Srivwer behvior, avoiding an opening car door

Three Types of Bicyclist Behavior

In our “Beginner’s Guide” series, we are attempting to bring all facets of basic bicycle safety together::

  1. Equipment & Accessories: Is The Bike Safe to Ride?, plus lights, mirrors, bells, and other optional equipment and clothing.
  2. Skills: The Top 3 Bike Handling Skills, Braking and Cornering, Using Your Gears, and (coming soon) Emergency Maneuvers.
  3. Bicyclist Behavior: How what you know and what you do can keep you safe.

In this post, we start to discuss the third broad topic, bicyclist behavior.

We see a wide range of bicyclist behavior in the real world, and we can probably all agree that some of it is not so good. I don’t blame the cyclist, in most cases. Given the general lack of bicycling education in North America, many people grow up with little idea of how best to keep themselves safe while cycling with other traffic. We’re told as kids that the street is for cars and is dangerous. We usually get some basic-level training in how to use crosswalks.

But most cyclists do not get any formal cycling education beyond grade school, if even then. As teens and adults, they fall back on what their parents may have taught them when they were little, what they observe others doing, and what seems like “common sense.” So it’s understandable that many bicyclists adopt a “pedestrian on wheels” approach to getting around by bike. Like pedestrians, these cyclists try to stay out of the road as much as possible. These cyclists do not feel welcome on the road, they do not know what they are allowed to do or should do, and maybe don’t even think they belong there. They use sidewalks and crosswalks where available.

Bicyclist Behavior: Driver, Edge, Pedestrian.

CyclingSavvy identifies three categories of bicyclist behavior, as suggested by bicycling educator Dan Gutierrez. These are not intended to label the cyclist, just the behavior. The same rider may adopt any combination of these strategies during a single trip.

  1. Driver behavior: Use the road, following the normal driver rules, on the correct side and not always at the edge.
  2. Pedestrian behavior: Stick to pedestrian infrastructure wherever possible.
  3. Edge behavior: Ride on the road but stick to edge as much as possible (including riding against traffic).

Driver Behavior

Bicyclist using driver behavior, avoiding an opening car door
Driver behavior, avoiding an opening car door

The CyclingSavvy program builds on John Forester’s assertion that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles,” that is, driver behavior. But we recognize that driver behavior can be daunting at first. Not every bicyclist immediately has the knowledge and confidence to take it up. Also, becoming a pedestrian, and operating in pedestrian space, may be unavoidable or more convenient for parts of a trip.

Pedestrian Behavior

Bicyclist using pedestrian behavior: scan back on sidepath
Pedestrian behavior with shoulder check approaching an intersection.

So, part of our instruction covers safe pedestrian behavior. This basically amounts to “go slow, and look carefully in all directions at driveways and intersections.” We also recommend dismounting in crosswalks, and on sidewalks if they are busy. Stay far away from doorways. If you are prepared to accept these limitations, and if sidewalk riding is legal where you are riding (check your state laws and municipal ordinances), then we won’t flat out tell you not to do it. But you have to go slowly to stay safe, and even beginners can go too fast sometimes. There may be too many pedestrians (the rightful users). And often, there isn’t a sidewalk anyway.

Edge Behavior

Bicyclist behavior: edge rider
Edge behavior. What could go wrong?

Of the three behavior types, edge behavior is probably the hardest to practice safely. While it generally allows for faster riding than pedestrian behavior, it renders the bicyclist less visible, less relevant, and less predictable than does driver behavior. It frequently leads to conflicts at intersections.

Despite all these limitations, it’s the default behavior for most beginning cyclists. Pretty much all of us began as edge cyclists, if not pedestrian cyclists. Remembering my early days, I had a limited understanding of bicyclist behavior options. I had a vague notion that I should obey all the same rules as car drivers, and not use the sidewalk. Yet, I did not yet have either the knowledge or the model for how to do anything beyond stay at the edge, even at intersections.

Does the Law Allow Driver Behavior by Bicyclists?

