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How to Shift A Bike


All you experienced riders should probably surf on over to one of our other pages here, this article is for new riders or folks new to multi-speed bikes.

Shifting a multi speed bike, especially a "10 speed" (which these days are far more likely to be 21 speeds) becomes so natural in short order that it's hard to remember back when it was new and challenging. Often the mystique of the derailleur gets in the way of learning this simple task. (Derailleur is a snobby French word that means simply "Derailer", as in knocking something off the rails, in this case a chain is knocked off of gears. In this article we use the plain old English spelling to keep it simple.)

First time out, gears can be intimidating. Especially if mechanical gizmos do not weigh heavily in your background. And Bike gears are gizmos in every sense of the word.

I'm going to talk about gears as "hard" or "easy" instead of "big" or "small".

This is because "Big Gears" means different things, depending on where the gear is. A Big Gear in in back (at the rear wheel) is an easier gear. A Big Gear in front (at the pedals) is a harder gear.

If you drifted off to sleep in the 6th grade when the science teacher discussed mechanical advantage, this will seem inconsistent to you. Fear not, we will make is simple by using "easy" and "hard".

A hard gear is difficult to pedal, but you go farther and faster with every turn of the crank.

An easy gear is, well, easier to pedal, but you go slow, and each turn of the cranks only moves the bike a little ways.

The big mistake for those new to multi-gear bikes is using too hard a gear.  It's bad for the knees.

If your knees are sore after an hours ride, you have selected too hard a gear.

Getting Started

To make understanding the gearing easier, we will start out by leaving the front gears out of the picture. We will cover them later.

If you have three gears in front, select the middle one till your legs get use to riding and your strength builds, and (last but not least) till you get used to shifting. If only two, select the smaller.  The big front gear is for strong riders, down hills, and tail winds.  The big gear can also get you in some sever cross-chaining situations (explained below) which you want to avoid while learning how to shift.

So how do you "select"? Use the shifter controls on the handle bars.

The LEFT hand shift lever controls the front shifting mechanism (Derailer), and the right hand controls the rear. That's true for brakes too if you have hand brakes. (Note: this is written from the North American perspective, things are the opposite way around in Britain).

Silly word game to help you remember which is which: Your Gears are RIGHT BEHIND you.

Now some shifters have numbers on them, and when they do the lower numbers usually mean easier gears. Bigger numbers mean harder gears. (I say usually here, because different brands have different markings, and some have no markings at all. This is not a very well standardized area of bicycle technology).

Some are twist to shift, others use levers to shift. There also some shifters that use a sort of push-button arrangement. See photos. But they all work better when you pedal as you shift. Shifting without pedaling is hard on the bike and doesn't work well. Sometimes it doesn't work at all, so always pedal while shifting.

To get our front shifter in the middle gear before we start our familiarization rides (or any other time you find you need to shift without moving), lift the back tire by lifting the seat, pedal with one foot while standing on the other (straddle the bike), and move the shift lever (the left one in this case) until the chain jumps to the middle gear (or the smaller one if there are only two).

Practice Practice

Now that we have the front shifter in a medium hard gear, we will leave it there and concentrate our learning on the back shifter, because that's the one you will use most often in everyday riding.

So the next step is go out and ride on a flat road. It's best to do this where there is no traffic so you can concentrate on how the bike feels in each gear.  Empty parking lots are another good place to practice.

Experiment with the right (rear) shifter.

Ride around practicing shifting. Shift into each gear in turn.

Note that shifting one click in one direction makes pedaling easier. One shift in the opposite direction makes it harder.

When it's easy, you go slower. Your feet go faster.

When it's harder you go faster. Your feet go slower.

Make a mental note of which way you need to turn the twist-shift or push the lever (whichever) to make it easier to pedal. Make one of those silly rhymes to remember it till it becomes natural.

You want this to become so automatic that if you find yourself fighting the wind, or going up a hill you can move quickly to an easier gear without having to think about it.

Find a gear that is comfortable. Don't be afraid to practice shifting for no reason at all, just to see if another gear feels better.

For the mechanically inquisitive

You can also peek between your knees at the rear shifter, and you will notice that when it's easy to pedal, and you are going slower, you will be using the larger cogs. Note: rear gears are often called cogs. Don't ask!?.

