How To Shift Your Bike Gears The Right Way

How To Shift Your Bike Gears The Right Way Mountain Biking Guide Technique

Bike Drivetrain

As I have quickly learned there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to shift your gears. Proper shifting can lead to a more efficient and enjoyable ride, and can also greatly help to lengthen the lifespan of your drive train.

Proper shifting is an essential skill to any bike riding discipline. Read on to learn the ups and downs of shifting your bikes gears.

Gears – What The Heck Are They?

The modern bicycle usually has a front chainring group, with anywhere from 1 to 3 chainrings. These start with the smallest ring closest to the bike, and the largest ring farthest out. The picture to the left has only 2 chainrings, making it a 2x (2 by) system.

Front Deraileur

Shifting gears on the front chainring is done by typically using the left hand shift lever on your handlebars. The lever will move a mechanical guide called a derailleur that will move the chain between the different rings.

The rear gears work in much the same way. The shift lever for the rear gears is usually on the right hand side of the handle bar.

Rear derailleur

Moving the chain up and down the cassette (the group of sprockets at the back of the bike) is done with the rear derailleur (the upside down L shaped piece in the picture).

This derailleur is a little more complex than the front one. It not only has a few more sprockets to move up and down, but it also holds tension on the chain, adjusting the size based on what sprocket it is on both up front and in the rear. It does this using a complex system of springs and pulleys (called fly wheels).

For both the front and rear shifters there are many ways to adjust tension and range. This will make your shifting crisper and easier, as well as make it easier for the chain to stay on your gears.

 Finding Your Cadence

Moving to the “lower” gear (the ring closest to the center of the bike) will make the pedaling easier, while moving to the “higher” gear (the ring farthest away from the center of the bike) will make it harder to push the pedals.

Changing your gears depending on your terrain and speed is very important to keep your cycling cadence. Your cadence is when you are moving at the ideal speed to pedal resistance ratio. You want to be putting out the most power you can sustain efficiently. The gear you need to find your perfect cadence will depend on a bunch of variables like terrain, slope of the road or trail, wind speed and direction and your own physical conditioning.

High Versus Low Gear

High gears will put more resistance on the pedals. This is great for high speed, but is not ideal when going slower. You will be working much harder to pedal, which is not an ideal cadence.

Low gears put much less resistance when pedaling. This is great when you are climbing hills, making it easier to slowly but steadily climb those steep ascents. But if you stay in a lower gear on a descent, you will almost definitely “spin out” when you get to the bottom, or gain any speed. Spinning out happens when there is not enough resistance on the pedals for the speed you are going.

Finding the right gear is very important for keeping up a consistent speed and control on the bike.

How to Shift

One of the biggest tips I have learned is to stop pedaling hard to shift. It sounds a little wrong at first but if you think about it, it makes sense. The shifting system is a very intricate set of mechanical parts and if you try shifting it while putting a large load on it, it will wear your system out earlier than it should.

Instead lightly take pressure off your pedal stroke, while still pedaling forward. Your chain can only move sideways while it is moving forward. Change your gear, then steadily apply pressure on the pedals to move the chain, which will shift the chain up or down.

Cross ChainingOne of the other no-no’s is to cross-chain your gears. This happens when you have it on the most extreme inside and outside gears front to back respectively.

Try to keep the chain in a gear that does not put it at a major slant.

When To Shift

The first couple of pedal strokes when starting are always a little hard. You are taking something from standing still to moving. When you get going it is best to have the bike in a lower gear, making it easier to spin the pedals to get some momentum. As you pick up speed you will want to gear up to higher gears.

When you are coming to a stop gear the bike down to a lower gear making it easier to start up again after you stop.

When climbing a hill start in a higher gear and gear lower as your cadence starts to stall, gradually making it easier to push the pedals. You may need to keep it at a gear that is in the middle to get out of your seat and push hard over obstacles or tougher spots on the hills.


The Cheat Sheet

For: Uphills
Use: Small or middle front chainring + bigger rear cogs

For: Downhills
Use: Large front chainring + a range of rear cogs

For: Flat terrain
Use: Small or middle front chainring + ­smaller rear cogs

Hopefully this information will be useful. I know that this is something I am always thinking about and working on. Always try to keep your gears maintained and clean, and it will make changing them that much easier!


3 thoughts on “How To Shift Your Bike Gears The Right Way

  1. This is a great post, I actually hate riding a bike because a. I dont find it comfortable and b. because I never know when to shift! Now that B is taken care of, I can take care of A and I will be back on my bike 😀

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