Like all traffic laws, laws about bicyclist behavior vary from state to state; check your state laws to be sure. But we can categorize them generally here, noting exceptions where we are aware of them.

Rights of a Driver

In all states and provinces in North America, bicyclists have generally the same rights and duties as other drivers. Some states define the bicycle as a vehicle, while others grant bicyclists the rights of drivers. The end result is the same, legally.

This is the starting point. Additional statutes may modify it.

As Far Right as Safe or Practicable?

Most, but not all, states have some kind of law stating that a bicyclist must ride as close as safe or practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway, followed by a list of exceptions. “Practicable” —  an unfamiliar word meaning that something is workable in practice. It is not the same as “far right as possible,” although impatient motorists and even some law enforcement officers may think of it that way.

It seems reasonable for drivers of slower vehicles to be considerate of drivers of faster vehicles. But what is really reasonable bicyclist behavior, and what is not? Ever since this law first appeared in the 1940s, exceptions (or, if you prefer, examples of impracticable situations) have been explicitly added, until in most states, the exceptions take many more words to define than the law itself!  (In Maine, where I am, the basic law is 44 words, with 173 words, nearly 4 times as many, to describe the exceptions!) You could say that the exceptions outweigh the rule.

BMUFL sign is a reminder that driver behavior is legal

Exceptions Are the Rule

In most states, bicyclists are not required to keep to the right when :

  • passing other slower traffic;
  • preparing for or executing a left turn;
  • proceeding straight in places where right turns are permitted;
  • avoiding hazards at the edge (including but not limited to sand, debris, potholes, surface hazards, grates, glass, puddles, opening doors of parked cars);
  • the lane is too narrow to share side by side within the lane.

The word “practicable”, correctly interpreted, encompasses these definitions, too. It comes down to this: You are never required to sacrifice your safety for someone else’s convenience! The “Bicycle May Use Full Lane” sign is a reminder of this. The sign does not have to be posted for this to apply.

We spend a great deal of time in CyclingSavvy on opening doors of parked cars, and how to handle narrow lane situations. For now, suffice it to say that we may legally use driver behavior, riding far enough away from parked cars to avoid not only the door itself, if it opens, but also to avoid being startled into swerving, which can be just as deadly. Indeed, whenever keeping to the right portion of the travel lane is not required, bicyclists have the right to use the full lane, that is, to ride anywhere they wish in the lane.

Bicyclist Behavior and Lane Widths

Here is the basic math:

  • 4 feet: Bicyclist operating width, per U.S. Federal Highway Administration definition
  • 3 feet: Minimum passing clearance
  • 7 feet: Bare minimum width of a passing car; trucks can be 8 or 9 feet wide with the mirrors!

4 + 3 + 7 = 14 feet, the minimum lane width shareable with most cars and small SUVs. A standard lane is 12 feet wide, and some are narrower. The following diagram shows the minimum lane widths needed for safely sharing with motor vehicles of different types at different speeds.

A car is about 7 feet wide with its side mirrors. You can picture this total as wide enough to accommodate two small cars side by side, parked! Larger motor vehicles take even more room.

Required to Use Special Facilities?

Some states which have put a lot of effort into building bike lanes also have passed laws requiring bicyclists to use them. These laws tend to use the same kind of “practicable” language and exceptions as the Far Right as Practicable laws, so the decision is like whether to ride at the edge of a travel lane. Often, the same kind of hazards exist. Unfortunately, laws that presume to dictate bicyclist behavior can lead to both motorists and law enforcement not understanding good reasons for why a cyclist may not be using a bike lane.

We say, don’t let the paint think for you!!

Getting adequate passing distance is important in choosing lane position, but there are other considerations. More about this in a follow-up article.

Bicycle Portland, Maine

Pamela Murray welcomes you to the Maine lighthouse bicycle tour
Pamela Murray welcomes you to the Lighthouse Tour

Bicycle Portland, Maine and the surrounding area, August 25-28 (Thurs.-Sun.). Pick and choose among any or all of these events:

  • 6-lighthouse coastal tour,
  • lobster dinner on the beach,
  • overnight camping trip,
  • CyclingSavvy bike handling and street skills  sessions. 

