Go ahead and use those gears on a 10-speed bike

Bicyclemakers figure that as many as 80 percent of all 10-speed bikes now on the road in the US have never been shifted. What a pity! What's the point of a 10-speed bike if the rider ignores the gears? That's what they're there for, after all. You can pay a lot of money for a 10-speed bicycle with -- count them -- 10 combinations of gears. So, go ahead and put them to work.

In the spring of 1972 I sold my BMW 500 cc motorcycle in order to buy a second car. But then I remembered that as a boy I had been a real bicycle buff and had chalked up at least 20,000 miles on a one-speed.

Thus, I decided to try pedal power once more.

But first I wondered: Is a 10-speed bike worth the cost? How easy are they to ride? Can a middle-aged, 250-pounder ride 20 miles round trip to work and get away with it? Will I wind up walking the bike up most of the long hill on the way?

It was then that I met Jeff, a bicycle salesman, who knew his merchandise and how to teach the fine art of shifting. The very first day of riding to work was a snap.

Knowing how to shift made the difference. Only the saddle took some getting used to.

I now marvel at the ease with which long distances can be covered with unbelievably little effort if you know what you're doing; in other words, how to shift the gears.

I quickly learned the two basic rules of riding a 10-speed which makes everything else come together. If you break either of these two rules, you will work much harder than you should.

* First, allow plenty fo time for the trip. If you are pressed for time, leave the bike at home.

* And second, use that shift!

Jeff told me to downshift the minute the pedaling became an effort, explaining that staying in the faster gear too long just made for a lot of unnecessarily hard work.

"You won't get there any faster by working hard," he'd say.

Anyone can prove what he said by riding the same route twice and using the two techniques. The reasoning is simple. If you know how to shift, you arrive relaxed, not fatigued and rattled. Also, if you allow plenty of time and use the gears, your "gas mileage" will run to an incredible "1,500 miles per gallon."

Put another way, by the time you have burned the same amount of calories which are contained in a gallon of gasoline, you will have pumped your bike some 1,500 miles.

Some other good tips: Keep the tires properly inflated. This can save extra work as well. And be sure to keep your bike well maintained. Lubricate the chain and have the rims trued as often as required.

Jeff taught me another important, but often overlooked, technique for shifting a 10- speed bike: Front-sprocket shifting.

Most riders ignore the advantage of front-sprocket shifting. Climbing a long hill, for instance, they will shift the rear sprocket until it is on its slowest speed; and only then, as a last report, will they go to the smallest front sprocket.

Yet the bicyclist will be amazed at the difference it makes if he shifts immediately to the small front sprocket at the start of a long climb.

Simply, go to the small front sprocket first, and then do the rest of your downshifting on the rear sprocket.

Now, suppose you are coasting downhill in one of the faster gears and a stop sign is coming up. Shifting to a slower gear on the rear sprocket is a real challenge -- and sometimes it can't be done. You need tension on the chain for the rear-sprocket shifter to work.

If the speed is too great, you can't get the required tension and cannot get into a slower gear.

As you coast to the stop sign, simply shift the front sprocket to the small gear and leisurely rotate the pedals. The chain will drop onto the small front sprocket and, as a result, you have the advantage of a much lower gear to use as you start away from the stop sign.

Starting away from the stop sign will be a groaner if you try to move ahead in the fast gear which you could not change. So, front sprocket to the rescue which doesn't require tension on the chain to shift.

A little practice with a 10-speed bike could change your thoughts about bike riding and cut your gasoline bill.

If your car gets 20 miles to a gallon, you can pay for a good 10-speed bike out of the gas savings alone with only 2,000 miles of riding. After that, it's all gravy.

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