Look Pro, Part IV: Don’t Look Down

Shifting is perhaps the most pure expression of our art as Velominati. It is the conduit through which we control our cadence; it effects our power, our breathing, our heart rate. When those essential things come together with the rhythm of the road, we are cast in the spell of La Volupte. The more in-tune with our bodies we become, the more we rely on our shifting to keep our legs in perfect harmony with our bodies. Our shifts must be smooth, crisp, and precise, for any disruption to the rhythm may cause the spell to be broken.

The advent of index-shifting and contoured cogs have simplified the mechanics of the perfect shift, but they have not eliminated the artform. A finely-tuned drivetrain is essential, but is only one piece of the whole. Timing is critical: the shift must be delivered at the precise moment in the stroke when the chain is perfectly loaded to jump silently from one cog to the next. Shifting under too much pressure or at the wrong point can result in delayed, noisy, or rough shifts, disrupting our rhythm and ripping us from La Volupte.

We do not mediate on the shift and we do not look down at our gears; the shift is something we must feel. We must not be overly cerebral – instead, we read the signals from our body and the machine and sense the time to shift and react.  Over time, we also learn to sense when we are approaching the limits of the block and execute the double-shift to avoid crossing the chain. We do not look down.

These subtleties cannot be taught; they are artifacts of experience – evidence that the disciple has become one with the machine.

Disclaimer: The “Don’t Look Down” principle does not apply to Lando situations where we repeatedly push the right shifter while pedaling squares up some unholy gradient in the stubborn refusal to accept that we are indeed already in the lowest gear. Under these circumstances, it doesn’t hurt to give the gears a stern look in an effort to intimidate them into spawning a few more teeth on those biggest cogs.

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93 Replies to “Look Pro, Part IV: Don’t Look Down”

  1. Index shifting has indeed made things easier, though yeah – there’s still a bit of technique involved to make it perfect. I’ve been riding long enough to start with friction downtube shifters, then onto indexed bar ends shifters, then finally STI. There’s no going back.

    Yeah – I’ve pushed the STI lever searching for the imaginary lower gear while suffering up a climb as well. I think we’ve all been there at some point.

    Cool post.

  2. It is an art, on my old Rayleigh, i still had downtube shifters and i could feel god like as you shift up to drop down a hill without looking, not so godlike when mashing the smallest gear i had which was summat stupid like a 42 x 11

    i’ve still not got this art down, upon shifting down on my new machine, the crunch caused one of the club riders to exclaim “Jesus Christ, was it you who taught schleck to change gear?!”

  3. Downtube shifters feel a long time distant. I’ll never forget my first race bike. A pearlescent white, Peugeot running 24″ wheels with a 3spd derailleur (also my first). Perpetually in the big ring and always pedalling, it seemed immeasurably more sporty than any of the bikes I’d had before. Taught me not only the art of the unsighted shift but the casual reach and return for the waterbottle, eyes focussed, unflinchingly on the road ahead.

  4. “Disclaimer: The “Don’t Look Down” principle does not apply to Lando situations where we repeatedly push the right shifter while pedaling squares up some unholy gradient in the stubborn refusal to accept that we are indeed already in the lowest gear. Under these circumstances, it doesn’t hurt to give the gears a stern look in an effort to intimidate them into spawning a few more teeth on those biggest cogs.”

    Ay! Many’s the time I wish I had a 12 or 13 on the back…

  5. Sam :
    It is an art, on my old Rayleigh, i still had downtube shifters and i could feel god like as you shift up to drop down a hill without looking, not so godlike when mashing the smallest gear i had which was summat stupid like a 42 x 11
    i’ve still not got this art down, upon shifting down on my new machine, the crunch caused one of the club riders to exclaim “Jesus Christ, was it you who taught schleck to change gear?!”

    I was wondering how many posts would happen before the notorious Chaingate incident would come up! I would have had to mention it if you didn’t!

  6. Nice article.

    Back when I was a very green road cyclist, maybe so early on in my development that I wasn’t even a nascent Velominati, I used to rarely shift. My form was awful. I’d push the same big gear all the time, standing too much, letting my tempo jump around all over the place. I’d either be flying on flats or dying on hills. Oh boy, I was uninformed.

