Along with your brakes, shifting your gears is one of the fundamental mechanical functions of your bike. Learning how to shift may seem basic, but gearing practice and shifting efficiently is something that even veteran riders can work on. Proper gearing will not only improve your speed, it will also make the ride more comfortable and increase your endurance on longer rides.
What Does it all Mean?!
One of the most difficult things about learning how to shift is the terminology. Low/High, Big/Small, Easy/Hard, Fast/Slow, Front/Rear, One-by, Two-by, Three-by… if your head is spinning already, you may want to brush up on the following vocab words:
Low Gear = Easy = Good for Climbing: The “low” gear on your bike is the smallest chain ring in the front and the largest cog on your cassette (rear gears). In this position, the pedaling will be the easiest and you’ll be able to pedal uphill with the smallest amount of resistance. To get into this position, it is called “downshifting”.
High Gear = Hard = Good for Descending: The “highest” gear on your bike is the largest chain ring in the front and the smallest cog on your cassette (rear gears). In this position, the pedaling will be the hardest and you’ll be able to accelerate while traveling downhill. To get to this position, it is called “upshifting”.
___-Speed Bike: When you were a kid, you probably bragged about the number of “speeds” your bike had to your friends. Whether it was 7, 18, 21-speed, etc., what you were referring to is the number of gears you had on your bike. You could determine this number by multiplying the number of cogs in your cassette (rear gears) by the number of chain rings (front gears) your bike has. For example, if your bike has two chain rings and 11 cogs in the cassette, then you have a 21-speed bike. However, higher-end adult bikes are rarely referred to in this way in the modern bicycle industry because, basically, more doesn’t always mean better. More on that below!
One, Two, Three-by: The amount of chain rings (front gears) on your bike determines if your drivetrain (the system of gears) is referred to as a “one-by” “two-by” or “three-by”. The current trend in the bicycle industry is to strive to produce the same range of gears using less chain rings. The result is a larger cassette (rear gears) that has more cogs and often more teeth on the largest cog in the cassette. Why? Because, generally, having less chain rings makes the bike more efficient, lighter weight and easier to operate and adjust. This is the reason you will often see one-by drivetrains on high-end mountain bikes and two-by drivetrains on the high-end road bikes.
How to Shift: the Basics
So, now that you have a basic understanding of what those gears are called, how do you shift? Depending on the type of bike you have your shifters may look a little different. On road bikes (or any bike with drop handlebars), your shifters are the same levers you use to apply your brakes. To operate the shifters you push the lever sideways until you hear a click. For most mountain and hybrid stylebikes with flat bars, you shift the gears by using set paddles that you operate with your thumb. Some bikes operate with “grip shifters”, or a dial that is located to the inside of where you place your hands. For these systems, you change gears by rotating the dial forward and back.
Your shifters are connected to a cable encased in a protective housing. As you click through the gears, the cable is tightening and loosening, applying more or less force on the derailleur that moves your chain up and down on the cassette or chain rings. Below we will explain what each lever does:
Left hand: Controls the front gears/front derailleur by moving the chain up and down the chain rings. These levers cause big jumps in gears for sudden changes in terrain.
Right hand: Controls the rear gears/rear derailleur by moving the chain up and down the cassette. These levers are for small adjustments to your gearing to use during slight changes in terrain.
Big lever*: The larger of the two shifter levers will move the chain into larger rings. So, big=big. Shifting into the larger rings with your RIGHT hand will make the pedaling EASIER. Shifting into the larger gears with your LEFT hand will make it HARDER.
Small lever*: The smaller of the two shifter levers will move the chain into smaller rings. So, small=small. Shifting into smaller rings with your RIGHT hand will make the pedaling HARDER. Shifting into the smaller gears with your LEFT hand will make the pedaling EASIER.
*Don’t have a big/small lever? You may have a SRAM road drivetrain that uses the “double tap” system. This means there is a smaller lever tucked behind the larger brake lever and you can move it in only one direction. A long push (with two clicks) will move the chain into a larger, easier gear in the rear (right hand) and a larger, harder gear in the front (left hand). A short push (with one click) will move the chain into a smaller, harder gear in the rear (right hand) and a smaller, easier gear in the front (left hand).
You may also have grip shift. This means you will have a dial that you twist forward and back to shift the gears. Twisting the dial forward will move the chain into a smaller, harder gear in the rear (right hand) and a smaller, easier gear in the front (left hand). Twisting the dial back will move the chain into a larger, easier gear in the rear (right hand) and a larger, harder gear in the front (left hand).
Cross chaining is a term that refers to the being in one of the following gear combinations:
BIG/BIG: The largest cog in the cassette (easiest gear) and the largest chain ring (hardest gear)
SMALL/SMALL: The smallest cog in the cassette (hardest gear) and the smallest chain ring (easiest gear)
In these positions, the chain is stretched at an angle that can cause damage to the drivetrain over time. Additionally, the chain could slip or cause the front derailleur to make noise and not work properly.
Using the Trim Feature
Some road bikes will come equipped with a front derailleur that has a “trim” feature. The trim allows you to make small adjustments to the front derailleur that will eliminate chain rub, but not cause a full shift into another chain ring. This feature comes in handy as approach the “cross chaining” positions mentioned above.
So, if you are in the largest chain ring and begin to shift into the larger cogs on the cassette with your right hand you may start to hear a grinding noise that indicates your chain is rubbing against the front derailleur. You can click the small lever with your left hand once to move the front derailleur slightly and accommodate this chain position. Similarly, if you are in the smallest chain ring and begin to shift into smaller cogs on the cassette and start to notice a grinding noise, you can move the derailleur slightly by clicking once on the larger lever with your left hand.
Effective and Efficient Shifting Techniques
Ok, here is the most important thing to remember while riding any bike: THERE IS NO PERFECT GEAR! SHIFT!
So often, we see people putting too much power into their pedals as they climb up a steep hill in the big chain ring or legs flailing as they spin out on a gear that is too easy for the descent they are riding. Your goal while riding should be to keep a cadence (the speed at which your pedals make a full rotation) that as consistent as possible! To do that, it requires one of two things: shifting or increased power output. The thing about power output is, unless you are wonder woman, you have a limited supply. We suggest shifting often for increased efficiency while riding.
Pro Tip: Begin to shift into easier gears with your right hand early to keep a steady cadence. Remember, your right hand is for small changes in the terrain. If you find that your pedaling pace is slowing drastically, you will likely need to use the front derailleur (your left hand) to make the gearing much easier for the big climb ahead. But, if you are already climbing up the hill and putting a ton of power down on the pedals, you might notice your front derailleur doesn’t want to work! You will shift, hear a grinding noise but nothing will happen and you will likely come to a stop in the middle of the hill.
Instead of grinding those gears, you will need to put a little more power into your pedal stroke right before you shift then, lighten up on your pedal stroke as you shift. With less pressure on your chain, your derailleur will have an easier time popping your chain off the big ring and into a smaller one!