Let us know if you need help finding accommodations for the nights of Aug. 25 and 26. We may be able to help. But the overnight for the tour August 27-28 is free at the People’s Perch in East Baldwin, Maine, a unique and friendly spot with camping accommodations. Then also, there’s a 200-foot water tower which you may climb, safely belayed. Great view…

Bicyclists arrive at the People's Perch in East Baldwin, Maine with its 200-foot water tower.
Bicyclists arrive at the People’s Perch

Click here for a form to contact us and sign on. We’ll soon get back to you by phone or e-mail.

And click here to register for the CyclingSavvy course. Truth and Techniques session is over Zoom on August 19; then Train Your Bike August 25. Both of these are prerequisites for the Tour of Portland, August 26, but see the course listing for alternative options.

It’s going to be a great time, so bicycle Portland, Maine and the Portland area with us!

Maine is a beautiful place that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet.

John Hodgman

Circular Intersection Basics

This article introduces the topic of circular intersections, also called traffic circles, rotaries, and roundabouts. There is a detailed description of them on Wikipedia.

I hail from Massachusetts, which is notorious for its circular intersections — called rotaries here. Most date back to the early decades of the 20th Century. A few are modern roundabouts, with entries and exits that deflect and slow motor traffic.

This article will cover the basics of riding a bicycle through a small rotary. We’ll deal with complications later.

Mastering a small circular intersection

You can think of a circular intersection as a one-way street wrapped around into a circle, with T intersections from the outside of the circle. At a T intersection, entering traffic yields to traffic on the top bar of the T. This rule is especially important in a circular intersection. If traffic in the circle had to yield, it would pile in but couldn’t keep moving: instant traffic jam!

Be glad that you are a bicyclist as you approach a circular intersection. Bicycle drivers have a much easier time than pedestrians with these intersections. The secret of success? Stay away from the outside edge. If you are at the edge, drivers entering the circle have to turn their heads sharply to see you. Exiting vehicles go nearly straight and do not have to slow down much. Keep far enough toward the inside to allow motorists to enter and exit to and from your right side. Because there are no entrances or exits at the inside, then no vehicles will cross your path. I have sometimes demonstrated this by riding two or more times around a rotary before exiting!

Route through a small circular intersection

CyclingSavvy student Ian Whiting captured the ride shown in the image above at a small rotary in Waltham, The video illustrates all the points I have made.

Yet to come…

Circular intersections are well-known to achieve smoother traffic flow and greater throughput than signalized intersections, because trafic does not have to stop moving. But — there are also problems. A future article will address these, and describe how to navigate larger, multi-lane circular intersections.

If you would like to check out the very intersection shown in the video, sign up for a future course with me. I have courses in the warmer months every year.

Resources from Bicycle Touring Ride Awesome Meeting

Ride Awesome members -- here are resources that Laurie and Marshall Cohen provided in connection with the Zoom session about bicycle touring they led on March 23. Thanks to Laurie and Marshall!

There is a video recording of the March meeting.

Here are the links to the documents which Marshal...

This post is for Ride Awesome Members.

The making of the CyclingSavvy Blind Area of a Truck Video

For years, the American Bicycling Education Association has used words and pictures to show how bicyclists can avoid truck-bicycle crashes. Sometime in 2019, CyclingSavvy Instructor John Schubert suggested that we go further and create a mirror image version of a British video. (Over there, they drive on the left, y’know.) That video showed a large number of cyclists invisible to the driver in the blind area of a truck, — in the British video, the left side.

John shared the idea with ABEA co-founder Keri Caffrey, and she expanded on it. Our video could show on-road encounters. A bicyclist, a car, a pedestrian walking dogs could make appearances. The truck could go around the block for repeated takes. Multiple cameras could record the scene.

We published that video and introduced it with a Savvy Cyclist post.