    One day I rode with a guy twice my age and way, way stronger (and smarter) than me. He’d been riding for years and still raced. I showed up at a group ride and he was the only other one to show. “You want to head out?” I was in for a long day. We put in about fifty miles, which was a lot for me at that time. He was on a De Rosa that I couldn’t stop staring at. I’d never ridden any Campagnolo and wondered what was going on with all the clicking; the sound was quite foreign to me. Plus, the guy shifted constantly, maintaining a nice, smooth rhythm.

    I remember as we crested one hill and I heard my very first double shift. “What was that?” I wondered.

    Spent most of my time on integrated shifters, which make the art much easier. DT shifters require a lot more skill.

    Can’t help but laugh at myself when I think back to how I used to ride and shift. Oh wow. I suppose we all start somewhere.

    This is the first time I’ve run into “Lando,” but I like it a lot. Nothing like the feeling of wondering how you are going to make it to the top of the climb, watching your cassette and wishing for a bigger one, wishing for a bit more leverage to keep going.

  7. And the photo is great. The Badger was pretty damn stocky for a cyclist. Almost looks like he could have been a wrestler. Love that face on the guy on the far right in the sweater. Wonder what he was going on about…

    Overshifting sucks. I don’t drop my chain very often, but it pisses me off a lot when I do, whether it’s my fault manually or my fault for not having a properly tuned RD. Either way, it’s my fault.

  8. Good article. It however doesn’t touch on the fact that looking down to determine where your chain is at can be dangerous when moving along at a good clip. I’ve seen people in group rides get yelled at for that.

    Steampunk:
    Ay! Many’s the time I wish I had a 12 or 13 on the back…

    For some reason, your “ay”, combined with watching some classic ST on the TV yesterday had me thinking “Aye laddie, I’m givin’ it awl she’s ghot

  9. I have downtube shifters on my rain bike; it always takes a couple of rides in the fall before I re-train myself in their use. Ah, the smooth double shift; the holy grail of downtube shifters. I don’t bother attempting it anymore because, well, I have to look down…

  10. The article on the double shift was one of the first I read on Velominati and it still thrills.

    My problem is staying aware of what gear I’m in, especially if I’m going faster than normal. I’ve started to become aware of the sound of the chain as it goes into various cogs.

  11. I knew it…looking at the Badgers quad is actually an ‘upside down V’…makes perfect sense now!

    Great article Frank!
    the art of the shift, is definitely just as you say…a feel. And having had so many STi/indexed shifting bikes, and now going back to one the last couple of years, its a blast. I just imagine what it must have been like back in the day racing on these. And having seen those races, they actually did race differently, climbed different and were badass’s.

  12. Hinault was my first idol. Even though I was built like him, I was never anything like him. The man was pure fire.

    I remember getting his autograph at the 1986 Coor’s Classic. He was sitting on the hood of his team car and his legs had so many veins popping out it looked like somebody wrapped them in spaghetti and then covered them in skin-colored plastic wrap. He might have been “stocky” but damn was he fit.

  13. @ David – Oh yeah, didn’t mean “stocky” as a slight in any way at all, just that he was definitely not built like a little skinny climber.

  14. Nicely described frank.

    Like others have mentioned above, I too am old enough to remember the downtube shifters. I can’t really recall how bad I must have initially been, going from a single speed dragster with a back pedal brake, onto a “racing bike” as they were known back in the day.
    What I do recall was the luxury of suddenly having more than 1 gear, 5 in fact. As a teenager, I was unaware of how to shift correctly nor did I have the benefit of having a cycling sensei at my disposal. Either use the big one on the back and small one on the front to go up hill slowly , or vice versa to go down as fast as possible. The 3 in-between were a bonus.
    It wasn’t until I returned to the bunch in my late 20’s that I began to grasp what it was to become one with the machine. I was able to ride with cyclists who knew what they were doing & freely offered positive advice.
    Now heading towards my late 40’s, your words above describe the sensation that I have achieved. An “art” is the best descriptive one could use for this.

    Also, having the Lando experience on too many hills brings a smile to the dial. I now have the V decal on the top tube to look down on. That brings everything back into perspective. I forget about finding the missing cog and just push that bit harder. Who needs a bigger cog when you have the V to inspire?

  15. @RideFit

    I remember as a junior trying to perfect the knee-downtube-friction-shifter move. It was the OG of dual control levers.

