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Bike 101: Anatomy of a Bike

June 27, 2010

When I first started biking on a regular basis again (after a long post childhood-bike-riding hiatus), I really didn’t know much in terms of bike components, bike names, or bike lingo. I started riding again because my husband was cycling on a regular basis and was always encouraging me to give it a try. I knew, however, that this had turned into a full blown addiction when I started referring to writers of other bike blogs by their first names and doodling caricatures of me riding a bike in the corner of my notebooks. That’s when I decided that I was committed enough to this activity to start educating myself a bit about the ins and outs of cycling.

I’m still a relative novice to the bike word and I am still trying to learn as I go. But in an effort to expand on that quest, I thought I’d start a Bike 101 series focusing on bike mechanics, bike how-tos, and any other bike technicalities possibly useful to other novices like myself. And for those of you more than fluent in bike lingo – please, help a cyclist out and pitch in with your thoughtful comments.

Today, I’m starting with the obvious: bike anatomy. Interestingly, when googling that term, all of the images to pop up are of mountain bikes…

(image source)

While many of the terms are pretty self-explanatory (spokes, seat, handlebars, chain, etc), some I had never uttered before. Derailleurs, rear sprockets, cranks…what?! So here’s a breakdown of some of those items in layman terms…

Derailleurs – this is the transmission system on a bike, consisting of multiple sprockets of various sizes (see below) and a chain. Bikes have a front derailleur (smaller) and a rear derailleur (larger), each with various sprockets from which the chain can be rotated. The number of sprockets depends on the number of gear speeds a bike has. On mountain bikes, the derailleurs tend to be visible and easily accessible for maintenance work, while many Dutch bikes and urban bikes have internal hub derailleurs, which are more hidden from the elements and more difficult to access. Part of the derailleur is the mechanism that changes the chain from one sprocket to another resulting in a gear change. My cruiser bike is a single speed bike and so it only has one sprocket in the front, one sprocket in the rear, and a chain turning along both of those.

( Above: External derailleur)

(Above: Derailleur system with an internal gear hub)

Sprockets – these are the metal discs with ‘teeth’ on them on which the chain is hooked. More sprockets means more gear ratio options.

Cranks – just like the name implies, this is a piece you’re cranking with your feet to set the gears in motion. The cranks are the (usually) steel rods attached to the derailleur system on one end and to a pedal on the other end. It is what allows your legs to set the bike in motion.

(For a complete and more in-depth list of bicycle parts and their definition, I’ve found this page to be very useful.)

As I already noted, all the images resulting from my search on the ‘anatomy of a bike’ were of mountain bikes. While these were still extremely useful, they often omitted some of the items I was looking for without always knowing what they were called. Since I was in the market for a daily commuter bike, I wanted to be able to wear my regular (professional) clothes and ride my bike. On a city bike, you usually have these additional components often missing on a mountain bike…

The above Dutch bike has these additional features: fenders (prevent splashing); a skirt guard (the large plate covering a portion of the rear wheel so that you clothes don’t get caught in the spokes);
a chain guard (the metal covering of the dereilleurs and chain to prevent pant legs from getting caught or dirtied with chain oil); rear and front lights (mandatory in certain areas for visibility at night); a bell (to announce you’re approaching); a rear rack (for transport); and a kickstand (for easy parking).

So those are the basics I’ve found useful when ‘talking shop’. As I continue to learn about bike mechanics, I’m sure that my understanding will extend to more minute components of bike structure, but for now, this is what I’ve found to be a good introduction. This post also doesn’t address the geometries of various types of bikes (cruisers, Dutch bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, etc), but that will be a topic for another day.

I would love to hear from anyone wanting to add to this list. What are terms or parts you’ve found extremely useful to identify and label? And how are you going about teaching yourself about your bike? S.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 15:15

    Nice one. I always had problems to find translations for these terms to English. Makes it easier to just see pictures and explanations!

  2. June 27, 2010 17:02

    What a well timed post. I’m about to head out to look at bikes and as a complete neophyte to the bike world this was incredibly useful.

  3. mooie fietsen permalink
    June 28, 2010 06:44

    Youtube also has some videos of bike anatomy, like this one I found after a quick search:

    While I’ve known bike anatomy for years, I haven’t done anything with that knowledge. My next step is to learn basic bike maintenance instead of depending on my husband to do it. I’ve also been spoiled by living in Holland where there’s almost always a bike shop within walking distance of whereever one may be (definitely not the case when I move to Houston) and the guys there can fix most problems in just a few minutes. Are you planning on maintaining your bike yourself, S.?

  4. June 28, 2010 12:12

    Thanks for the Youtube link, Mooie Fietsen!

    Yes, I definitely plan on maintaining my bike and would like to learn more about bike care and maintenance. My plan will be to document that for the blog as well, since I tend to learn so much better when I’m forced to then restate something to pass the info. along to someone else. These would be part of Bike 101 posts I’d like to maken happen down the road.


  5. kateohkatie permalink
    June 28, 2010 17:29

    I love this post! I’m still very much feeling my way around the whole cycling thing, and I appreciate how bikes seem so much more approachable and understandable than, say, cars.

  6. Blume permalink
    June 28, 2010 21:10

    One thing to note: where you have a freewheel on an old bike (late 80s or earlier), on more contemporary bikes you have a cassette. You can read about the difference between the two (as well as, oh, just about everything else having to do with bikes) at the Sheldon Brown site.

  7. June 29, 2010 00:47

    Blume – thanks foe the tip! I had heard of ‘cassettes’ and wasn’t entirely sure about that term either.


  8. June 30, 2010 18:22

    S, this is so helpful. Thanks!

  9. Bosh Dorgan permalink
    September 17, 2013 00:38

    I think “bottom bracket” is a good bike anatomy part to add to your chart.

  10. Angel Luzana Jr permalink
    February 9, 2014 10:40

    front derailleur is larger n bigger than rear derailleur.

  11. May 16, 2014 21:11

    I’m still a relative novice to the bike word and I am still trying to learn as I go. But in an effort to expand on that quest, I thought I’d start a Bike 101 series focusing on bike mechanics, bike how-tos, and any other bike technicalities possibly useful to other novices like myself. And for those of you more than fluent in bike lingo – please, help a cyclist out and pitch in with your thoughtful comments.

  12. September 28, 2014 09:47

    Hey! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform
    are you using for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because
    I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options
    for another platform. I would be awesome if you could
    point me in the direction of a good platform.


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