and Why They Matter

Gear Ratio Basics


Yellow Jersey offer bicycle insurance to protect your equipment and travel insurance to cover medical mishaps while cycling overseas.

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6 Essential Pieces of Kit for Early Autumn Cycling

After the ease of a summer cycling outfit – bib shorts, jersey and you’re ready to hit the road – dressing for autumn can be a lot trickier. Autumn cycling is only predictable by its unpredictability; leave the house in sunshine yet return in rain. As early autumn rolls around, the most important thing to focus on for your cycling gear is flexibility with kit that that can be layered up or removed through the changeable weather.

Here are my top six items of cycling gear I’d recommend for early autumn cycling.

Early autumn cycling gear

1. Full back gloves

In the summer I ride in gloves with as much ventilation as possible to keep my hands cool (and for the awesome tan lines), like these Lizards Skin SAL 1.0. These are a bit nippy for early Autumn but I’m not moving onto full fingers gloves just yet, so step in, my Endura Aerogel mitts. These are a bit thicker and have no ventilation on the back so are much better for when the weather decides to turn. Having multiple pairs of gloves is a luxury as I easily could survive with just one or other as I did when I first started cycling. Invest in one good pair and build your wardrobe as your budget allows.

2. Arm warmers

 You’ll find arm warmers on every one of these Autumn cycling kit round up style posts. Why? They’re just so useful! Roll up your short sleeve jersey, put these on and roll your sleeve back down over the top and suddenly you have a brand new element to your jersey. At this time of year it’s amazing how quickly the wind can change or the sun disappear even if it felt warm enough at first, so these are worth rolling up and stuffing into a back pocket. Arm warmers provide the aforementioned flexibility we’re after here and save you investing in a long sleeve jersey. I like the Mid Zero by Sugoi as the fleece liner keeps the wind out really nicely.

3. Base layer

A decent base layer will help to keep your torso warm and also prevent any cold weather related chafing (we’ve all been there). I normally wear mine under my bib short straps to stop the rubbing. With this bit of kit you need to make the call early, as it’s not as easy to remove mid-ride as something like the arm warmers. For me, the 12 Celsius mark is when I put on a base layer, though I also tend to use one if the wind is up. Use your weather apps (or go low-tech and just step outside!) but remember you’ll warm up a lot on the bike, so it might take a bit of trial and error to decide. My favourites are by Under Armour, though the cheap Craft ones from Aldi are pretty decent too. I am also currently experimenting with a bamboo T from GRN sportswear who are an ethical sportswear company, which is why I’m happy to pay the higher price to support their values.

4. Shower coat

No need for a Gore Tex, a basic shower coat will do you fine if the weather turns. Generally classed as wind breakers, shower coats are a multipurpose item that do a great job in the wind, a half decent job in the rain and often pack down to a size not much bigger than an orange. So, definitely a worthwhile item to shove into a back pocket. You can find a great round up from Road.cc.

5. Cap

Cycling caps are perfect for this time of year for two reasons.Firstly, they add some much needed warmth. A fair bit of heat escapes through your head and whilst caps are generally made of cotton they are better than wearing nothing at all. We’re not quite at fleece beanie temperatures yet, so until then a cap will suffice.

Secondly, the sun has started to get much lower in the sky now, so you’ll find glare becoming a real problem at certain times of the day. Sunglasses do part of the job (though ironically they may be too dark to see everything else) but the peak of a cycling cap is the perfect way to keep the sun at bay. As with most of the kit in this article, caps pack down nice and small so are ideal for shoving in your back pocket when you’re not wearing them.

6. Lights

It’s not just yourself you need to deck out for the changing seasons, and as the nights draw in you definitely want to have a strong set of lights on your bike. Even in daylight, however, all it takes is a stiff breeze to bring in some dark cloud and before you know it you’re surrounded by gloom. It can also be really hard to pick out a cyclist in the early evening when the sun has dropped low in the sky. A set of lights are certainly not going to overpower the sun, but they help, especially if they’re flashing. There are loads out there but I tend to strap a small one to the back of my helmet and then have a full set for the front and back of the bike itself. I like the Lezyne strip lights as they sit well on the saddle post with a Micro Drive on the front, which has more than enough power for both cycling in the dark and making myself seen in the glare.

