Imagine this: you’re cycling along a scenic route downhill, feeling the bike take in energy and pick up speed.
Approaching a steep incline, you instinctively reach for the bike’s gears, knowing what to shift to to accommodate climbing a hill. But if you’re a beginner, you might be wondering how to shift gears on a bike.
Not just in terms of the physical act of gear shifting on a bicycle, but why you should do it, when you should do it, and how to fully understand the mechanics of gear shifting on a bike.
Shifting gears is a fundamental skill, and I, for one, have been guilty of bad habits during my greener biking years.
However, I later came to fully understand the cornerstones of shifting gears effectively on a bike, which contribute to great cycling performance. Knowing how to shift gears on a bike effectively is one of the single most important things when riding.
In this article, we’ll discuss the mechanics and components of shifting gears on a bike, and why doing it effectively will enhance your cycling experience, in this order:
- Why Do I Need To Shift Gears?
- What Is Involved In Gear Shifting On A Bike?
- How To Shift Gears On A Bike
- 5 Top Tips for Shifting Gears on a Bike Like a Pro
Ready to find out how to shift gears on a bike?
Let’s get started!
Why Do I Need To Shift Gears?
Shifting gears involves moving the bike’s derailleurs, which in turn move the chain between different “cogs” in the drivetrain.
In this sense of the word, a “gear” can be best defined as the position of the chain in a single configuration, over the front and the rear cogs. In other words, if a bike has two chainrings at the front and 11 cassette sprockets at the rear, then you have 22 gears in total.
Each gear can be uniquely defined by its gear ratio, which is the number of teeth in the chainring at the front divided by the number of teeth in the sprocket at the back.
The gear ratio affects how easy or difficult it is to turn the pedals, and in turn how far each turn of the pedals will propel you.
Low Gear Ratios = Easy for Climbing
Low gear ratios make it easy to turn the pedals, but each rotation of the pedals won’t move you very far.
For example, if you were using a gear with the chain on a 34-tooth chainring and a 34-tooth cassette sprocket at the rear, you would have a gear ratio of 1.
This means for each rotation of the pedals, the rear wheel will complete one full rotation too.
This would be considered a very low gear, making it easy to climb steep hills.
High gear ratios = fast on flats/descents
Conversely, high gear ratios make it difficult to turn the pedals, but each rotation will move you a long way forward.
For example, in a gear that consists of a 53-tooth chainring at the front and an 11-tooth sprocket at the back, this ratio is 4.82. This means that for every time the pedals are rotated one revolution, the rear wheel will turn 4.82 times.
This is a high gear, and will allow you to travel at high speeds on flat sections or descents, but will be extremely difficult to turn on a climb.
The bottom line is: gears play a crucial role in maximizing the efficiency of your pedaling!
- Want to know more? Check out our article Ultimate Guide To Bike Gear Ratios (With Bike Gear Ratio Calculator) here!
When you come up to a hill, it’s smart to “downshift” – which we’ll discuss further along in this article.
You need to shift your gears to reduce the gear ratio, to make pedaling easier.
This means that you’ll conquer the hill more easily, with less fatigue in your legs. That’s why we shift gears in this instance since this is the ultimate goal!
On the other hand, when approaching a downhill, you can upshift so that your gear ratio increases and each pedal rotation results in more rotations of the wheel.
It may appear a rudimentary, simple thing to do, but mastering gear selection and efficient shifting is a skill that can always be refined.
The mechanical purpose of shifting gears is to maximize energy transfer from your muscles to your bike’s output, via pedaling. When selecting a gear, you are essentially deciding upon the effort output for each pedal stroke.
Optimal gear selection and shifting not only improve your speed, control, and momentum but will boost your comfort and endurance, regardless of your chosen discipline.
The Components Involved in Shifting Gears
Shifting gears is your direct interaction with the bike’s mechanics, so it’s good to know the ins and outs of what exactly is happening.
To understand this, we need to look at the components involved, and how they engage with each other.
The chainrings are the front set of gear cogs.
They’re directly connected to the pedals via the crank arms, and the whole unit together is referred to as the “crankset” (or “chainset”).
The larger the chainring, the higher the gear ratio will be, and the harder it will be to pedal.
Bikes often have more than one chainring, allowing you to shift between them to change the gear ratio.
A crankset with only one chainring is referred to as a “1x” (pronounced “one-by”) crankset or drivetrain.
A crankset with two chainrings is referred to as either a “double” or “2x” crankset.
A crankset with three chainrings is referred to as either a “triple” or “3x” crankset.
The cassette is the cluster of sprockets attached to the rear wheel.
Smaller sprockets will provide a higher gear ratio, making it harder to pedal, whereas large sprockets will provide a lower gear ratio, making it easier to pedal.