And now…here’s a “making of” video describing the technical details of our shoot. Keep reading below the video for the story of our teamwork.

Planning for the Video Shoot

Almost all other CyclingSavvy traffic videos are unstaged. A bicyclist riding with a camera, sometimes two cameras, captures normal traffic situations while riding. This approach demonstrates that the situations are real — but produces a huge amount of useless, boring and irrelevant footage.

As is clear from the Making Of video, our truck-video shoot was planned and staged. The people, materiel and planning resources were substantial. Capturing video of the same encounters during normal riding would take a prohibitive amount of time. I went up on a ladder with my camera; John Schubert stood in the street, sheltered by his parked van, with his camera on a tripod. Keri rode in the truck cab shooting video. That doesn’t happen by chance.

But — we took pains that the staged encounters would be entirely normal. Actually, several vehicles do appear in the video unstaged, and they add to the story. We did have to discard a couple of runs when they interfered with it.

The task of planning for the video shoot fell mostly to John Schubert. CyclingSavvy Instructor Scott Slingerland recruited truck driver Bob Dolan, a champion in national competitions for driving precision. He arrived in a super prop for the shoot, a huge semitrailer truck. Lehigh University police chief Jason Schiffer would ride his e-bike in encounters with the truck. Scott also recruited a crew of extras, with their bicycles.

The shoot was set for September 4, 2019 when Keri would be on her way back to Florida from a vacation in Maine. She could pick me up outside Boston, and we would join the crew in Pennsylvania.

John Schubert, John Allen, Keri Caffrey and Bob Dolan plan the video shoot

Mirroring a British Blind Area of a Truck Video

Everything went more or less according to plan on the day of the shoot. A morning session mirrored the British video with bicyclists in the blind area of a truck.

Cyclists in the blind area of a truck
Cyclists in truck blind area

Shooting the Riding Sequence

For the riding sequence, John Schubert and I would record video from outside the truck, while Keri recorded from inside the truck cab. Bethlehem police on motorcycles held the street open. Communication was maintained with walkie-talkies, cell phones, and Scott Slingerland serving as bicycle messenger.

Bethlehem police on motorcycles
Yes, they wore helmets — when riding!

Chief Schiffer made several runs showing different tactics, safer and less safe — but never riding into the danger zone next to the truck. The Making Of video shows two of those runs.

As is usual with a crowdsourced event, there were surprises. Some led to difficulties, others to happy discoveries.

Thanks to champion truck driver Bob Dolan, not only did we have a very big truck to store bicycles, but also — if you hold a driver’s license, you may remember how tough parallel parking was at first. It took me about ten tries for my own license exam. Somehow I got my license anyway. Now imagine backing up a semitrailer truck, where steering to one side turns the lonnnggg trailer to the other side. Bob Dolan got the result in the photo below in a single try.

Scott Slingerland hands a bicycle up to Bob Dolan
Scott Slingerland hands a bicycle up to Bob Dolan

Difficulties, Discoveries

It was great how many volunteers showed up. That went as planned, but there were some unexpected turns. Cars came out of a side street, as already mentioned. But also, only rarely can it be said that a liquor store serves the interest of road safety. As we set up to record video, I noticed that a liquor store’s changeable LED sign offered a perfect cue to synchronize clips from the different cameras. This coincidence was so improbable and so helpful that I have to wonder what forces might have been shining down on us, other than the sun, breaking through in a partly cloudy sky. Rain would have spoiled our plan.

After an hour or so and several trips around the block by the truck, we figured that we had enough material, and repaired to a local restaurant for a late lunch.

…Editor’s Work, a “Making of” Video and a Director’s Cut

I took the video clips home to Massachusetts to assemble and collate. Color matching four cameras was a headache, but synchronizing the clips was a piece of cake, or maybe I should say beer and chips, thanks to the liquor store sign.

Video effectively lets a viewer be in more than one place at the same time. Once I had synchronized the clips, the sound of the turn-signal clicker in the truck cab matched the flashing of the turn signals outside. I think that is sort of cool.

