It is common for road cyclists to find that when they switch to a mountain or gravel bike, they continually get stuck between gears. Because the jumps between one gear and the next are larger on off-road bikes riders will want to pedal at 86rpm but find that they aren’t working hard enough. They try to pedal faster but find themselves pedaling too quickly, so they shift 1 gear harder only to find their cadence is now too low. Back and forth they go never being able to pedal the 2-3 rpm faster to produce the increase in wattage they are looking for.
Getting caught between gears can also happen indoors on your trainer, and often this results in frustration or some sort of setup adjustment to ‘fix’ getting stuck between gears and ‘optimize’ the cadence. It is also masked by using the ERG modes to allow ‘perfect’ wattage at the preferred cadence without ‘having to think’ about shifting or gearing. This misses the chance to work on speed-skill.
What if Getting Caught between Gears is a good thing?
If you find yourself getting caught between gears (and perhaps using it as an excuse!) there is potential for you to improve. If you can comfortably pedal in a wider range of cadences this means you can adapt to changes in gradient and surfaces more smoothly. You can accelerate efficiently to get back onto a group or attack over the top of a climb. This ability to pedal effectively in a range of gears could be called your ‘cadence range’ and relates to your ‘speed skill’, which you might only associate with high cadence drills like spinups or ‘fast-pedal’ but is also your coordination to pedal faster or slower to vary your output.
Basically, the goal is to shift less and vary cadence. If you can pedal comfortably and effectively between 75 and 95 rpm then you are well set up to work in a variety of situations. If you can spin even higher then you are ready to attack and surge and keep power up on downhills.
What if you could pedal away at your sweet spot or threshold wattage and be comfortable at 80-90 rpm? Or an even wider range? Think about being on the trail where you might have a few seconds at 75 rpm and then a more gradual section at 110 rpm, and being able to keep your power consistent and perform fewer gear shifts.
HOW TO PRACTICE THIS:
The first step is to bring awareness and acceptance to being stuck between gears. See if you can work with the gear you are in when this happens vs. jumping around. When riding endurance you can force this discomfort by purposefully riding one gear easier or harder for periods of time during your ride. More scientifically you can set interval or ride goals for average cadence aiming ~5rpm higher or lower.
Including spinups and other coordination drills in your rides will help you become more comfortable with higher cadences as well and riding fixed gear and single speeds will force you to make use of the gear you are in. These are likely the most effective way to expand cadence range since you have no options! You can certainly do rides or ‘intervals’ where you just don’t shift–select a decent gear for the terrain and then make it work for a period of time by varying your cadence and/or effort.
Molly Says: As a masher, I prefer to stay at a steady 60-65RPM at all times, so this is a place where I know I could make major improvements! Learning to be comfortable at a higher RPM to avoid constantly jamming gears up and down to adjust to upcoming terrain is a huge deal. Actually, the best I ever was at being able to do this was a season I spent racing singlespeed cyclocross, because the time on that bike with only one gear option available to me taught me a ton about how to pedal more efficiently. It’s a great way to trick yourself into learning this skill!)