When using the smaller cogs, it's harder, but every turn of the pedal moves you farther, and faster.

But don't get too involved in watching your gear, just watch the road, and use the position of the shifter to know which gear you're in. With most levers you can always tell by feel which gear you are in, but with twist grips you have to look at the numbers or peek down between your knees.

When to shift

The next big hint is shift to an easier gear BEFORE you stop. This makes it easier to get going again.

Switch to an easier gear before you get to a big hill.

You want to try to form a habit of shifting before you really need to because some bikes don't like to shift when you are really stomping the pedals trying to climb. There is too much stress on the chain to allow smooth shifting in this situation.

Practice till it's second nature. Shift often. Shift early. Don't wait till it's too hard to pedal.

Another mistake beginners make is to shift several gears at a time. This is really hard on the chain and gears, and in some cases can jam your Derailer, leaving you stranded.

Always shift one gear at a time, either to a harder or easier gear. Evaluate that gear for a few pedal revolutions after shifting into it, and if it is still not to your liking, shift again.

When to use the Front Shifter

If you have reached the end of your gears (already on the largest gear in the back when climbing, or the smallest when descending a hill, then it's time to switch the front gears.

Sometimes, when you will be riding against the wind for an extended period or climbing for a long time, you can shift to an easier front gear ahead of time and then use the back gear shift for adjustments. In other words, you can use the front shifter sort of a "range" selector, depending on general conditions, and the rear shifter as fine-tuning.

You move the left shift lever or twist grip to switch to the next front gear. Note: front gears are called chain rings.

Now for the frustrating part: Shifting the front gears often requires the opposite movement of the lever or twist-grip than you would use when shifting the rear gears.

Why? Well the mechanisms on each handle bar are often mirror images of each other, so it works out that way. Most shifters are designed to pull the cable when moving from a smaller gear to a larger gear, and the small cogs are in the opposite position (further out) than are the small chain rings (further in). But the real reason is a certain in-elegance and minimalist approach to the design of bike shifters.

Hey, you get used to it.

Further, you will remember above we pointed out that when you are in the big gear in back it was easier to pedal. Well, guess what? That's different for the front gears too. The big gear in front is HARDER to pedal.

This inconsistency is due to the laws of physics and mechanical advantage. There is not much you can do about it, so get used to it. This is the reason we recommend new users get used to shifting just the back gears at first.

(And if the truth were known, a bike with a single non-shiftable front chain ring and 6 or 8 gears in the back is really all most people need for running around town. (Except very hilly towns).

You will find that front shifters are usually more finicky than rear shifters and you may have to do some fiddling after the shift actually occurs to get it to run smoothly without making a grating sound when you pedal. This is called "cleaning your shift", and it can do a lot to prevent undue wear on your chain and Derailer.

Speaking of wear, there is another situation you should avoid. Using Big-Big or Small-Small gear combinations causes excessive gear and chain wear.  This is called cross-chaining.

When you use the big chain ring in front and the biggest cog in the rear you chain has to run a slightly diagonal course. You can see this when looking down on the chain between your legs while pedaling. The same is true of using the smallest chain ring and the smallest cog.

Occasional cross-chaining is OK, but if you find you are using a big-big combination for extended periods, get in the habit of shifting to the middle chain ring in front and shifting to the next to the largest cog in the rear. (A double shift). This gear combination often presents an almost equivalent gearing (same level of difficulty), but is easier on the bike. Your chain and chain rings will last longer.

Important Note: Chains, and to a lesser extent chain rings, are CONSUMABLES on a bike. They get worn down over time just like tires. They are expected to be replaced periodically. Depending on your riding conditions, a chain may last as little as 2000 miles, or as long as 20000. But they all wear out eventually. Ask your bike shop to check it for you. 

You can check your own chain with a simple 1 foot ruler. Put one end of the ruler over the center of one of the chain pins and the other end should center on a pin 12 links down the chain. If there is more than an 1/8th inch of misalignment over a foot of chain it means your chain pins have become worn and sloppy, and it's time to replace the chain. Failing to do so will wear your gears, and then you get to replace more expensive parts, and your shifting will tend to jump gears.

