Learn the How and When to Change Gears on Your Bike

A man commuting on bicycle
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How to Change Gears on Your Bike

Shimano shifter

Knowing when and how to change the gears on your bike is not one of those things that is immediately intuitive to most people. It seems like it should be simple to do, but somehow it ends up more complicated than that. Many riders new to a geared bike feel frustration the first few times as they invariably shift into a much harder (or easier) gear than the one they really wanted.

The actual shifting of gears, clicking from one to another is not difficult. It's just a matter of getting the feel for going up or down in the range of gears, and the good news is that being able to shift smoothly is about 80% practice and only about 20% understanding what's happening. In no time at all, you'll be shifting like a pro, changing gears smoothly without even thinking about it.

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Why Bikes Have Gears

a bicycle gear shift

Zara Evans

Bikes have gears to allow your pedal speed (your cadence) to stay relatively steady and at about the same level of effort, whether you're going downhill or uphill or riding flat terrain. Your speed may change, but having gears means you can climb without killing yourself. When descending, the right gear allows you to keep pedaling and pushing the bike forward, rather than twirling futilely, your feet unable to keep up with the speed of your wheels.

Think of it this way: If all the riding you ever did was on a flat road at a constant speed, you wouldn't need gears at all. Your bike would have just one gear, set at that sweet spot where you can keep pedaling at a nice comfortable pace without killing yourself. From the riding you've done so far, you certainly know the feeling when you are cruising along in the cadence that is just right for you -- going at a steady clip but not straining yourself. That's also what you try to achieve when shifting gears. Gears allow you to keep pedaling at that sweet spot where you're most comfortable, regardless of the incline.

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Shifting Your Bike's Rear Gears

Rear bike gears
Kona Bikes

Most bikes with gears have between 5 and 10 gears in the back. Each gear in the back is called a sprocket, and the set of sprockets is called the cassette. The rear derailleur moves the chain from one sprocket to the next.

The rear is where most of your shifting takes place. The shifter for your back gears is usually at your right hand. Get in the habit of using these first. The shifter on the left side of the handlebars changes the front chain rings. Those are for major shifting that doesn't happen as frequently. 

In the back, the biggest sprocket, the one closest to the inside of your wheel, allows for the easiest pedaling and the slowest speed. The smallest sprocket, the outermost one, allows you to go the fastest but requires the most effort. As in a stick-shift car, downshifting is moving to an easier gear (larger sprocket); upshifting is moving to a harder gear (smaller sprocket). 

The goal of shifting is to change gears when you sense that your pedaling is becoming easier or more difficult, so that you maintain the ideal pedaling cadence, or rhythm. For example, if the pedaling starts to get a bit harder because of a small rise in the path, you downshift to maintain your cadence. When the road starts to flatten out and go downhill and your speed increases, you upshift into a higher gear, which allows you to go even faster with the same amount of exertion.

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What the Front Gears Do

Bicycle Crank

Josh Gardner

Most bikes with gears have two or three big gears up front. These are called chain rings and are controlled by the front derailleur. Shifting in the front happens much less frequently than in the rear. For the most part, you stay in the smaller chain ring(s) when you're going slower and in the larger chain ring(s) when your speed is higher. 

Front gearing is opposite to rear gearing. That is, the smallest chain ring up front is gives you the easiest pedaling, and the largest chain ring makes pedaling the hardest. If you anticipate a lot of climbing, you'll probably stay in small chain ring in the front. If you've got lots of flat riding or descents, you'll stay in the larger chain ring. If you're climbing and descending steep hills, you'll probably shift to a different chain ring at the top and bottom of each hill. 

Shifting to a different chain ring essentially gives you a new set of gears. If you're in the smaller chain ring and find that you need more pedaling power than the rear gears can provide, you shift to the larger chain ring for a new range of higher gearing. In most cases, it's best to adjust the rear gears immediately before or after shifting the front gears so you effectively jump one or two gears rather than five or more gears at once. 

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Shifting Tips - A Few More Hints About Changing Gears

Guy on a bike

Once you've mastered the basics of shifting there are a few more things to remember that will help you make changing your gears go even more smoothly.

  1. Anticipate shifts: It is very difficult to change gears (and bad for your bike) when you're pushing the pedals very hard. So get in the habit of downshifting into an easier gear as you come to a stop or begin the approach to a big hill.
  2. Don't try to shift when you are stopped. Bikes with traditional gearing are designed to be shifted when the pedals are moving, so don't try to shift when you are stopped. Anticipate each stop, and shift to the gear you want to be in when you start again. 
  3. Avoid cross-chaining: It's hard on your chain and your sprockets to be at extreme angles; that is, in the largest sprocket in the back and the largest chain ring in the front, or vice versa. To prevent cross-chaining, simply shift to the next chain ring, so you can stay within the middle gears of the cassette (in the rear). It's fine to be in the largest rear sprocket and smaller/smallest chain ring in front, or the smallest in rear and largest in front. 

Watch Now: How to Adjust Bicycle Gears and Deraileurs