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Everything You Need To Know About Bicycle Lubricants

The variety of lubricants in your local bike shop can be a little confusing, vital for maintaining your bicycle and keeping things moving smoothly, they prolong the life of parts and improve your ride if applied correctly. If you’re not sure which parts of the bike need lubrication then this infographic will guide you through.

There’s essentially three different types of bike lube:

  1. Chain Lubricants (Dry/Wet)
  2. Grease
  3. All Purpose Lubricants

Chain Lubricants (Dry/Wet)

Dry and wet are pretty much universal terms and most chain lubricant manufacturers will offer these two variants as a minimum. As a very simple rule of thumb, use dry lubes in dry conditions and wet lubes in wet conditions.

Dry Lubricants

These go onto the chain wet, but then dry to a waxy finish. Most take a few hours to dry, so plan for this before you head out to ride. The positive side of a dry lube is it won’t collect much dirt which is perfect for cycling in dry conditions. On the downside, dry lubes wash off very easily and will need re-applying after a wet ride.

Wet lubricants

Wet lubes are thicker and stick to the chain, remaining wet to the touch until rubbed away. They are perfect for wet conditions, as they offer a highly increased resistance to rain and are harder to wash away. The downside is they collect dirt so need cleaning up a lot more regularly to stop damage to components.

Wet lubes should only really be used when the conditions call for it. They are perfect for your winter bike in harsh conditions, but clean up the chain and swap back to dry lubes in the summer to prevent grime building up within the cassette.

Can I Use Other Types of Lubrication On My Chain?

In short, no. Chain lubes are made specifically for the task so there’s little need to stray elsewhere. The classic beginner mistake is to use a very lightweight household oil such as WD40, which is designed for low use parts. Whilst this will grease the chain in the short term, it is not meant for outside use and will very quickly wash away. The other extreme is motor oil. This is generally too thick for use on a bike chain, and will not penetrate the smaller parts of a bike. It is also very sticky, so will pick up muck from the road very easily.

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How to Use

Clean your chain

Before applying lubricant, get the chain as clean as possible. There is no point lubricating over dirt as this will continue to grind around all of your key components.

If your chain is in a particularly dire state you could use a scrubbing tool, but usually a rag and degreaser will do fine. Remember to also clean in the cassette and around the jockey wheels.

Application

The best way to apply lube is with your bike in a stand or the back wheel off the ground. Apply one drop of lube into every chain link and work the pedals around gradually until you have completed every section. Then run the bike through as many of the gears as possible to force the lube into the inside parts of the links where it is most needed.

Wipe down

As a new rider, leaving excess lube on the chain was the first thing I got told off for when I took my bike in for its initial service. The key place for the lubricant to be working on is the internal parts of the chain, so you shouldn’t expect to see it coated on the outside.

When you have applied the lube and run it through the gears a few times, grab an old piece of rag and gently wipe the chain down to remove any excess. This should stop too much grit being able to stick to the outside. If you have used a dry lube leave it for a few hours so it has dried out completely before taking it for a ride.

How often should I lubricate the chain?

How long is a piece of string? There are so many variables here so it’s almost impossible to say, though I work with a general rule of about once a month, maybe slightly more in bad conditions.

With experience you can feel when the chain doesn’t move so smoothly and then react accordingly. Don’t feel like you have to relubricate every time you give your bike a wash, as in the long run all this will do is cause more grime to stick to the chain.

Products

I personally have always used the Muc Off range of chain lubes, simply because it was the first range I bought and I’ve never seen a reason to change over as I’m happy with the results.  I keep a bottle of both wet and dry in my toolkit so I’m ready for any weather.

How to use bike chain lubricants - dry lube by muc off

 

Grease

Grease is a heavier, waterproof lubrication which is generally used in places on the bike you don’t take apart or see too often. It has two key, but quite different functions:

  1. To keep key components moving and free from water entering
  2. To help places of static metal to metal connection from seizing up

In the first instance grease is heavily used to keep moving parts of the bike running freely. You will find it in the bearings of your wheels, bottom bracket and headset and also in the moving parts of your brakes and gear levers. You will not find grease in moving parts that are open to the air as, due to its thick and sticky texture, it would attract dirt too easily.

