Gear grinder

One thing about trying to teach someone how to ride a bike is you realize they have no idea what gears are. It is something you don’t think much about until you try to explain it, which I’ve seen lots of people try to do.

“Shift into the big ring!”

“Shift into the small ring!”

“Up a cog!”

“That’s too big a gear!”

“Your gear is too small!”


All of this presumes that the offending new cyclist knows what a ring is, big or small, what a cog is, and what big/small gears mean. In fact, they often don’t. The big ring is big and it’s a big gear, but the small cog is a big gear too, so WTF?

Dogtown odyssey

Mrs. WM and I set out to visit Dogtown Coffee on Friday. We had been working on CC&E and having much success over the last weeks with the C and the E part of the equation, “ride Close” and “ride Even,” respectively.

But the “Cadence” part of the formula was mostly random. Intuitively I knew that with all the other stuff going on, a gearing lecture wasn’t going to sink in, so my instructions were simply to “make your legs go around about like mine.” It sort of worked until I caught myself saying “shift into the big ring” and realizing that I might as well have been saying “put the flimmer in the flammer.”

So I decided to teach, which is always a danger sign, me being as far removed from a teacher as you can get. After a bit of observation I realized that she didn’t know which lever did what, or why.

“Honey, do you know what you’re doing?”

“No,” she said brightly, raking the gears up one side and down the other.

“Well first let’s get the big ring/small ring figured out. This handle here, when you push it, it moves the chain up here.”

We had dismounted and I showed it to her. “Oh,” she said.

“Big ring, hard to pedal. Small ring, easy to pedal.”

“But it’s hard to pedal now,” she said, and I noticed that she was in the small ring but also in the 11.

“That’s because you’re in the eleven,” I said.

“What’s an eleven?”

My BP spiked. “Let’s just pretend that big ring is hard to pedal and small ring is easy to pedal, okay?”


“And here’s how you make it go from little ring to big ring.”

“What’s the little ring?”

“It’s this,” I said, pointing.

“I thought you said that was the small ring?”

Cars drove by. The sun rose a little bit more. Gulls cried aloft. I inhaled deeply and exhaled like a yogi. “My mistake,” I said. “The small ring. You push this thing here and it goes into the small ring. And you know what that does?”

“We pretend it makes it easy to pedal,” she said.

“Exactly. Now let’s try it out.”

You can’t make me shift if I don’t wanna

She started pedaling. “Okay,” I said. “Shift to the big ring.”

She pushed the lever, I saw the derailleur move, but the chain stayed on the small ring. “You gotta push the lever a bit harder,” I said.

She cranked the shit out of it, but since it was already shifted over, it didn’t do anything. “Sorry, honey, first you gotta click the little lever to put it back on the small ring.”

“What little lever? And it’s already on the small ring.”

We pulled over and I showed her the small ring lever. “When you shift onto the big ring and it doesn’t shift, you have to click this to put the derailleur back over the small ring so that you can try to shift it back onto the big ring. It’s like a reset button.”

“Why is my new bike broken?”

“It’s not broken,” I said. “I don’t think.” So we traded bikes, her holding onto my 58cm with the seatpost jacked up to the 10th Floor, and me straddling her 50cm frame with the seatpost mostly all down. “Hold my bike for a sec,” I said, and started pedaling.

At this moment a gaggle of Big O friends swarmed by. “Hey, Seth! Nice bike!” they said as my knees knocked my chin.

Her front derailleur worked just fine so I gave her bike back.

But somehow she couldn’t make it shift except once every ten times or so. It will drive anyone insane to watch someone crank the front derailleur over and hear the chain rub, then switch it back, then try again, more chain rub, over and over and over.

“I’m getting the hang of it!” she said.

“No,” I said, “you’re not. One in ten shifts isn’t right. Why don’t we try something else?” I thought about suicide. Maybe I should try that.

Something else

“You see all those cogs in the back?” I asked

She looked down and almost smashed into a parked car. “Yes?”

“Push the mini lever on the right one click at a time until it won’t click any more.”

She did.

“Now push the outside of the handle one click at a time until it won’t click any more.”

She did.

“Can you feel the difference?”

“Yes! Mini click is hard to pedal, big lever is easy to pedal!”

“Yep. Just keep doing that for a while.”

For the next three miles down Vista del Mar she went all the way up and all the way down, over and over. In the beginning she was skipping cogs on the upshift but by the end she was going up ten, down ten. She really got the hang of it, even counting the clicks to herself so she knew when she was at the end of the cassette.

I didn’t try to explain it. “Good job,” I said.

Big ring sweet spot

After coffee at Dogtown we rode back, and she practiced the up-cog, down-cog all the way along Vista del Mar. I had been a very bad man in my previous life.

When we reached Hermosa Avenue I told her to shift into the big ring. She obediently tried but it wouldn’t shift. Grind, grind, grind.

Then I had an idea. “Okay, try it again, but this time when you shift, stop pedaling.”

Voila! The chain hopped up on the big ring. She had been mashing during the shift, and once she stopped pedaling the chain did its business.

“Try it again,” I said excitedly, “only instead of stopping pedaling, ease up on the stroke just a bit.”

She did, and the chain again hopped up on the big ring.

It made me remember how shifting used to be before electro and before index, even, when you had downtube shifters and absolutely had to finesse the chain going onto the big ring, onto the small ring, and anytime you were upshifting the rear derailleur. I got ready to deliver that mini-lecture, until I saw her snappily shift into the big ring.

I shut my mouth and pedaled.



Teaching the world about chain rings is thankless work. Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!


19 thoughts on “Gear grinder”

  1. Few things will humble a man more than teaching his wife the mysteries of derailleurs and shifting. Or make us realize how bad we are at communicating….

  2. I think “Up five, down five” is easier.
    Acutally, riding a tandem is easier. Try that….you can enter into an uncerworld, never before known, of ‘special’, 24/7, 100% carbon , all the time.

  3. “At this moment a gaggle of Big O friends swarmed by. “Hey, Seth! Nice bike!” they said as my knees knocked my chin.”

    I was going to ask for a picture, but I’m already laughing so hard that I might injure myself!

  4. One way I’ve used to try to teach bike gear shifting is to point out that moving the chain to the right–away from bike and rider–makes the gear higher and harder. Moving the chain to the left–toward the bike and rider–makes the gear lower and easier. That works front and back. But, of course, different lever motions are needed from the left vs. right hand to move the chain in the desired direction.

  5. The mug logo looks like perverted scales of justice. Time to get Yasuko some etap, I say.

  6. It’s true. We take that so for granted. My first multi-geared bike was a Schwinn Colgate with 5spds. I think I bought that in 1970 maybe. With 48 years of shifting to my credit, I certainly don’t think about it at all. If you have less than 3 months? Well I completely understand.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: