I started riding bicycles when I was about 7 years old. My first bike was a fixed gear, with a coaster brake, you know, the one where you just push backwards on the pedals and the bike stops. I got my first bike with multiple gears (10) and rim brakes when I was a teenager, and I loved the speed I could attain on that bike. But then I got my driver’s license, and for some reason I stopped riding. I guess that happens to a lot of us. Driving a car was just more convenient, and gas was cheap.
About 9 years ago, I became interested in bicycling again. I bought a comfort bike, with twist shifters and 21 speeds. Even though I hadn’t been on a bicycle in more than a decade, it’s true what they say: once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you don’t have to relearn. I rode that bicycle everywhere from city streets to dirt trails. Getting used to all the gearing took some time, but I eventually got the hang of it.
Then came my first touring bicycle, a Raleigh Sojourn, with bar end shifters and clipless pedals (the adjective clipless is misleading and confusing. It really means “clip-in,” where the shoe is clipped into the pedal.) The very first time I rode the bicycle I was afraid to clip in completely. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to unclip in time when I stopped. So, I just rested my foot on the pedal while I rode, but when I did come to a stop, my clip was stuck to the pedal anyway, and I fell over. Right in front of the bike shop. I was so embarrassed, but less so when I found out that almost everyone falls at least once. Over time it became natural to clip in and unclip, and now I don’t even really have to think about it.
Bar end shifters were also an adjustment. However, once I figured it out, I liked the dependability of the shifting. My biggest problem at first was remembering which side controlled the front gear, and which the back. Unlike the twist shifters, there were no numbers on the shifters to clue you in. Also, I would sometimes forget which direction I was supposed to shift, and when I really needed an “easier” gear, I would accidently shift to a more difficult one, and lose my momentum. I had to make up a mnemonic to help me remember. To go UP the hill, the chain needs to go UP the cogs on the back. The lever gets pulled UP.
My latest bicycle has Shimano STI shifters, which are combination gear/shifters. This was yet another learning experience for me. It took quite a while, but the quick shifting that you can do with this style of shifter is amazing. The shifter is within easy reach, and if you have to brake quickly, your hand is right there.
After riding for many miles and many hills, I have begun experimenting a bit with different gears. A lot of people will tell you that the most efficient way to ride a bicycle is to keep a high cadence (how fast you pedal) of 80-90 rpms, no matter what gear you are in. I’ve always had a difficult time with this. At first, it was because of my lack of skill at shifting. I wouldn’t shift soon enough before a hill to keep up my cadence. Also, I’ve found that 80-90 rpms is way too high of a cadence for me to be comfortable. I enjoy riding at a much more reasonable 65-70 rpms (This is an estimate since I’ve never had a cadence meter installed on my bicycle).
With practice, I have become a pretty good judge of a hill. Looking at it, I can tell when I need to downshift in order to keep up my speed or cadence to get up the hill. Every once in a while, the steepness takes me by surprise, and I find myself rising out of the saddle to give myself a little more leverage. A skill that I had in my youth that I had to reacquire as an adult. For some reason, it felt unsafe with my shoes clipped into the pedals. Once I got over that feeling, I’ve been able to use the skill to my advantage. But mostly, I am able to choose the right gear to make my way slowly and surely up every hill I encounter.
As with everything in life, it all takes practice. Whether you are new to riding a bicycle, or new again to riding, it’s the same. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Whether it’s clipless pedals, bar end shifters, or brake/shift levers, you may find yourself loving the new technique even more than the old.