I sent the collated and color-adjusted clips to Keri. She spent many hours distilling our work down to a three-minute release video. That is how video editing goes. But a good time was had by all.

A previous Savvy Cyclist post includes the finished video.

shimano 8-speed hub

About Bicycle Gearing for a Good Pedaling Cadence

A previous Savvy Cyclist post describes bicycle gearing, and how to accelerate. This post gets to how your legs can produce power for a day’s ride without getting sore – and for a lifetime without wearing out.

Pistons, not pendulums

When you walk, your legs are like pendulums. Stand on one leg and swing the other forward and back. It has a natural, easy swing. Swinging it either faster or slower takes effort. Here’s a one-minute video illustrating the point:

But when you are riding your bicycle, your legs do not work as pendulums. Neither do they support your weight. They are pistons in an engine, connected to cranks. Because the cranks keep your legs turning, they can easily go faster. Let’s look at how this works out.

From one-speeds to bicycles with gears

I rode single speed coaster-brake bicycles as a kid. I got my first bicycle at age 7. Its small wheels had me spinning the pedals.

John Allen, age 7, on his first bicycle
My first bicycle, 1953

The next bike was big and heavy. I quit bicycling because I couldn’t ride it up the hill to my elementary school.

I first rode a bicycle with gears at age 17. It felt like flying. As is well known, the Wright brothers studied the flight of birds, helping them design their airplanes. But also, let’s remember that the Wright brothers were bicycle builders first. A bicycle, like an airplane, banks into turns. No earlier vehicle had done that.  

Still, English three-speeds were geared too high to suit me. My career modifying gearing began with my installing a larger rear sprocket on my three-speed, so it would cruise along nicely in top gear and climb smartly in low gear.  Really, a three- speed, so modified, is fine for urban riding if hills aren’t super steep.

From bicycles with gears to bicycles with more gears

After ten years riding on three-speeds, I got my first derailleur-equipped bicycle. I almost immediately modified it to get smaller steps between top gears and a lower bottom gear.

I’ll grant that gearing options have improved considerably over the years. Any mountain bike has a nice, wide gear range. Road bikes tend to have more gears but a narrow range: a racer mentality prevails, and these bicycles often need modification to work for ordinary people. Here’s the drivetrain of the road bike I use for recreational riding: It gets me up the hills!

My road bike is equipped for climbing with an MTB sprocket cluster and rear derailleur, wide-step crankset.

Now, 7- and 8-speed internally-geared hubs are common. 11 and 14 speeds are available, too, though expensive.

Shimano Nexus 8-speed internally-geared hub on my city bike.

What is the comfortable swing?

My legs are nearly as long as the grandfather clock’s pendulum in my video, but they swing twice as fast, because most of the weight isn’t at the bottom. It’s march tempo in music, no coincidence.: If you wear heavy hiking boots, your gait will slow down. But again, your legs are pistons, not pendulums when you ride a bicycle. The faster your legs turn, the less hard they have to push to produce the same power – so you can ride all day without getting sore, and for a lifetime without wearing out your knees.

A good pedaling cadence is quite a bit faster than a walking pace. With an optimal cadence, your oxygen-carrying capacity sets the limit of sustained power production. Your lungs don’t get sore by breathing hard, and your heart doesn’t get sore by beating faster. You can ride all day this way. .

Building muscle strength is something else entirely

Here’s another way to look at the issue: muscle-building exercise stresses muscles to their limit. The usual advice is for three sets of ten repetitions, to exhaustion, twice a week. More repetitions than that won’t build muscles any faster, they make you sore, and in the long run, can cause permanent damage. But, in an hour’s bicycle ride, your legs turn around thousands of times.

Certainly though, you can apply full muscle power for short bursts of power. Keep it in reserve for when you need it, because it fades quickly, and then you have to return to spinning.