Older bikes

No "Click Shifting" on your bike? No problem!  Just move the shift lever in an increment sufficient to cause the bike to shift one gear at a time. Try NOT to do this as a smooth slow shift, but small quick movements. Without click shifting, it often helps to over shift just a bit (move the lever farther than is necessary to get it to jump to the next gear) and then move the lever back just a bit till the chain quiets down.  

Avoiding chain noise is the key to proper lever positioning.  If the chain is quiet you are properly in the gear.  If noisy, adjust it a little till it gets quiet.

With practice, you will know by feel just how much to move the lever.

The Pause that Refreshes

Shifting always seems to work best if you let up on the pedals for just an instant (not even half a second). You don't have to stop pedaling (indeed, you should always pedal while shifting), just don't push as hard when you shift. When you are doing it right, it feels like a slight pause in your pedaling.  This reduces the stress on the chain, and allows it to jump to the new gear easier.  

Pedaling speed

The best pedaling cadence is a little faster than initially feels comfortable. Push your self to pedal faster. The easiest way it to select a gear that is one easier than you really capable of pushing.

Pedal Faster, Not harder. That causes your feet to go around faster to achieve the same speed down the road. You can do this all day. Using too hard a gear is tiring, it will wear you out in no time.  Pedaling faster gets to be second nature after a while.

Some will quote you specific numbers of pedal revolutions per minute for which you should strive.  I too have my opinion about this, but NOT for someone just starting out on a multi-speed bike.  Just pedal a little faster than initially seems comfortable.  If you thighs hurt, raise your seat. If your knees hurt select an easier gear.

Another important technique is try to pedal in circles rather than stomping the pedals down.  If you have clipless-pedals or toe-clips, you can try to pull up on the pedal with your foot as the pedal is coming up.  You can't usually really pull up, but by trying to do so will help yourself learn to pedal in circles.  This is less fatiguing and brings more muscles into play to spread the work.

Bobbing for effort

You've probably seen people bobbing back and forth as they ride. They are "lumbering" along pushing too hard, and if you sneak up behind them (easy to do because they are sloooooow) you will see they are using the small cogs in the rear. They should shift to an easier (larger) gear and spin the cranks faster. It's easier, they won't bob, and they will go faster. And they won't get tired so soon.

Note: The bobbing back and forth does not help one bit. It just wastes energy and makes you look silly.

The Zen of the Road

Now for a great truth of bicycling.... (drum roll please...)

The road and the wind dictate the speed.

Humans can produce relatively low power at a steady rate for a long time. Hours. All day!  Or they can produce much more power for a shorter period. (Maximum effort can only be produced for a very short period - seldom more than a few minutes).

The body is really designed for a constant level of effort.

The bike is designed to allow you to trade pedal revolutions for distance over the ground.

But the rate of exchange in this bargain is not fixed. The gear shift sets the rate of exchange.

Up hill, you shift to an easier gear, and use more pedal revolutions to gain a given distance, at a slower rate. Down hill, you use a harder gear to gain the speed.

The key is: Your feet move at a relatively constant speed.

They were designed for that (as in walking). You produce about the same level of power all the time; up hill, down hill, into the wind, or running before the wind. You tend produce the same power over the long haul.

What allows you to get up that hill with the same level of effort as riding the flats? Time. It takes more time.

Trade time (and pedal revolutions) for distance and speed in a constantly re-negotiated bargain with the road and the wind. The shifter is your bargaining chip.

Be satisfied with your level of effort rather than insisting on a specific speed.

As you get stronger, the speed you actually travel will be faster but your level of effort will seem the same. It never gets easier. The speed you settle for today will seem slow in just a month or two or riding as your strength builds.

If you work too hard in the beginning you may get discouraged, so shift to an easier gear and give your legs time to get stronger.





John Andersen


Thank you for your article on "How to Shift". I have just bought a new bike, the first I've owned for 45 years, and found myself totally confused by the 18 speed gearing. 

My manual says very little useful about this and thus my first ride was rather an ordeal. 

Thanks for making this whole subject so accessible to somebody who is taking up cycling again at the age of 61. 

 Julie, Queensland Australia.


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