What’s the Best Bike Gear to Use on a Flat Road?

When we were kids, we used to ride fixed gear bikes. Uphill, we pedaled harder and slower, while downhill, we let the terrain carry us effortlessly. But on the flats, we soared! Our little feet would pedal as fast and hard as possible. Now that we have bikes with gears, pedaling has become easier. However, a new challenge arises – what gear should we use? And when? What is the best gear to use on a flat road?

When riding on a flat road, the key is to choose the hardest gear that allows you to pedal comfortably at a cadence of around 90 RPMs, ensuring the highest speed possible. Of course, if you are riding with others, you may need to adjust your gear to match their pace. In this article, we will delve into the different factors that influence this seemingly simple question: what gear should you use on flat roads?

Choosing the Right Gear for a Flat Road

The simplest way to determine which gear to use on a flat road is to find one that allows you to pedal comfortably. If the gear feels too hard to turn over the pedals, or your cadence is too low, shift to an easier gear. This will enable you to pedal faster and more easily. On the other hand, if you find yourself spinning too fast without covering much ground, you may want to shift into a harder gear. This will offer more resistance to your legs, resulting in increased speed.

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Feel free to experiment to find the gear and gear ratio that works best for you. If you want to build muscles, choose a hard gear that requires more effort. Conversely, if you need to go faster, opt for a slightly harder gear. Remember, finding your ideal gear is an individual process, so don’t hesitate to try different options.

Exploring Low Gears, Middle Gears, and High Gears

There are three types of gears: low gear, middle gear, and high gear. For riding on flat roads, it is generally recommended to use the middle gear. This choice helps reduce pressure on your feet while pedaling, making it a popular option among cyclists. Additionally, many modern electric bikes feature built-in automatic gears that adjust according to the terrain automatically, without any need for manual assistance.

Finding the Ideal Gear Ratio for Flat Roads

Selecting the right gear ratio involves considering a few factors, such as leg strength, personal preferences, and the elevation of the terrain. If you mainly ride on hilly areas, using a low gear ratio may result in your legs spinning at a very high speed, potentially causing accidents. On the other hand, if the gear ratio is too high, pedaling uphill will become extremely challenging.

For flat roads and surfaces, the ideal gear ratio is between 2.6 and 3.0 (source). With a cadence of 90 RPM, the lower end of this range allows you to ride at approximately 30 km/h, while the upper end can propel you up to 34 km/h. However, if you are a beginner starting with a fixed gear or single-speed bike, a gear ratio of 2.7-2.8 would be perfect for you. Later, after gaining more experience, you can adjust your gear ratio as needed.

Are Gear Ratios the Same for Everyone?

Gear ratios differ for each cyclist, as they are based on personal preferences. Choosing the right ratio is a matter of individual inclination. If you are a beginner, seeking advice from a more experienced cyclist can be helpful. Keep in mind that your gear ratio and preference may change over time as your muscle mass develops.

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Why Do Bikes Have Gears?

Bikes are equipped with gears to help you maintain a steady and comfortable cadence, regardless of the terrain. For most people, the ideal cadence is around 90 RPMs, but this can vary depending on individual preferences. When riding uphill, shifting to an easier gear allows your legs to keep spinning while dealing with the challenging terrain. This results in slower speed but easier pedaling. Conversely, when going downhill, shifting to a harder gear enables you to continue pedaling effortlessly, leading to higher speeds.

However, riding on flat roads presents a different scenario. Although you want to maintain a comfortable cadence, choosing the right gear becomes crucial.

Understanding Bike Gears and Ratios

A typical road bike offers a wide range of gears. For instance, your bike may be labeled as an 8, 10, or 11 speed, but it actually has more gears than that. It features 2 or 3 chainrings attached to the pedal, responsible for significant changes in gear when shifting. In the United States, the shifters for these chainrings are usually located on the left-hand side of the handlebars. Additionally, at the back wheel, you’ll find the cassette, which consists of 8 to 11 cogs. The terms “eight-speed” or “11-speed” refer to the number of cogs in the cassette. Fine-tuning your cadence is achieved by shifting the cassette using the right-hand side shifters.

To simplify gear selection, remember that the small chainring in the front is easier to pedal, while the large chainring is harder. However, in the back, smaller cogs make pedaling harder, while larger cogs make it easier. For instance, using the smallest chainring in front and the largest cog in the back provides the easiest gear. Pedaling becomes faster and easier, but the bike doesn’t cover as much ground with each pedal stroke. On the other hand, using the large chainring in the front with the smallest cog in the back creates the hardest gear to pedal, resulting in covering more ground per pedal stroke.

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Examples of Bike Gears

Let’s consider some examples to illustrate the use of different gears in specific situations. When faced with a steep hill, the pedals become harder to turn over. To overcome this, use the smallest chainring in the front and a larger cog in the back. Although your speed will be significantly slower, this gear ratio allows your legs to spin faster. On the contrary, when going downhill, utilize the large chainring in the front and a smaller cog in the back. Using this gear ratio prevents easy coasting and ensures consistent pedaling.