Where to turn for more information about bicycle gearing

Getting the right gearing is simplest if it is original equipment on a bicycle you buy. But if your bicycle’s gears do not allow you to climb hills at a comfortable cadence, answers are as close as the nearest bike shop.  Every kind of bicycle, even one-speeds, allows modifications.

For more details on modifying gearing with an internal-gear hub,  you might look here:

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/internal-gears.html#sprockets

and for derailleur gears, here:

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/gear-theory.html .

Join Us at the Philly Bike Expo!

The American Bicycling Education Association is pleased to announce that we’ll be at the Philly Bike Expo. So mark your calendars!

Our booth at the Philly Bike Expo
We’re back! This was our booth in 2019.

Founded in 2010 by Bilenky Cycle Works, the Philly Bike Expo promotes “the fun, function, fitness and freedom to be found on two wheels.” The event fosters relationships between the cycling community and dedicated companies and organizations.

Bilenky hosts the event so we can all “admire the artisans whose craft enables us to ride two-wheeled art, to applaud the activists whose tireless efforts further our cycling infrastructure and to explore cycling as a fun and efficient transportation alternative.”

We’ll be sharing a booth in the Expo Hall with the Lehigh Valley CAT-Coalition for Appropriate Transportation.

Concerned about Covid? There is information online about the Expo’s Covid Protocol. We are vaccinated, will be masked, and consider the risk acceptable.

Pam Murray’s bike, home from errands…

Street Smarts — and a raffle.

The recently published Bicycling Street Smarts, CyclingSavvy Edition will be available at the CyclingSavvy/CAT booth. Yes, autographed by the author!  And we’ll be raffling off copies. The grand prize winner also gets a full scholarship to a CyclingSavvy course, online or in person.

We’re having workshops too!

Two of us are giving presentations on Sunday:

John and a friend rode Spruce Street.

Pamela Murray, The Bike Life, Sunday. 1:30 PM — Pam rides over 6,000 miles per year for transportation, fitness and recreation. She is a CyclingSavvy instructor and Bicycle Benefits Ambassador, and leads bike rides for vacation and camping.

John Allen, Riding Philly Streets, Sunday, 3 PM. Videos and discussion of tactics to meet the challenges of Philly riding. In and out of the bike lane! Getting a smile from a SEPTA bus driver!

Click to zoom in for details about the ride.

And a bike ride…

We are also organizing an unracer bike ride. It will leave at 7:30 AM on Saturday from the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial (just downriver from the Girard Bridge), and will arrive at the Convention Center in time for you to check in for the opening of the exhibit hall.

We hope to see you in The Cradle of Liberty!

Member Only Live Q&A sessions

...

This post is for Ride Awesome Members.

Shifting Gears to Accelerate Quickly

Welcome to the next in our series of beginner articles. In this one, I’ll introduce the topic of how to use your gears.

Most bicycles in the USA these days have the chain shifting across several sprockets. Many earlier bikes, and some current ones, have actual gears inside the wheel hub, “internal gears”. We’ll discuss both kinds.

Why do bicycles have multiple gears? Multiple gears can make your riding smoother and less tiring, especially if you live in a hilly area, as well as in extremely windy situations.

The point of gears is to keep your pedaling effort and speed (“cadence”) at a comfortable level. Pay attention to your effort. If you are pushing down too hard, you need to go down to a lower (easier) gear. If you are spinning uselessly, you need to go up to a higher (harder) gear. CyclingSavvy Instructor John Allen demonstrates.

Just as with a car, low (easy) gears are for starting and moving slowly, and higher (harder) gears are to keep your engine — your legs — from turning too fast as you speed up. But there are important differences compared to shifting gears in a car.

Your bike’s drivetrain: 1) front derailer, 2) crankset, 3) chainrings, 4) rear derailer, 5) cassette made up of individual sprockets

Two shifters: what’s that about?

