Beginner’s Guide to Shifting Your Bike
Introduction to Bicycle Gears
Ever since bicycles came with more than one sprocket on the front and back, they were usually referred to as the number of gear combinations that were offered. For example, a road bike with two chainrings up front and a five-speed freewheel on the back was a “10 speed,” since the five rear sprockets could be matched with either of the two front chainrings. (2×5=10, it’s just simple math.) Most road bikes now come with two front chainrings and 11 rear sprockets – essentially a “22 speed.”
But once you learn more about gearing, you’ll see that that is actually a confusing way to describe things. So to start things off, let’s get the terminology straightened out:
The front sprockets that are attached to the crankarm are called chainrings. If you have two chainrings (a big ring and a little ring,) that setup is called a “double.” If you have three chainrings (big, middle, and little,) you have a “triple” chainring setup. Triples are more commonly seen on mountain bikes.
The gear cluster on the rear wheel is either a free wheel or a cassette. If your bike has five gears on the back, it probably has a free wheel. If your bike has nine to eleven gears on the back, it has a cassette. Each ring on the cassette is referred to as a cog. (The difference between a freewheel and a cassette makes no difference in this article, so don’t worry about that.)
Discover How the Shifters and Derailleurs Work
Having gears won’t do you a bit of good without understanding how the shifting works, so here’s a look at that…
Shifting starts at the shift levers, which are usually located on the handlebar beside the grips. When you move one of the shift levers, a cable pulls or releases one of the derailleurs which move the chain from one gear to another. In typical setups, the left shifter is matched to the front derailleur (so it shifts between the chainrings.) For the front chainrings, bigger chainrings equal a harder gear. The right shifter is matched to the rear derailleur (which shifts between the cogs on the cassette.)When it comes to the cassette, bigger cogs equal an easier gear.
Let’s not forget the derailleurs…
Front Derailleur Rear Derailleur
What happens when you shift is the derailleur cage (which the chain runs through) will move to either side. Let’s say you shifted the front shifter to an easier gear. The front derailleur will move to the left, thereby “derailing” the chain onto the smaller chainring. As long as the derailleurs are adjusted properly, they will do their job just like that, and you can concentrate on shifting!
Basic Fundamentals of Gear Selection
Now you know the basics of shifters and derailleurs, so let’s move on to choosing which gears to use.
The most important thing here is that there is no such thing as the “right” gear. Choosing a gear depends on numerous factors, not the least of which is comfort. Really, gearing is personal preference, so you and your friends will probably ride in different gears, even if you are going the same speed on the same road.
However, one thing to consider is your cadence. Cadence is another word for your pedaling speed (basically, how fast your legs spin in circles.) This is measured in RPM, or “revolutions per minute.”
Cadence is important because it directly impacts your comfort level. Pedaling at a slow cadence usually means you are using too hard of a gear, and your leg muscles will tire out quickly. It can also hurt your knees. A good rule of thumb is to keep your cadence fairly high, usually in the range of 75-90 RPM.
But aside from comfort and cadence, the middle of your gear range is a good starting point. Say you’re starting out on a flat road at an easy to moderate pace. You should be in your small or middle chain ring up front, and roughly your fourth largest cog (5) in the rear.
To make small adjustments to your speed, you will want to shift the rear derailleur. If you need to go a little faster, shift to a smaller cog (6, 7, 8 ,9 ,10, or 11.) If you want to ease up on the pace, shift to a bigger cog (1, 2, 3 or 4.) But if you come to a steep hill climb, or a long downhill, you will want to make a big jump in your gearing. So instead of shifting the rear derailleur, you’ll shift the front derailleur first.
An Example of Proper Shifting
Here is an example of how you might shift gears while out on a bike ride. At the start, you are currently in the middle or small ring and one of the middle cogs. Then…let’s say you’re coming up to a steep hill climb. You will shift to the small chainring (1) up front. If that gear isn’t easy enough, then you will shift the rear derailleur to a big cog (1, 2, 3, or 4.)
