Women & Bicycles Demystifies Cogs, Chains, Cassettes

“So what happens when you hit a hill and you’re still in a high gear?”

“You say swear words!” yells one woman.

“Yes!  And what else?”

Shifting Gears–a Women & Bicycles workshop put on by Proteus Bicycles in College Park–is all about the what else. Led by owner Laurie Lemieux, the workshop put the emphasis on asking questions, finding answers, and helping one another with a part of bicycling that’s as intimidating as it is necessary.

Most bicyclists are eventually going to have to change the gears on a bike. Nevertheless, many bicyclists don’t for fear of getting it wrong, messing it up, or breaking something. Shifting gears, to the novice cyclist, looks and feels complicated, comes with lots of odd noises and jarring motions, and as often as not, has opposite results from what they intended.


Want to learn about future Women & Bicycles events and rides?  Yes!






So we set out to tackle the greasy, clanky challenge. At the start of the workshop, we learned that shifting helps us keep better control of our bicycles, which makes us more confident cyclists. Here’s a little of what we learned:

The Basics

  • Pedaling feels easier in a small chainring and harder in a big one (chainrings, by the way, are the toothy gears that are attached to the right crank, aka, the thing your pedal is attached to). The correct chainring for you is the one where you can pedal comfortably on the terrain you face–and that’ll differ depending on your strength, fitness, and preference.
  • Because that’s not complicated enough, in the back of the bike pedaling feels easier in a big cog and harder in a little one (cogs are the toothy gears that are attached to the rear wheel; stacked together they’re called a cassette). Just like on chainrings, the correct cog for you is going to change depending on the terrain and your comfort and fitness levels.

Shifter Smarts

  • When you shift gears on your handlebars, the cables get longer or shorter, and the chain moves to a different cog (or chainring).
  • Your right hand controls the rear of your bike. (For both brakes and gears, Right = Rear.)
  • It’s okay to do most of your shifting in the back (with your right hand), especially if you’re new to this whole shifting thing.

Quick Cheats

  • Uphills and headwinds? Oh, geez. Use: small or middle front chain ring + bigger rear cogs.
  • Downhills? Wheeeeee! Use: Large front chainring + a range of rear cogs, while humming a happy tune.
  • Flat roads? Use: small or middle front ring + smaller rear cogs. Go ahead and use that big chainring if you are comfy!

What the heck is cross chaining?

  • Cross chaining means your chain is at an extreme slant from side to side. It can happen on any chain ring, and it means that you might be on your big ring in front and the biggest cog in the back, or son the smallest cog in front and back.
  • Cross chaining limits your shifting options, and puts a lot of strain on the chain (this is not a great idea).
  • If you notice you are cross-chaining, it’s a good indication that you could shift your front derailleur to give yourself access to more gears.

How and when do I shift?

  • When the terrain changes or a wind kicks up, or when pedaling seems harder. Are you going uphill? Facing a sudden headwind? Feeling tired?  That’s a good time to shift.
  • Try to shift before you get to the hill–shifting under pressure is hard on our bikes, and shifting when you are pushing hard is a leading cause of chains falling off. If you can shift before the hill starts, you win!
  • A great tip- if you are in your front big chain ring and see a big hill coming up, try shifting to your front small chain ring. You may find you have access to more gears on your rear cassette if the hill gets longer or harder than you anticipated!
  • When you shift going towards a hill, ease up on the pedals for a turn or two to lighten the load.
  • On a flat road, if the wind is behind you, or if you are going downhill- shift to harder gears. Downhills + harder gears = free speed!

What’s next?

Did you find this post helpful? Come try out those new gears skills on our next group ride, June 24, when we take on the rolling hills in the Women & Wine ride with Potomac Peddlers Touring Club!