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5 Tips: Shifting Gears

Many modern bicycles come with 21 speeds, or 24, 27, or even 30 speeds. The novice cyclist shopping for a bike often thinks "I wouldn't know what to do with all of those gears!" Learning to use and take advantage of the multiple speeds on your bicycle doesn't have to be an intimidating process, however. If you get the hang of a few basic principles and tricks, and with some practice, you'll be shifting like an expert in no time!

These 5 Tips will help you understand the whys and how of shifting your bicycle:

1. Why so many gears?

7-speed trigger shifterAn automobile engine has multiple gears to enable it to operate as efficiently as possible at different speeds over many types of terrain. Likewise, your bicycle has multiple gears so that its engine (i.e. your legs) can be as efficient as possible.

Changing gears on your bikes make the pedals seem easier or harder to turn. There's no "ideal" gear that works all the time, because the right gear at any given moment depends on how fast you're going, whether you're riding on flat ground or going uphill or downhill, the wind, and your fitness level.

If you're pedaling in too easy of a gear, then your legs will get too tired from just spinning and "going nowhere fast." If you're pedaling in too hard of a gear, most of your effort will go into just turning the pedals without making the bike go very fast at all (not to mention the risk of injuring your knees).

Your goal is to shift gears as often as necessary while you're riding to maintain a nice, comfortable pedal stroke. The rate of pedaling is referred to as cadence, and is measured in RPM (revolutions per minute). Most experts say that an ideal cadence is anywhere from 80 to 90 RPM. Think of that as about 1-1/2 complete pedal strokes per second.

Regardless of how many total gears your bike has, when you're riding on flat to gently rolling terrain, you'll usually use only the middle range of gears. If you come to a steep uphill, you'll probably need to use the lowest gears. If you're going down a hill and want to keep putting more effort into going faster, you'll use the highest gears in your range.

2. Working with the front and rear gear combinations

Crank arms with triple chainringsMost bikes have one or two gears attached to the pedals; these are referred to as chainrings. Your left-hand shifter controls making the chain move from one chainring to another. The smaller chainrings are on the inside (closer to the bike frame), and correspond to easier pedaling, while the larger chainrings are on the outside, and correspond to harder pedaling.

9-speed rear cog clusterYour rear wheel has a collection of gears, or cogs, attached to it. Most modern bikes have 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11 cogs on the rear wheel. Your right-hand shifter controls making the chain move from one cog to another. The relation of the size of the cog to the ease of pedaling is the opposite of what it is for chainrings; i.e. the larger cogs correspond to easier pedaling, and the smaller cogs correspond to harder pedaling.

Think of your chainrings as BIG changes in how easy or hard it is to pedal, and the rear cogs as SMALL changes. Thus, you'll shift the front chainrings much less often compared to the rear cogs. When you're cruising along on flat or gently-rolling ground, you'll spend most of your time in the middle or largest chainring, while shifting the rear cogs as frequently as needed to account for small changes in the terrain. If you come upon an uphill section of road or trail, you'll switch to the smallest chainring to get the very easy-to-pedal gear to help you spin up the hill.

3. Not all gear combinations are usable

On three-chainring setups, when you're using the middle chainring, you can use the full range of cogs, from the largest to the smallest. However, when you're in the smallest (easiest) chainring, you want to avoid shifting into the smallest (hardest) cog. Likewise, when you're in the largest (hardest) chainring, you want to avoid shifting into the smallest (easiest) cog. These situations are called cross-chaining, and you want to avoid them for two reasons. First, your chain will likely rub on the front derailer. Second, the extreme angle of the chain will cause premature wear and tear on your chain and gears.

This video provides a visual explanation of this principle:

4. Pedal slightly easier while shifting

While you are shifting gears, you must keep pedaling in order for the chain to move from one gear to the next. When you're in a particular gear and pedaling, the chain is pulling on the teeth of that gear. But, for the split second that the chain is moving from one gear to another, the chain is pulling on nothing, or, you might say, it's just pullin on air. So, you don't want to be pedaling with full force while you're shifting, especially if you're pedaling uphill.

It may sound difficult or counter-intuitive at first, but you have to ease up on pedaling ever so slightly while you shift, while still keeping a nice, smooth pedal stroke. With a little practice, it will become second nature. This will help keep your chain from "slipping" while you shift, and from falling completely off your gears.

For this same reason, don't shift both the front (left-hand) and rear (right-hand) gears at the same time! If the chain is only pulling on air on both the front and rear, that increases the likelihood even more of the chain slipping and potentially doing serious damage to your bike.

5. Don't worry about the numbers

Twist-grip shifter with 1 through 8 gear indicator numbersSome shifters are labeled with the gear numbers (e.g. 1-2-3 on the left, 1 through 8 on the right) to make it easier for you to tell what gear combination you're currently using. However, try not to get too hung up on the actual numbers; that will only make things more complicated than they need to be.

Have you ever heard this: "Okay, I'm in gear 2 on the left, and in gear 4 on the right, and I have a total of 8 on the right, so that means I'm in gear number 12." Trust us, NOBODY who's an experienced rider or racer thinks about gears in this way. Who likes doing arithmetic, even standing still, let alone when you're trying to enjoy a bike ride?

You should let your shifting be dictated by how you FEEL, not by what number you think you should be in. Your thought process should be something simple, like, "It's too hard to pedal; I should shift into an easier gear." Or, "I'm pedaling way too fast; I should shift into a harder gear."

Related Articles

5 Tips: Climbing Hills
From Bicycling Magazine: The Basics of Bike Shifting

This article was published on September 13, 2013.

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