In the second instance grease is used to prevent parts from seizing up or ‘cold welding’. Again, these parts will all be shielded from the elements.

The key static areas on which to use grease are saddle posts and bolt threads. These components sit against metal for long periods of time under pressure, and can seize up making them very difficult to remove. I would recommend greasing any bolt before tightening on a bike, and once every few months removing your saddle post, cleaning it down and regreasing to prevent it seizing to the frame.

Products

I use Lithium Grease by Weldtite, as I was introduced to it by a local mechanic *insert joke here* and have never tried anything else. It is perfect for both examples described above and lasts ages. The grease is white which helps you see where it has been applied.

How to use bike lubricants - lithium grease

 

All Purpose Lubricants

All purpose lubricants are your day-to-day workhorses for keeping the bike moving. It is best to invest in something that has a waterproof element such as teflon and is suited to outdoor use.

For an all purpose lubricant, products in spray cans make application easier especially when blasting it into those hard to reach areas like down cable housing. All purpose lubricants have a whole host of uses like freeing up a sticking brake cantilever, stop a squeaking pedal, get your brake cables shifting smoother and a lot more besides.

As with all types of lubricant, make sure you clear off any excess as, being quite thin, this can easily run down onto brake pads or other areas of the bike you don’t need it.

Products

My favourite is again by Weldtite, the TF2 Aerosol Spray. This spray contains Teflon which helps to make it more waterproof, and has one of those handy red tubes for spraying it into hard to reach places.

How to use bike lubricants - Lubricant spray with teflon

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Cycling in Cold Weather | How to Layer Clothing and Stay Warm

After an unusually mild December, the winter weather is now here in full force. And while we may be able to hop straight on the bike and go – rather than waiting for the frosty windscreen and leather seats to warm up – there’s a bit more forethought required before going out for a ride in winter to ensure you stay warm enough.

In this article I’ll talk you through my layering techniques and the kind of clothing I use to keep the frostbite at bay, useful up to about -2°c with a wind chill of -5°c. Everyone has a different tolerance to the cold so you may find some or all of these useful but, hopefully, my experience will save you having to make the cold mistakes I did early on!

Cycling in Cold Weather - cyclists in the snow

feet

To keep my feet warm cycling in cold, I ride with anything between two and four layers on my feet.

The combinations will be as follows:

  • Thin socks and overshoes
  • Thick socks and overshoes
  • Thin socks, thick socks & overshoes
  • Thin socks, plastic bag or cling film ( to seal in Deep Heat sprayed onto my feet), thick socks & overshoes.

The plastic layer is also fantastic as an additional wind barrier.

Legs

Keeping my legs warm whilst cycling in cold weather is something I battled with for a long time.

I have used various different types of tights, eventually settling on the Fiandre by Sportful. These are specially designed for tough conditions. They provide an extra layer across the knee, thigh and back to keep you warm. They were the 4th or 5th different set of tights I tried and I’m sold on them. The pad is incredibly comfortable and they’re nice and warm. They also battle well against the wet weather, so a win on two fronts!

However, on the coldest of days I still found the wind getting through onto my thighs which would be bright red by the time I got home. To counter this, I opted for Under Armour compression shorts. They’re designed as a base layer for running but given how tight cycling clothing tends to be, I have found them perfect for sitting on top of tights without flapping around in the wind. I use them on the really cold rides and they really protect my thighs from the biting wind.

Body

The body is pretty simple to figure out when cycling in cold weather.

BASE LAYER

Base layers are the starting point to staying warm. Anything with merino wool is incredibly comfortable and also helps to take sweat away from your body, a crucial point as a sweaty wet base layer can get cold very quickly. Make sure whatever base layer you choose offers good wicking properties as well as warmth.

My personal favourite is by Isadore. I tend to go for a short sleeve as I don’t find my arms get too cold. Remember with base layers to try and go a size down compared to your normal T-shirt size as you want them to be nice and tight.

SOFT SHELL

Soft shells are normally designed for colder spring or autumn days but I wear mine right the way through winter as well. Layering them is the key; adding in a couple of base layers and a gilet means the lighter nature of them works perfectly. The only exception to this is the rain where I will opt for a full jacket. my favourite (sadly no longer in production) was fleece lined for extra warmth and removable arms for when it does happen to warm up in the afternoon.