Once you hit the top of the hill and the road flattens, you can go ahead and shift the rear derailleur back to a slightly smaller cog, getting to number 4 or 5. Then it’s time to shift the front derailleur back to the middle ring, if you have a triple. If the road remains flat, you could stay in that gear or shift the rear derailleur once again, going to 6 or even 7.
But then when you hit the downhill, you need a big change in gears, so you’ll shift the front derailleur up to the big ring (3.) That should give you a good gear. If you need a harder gear though, you can shift the rear derailleur to the smallest cogs, 8 or 9 on a fitness bike, or 10 or 11 on a road bike.
As the road changes, keep repeating the process. Just remember: Shifting the left shifter makes a big impact, and shifting the right shifter is to fine tune your gear selection. You will shift the right shifter (for the rear derailleur) much more often than the left shifter.
What to Watch Out For
If you followed along through that gradual shifting process, you might have noticed we only ran through about 12 different gear combinations, when the bike actually offers 22 or 24. Why?
Well, your “22 or 24 speed” bike isn’t meant to use all the gears. Certain gear combinations are very rough and sometimes dangerous.
See, you need to keep your chain running in a straight line for the bike to ride smoothly. You do that by using certain combinations of gears and avoiding others. For example, when you are in the small chainring, you will want to use the biggest four cogs. When you are in the middle chainring, you can use most of the cogs, but I would stick to the biggest six cogs. When you are in the big chainring, you should stick with the smallest cogs. This will keep your chain in a fairly straight line.
“Cross Chained” Straight Chain Line
If you use extreme gear combinations, such as the small ring and the smallest cog or the big ring and the biggest cog, that’s called cross chaining. This puts the chain at too much of an angle, which makes the chain wear out extra fast. (You’ll usually hear some sort of grinding noise coming from the chain if you do this.) It also makes it more likely that the chain will fall off the bike.
When to Shift (A Few More Pointers)
To shift smoothly and easily and keep a constant, comfortable cadence, you want to anticipate your shifts. It’s just like the example above. If you are approaching a steep hill climb, you want to shift down to an easier gear before you need to. The steeper the hill, the more gears you will want to shift down.
If you wait until you can barely turn the pedals before shifting down, you’ll have a heck of a painful time trying to climb the hill! Likewise, if you are going downhill, gradually shift up as you gain more speed. Don’t wait until your legs are spinning around like crazy!
Another thing to anticipate is starting up after you come to a stop. If you are riding in a big gear, you will want to shift down as you slow down and come to a stop. If you stop while you’re still in a big gear, it will be very hard to get started again! But if you anticipate that and shift to a low gear before stopping, you will be able to start easily.
Proper Shifting Technique
There is more to shifting than just twisting some levers. Shifting requires precise coordination between your hands and feet; the better you coordinate your movements, the smoother your shifts will be.
The basic principle here is that you have to be pedaling for the bike to shift. The chain needs to be moving forward for the derailleurs to do their job, so always pedal when shifting. But there is a little trick to it. You need to be pedaling lightly and softly for the bike to shift smoothly. It’s called “soft pedaling.”
If you are pedaling too forcefully, your leg power will override the derailleurs and there will be no shifting, just grinding noises! (Think about it, your legs are big and muscular, and the derailleurs and chain are just little pieces of metal.)
So here’s how to shift:
As you move the shifter with your hand, simultaneously ease up on your pedaling for one stroke. You should hear and feel the shift complete smoothly. Then you can resume pedaling with full force. Don’t worry, you only ease up for a second, so you won’t lose speed just from soft pedaling.
That’s all there is to it. Most people we see that have trouble shifting simply need to try soft pedaling. It is a common misconception that you need to pedal hard and fast to get a shift to complete. Proper shifting actually calls for the opposite approach! Just get out there and practice!