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On Bicycle Gears and Personal Discipline

August 12, 2011

This summer, my bicycle has become my main – my sole – mode of transportation.

I usually cruise around on the sixth (of seven) rear gear. The second-hardest. The second-smallest. Because the last one is … well … hardest to pedal.

It’s not too hard, it’s just the hardest, so I keep my chain on the sixth.

Yesterday, I had my vague gear lever, apparently, in between six and seven, and suddenly the chain jumped down to that last, small sprocket and my pedals started fighting back against my feet. I shifted back to the easier gear and … slowed down.

Because, of course, as the sprockets get smaller, the pedaling gets harder. But as the pedaling gets harder, you go further, faster, with each rotation. I knew that. I grew up in the bike shop family of McHenry, after all. I know how bicycles work.

I was just so used to leaving that “hardest” gear alone that I never thought about its benefits anymore.

So I decided to do a little experiment. I pedaled in my usual gear and I counted, “One one thousand, two one thousand.” I was pedaling about one full rotation every second. My right foot hit the bottom on every “thou.”

I kept counting, and dropped the chain back to that bottom sprocket, determined to keep pedaling at the same pace. I wanted to see how much faster I would go, pedaling at the same speed, in a harder gear.

The first couple pedals were really hard to keep up to tempo, but it didn’t take long and I was flying. (Comparatively.) That level that I’d avoided for so long because I knew it would be harder, wasn’t too hard for long.

Pedaling was more difficult, unavoidably, but I was going much faster than the extra effort seemed to justify. I would not have had the strength or the energy to go that speed in a lower gear. I simply couldn’t have pedaled that fast. So while it did take extra effort, as I knew it would, the benefit of that extra effort was exponential.

Then something strange happened.

I realized I was pedaling faster and faster. I tried to slow down, but if I tried to keep my feet moving at one rotation every second I wasn’t really propelling the bicycle most of the time. Pedaling at the old pace, I was, effectively, coasting. When the bike slowed down, my slow pedaling would catch the sprocket again, but then the first couple pushes were harder again.

That first rate was too slow to maintain the pace once I’d built momentum, but pedaling at this new, faster pace wasn’t proportionately difficult to do. It was harder, in fact, to pedal without the resistance of actually moving myself forward.

So maybe sometimes all you have to do is commit to the first few difficult pushes, and before you know it, the momentum you’ve built up is propelling you forward and making it easier to work harder.

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