When Should You Shift Gears on a Bike?

Former bike racer Quentin Deby shares his expert advice on understanding when to shift gears while cycling

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Cycling is more than just hopping on a bike and pedaling away; it’s a dance of mechanics, physics, and human effort, all harmonizing to create a simpler ride. At the heart of your performance lies understanding when to shift gears on a bike.

Navigating the intricacies of gear shifting is not only crucial for optimal performance, but also for the longevity of your bike’s drivetrain.

As an experienced bike racer, the details that help you work out when to shift gears are second nature – but for newer cyclists, I want to share that experience to help you get the most out of your biking.

Understanding when to shift gears is a relationship between cadence, speed, and terrain. Get ready to elevate your cycling experience by mastering these factors!

Let’s dive in!

A cyclist shifts gears on a bike against a pink background.

How To Shift Gears When Starting and Stopping

Before coming to a complete stop on the bike, anticipate and shift gears down.

This preparation ensures that when you’re ready to get moving again, your bike is already in a lower gear that allows for smooth, quick, and energy-conscious starts.

Think of it as setting your car in first gear at a red light, ready to zoom the moment it turns green.

When To Shift Gears While Biking Uphill

Ah, the love-hate relationship cyclists have with hills! But with the right approach, hills can be less daunting. As you approach an ascent:

  1. Anticipate: Before the steep section begins, a proactive transition prepares you for the higher resistance of the climb.
  2. Maintain cadence: As you climb, if you notice your pedaling slowing down significantly, it’s a sign to switch to a more agreeable gear.
  3. Stand or sit: Some riders prefer to stand when climbing, while others stay seated. Standing can give further power but can also tire you out faster. If you stand, you might need to shift gears to match the extra force you’re applying.

Using Your Bike’s Gears On Descents

Zooming downhill can be thrilling, but it’s essential to be in charge of your bicycle. As you begin your descent:

  1. Shift to a harder gear: Shift gears up to ensure that your pedal strokes connect with the bike’s momentum and you’re not just spinning aimlessly. Aside from helping you ride faster, resistance on the pedals helps maintain control of the bike.
  2. Feather the brakes: Controlled braking, where you gently, progressively squeeze the brakes rather than slamming them suddenly, keeps your speed in check without risking a skid.
  3. Stay aware: Keep an eye out for turns, obstacles, or changes to the road surface. Your choices should adapt to these conditions to maintain control.
I demonstrate when to shift gears on flat terrain.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

When To Shift Gear on Flat or Mixed Terrain

Level terrains are where you can really find your rhythm. Your goal on a flat is to maintain a steady cadence:

  1. Find your sweet spot: The right gear for you is where you feel you’re pedaling at a consistent, comfortable rate, and your speed is optimal. It might take a few shifts to find it, but once you do, it’s all about cruising.
  2. Adjust for changes: Even on consistent terrains, there might be subtle changes – slight inclines, wind shifts, or varying road surfaces. Be ready to shift gears up or down to maintain your comfort.
  3. Listen to your body: If you feel fatigue or strain, move to a less stressful gear. Your body’s feedback is always the best indicator of at which point to shift gears.

The Importance of Cadence In Gear Shifting

Cadence refers to the number of revolutions your pedals make in a minute. Essentially, it’s your pedaling speed. Now, you might wonder, “Why is cadence such a big deal for gear shifting?”

Well, your cadence affects not only how efficiently you ride but also your stamina and muscle health.

The Relationship Between Cadence and Gears

Here’s where the interplay between your bicycle transmission and your cadence becomes clear. The gear you’re in will directly influence your cadence.

Select too hard a gear, and your cadence will drop because it’s tough to pedal. Select too easy a gear, and your feet will spin quickly, wasting energy without much forward movement.

Striking the right balance ensures that you maintain a cadence that’s productive and comfortable for you.

A cyclist on a road bike rides uphill while shifting gears.

The Optimal Cadence Range To Aim For When Shifting Gears

Most seasoned cyclists will tell you that the perfect cadence usually lies between 70 and 100 revolutions per minute (rpm). Within this range, many riders find a sweet spot where they feel most efficient, be it 75 rpm for some or 90 rpm for others.

Beginners tend to naturally ride at a much lower cadence than that, so it might take some getting used to if you want to increase your cadence to that range.

But why is this range considered optimal?

At this cadence, your body uses a mix of aerobic and anaerobic energy, optimizing endurance and muscle engagement.

Cadence’s Effect on Performance and Fatigue

Maintaining an efficient cadence has a direct impact on your overall cycling performance. A consistent, optimal cadence ensures your muscles are being used effectively, reducing early fatigue.

If your cadence is too low, it places undue stress on your joints and tires out your muscles quickly.

During Stage 10 of the 2023 Tour de France, Georg Zimmermann faced a challenging final sprint against Pello Bilbao after a successful breakaway.

Zimmermann’s use of a harder gear contributed to his loss, as it resulted in a lower cadence, slower acceleration, and reduced ability to respond to Bilbao’s sudden change in pace.

Conversely, a too-high cadence can tire you out aerobically without giving you adequate speed or power.

By understanding and monitoring your cadence, you can adjust to ensure that your energy is used in the best way possible.

Graphic of a cyclist climbing uphill on a white road back on a yellow background.

4 Top Tips To Gear Shift Like A Professional

1. Anticipate Changes in Terrain

Awareness is key in cycling. Being tuned in to the road or trail ahead allows you to prepare for shifts in terrain. For instance, if you see a hill looming in the distance, you can start downshifting before you begin your ascent.

By the time the slope starts, you’ll already be in a suitable gear, making the climb smoother.

Similarly, if you’re about to descend, shifting to a harder gear beforehand ensures you’re not left spinning on the way down.

2. The “Soft Pedal” Technique

Now, here is a little trick that can make a world of difference. When you’re about to shift gears, especially under load (such as climbing a hill), ease off your pedaling force just slightly for a moment, until the chain has clicked onto the new gear.

This “soft pedal” technique reduces the tension on the chain, allowing a smoother move.

3. Recognize The Noises From Your Bike

Your bike often talks to you, albeit in a language of creaks, clicks, and clunks. Paying attention to these sounds can give you hints about your shifting.

If you hear grinding or crunching as you shift gears, it’s a sign something’s not right.

It could be an indicator of a misaligned derailleur, a worn-out chain, or the need for a slight change. By staying attuned to these sounds, you can address minor issues before they become major problems.

4. Avoid “Cross-Chaining”

Cross-chaining occurs while the chain is at an extreme angle.

This happens when you’re in the smallest chainring (front gears) and smallest cassette sprocket (rear gears), or the largest chainring and largest cassette sprocket.

Not only is this inefficient, but it also puts an undue strain on your bike’s drivetrain.

To prevent this, aim to keep the chain as straight as possible.

If you find yourself cross-chaining, it’s a cue to adjust either the front or rear derailleur to bring the chain back to a more central, aligned position. You can usually find a similar gear ratio by adjusting both the front and back to a different position.

A cyclist pedals uphill on a white road bike while changing gear.

Now You Know When To Shift Gears On A Bike!

With the knowledge you’ve gained to shift gears, hills might seem friendlier and flats more exhilarating.

But, as with all things cycling, personal experiences can vary widely.

Do you have any unique scenarios where you’d welcome some advice? Are you team manual or have you ventured into the realm of electronic shifting? And just out of curiosity, do you have a favorite brand and groupset model?

Dive into the comments below and share your thoughts, preferences, and questions!

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Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

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