GILET

Gilets are very versatile; they keep the worst of the wind off, are easy to remove and they roll down small to stuff in a pocket. This is an essential purchase for cycling in cold weather!

My preference is by Stolen Goat. It fits perfectly without flapping around in the wind and has three slits in the back to allow you to easily access the pockets in your jersey through the holes. As quite a tightly fitted piece of kit that’ll you’ll probably wear over a few other layers, I would suggest going a size bigger for ease of fit.

Hands

Unfortunately there’s not a lot of layering you can do on your hands but after the feet they’re probably the worst area of the body to get cold.

I have a two-pronged approach here:

  • Sealskinz merino wool lined mid weight gloves for the slightly cold days.
  • Sealskinz thermal gloves for when the wind chill really gets up

If you haven’t tried hand warmers they are worth a shout for when you stop for a break (that’s if your hands aren’t wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee). HotHands were designed for people such as skiers or fishermen who spend long durations out in the cold. The hand warmers are air-activated and provide several hours of soothing warmth whenever you feel a chill.

Head

Firstly, make sure you have some decent glasses that wrap around your head as much as possible – riding with blurred vision because your eyes are streaming from the cold is not a sensible idea.

Next, a buff. These are the Swiss Army Knife of headgear and can be folded and wrapped in all sorts of ways as the video below demonstrates. Again, I have a thinner cotton one for normal days and a merino wool one for when the mercury plummets. I tend to bring it round my neck and chin – tucked snuggly underneath the helmet strap – and then over the back of my head to lock in as much warmth as possible.

The second key piece of kit is a skull cap. Fairly cheap, durable and windproof, they tick all the boxes for cold weather cycling. Again, these are reserved for the worst days and form the filling for my buff-helmet sandwich. A skull cap stops heat escaping from your head, as would an aero helmet with no ventilation. You will end up with double layering on your ears and part of your head which you will be thankful for when winter really hits!

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How Much Difference Does A Headwind Make When Cycling?

My mind wanders when riding and today’s thoughts, when battling through a ferocious headwind, was just how much difference was it actually making? This thought stayed with me once home and dry, so I decided to find out. As I wasn’t in a position to hire a wind tunnel for my investigation, I turned to the next best thing I could find – this Bike Calculator. As an amateur you have to trust the best information available to you. So, one man, one spreadsheet and a lot of numbers!

how much difference does a headwind make when cycling?

Assumptions

In order to focus primarily on headwind, power and rider position, I kept the following elements constant:

Bike Weight: 8.3kg. The average weight of the top 10 bikes in road.cc’s 2016 bike of the year.

Rider Weight: 84kg. The average weight of a man of in the UK according to 2010’s ONS figures.

Tyres: Clinchers. I felt these were more common than tubeless tyres.

Elevation: The elevation has been kept at a constant 100m above sea level to avoid air pressure changing the results.

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The Scenarios

Riding In The Hoods

For the first scenario, we are riding along on the flat in the hoods when we turn to face a headwind. Our power output is 180w which, given the variables above, means we are riding at 30.14 km/h. As we turn into the wind we maintain our power output. For each 5km/h of additional headwind you can see we are losing about 10% of speed. At a head wind of 30.48 km/h we would have lost half of our initial speed slowing down to 15.07 km/h.

This drop in speed really surprised me. I thought it was as much in my head as in reality, but this proves not to be the case.

Riding In The Drops

The drops give a more aerodynamic position by bringing your body downwards so with less frontal area hitting the wind, as you would expect, your speed is naturally maintained better.  This table compares riding in the hoods vs the drops.

With our variables above at 180w on the flat with no headwind we’re getting a boost of just under 2.5km/h which was more significant than I expected. What’s interesting is that the stronger the wind, the greater the benefits of being in the drops.

You can see from the chart ‘Improvement vs Hoods %’ the difference this makes; with no headwind the speed improvement at 180w is 7.49%, but take that up to 25km/h and you are saving yourself 12.05%. Into a 50 km/h headwind the drops are going to save you 16.58%.

How Much Additional Power Do We Need To Account For A Headwind?