    I could do that on index shifting – I was riding Shimano 105 and they had a good, solid click – solid enough that you could knock it and it would just go one click. Man, I loved that! Get out of the saddle, sprint – dive forward with the hip and knee, knock the shifter and the person you’re sprinting against is shocked that somehow you got another gear!

  16. @David, @Ron
    There was an interesting conversation about the physique of riders in the early days, and how they’ve changed these days. Looking at both Fignon and The Badger, you see they’re both about the same build…they were not true climbing specialists, but they were great climbers, but their built like today’s sprinters. Quite an evolution.

    @Souleur

    I knew it…looking at the Badgers quad is actually an ‘upside down V’…makes perfect sense now!

    The man simply embodied The V. Total asshole, but hard as fucking nails.

  17. @Geoffrey Grosenbach

    I’ve started to become aware of the sound of the chain as it goes into various cogs.

    Yeah, the chain makes a different when it’s bent (getting close to crossing) but you can also feel the increase in friction. Look for the signs, never down!

  18. frank:
    @David, @Ron
    There was an interesting conversation about the physique of riders in the early days, and how they’ve changed these days. Looking at both Fignon and The Badger, you see they’re both about the same build…they were not true climbing specialists, but they were great climbers, but their built like today’s sprinters. Quite an evolution.

    Kelly, too. I’m rarely one to be wistful for a bygone era (and I’m an historian!), but I do miss the all-rounders like the Badger, le Professeur and so on. They were as much a threat in spring and fall as they were in the summer. What’s not to like about Gilbert””the closest recall of that style today?

    frank:
    @Steampunk

    Ay! Many’s the time I wish I had a 12 or 13 on the back…

    hahah! Nice one!

    What? I was deadly serious.

  19. Another great write-up Frank! Maybe it’s wrong of me, but I love it when you manage the perfect shift at just the right moment and begin pulling away only to hear the rider behind you fumble through a shift while his drivetrain screams out in agony… The angel on my shoulder tells me to slow down and wait for the poor bastard but the devil in my legs just tells me to do it again!

  20. Steampunk :

    frank:@David, @RonThere was an interesting conversation about the physique of riders in the early days, and how they’ve changed these days. Looking at both Fignon and The Badger, you see they’re both about the same build…they were not true climbing specialists, but they were great climbers, but their built like today’s sprinters. Quite an evolution.

    Kelly, too. I’m rarely one to be wistful for a bygone era (and I’m an historian!), but I do miss the all-rounders like the Badger, le Professeur and so on. They were as much a threat in spring and fall as they were in the summer. What’s not to like about Gilbert””the closest recall of that style today?

    frank:@Steampunk

    Ay! Many’s the time I wish I had a 12 or 13 on the back…

    hahah! Nice one!

    What? I was deadly serious.

    I read a great quote on another site about the physique of modern riders… a bit harsh but pretty on point IMO. “Old school climbers were big, strong men… built more like modern sprinters than climbers. Modern climbers… let’s be honest, they’re built more like teenage girls than anything resembling a dominant male athlete.”

    Good call on Gilbert, Fabian & Phillipe are tops on my list of riders today… with Boonen & Hushovd coming up just behind and the Younger Grimpeur rounding out the top five… Now that I think about it, Andy & Vince Nibbles are the only ‘climbers’ to even crack my top ten.

  21. mcsqueak :
    Good article. It however doesn’t touch on the fact that looking down to determine where your chain is at can be dangerous when moving along at a good clip.

    Well, yes. I spent several hours this morning at A&E getting my left shoulder x-rayed and being told by a slightly exasperated doctor that I’d buggered my AC joint and been lucky not to break my clavicle and so, no, it wasn’t OK for me to “just ride the wind trainer for the next few days”. And all because it was 6am, the road was wide and deserted, and so I looked down to investigate the BB noise … and looked up just in time to see the kerb smack my front wheel and feel myself smack the pavement. Am thinking of changing my name to Noddy, and putting a big sticker (I don’t derserve a decal) on my bars reading “Don’t look down, Noddy. Not fucking ever.”

  22. @Steampunk

    They were as much a threat in spring and fall as they were in the summer. What’s not to like about Gilbert””the closest recall of that style today?