For riding on flat roads, you will typically choose something in the middle, such as the larger chainring in the front and a middle cog in the back. This provides an easy gear to pedal, maintaining a comfortable cadence and good speed.

Specific Bike Gears

Road bikes usually feature a 50/34 crankset, where the large chainring has 50 teeth, and the smaller one has 34 teeth. Remember, the smaller chainring in the front offers an easier gear to pedal. The back cassette consists of various cogs, with the smallest having 11 teeth and the largest having 28. Therefore, a configuration like a 50/34 crankset with an 11/32 cassette is common. If you are unsure about your bike’s crankset and cassettes, you can count the number of teeth on each one to determine the gear ratio.

Understanding Gear Ratios

Gear ratios explain how many times the back wheel spins in relation to each turn of the pedals. To calculate the gear ratio, divide the number of teeth on the chainring you are using by the number of teeth on the rear cog. For example, using a 34-tooth chainring with a 34-tooth cog will result in a gear ratio of 1.0. This means your wheel will rotate once for every turn of the crank. A smaller gear ratio allows for easier pedaling but covers less ground per pedal stroke. Conversely, a larger gear ratio results in harder pedaling but more ground covered with each turn of the crank.

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The Importance of Gear Ratios

To highlight the significance of gear ratios, let’s compare a fixed gear bike with a road bike. A fixed gear bike offers only one gear, such as a 44-tooth chainring and a 17-tooth cog, resulting in a gear ratio of approximately 2.44. This gear ratio, combined with a cadence of 90 RPMs, allows a speed of around 18 mph on flat roads. However, swapping the cog for a 20-tooth one makes pedaling easier, but the speed reduces to approximately 15.5 mph, resulting in a gear ratio of 2.2. Consequently, even a slight change in gear ratio significantly affects speed.

On a road bike, you have the flexibility to adjust the gear ratio as per the terrain. Going uphill, you want to use the smaller chainring with a larger cog. For instance, a combination of 34 in the front and 32 in the back provides a gear ratio of 1.06. Pedaling becomes relatively easy uphill, although the speed remains slow. Conversely, when descending, utilize the big chainring in the front and a smaller cog, such as a 50/11. This gives a gear ratio of 4.55, requiring more effort to turn the crank but resulting in higher speeds. On flat roads, choose a gear ratio ranging from 2.5 to 3.5. For instance, applying a 50-tooth chainring with an 18-tooth cog provides a gear ratio of 2.78, allowing a speed of approximately 19.5 mph at a cadence of 90 RPMs.

Choosing the Best Gear for High Speed on Flats

If your objective is to achieve high speed, use the big chainring in the front and a middle cog in the back. Adjust the cog if pedaling becomes too hard or too easy, aiming for the ideal balance between effort and speed.

Choosing the Best Gear for a Hard Workout

If your focus is on a tough workout rather than speed, consider using your large chainring in combination with larger cogs. This gear combination adds resistance, making it harder to turn the pedals and providing a more challenging workout. However, keep in mind that this is not an efficient way to gain speed.

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Choosing the Best Gear for Recovery Rides

During recovery or slower rides, it is advisable to select an easy gear. Use the small chainring in front with a larger cog in the back. By doing so, you reduce resistance on your legs and minimize stress on your cardiovascular system, resulting in a slower speed.

Considerations for Mountain Bikes, Gravel, or Cyclocross Bikes

If you are riding a mountain bike on flat roads, the principles remain the same. Choose gears that allow you to maintain a comfortable cadence of around 90 RPMs while achieving the highest possible speed. Mountain bikes typically offer more “easy” gears and fewer “hard” gears because they are designed for uphill rides.

Gravel and cyclocross bikes often feature a 1x gear setup, consisting of a single chainring in the front and a wider-spaced set of cogs in the back. For instance, a configuration like a 40-tooth chainring and an 11-34 cassette provides a gear ratio ranging from 1.17 to 3.6. On flat roads, selecting something around 40/13 would be suitable.

However, keep in mind that due to the absence of multiple chainrings, you might have to adjust your cadence to match the pace of cyclists around you.

A Note About Crosschaining

While crosschaining—the act of using the largest chainring in the front with the largest cog in the back or the smallest chainring in the front with the smallest cog in the back—is not inherently harmful, it is better for your bike to avoid it. Crosschaining stretches the chain diagonally, placing unnecessary tension and stress on it. This reduces the efficiency of the drivetrain in the short run and leads to increased wear and tear over time. Since the same gears are available on the other chainring, choose the gear combination that places less tension on the chain.

Wrapping Up

In summary, there is no hard and fast rule for choosing the best gear on a flat road. It ultimately depends on finding the gear that allows you to travel comfortably at an optimum speed, depending on your level of fitness and maintaining a cadence of around 90 RPM. Good luck with your flat road cycling journey, and feel free to put these tips into action. If you want to explore more about the subject, check out 5 WS.

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