gearing paradox
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Thread: gearing paradox

  1. #1
    RoadBikeReview Member
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    Feb 2020

    Question gearing paradox

    Hi everyone,

    I have a definite beginnerís question. First a little about me: Iím 65, in ok shape (though not by biker standards), thin frame, will never put on much leg muscle. I recently moved to Mill Valley, CA and bought a road bike, am doing the best I can going UPHILL.

    So hereís my dilemma. Common sense and the entire internet agree that lower gears are best for going uphill. And that makes sense: itís easier to pedal, even though you arenít going as far per revolution. But for me it doesnít work that way. The lower the gear, the faster I get gassed. I seem to do better with higher gears, even though Iím pressing harder. With the higher gears I get gassed as well, but I can go farther before doing so. And using higher gears helps me make (slow) progress, whereas that doesnít happen with lower gears.

    Has anyone else had an experience like this? Should I listen to my body, which is telling me to use a higher gear, or to common sense, which tells me to use a lower one? Any advice/insight will be appreciated.

  2. #2
    Reputation: jetdog9's Avatar
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    Jul 2007
    There is a happy medium somewhere... how steep are the hills you are talking about?

    I have one friend who definitely goes in too low of a gear on hills that actually aren't that steep and looks like he's getting tired spinning out. But honestly if the hill is steep enough, lower gear should be better.

    If you're just starting to get into it, I suggest not putting 100% effort into every steep hill, slow down a bit and stay in lower gear, let your body get used to cycling...

    There is a good chance as you cycle more your body will adjust and lower gear / higher cadence climbing will start to work for you.

    Oh, and pedaling mechanics will come into play. Don't just think about mashing down on the pedals, you put power into the entire pedal stroke. More efficient pedal stroke matters here.

    Much more technical experts will hopefully chime in with science-driven replies...

  3. #3
    JSR is online now
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    Feb 2006
    What youíre experiencing is fairly common for beginners. You probably need to work on both aerobic and strength exercises. A cadence sensor would be helpful to quantify your activity.

    On the flats I try to keep my cadence between 80 and 100 rpm. A few weeks of that will help you understand your issue with easier gears on the hills.

    To build strength you could find a hill requiring 60 To 70 rpm for ten minutes without running out of gas. Go there once a week and do 2 or 3 repeats. If it gets too easy just use a harder gear.

    Do those things for a month and youíll have a much better idea of where your sweet spot is on the hills.

  4. #4
    Russian Troll Farmer
    Reputation: No Time Toulouse's Avatar
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    Sep 2016
    Be careful; mashing hard and slow will destroy your knees and cause cramps, too. Sounds like you've never developed a good spin. How fast is your spin? I generally stay about 70 rpm, and I'm fairly slow; some guys keep it up around 100 rpms.
    "L'enfer, c'est les autres"

  5. #5
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    Feb 2020
    Yeah, I read that it's not good for your knees. So far no problems with me, but there's no guarantee that will persist. I never thought about timing my spins. They get pretty slow going uphill--I'm guessing 60 or so, but I'll have to measure.

  6. #6
    RoadBikeReview Member
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    Dec 2006
    You don't say what your cadence in those higher gears is.

    RPMs on the flats is higher than that on uphills. Some people ride hills in bigger gears than others, but there's a range of gears and cadences which work.

    You could be flailing your legs needlessly because you might not have an understanding of what's acceptable for rpm's and what you think are large gears and low cadences might not be.

    Without video of you riding hills, there's not enough information for us forumites to give you better advice.

  7. #7
    RoadBikeReview Member
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    Oct 2013
    You need to spend some time on the bike before you come to your final conclusion. Spinning up hills is definitely faster, maybe not for you now, but if you ride it will be if your like most bikers.
    Spinning on the hills isn't like 100 rpm, it's more like 50-60 IMO. If you get to below 50 for any extended time you need to downshift.
    Also the lenght of the climb matters, on a short stepup, sometimes standing and hitting the power will work fine, but that's not going to work on a long climb.
    You should just ride and try various spin rpms during the same ride 5 mins per rpm setting just to get a feel for how it feels to spin on hills/flats and do it a while (like a month) then report back.

  8. #8
    RoadBikeReview Member
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    Dec 2011
    I am familiar with the Mill Valley area and you have steep mountains all around you. You should try to get as low as gears as possible to explore the area. You will not regret it as you improve and start riding longer distances. Beautiful place to ride.

  9. #9
    tlg is online now
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    May 2011
    A lot depends on the length of your rides and length/steepness of the climbs. On a short ride with a couple short hills, yea no big deal to power through in a hard gear.
    On rides 50-100mi and 70-100ft/mi of elevation and you're gonna crack.
    Custom Di2 & Garmin/GoPro mounts 2013 SuperSix EVO Hi-MOD Team * 2004 Klein Aura V

  10. #10
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    OP, you're being to vague. What do "higher" and "lower" mean?

    Are you saying you do better at 65 RPM than you do and 90? Or at 90 instead of 120? Or whatever.

    True that "mashing" (lets say that's defined by <60 for argument sake) is not good in the long term and I think the instinct of many new cyclists is to do just that and they do do better in the short term. But keeping an above 'mashing' cadence is an acquired skill/fitness trait that takes time to develop and no question is necessary for long term injury free performance. It's well worth the time and effort to develop. It's no coincidence that 0% of real good climbers use a cadence that could be called mashing on climbs of any significance.

    But by using vague terms like higher and lower who knows your deal. I have seen the rare cyclists who spins at what looks like 120 and in that case lower would indeed probably be better.
    Last edited by Jay Strongbow; 02-21-2020 at 06:05 AM.

  11. #11
    Cycling Addict
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    Nov 2013
    Training oneself to spin in the 80-100rpm range on the flats takes time. At first you will "get gassed" quickly - it takes time to build up the aerobic capability to handle it. However, in the long run doing so will allow you to take much longer rides with less damage to your body.

    I'd recommend concentrating on shorter, flatter rides for now while you try to build up that aerobic capacity. Try not to coast at all, keep those legs spinning at all times. Try not to take any breaks in those shorter rides as well. You've got some MUTs in your area. While they can be crowded, they are a great place to work on getting that spin up while not worrying about maximum speed.

    Once you can easily handle 20-30 mile rides while pedaling over 80rpm without a break, you will find that going up hills will be much easier.
    Life is short... enjoy the ride.

  12. #12
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    Mar 2006
    I get what you're saying. It takes time to train yourself to ride at a higher cadence. I actually was slower for quite some time when I started riding at a higher cadence. Even worse, I also noticed that I would get winded faster on the same rides I had done before mashing at a lower cadence. At best, I ride at the same speeds, while burning more calories. Give it sometime if that's what you want to do. You don't have to spin more unless you want to. Spinning isn't necessarily winning. It depends on your preferred riding style. If you race crits, or on the velodrome, you'll see that neither camps are generally spinning.

  13. #13
    RoadBikeReview Member
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    Jun 2005
    I live near by in Sonoma County. So need to work on cadence first and spin low gears.
    Because arobic is more important when beginning that anarobic. You need to get used to spinning for long sustain periods. Strenght will follow once you can control your breathing.
    You probably feel like your lungs are on fire. Once you build your breathing capacity then strength conditioning will follow.
    The climbs around Mill Valley are pretty easy. Come up to Sonoma County. We have some real hard climbs that go on for up to 18 miles like Pine Flat or multiple back to back climbs like Skaggs Rd.
    And if you haven't yet, ditch your standard cranks and get a compact 34-50. Even the strongest riders in the area use compacts. Our terrain is way too undulating.
    And a 11-29 or 11-32 cassette.

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