If you’re like me then you’re not going to let Mother Nature defeat you this easily, so naturally we’re going to put a bit of extra power through the cranks. But how much extra do we need to account for those headwinds?

Assuming you stick in the hoods as you turn into the wind and want to maintain your flat 180w non-headwind speed of 30.14 km/h, you are going to have to find some serious power to make up for the headwind. Into a 5 km/h headwind this equates to an additional 50w meaning you need to push out 230w. Unfortunately this does not ramp up in a linear way as by the time you hit 20km/h (4x the headwind) you need to push out an additional 248w (nearly 5x the wattage at 5km/h)This makes maintaining a constant speed in a headwind pretty challenging especially when riding by yourself. On a group ride it gets a bit easier as studies have shown riding in a group can save up to 40% of a rider’s energy, meaning by taking turns, maintaining a faster speed should be easier.

Saving Power By Changing To The Drops When We Hit A Headwind

Let’s say we are cycling along on the flat, hands on the hoods, when we hit a headwind. We immediately change into the drops knowing it is going to save us power and make our ride into the wind easier. Once again the aim is to keep our speed constant at 30.14 km/h.

You can see from the table what a power saving changing to the drops gives us. In a 5 km/h headwind, if we’d stayed in the hoods we would have had to put in 230w to maintain our speed, but by changing to the drops we only need 187w, which is only 7w more than our starting power.

The initial saving is 18.7% by changing to the drops, but this rises as high as a 22% saving if you head into a 50 km/h headwind (and if you can find an extra 626w from somewhere!)

You can start to see from this data the tangible difference you can make to your speed by getting into a more aerodynamic position when you hit a headwind.

How Does Riding Into A Headwind Compare To Riding Uphill?

This is another question often debated when out riding. We’ve all been there, thinking, “that headwind was awful today, like riding up a 10% hill”. But was it?

Each 5 km/h increase in headwind is equivalent to a gradient increase of around 0.57%. I’ve measured this by keeping the power at 180w and reviewing the speed lost by the headwind/gradient variables. Once again you can see how much effort it takes to ride into a headwind. Whilst I thought the equivalent gradient might be a bit more than this, it does hammer home the point of how hard you are working.

How Does This Translate To The Real World?

Well, the reality is that it doesn’t. There are so many variables in the above data that it would be impossible to match any scenario perfectly. Take the air resistance generated by the headwind. This alone would throw up a number of questions:

  • Was the wind directly towards us?
  • Did it remain at a constant km/h?
  • Were we sheltered at any point by cars/trees/other riders etc?
  • Did we hold our shape perfectly on the bike?

So as you can see, measuring headwind resistance is never going to be an exact science, and certainly not when it’s just me and my data! But to put your new found knowledge into practise, here are some tips to help make the best of a bad situation when cycling into a headwind:

  • Try to make yourself as aerodynamic as possible. As well as riding on the drops, tuck your elbows in, wear tight fitting clothing and keep your head still to cut through the wind more easily.
  • Try and keep your cadence high. Just like cycling uphill, drop down gears to keep your cadence above 80RPM. Don’t be embarrassed to change into the smaller front ring if needed as a high cadence will keep your legs fresher.
  • Plan your route and timing. I always prefer to head out into the wind so there’s something to look forward to on the way back. Check the weather forecast the night before and plan a route based on the main wind direction. Generally, the wind is calmer the earlier in the day so consider setting off early.
  • Be careful with cross winds. Wind is rarely constant, and on a strong, blustery day it can easily knock you off course. Be aware of the direction the wind is coming from, and look for potential hazards that could cause the wind to send you sideways like gaps in the hedge-line or a passing lorry.
  • Ride in a group. You can save a lot of effort by sheltering in a bunch, just make sure you do your fair share of time on the front.
  • Learn to love it! I’m an optimist but even I won’t pretend I’ve got a big smile plastered on my face when it’s really bad. However, the more you can improve your attitude to bad conditions the better it will feel – your mind will give up long before your body needs to and whilst riding into a headwind doesn’t look pretty on Strava, you’ll reap the physical benefits of challenging conditions.

