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If you’re a rail trail rider who’s a bit intimidated or confused as to how or when to shift your bike to a different gear, we’ve got some news: you’re far from alone! In fact, you’re part of a long tradition of frustrated cyclists that stretches back over a hundred years to the very first derailleur systems.
There are probably plenty of reasons for this—we’ve all known the familiar clacking and scraping of a derailleur in need of adjustment, and our legs probably remember pedaling into a headwind or up a hill in too high a gear. But the answer isn’t just finding a gear that works most of the time and sticking with it. Bicycles are amazingly efficient machines, and if we’re not shifting gears, we’re not getting the most out of our ride.
To think simply and clearly about how to shift, a good first step is to avoid thinking about your gears as little numbers on your handlebars. While manufacturers provide these numbers to indicate the level of resistance a rider feels, they can lead to some confusing conversations on the rail-trail: “Should I be on 2 and 7?” “What are you on?” “When I’m on 3 and 2, my chain scrapes!”