Many bikes have two or three front sprockets (called chainrings) at the cranks (pedals), and several sprockets on the rear wheel, giving you two shifters to think about. It would be simple if you had, say, a 21-speed bike with just one shifter that went from 1 to 21. But unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

The good news is, using two shifters in combination is not as hard as you might think. Let’s say you have 3 chainrings (front sprockets, left shifter), and 7 in the back (right shifter, remember that both “rear” and “right” start with R). Don’t think of them as having 21 steps in a sequence (because they’re not): think instead of having 3 overlapping ranges of 7 steps each. Each chainring gives you a different range, and the rear sprockets let you make smaller adjustments within the current range.

  • If you have 3 chainrings, think of the middle one as your “normal” range, where you will spend most of your time. Start and stop in this range, generally with the back sprockets at or near 1 (easiest). The smallest (inside) chainring shifts the whole range down to be  easier, for when you are going up a steep hill or into a strong headwind. The largest (outside) chainring shifts the whole range to be harder, useful downhill or with a strong wind at your back.
  • If you only have 2 chainrings,  which one is “normal” will depend on you and on the specific gearing. Experiment.
  • If you have just 1 chainring, the preceding 4 paragraphs don’t apply. :-)

You can feel how pedaling gets harder as you move a shifter one way, easier the other way.

Homing in on the range

One way or the other, once the range is right for the conditions, just shift your back sprockets as necessary. (Remember, rear = right shifter). Start from a stop at the easy end, or near it. As you gain speed, you will notice at some point that your pedaling is no longer delivering much power; then it’s time to shift up. This is usually all with the same front chainring.

The outermost of three chainrings (at the cranks) should be used only with the outer four or five rear sprockets, the inner chainring only with the two or three innermost rear sprockets. This essentially boils down to: avoid having the front in the easiest gear while the back is in relatively a hard gear, and vice-versa. Keep easy with easy, and hard with hard.

The middle chainring can be used with any unless the chain rubs against the outer chainring when used with the smallest rear sprockets. If there are only two chainrings, the outer one can be used with more of the rear sprockets.

Shifting gears strategy

Think “how do I shift to get to the gear I need to use,“ not “am I in 7th gear or 8th gear.” It would be complicated to keep track of the sequence from gear 1 to gear 21; also, many combinations are duplicates and near-duplicates, so it is pointless. Typically, a “21-speed” bicycle will have a working sequence of 10 to 12 different gears, and a wide enough range for any terrain and level of fitness, with small enough steps to be comfortable. Use the numbers on twist-grip shifters only as a guide — lower numbers, easier.

The basic sequence is to start in a low (easy) gear, and shift to a harder one when the pedals get to turning too fast. Keep pedaling lightly and shift down as you slow down. This will allow you to accelerate briskly from a stop or a low speed.

When accelerating from a stop, you may need to shift as often as once per second. This keeps your cadence in the sweet spot and accelerates you quickest. You have something in common with a big semitrailer truck — listen to it as it accelerates. The driver shifts through multiple gears, because the truck also has a narrow range of engine speed which optimizes power production.

Gear range wide enough?

Is your bicycle’s easiest gear easy enough? That depends on the terrain where you ride, and on your fitness. On most bicycles, it is possible to replace rear sprockets and widen the range. There is no shame in using an easy gear. It shows that you know how to take care of yourself.

No matter how many speeds your bicycle has in theory, you can use only one at a time! “21-speed” does make a nice advertising slogan, though, doesn’t it?

Derailer Complications

Most multi-gear bicycles in North America use derailers at the cranks and the rear wheel. Those mechanisms push (derail) the chain to one side or the other, from one sprocket or chainwheel to another. The derailer at the rear wheel has pulley wheels to take up slack in the chain produced by the different-sized sprockets. (Clever, right?)

A derailer system has some complications:

  1. Shifting works only when the chain is moving forward! If you shift without pedaling, including when stopped, you will get a lot of grinding once you start pedaling, as the chain finds its way to the right spot. That is tough for the chain and sprockets, and embarrassing for you. If you did not shift down before stopping, the bicycle will be in a high gear and starting will be hard.
  2. To shift smoothly as you slow down, keep spinning the pedals but without putting any force on them. When accelerating or holding speed, reduce force on the pedals momentarily as you shift.
  3. You backpedal to step forward off the saddle when coming to a stop. (See our post about starting and stopping.) Finish shifting before you stop. If the chain and derailers are not aligned, the chain will jam as you backpedal. Test by backpedaling lightly. Sometimes you can adjust the shift levers even after stopping.