 

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When to replace a bicycle chain

when to replace your bicycle chain

For most people, replacing a bicycle chain is a lot like getting the boiler serviced; you don’t bother until it’s too late and then it ends up costing far more than it should have. This isn’t to pass judgement, as I put myself firmly in that camp, too. Sure, you may not care about performance, you may not be worried about the occasional gear slip, but we all care about a bit of extra money in our pockets.

Buying my first ‘decent quality’ (read: pretty expensive) bike, a Cannondale CAAD8, was when I realised I needed to replace my chain more regularly.  I took it in for its first service after six months only to be told I needed to pay not just for a new chain but a new rear cassette, too. The mechanic explained that I could have got as much as five times the life out of the cassette just by switching the chain over more often, saving me money in the long run.

My lesson here was the more expensive the bike, the more expensive the components. Whilst the positives of having this new bike were amazing it was clear I was going to have to do a bit more to look after it.

Why Does a BICYCLE chain stretch?

On a very simple level, a chain stretches when it ages. I’m not going to cover what happens to the inner workings of a chain but if you love getting into the detail then this article by Sheldon Brown will tell you all you could ever want to know, and then some. 

At the point a chain stretches, it no longer fits properly into the teeth of the rear cassette and chainring. This means it then starts wearing away the cogs. When you see the teeth looking like waves on the sea rather than straight up mountains you know this has started to happen. After a while, the teeth can no longer hold the chain in place so it starts to slip either when changing gear or when you put a lot of power down.

By this point you’ve done so much damage to the cassette and sometimes even the chainring that a new chain won’t fit as the teeth are now trying to accommodate a chain that has stretched.  

Chain Stretch. Worn Chain is at the Top, New Chain is at the Bottom

You can see on the comparison how the top, older chain has stretched out compared to the bottom, newer chain.

When should you REPLACE a bicycle Chain?

In some instances it’s not actually worth changing your bicycle chain, for example if you’re riding a cheaper bike with cheaper components then a cassette may cost very little. So you may actually be better off leaving the chain on for longer and getting maximum wear out of it. When it starts to slip then you can replace the chain and cassette together. For more expensive bikes, this is definitely not the case. Unsure what bracket you fall into? Let’s look at the maths. 

I’ll use Shimano groupsets as an example. At one end of the scale you have the Claris groupset, for which a new rear cassette would set you back around £20. At the other end is the Dura Ace, for which a cassette costs around £150.

Here you can see how the costs can really stack up. Fail to replace the chain on a Dura Ace groupset and you could be looking at £150 plus a new chain at a service. If you regularly replace a chain it will cost you £20 or so (I use the KMC X11-93), but you’ll get 3-5 times more use out of the cassette and are postponing a much bigger cost.

Some people will tell you they replace their chain once every ‘x’ miles or ‘x’ number of months. Good on them, but this is not really based on any science, as there are so many variables that wear a chain, for example humidity, maintenance, riding style and even the number of gear changes you make.  

If you’re serious about keeping your bicycle chain in good order, then a chain wear indicator is an excellent addition to your toolbox. Without being able to actually measure the wear, you’ll either be throwing money away by changing it too frequently or leaving it on too long causing potentially expensive damage to other parts of your bike. I use the following theory to judge when to replace a bike chain:

  1. When the wear hits 0.5% then order a new chain
  2. When the wear hits 0.75% then replace the chain

HOW DO I USE A bicycle ChaIN Wear Indicator?

The two sides of the tool are sized differently – one to show you when the chain is worn by 0.5% and the other by 0.75%. Alternatively, you could just use a ruler. You could also use a ruler. 

On this first bike, the chain hasn’t been used for very long. The wear indicator is almost slotting in on the 0.5% mark. Whilst this bike is the newer of the two I have been riding in for a couple of months, so you can see that the chain has already stretched as the indicator almost slots in on the left, but is still fine to use. 

When to replace a bike chain: chain approaching 0.5% wear

 

Next up a chain with a little more use. You can see the indicator slots straight into the chain meaning this chain has hit 0.5% wear. At this point I would order a new chain and keep an eye on it.

When to replace a bike chain: chain at 0.5% wear

 

This older chain is even further stretched, almost to 0.75%. The indicator is right on the edge of dropping in so I’ll be changing this over to a new chain very soon.

When top replace a bike chain: an old chain at 0.75% wear

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