Cycling up hills is obviously easier if you're fitter and carrying less weight – bodyweight, bike weight, and luggage weight. But with low gears and practice using them, hills aren't a huge problem for any cyclist. Be advised: the gears on many bikes do not go low enough for normal people to ride up steep gradients without struggling. If you live in a lumpy area, choose your commuter bike with care!
Know your gears
The range of gears varies widely between bikes. Gear size is determined by the size of the chainring, the size of the sprocket on the rear wheel, and the diameter of the rear wheel. It can be expressed in terms of gear inches or gear development.
First, some history. In the early days, cranks were attached directly to a bicycle's front wheel. One revolution of the cranks equalled one revolution of the wheel. This is why penny farthings evolved: a bigger wheel enabled riders to travel faster. Gear size and wheel diameter were one and the same. A 52-inch wheel penny farthing had a 52-inch gear.
Nowadays most bikes use a chain drive to the rear wheel. If you have a 48-tooth chainring driving a 24-tooth sprocket, the rear wheel will turn twice for each crank revolution. A 26-inch wheel turning twice is the same as a 52-inch wheel turning once. It's the same gear. That's what gear inches are: the effective wheel diameter.
Gear development, on the other hand, tells you how far the bicycle will travel in a given gear for one revolution of the cranks. It's the effective wheel circumference.
To calculate gear inches: divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the sprocket, then multiply this by the diameter of the wheel in inches. (A 700C wheel is approximately 27 inches.) To calculate gear development, multiply this figure by pi and covert from imperial to metric. We'll stick with gear inches here.
How low to go
There's some machismo involved in straining up hills in a too-large gear. You may hear racing cyclists declaim that 'no one needs a sprocket bigger than 25 teeth' or 'no one needs a triple chainset'. What they mean is: they don't want them. You probably do. Here are some rules of thumb.
• Unless you live somewhere flat, like London, or are fit and determined, any commuter bike will benefit from a bottom gear lower than 40 inches. This will rule out some road bikes and many bikes with three or fewer gears.
• For sportier commuter bikes and/or sportier riders, a bottom gear of around 30 inches is probably sufficient in hillier areas. A road bike with a 34-tooth inner chainring and 30-tooth bottom sprocket will provide this.
• For heavier or less fit riders, load hauling, steeper hills, or all four, look for a bottom gear of around 20 inches. Mountain bikes and touring bikes offer this and so do some hybrids. Don't want to do any gear-inch maths? Look for a small chainring (28 teeth or fewer) and a big sprocket (32 teeth or more).
Novice cyclists change gear too late, pedalling slower and slower in the same gear and then desperately trying to downshift. Gears don't work well under these conditions. Derailleurs shift best if you ease off the pedalling pressure, something you can only do if you're not already straining on the pedals. Some hub gears require a brief pause in your pedalling to shift. When a last-resort downshift doesn't work, you will be stranded in a too-high gear and may come to a dead stop.
Instead of trying to stay in the same gear, try to keep your cadence high and anticipate any gear shifts. Keep pedalling smoothly and easily. Downshift as soon as your speed starts to dip, which will be almost immediately you start the climb. If it's a long or steep climb, use your front derailleur to downshift sooner rather than later. You get a bigger 'step down' from a front shift, and the front derailleur doesn't shift as well as the rear under pressure.
Sit or stand?
Sitting is more efficient, but standing on the pedals enables you to turn a higher gear as you can use your bodyweight to press down on each pedal alternately, shifting your weight from one leg to the other. When you run out of gears, standing is the final option before walking. Singlespeed riders will have to get used to it!
Standing isn't only a last resort. If the hill is short, you can rush it. This takes a little more effort than twiddling up the hill but is faster. It's different from fading in an over-large gear like a novice as you're attacking the hill from the outset. Accelerate as you approach so that your momentum will carry you further up the hill. Keep your cadence high, standing on the pedals as the gradient begins to bite to keep the slightly-too-high gear turning. Push, push, push, and then relax as you crest the hill.
Ride or walk?
Getting off and walking isn't an admission of defeat. It might, however, be an admission that the gears on your bike are too high. You can comfortably ride up very steep hills at 3 or 4mph if your gears go low enough.
You might think it would be just as quick to walk. It rarely is. Most of us walk at about 3mph on the flat, but if it's a steep hill and you're pushing a bike, that can easily drop to 2mph. Plus you have to factor in the time taken to stop, dismount, stop, and remount.
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