Internal Gears

Instead of a derailer, some bicycles have gears in the hub of the rear wheel, or sometimes at the cranks. Usually a shifter and cable connect to the internal mechanism; some two-speed hubs shift by backpedaling. 3-speed internal-gear hubs were very popular in the mid-20th century. Now 7 and 8-speed internal-gear hubs are common, and some have even more speeds.

An internal-gear hub shifts best when the chain is not moving, just the opposite of a derailer system. Coast or backpedal slightly for a moment while you shift. You don’t need to worry about downshifting while slowing to a stop; you can do that after you stop. It’s one less thing to concern yourself with. The sprocket can be changed with internal gears, in case you find that the range is too easy or too hard (usually, too hard). More about internal-gear hubs.

Shifting gears – Summary

Now that you know how shifting works, keep the goal of consistent cadence in mind as you ride. If your bicycle has more than one chainring, remember that the easy range is for uphill or headwind, hard one for downhill or tailwind. Middle (if you have 3) is for all other conditions. Use the sprockets at the rear wheel to adjust within the range as necessary. Easier gears are also good for creeping along while maintaining control, and being ready to accelerate, for example if a red light turns green before you reach it.

The idea is to keep your feet turning at a constant rate. A follow-up article will help you feel in your legs what that rate needs to be.

Control-and-Release Strategy with Ian Whiting

My friend, CyclingSavvy graduate Ian Whiting, rides a lot on shoulderless Massachusetts highways. Big rigs also use them. Ian likes to shoot video as he rides. I am pleased to host his videos here on the Savvy Cyclist. There are already Savvy Cyclist posts about how to be safe when cycling around big trucks in urban traffic, but now Ian will show us a couple of examples of CyclingSavvy control-and-release strategy for the open road.

What is control-and-release strategy?

CyclingSavvy control-and-release strategy is to control the travel lane when passing is unsafe, releasing control by moving over to the right when passing becomes safe. This strategy is about cyclists’ engaging actively with motorists, and it is about release as much as it is about control. Ian’s video shows a couple of different ways to release on the same uphill stretch, with oncoming traffic and a restricted sight line over the hilltop. Both clips in the video start at the same traffic signal. Here’s the location in Google Maps.

Pulling over

In Ian’s first clip, he starts out on a green light; the truck catches up with him partway up the hill. He pulls over into a convenient driveway entrance to let the truck pass. There is nothing unusual about this – except – A second truck was following the one he pulled over to let pass. There’s a lesson in that: cyclists should always check before re-entering the roadway, even after only pulling aside briefly. What you saw behind you is now in front of you, but you might not have seen everything that was behind you.

The “loop-the loop” – not a conventional control-and-release strategy!

In the second clip, Ian is waiting at the traffic light when a big rig pulls up behind. He does a “loop the loop” — a U turn, backtracking, and another U turn to get behind the truck. This is not a conventional control-and-release strategy, but it works. Clever!

I advise using the loop-the-loop technique only when traffic is stopped, and passing would be illegal. In Ian’s video, he is first in line at a red light. The loop-the-loop is practical only when you can easily reach a lane for traffic in the opposite direction — so, almost always on a two-lane highway, though also on a multi-lane highway if you are waiting to turn left. You need to check for illegal passing, but also for traffic in the lane where you will backtrack — including traffic turning into that lane.

Generating goodwill

The loop-the-loop technique probably won’t generate goodwill to the same extent as pulling over. The truck driver will probably think that you decided to turn around and go back where you came from. But either way, it works better to be behind the big rig than in front. Well, except for the truck’s diesel smoke. But you would get that anyway, only at a different time.