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Rear Cluster with each of its sprockets

53 What?
28 Mar, 2007 - Amy Taylor
This week the new "beginners how to" section kicks off with a variety of sections to keep anyone new to the sport learning about this great adventure called cycling.  To begin with we have equipment, training and skills sections.  Keep a look out for regular additions to this section to keep learning, or simply refresh your memory of the small intricies of cycling.   Knowing and understanding the gears on your bicycle can help you save your equipment, ride more comfortably and give you an indication of improvement.   


The chain rings at the front of your bike are commonly called the “big chain ring” and “small chain ring.”  Some bikes have three at the front and the one in between is funnily enough called the “middle chain ring!”  Their real names are in actual fact representative of the number of “teeth” on them.  Each bike differs but most road bikes come with a small chain ring called a 39 (39 teeth on it), and a big chain ring called a 53.  The bigger the number the harder the gear. 


In your rear wheel the gears are called sprockets instead of chain rings and are also named after the number of teeth on them.   The group of sprockets is called a “cluster” (picture 3), and down this end of the bike the bigger the number of teeth the easier the gear, so it is in reverse to the front.  Each cluster has 8 to 10 sprockets or gears on it depending on your bike, and they are typically sequential dropping one to two teeth at a time.  As an example a common road bike cluster consists of 10 sprockets; 23 (closest to the wheel),21,19,18,17,16,15,14,13,12 (closest to the frame). 


Combining Front and Rear

So now that we know the front and rear gears we can actually name every gear on the bike.  For example, if you are in the small chain ring at the front and your bike has a 39, and in the third to bottom sprocket on the rear cluster this would be a 19 on our cluster above.  So this gear is called a 39 x 19.  Changing down to an easier gear would be a 39 x 21, or likewise up to a harder gear would be a 39 x 18.


If your chain is rubbing in a certain gear it will definitely let you know by making an awful grinding noise in which case you shouldn’t be in that gear!  This commonly happens in the extremes of gears.  For example the easiest gear while in your big chain ring (53 x 23 using our example gears), or when in the hardiest gear in your small chain ring (39 x 12).  Avoid using these gears as they will ruin your chain by rubbing on the front deraileur (the part that shifts your chain from the small to big chain rings), and the line of pull of the chain is bad for it angling across.


Gear Maintenance

The cables that pull the gears when you shift stretch after a while and your gears will not change properly so they need to be periodically changed and adjusted.  To help your gears last longer wipe the chain after riding in the wet and re-grease it.  The grit that builds up off the roads needs to be wiped off every now and again otherwise is wears away at your chain, sprockets, and chain rings and these will need to be changed.  If you are riding regularly it’s a good rule of thumb to replace your chain every 6months to prevent it wearing out your cluster and chain rings, as this is a lot less expensive than replacing everything.


Writing down the gears you use in training can help monitor improvements.  As an example say you did a windtraining/spin class and were doing a set of intervals at 90 rpm in your 53 x 19 one week, and then repeated those intervals two weeks later in your 53 x 17 then you know you have improved.  Cycling is a tough sport and can be made a lot easier (especially on hills), with the correct gears on your bike.  Bikes come with “one size fits all gears,” however we all have different strengths and weaknesses and need different varieties of gears.  For example if you look at your bike and see the easiest gear is a 39 x 21, then you may want to get this changed at your local bike shop.  You don’t need to change the entire bike, just a few parts.  Having smaller gears will help you spin on the flats and hills and help you go faster with less effort.


Amy Taylor is an Auckland based Exercise Physiologist and Cycling Coach.  She is one of the founders of Kinetic Edge Training Technology, and along with other coaches offers cycling skills training on a one on one or group basis.  Kinetic Edge also offers programming for specific events, and personal coaching.  For further information see or contact her directly on 

Click to enlarge...
Front "Big chain rings"

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