10 Confusing Things About Cycling (and Their Explanations)

Whether you’re just getting started or have been doing this for a while, cycling can be overwhelmingly technical and downright confusing. Beyond knowing how to take on corners and descents and hills, things like gearing, jargon and maintenance can be baffling, leaving you with many unanswered questions.

Here are 10 of the most confusing things about cycling, plus simple answers to the baffling questions.

1. HOW DO I KNOW MY BIKE’S FRAME SIZE?

Road bike frames are in centimeters (i.e., 52, 54, 56, 58, etc.) or small, medium and large. And since sizing can vary between brands, it’s best to visit a bike shop and ask someone what size frame is recommended for your height. To figure out if a particular size fits you, you’ll want to do a test ride.

The two most important details you’ll want to get right are the seat height and the handlebar reach. If you have to lower the seat post so much that it isn’t showing just to reach the pedals, the frame is too big. If it’s extended to the point where it can’t be raised any higher, and you have more than 20 degrees of knee flexion at the bottom of the pedal stroke, the frame is too small. As for reach, you should be able to rest your hands comfortably on the brake/shift levers without excessively leaning forward, as this places too much stress on the lower back and neck.

If you have extra money, getting a bike fit to dial in the seat height and reach and the fore/aft position of your cleats ensures comfort and prevents overuse injuries from not being positioned correctly on your bike. A good bike fit can cost $150–400, so check around to see what services are offered and what best suits your needs.

2. WHAT DO THE CHAINRING AND CASSETTE SIZES MEAN?

Road bikes have lots of gearing options, which can be confusing. The reason you need all these gears is to have a variety of options for the terrain you’ll be riding — easy gears for long climbs and harder gears for descending. In general, the chainrings that attach to the crankset (toward the front of your bike) have either one, two or three rings, with two rings being the most common. The number of teeth on these rings depends on your riding style — more teeth are helpful if you like to go faster and are stronger. Fewer teeth are more suited to climbing. A 50-tooth big chainring and a 34-tooth chainring are common on today’s road bikes, and when paired with a wide-ranging cassette (gearing on the back wheel), you’ll be able to tackle hills fairly comfortably.

On the rear cassette, lower numbers of teeth make pedaling harder, while a higher number of teeth makes pedaling easier. There are usually between 10 and 12 cogs on a cassette, ranging from 10 teeth on the smallest cog up to 32 teeth on the largest cog. If you see cassette sizing that is 11-28t, this means the smallest cog has 11 teeth and the largest has 28. If you struggle with climbing, a higher number like a 28- or 32-tooth cog is helpful.

Another confusing topic related to gearing is when another rider tells you to shift up or shift down. To shift up, you’ll move your gearing to a bigger gear, making it harder to pedal and resulting in faster speeds. This can be confusing because to shift up, you’ll move the chain to a smaller cog on the rear cassette. To shift down, the opposite is true. Shifting down moves the chain to an easier gear ratio, making it easier to pedal. Shifting down moves the chain to a larger cog (more teeth) on the rear cassette.

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