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