Cassettes typically have anywhere between five and twelve sprockets, which the rider can shift between to affect the gear ratio.
The chain connects the chainrings to the cassette, making the rear wheel turn when you press on the pedals.
Different gears can be selected by shifting the chain between different chainrings or cassette sprockets.
Derailleurs are the components that physically move the chain from one cog to another.
In other words, they’re the part that actually shifts the gear.
The front derailleur shifts the chain between different chainrings, while the rear derailleur shifts the chain between different cassette sprockets.
Bikes with a single chainring will not be equipped with a front derailleur, as there are no other chainrings for the chain to be moved between.
- Want to know more? Check out The Bike Derailleur Explained: Everything You Need To Know here!
Shifters are the components that the rider uses to control the derailleurs, allowing them to shift gears.
Traditionally these were a pair of levers located on the bike’s down tube, but on modern bikes they’re usually located on the handlebars.
Older designs used friction-shifting, where the position of the lever manually controls the position of the derailleur, but most modern designs use indexed shifting, using buttons or paddles to click the derailleur between pre-defined positions for each gear.
Shifters can take many different forms, from the “brifters” seen on road bikes (pictured above), to trigger-style and twist-grip mountain bike shifters, to old-school friction shifters, and more.
How To Shift Gears on a Bike
To shift gears on a bike, the rider presses the shifter, which moves the derailleur to shift the chain onto a different cog, altering the gear ratio.
However, this is the most basic definition of how to shift gears on a bike possible, and there’s a lot more to it than that.
Let’s look in a bit more detail.
Left-hand Shifter = The Crankset
The left-hand shifter (most of the time) is responsible for shifting the chain on the front chainrings, allowing you to make significant gear changes and adjust the pedal effort.
Shifting gears on the chainrings will make a much more dramatic difference than shifting on the cassette, as the intervals between cog sizes are much larger.
Think of it this way: you can shift between the chainrings to get in roughly the right gear ratio for the terrain, and then use the cassette sprockets to fine-tune it.
To make pedaling considerably easier, shift the chain to the smallest front chainring, particularly useful when climbing hills.
If you wish to increase the pedaling difficulty, move the chain to the largest front chainring, which aids in controlling speed while going downhill, for instance.
Right-hand Shifter = The Cassette
On the other hand, the right-hand shifter is (usually) responsible for moving the chain on the back cassette, enabling finer adjustments for finding the perfect gear choice.
Shifting the chain to the larger cogs in the rear will gradually make pedaling easier, ideal for climbing.
Shifting to the smaller cogs in the rear progressively increases the pedaling difficulty, beneficial for descending.
Ultimately, the best approach is to embark on rides and experiment until you develop muscle memory, becoming familiar with which shifters to use in various situations and terrains.
5 Tops Tips for Shifting Gears on a Bike Like a Pro
Once you have the basics of shifting gears nailed, it’s then about maintaining good habits.
To enhance the efficiency of your shifting, follow these tips on how to shift gears on a bike efficiently:
#1: Adjust shifters on the handlebars
Firstly, make sure your hands comfortably sit on the shifters. Most gear shifters can be adjusted to accommodate your hand size and riding style.
Figure out where your hands naturally rest comfortably on the handlebars and then rotate your shifters accordingly.
#2: Anticipate the terrain
Generally, you should be shifting gears in advance of whatever terrain you’re about to attack.
For example, shift gears just before you begin climbing a hill rather than halfway up, when you’re feeling the burn.
You could overcomplicate the climb if you do it during, and results in more leg fatigue, and it could add stress to the bike’s drivetrain and wear it down.
#3: Pedal while shifting
Remember to rotate the pedals while shifting gears. Your bike won’t shift if you’re not actively pedaling.
I know it sounds obvious, but early on in my cycling career I’d slow down for a corner at the end of a downhill stretch, downshift whilst I was coasting, and then fumble the turn as the bike seized and lurched once I hit the pedals again!
#4: Shift Gradually
We’d also recommend avoiding changing between massively contrasting gears while riding at speed or with a lot of pressure through the pedals. This might cause the chain to skip or even come off completely.
When possible, smoother is usually better!
This is less of a concern when you’re going downhill, when there’s more flexibility to shift rapidly with light pressure on the pedals.
In order to make shifting easier, it’s best to refrain from simultaneously working both the left and right shifters. This will help reduce potential stress on your bike.
Keep in mind the front chainrings are for significant changes, and the rear cogs are for fine-tuning.
A no-brainer, make sure that your cables between the shifters and derailleurs are properly tensioned, and make sure the remainder of the drivetrain components are clean and well-lubricated.
Now you know how to shift gears on a bike, you can increase your cycling performance and maximize your efficiency!