Picking Your Teeth: How to Choose a Gear that’s Right for You

If you don’t know how to make your bike pedal easier or harder, or aren’t quite sure what “44-16” means, it’s time you learned. This month we’re going to give you some of the basics on gearing and how some of the different sizes affect the way your bike feels. By the time you’re done here, you’re going to know how to get better starts, how to get more power down the straights, and how to prepare for poor track conditions, all by changing your gear.

Let’s start with your sprocket and freewheel. Most 20″ bikes come with the standard 44-16 gearing. This means the sprocket has 44 teeth on it and the freewheel has 16. Not sure what your bike has? Pop the chain off and count. Once you figure out what gear you’re running, you can do a lot to change the way your bike feels when you’re pedaling. If you want to make drastic changes to the way it rides, change the freewheel. Going from a 16-tooth freewheel to a 17-tooth freewheel is going to make your bike a lot easier to pedal. It works just the opposite if you take away a tooth. Go from a 16 to a 15 and your bike’s going to be a lot harder to pedal. The rule is that for every tooth you add or take away on the freewheel, it has the equivalent feel of a 2-1/2-teeth change on the front. For example, a 44-16 is almost the same as a 42-15, a 40-14 or a 46-17.

Here’s where it can get a little confusing. We said earlier that if you go from a 16- tooth freewheel to a 15-tooth freewheel it will make the bike harder to pedal. The opposite is true for the front sprocket; the smaller the front sprocket, the easier it is to pedal. Going from a 44-tooth sprocket to a 42-tooth sprocket will have you spinning like crazy.

So what does all this mean on the track? If you’re getting smoked out of the gate and can’t seem to get a good start, consider going down a tooth or two in the front. Your bike will accelerate quicker and your second pedal will come around faster. Remember, though, that it’s a trade off; you may get better gates, but you will lose some of that top-end power and spin-out faster. If you’re getting good gates but people are passing you on the straights, consider running a slightly taller gear up front. You will have to work harder to get out of the gate, but you won’t spin-out as fast. It all depends on where your strengths and weaknesses are. Do you want to get out first and try to hold off the comp? A smaller gear is the way to go. Or, do you want to pull people on the straights and out-power them? A bigger gear up front will do the trick.

The type of track you ride may also influence what gear you want to run. Let’s say it’s a tight, indoor track and the dirt is a little wet. You may want to drop down a tooth on the front so that the bike is easier to pedal and accelerates faster out of the turns. If there’s a lot of stopping and going, an easy gear is what you want. If you’re racing on a track that’s downhill, fast, and wide open, consider going up a tooth in the front; you won’t accelerate as fast, but when you hit that fourth or fifth pedal, you’ll still have more to go before you spin out.

If you decide to change your gear, remember that you may need to add or remove a link from your chain if you want to keep your wheel in the same place in the dropouts. Adding a tooth up front will pull the wheel forward in the dropout, while taking a tooth off will force you to move the wheel back to take the slack out of the chain. It sounds like a lot of work, but if you want your bike to feel as good as possible on the track, it’s worth it.

Finding the right gear can help with bad starts, weak straights or lame track conditions. You’re going to need a few different size sprockets if you want to be ready for anything the NBL, ABA, or Mother Nature throws at you. Most people tend to stick with a 16 in the back and just change the sprocket up front when conditions call for it. Try and experiment with a couple of different combos before settling for the “standard” 44-16. Buying another freewheel or a couple of different gears may sound expensive, but once you find the right one, it will be worth it.

Reading Gear Charts

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to compare different gear ratios, a gear chart is a great thing to have. Not only will it save you a ton of money in freewheels and sprockets, but it’s an easy thing to carry around. You can tape it to the inside of your toolbox for quick reference at the track. If you look up 44 on the front sprocket and 16 on the freewheel, you get 53.7, which measures the distance you would travel with one rotation of the crank arms in inches. Let’s say you want to find something close, but you don’t have a 44 or a 16. All you have to do is search the chart for the number closest to 53.7 and you’ve got your new gear. In this case it could either be a 41-15, which measures in at 53.3 (a little easier to pedal) or a 47-17, which measures in at 53.8 (a little harder to pedal). Both are going to be close. Just remember that there are different gear charts out there for different size wheels, so make sure the one you’re looking at is for your size rim.