    I’d say that hands-down, Marianne Vos is the closest to a true all-rounder. In old-school style, she’s active from Spring through Fall, with a season of ‘Cross thrown in…not to mention dominating the track. RESPECT.

  23. @Leroy

    The angel on my shoulder tells me to slow down and wait for the poor bastard but the devil in my legs just tells me to do it again!

    HA! The Devil in My Legs! Gonna have to chuck that in the Lexi. Fantastic.

  24. It’s not an upside down V when The Badger is looking at it. Just like our very own V-kit’s rules on the thigh. Only difference is, ours needs to be printed on, his was real.

  25. @frank
    Yeah, in sling and a bit of pain but more wonded pride than anything else. Certainly a lot better than those poor people in Christchurch, NZ, which just got smacked by a(nother) huge quake. Hope all ChCh-based Velominati and their families are safe and sound.

  26. @G’phant

    Man that sucks! Investigating violations of the PoS has gotten me into trouble more than once.

    Thoughts and prayers to South Island Velominati. Ruaumoko must be pissed off. Be safe.

    PS had the pleasure of 75km, 4k climbing today, solo with this article under the belt. Lando’ed once, looked down to trim the fd a couple of times, and executed a perfect double shift under full steam. I would’ve smiled but the wasps had other ideas.

    Delenda est Alberto

  27. G’phant:

    mcsqueak :
    Good article. It however doesn’t touch on the fact that looking down to determine where your chain is at can be dangerous when moving along at a good clip.

    Well, yes. I spent several hours this morning at A&E getting my left shoulder x-rayed and being told by a slightly exasperated doctor that I’d buggered my AC joint and been lucky not to break my clavicle and so, no, it wasn’t OK for me to “just ride the wind trainer for the next few days”. And all because it was 6am, the road was wide and deserted, and so I looked down to investigate the BB noise … and looked up just in time to see the kerb smack my front wheel and feel myself smack the pavement. Am thinking of changing my name to Noddy, and putting a big sticker (I don’t derserve a decal) on my bars reading “Don’t look down, Noddy. Not fucking ever.”

    Sorry to hear that, G’phant. Heal fast.

  28. @G’phant – Ouch. Hope you are healing up. Don’t worry about wounded pride! We’ve all done things on a bike we regret. Sometimes it just happens. I’m sure that moment after you looked up and saw the kerb was a damn scary one. Just enough time to realize you are buggered.

    I broke a clavicle playing football when I was younger, hoping I don’t do it on the bike. Though not anywhere near the sport of cycling, I think my initiation is transferable on this one.

    Jeez, another quake in NZ. Not good.

  29. @G’phant
    Trust your healing well and I would bet all have done similar at one time or another – I was just lucky and did not get hurt but the bike was a mess.

    Very much second your thoughts on our Christchurch brethren, hoping that the folks from there we know on these pages are safe.

  30. @G’phant
    Sorry to hear that mate. I prescribe large doses of your favourite sparkling, amber, rehydration beverage. Though it always seems to work better as a preventative medicine, I’m sure there must be healing properties also….

  31. Have our Kiwis checked in yet (it’s morning in Texas)? I thought about y’all as soon as I heard the news from Christchurch. Good luck, and God bless.

  32. One of the things that I miss about non-indexed shifting is the beauty of the “overshift”. When one is truly in sync with their machine they knew the precise amount of overshift needed to have the chain jump smoothly up to the next cog as you deftly push the shift lever back a little to have the chain and derailleur fall into precise noise free alignment.

    If there is one thing that drives me nuts is sitting in a paceline behind some yahoo that has some front derailleur rub going on or when they have attempted a shift and don’t realize that things are going awry on the cogset and they are making all kinds of noise back there.

  33. Thanks, all, for your thoughts re the shoulder and, far more importantly, the folk in Christchurch.

  34. @all

    All good here in Wellington (although I can’t help but wonder if and when our oft-predicted ‘Big One’ could hit). Although not directly affected it’s funny how these events have a way of connecting you to them; I had an earthquake refugee staying at my place last night, unable to get a flight back at almost the exact time the quake hit. My flatmate’s friend’s partner was in Wellington for an interview, his partner and 8 day old baby back in ChCh. Both are safe, the new bub slept through it, but narrowly avoided a falling TV and cabinet that landed next to her crib. Understandably he was anxious to get a flight out this morning.

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