A Beginner’s Guide – Shifting Gears on a Bike

The reason bikes have gears is so you can pedal (relatively) comfortably no matter what the terrain. But if you’re new to cycling, the concept of shifting gears might be a bit confusing. So we put together a handy guide that incorporates everything you need to know about how and when to shift your gears.

The Gears
Most geared bikes have one, two, or three chainrings in the front (the rings attached to the pedal crank arm) and anywhere from seven to 12 gears—or cogs—in the back (or the cassette attached to the rear wheel). Moving the chain from the smallest rear cog to the largest eases your pedaling effort incrementally. Moving it between the chainrings in the front results in a more noticeable change—pedaling feels easier in a smaller chainring and harder in a bigger one. The best way to get a hang of what your gears feel like is to take your bike to a safe place away from traffic (maybe a parking lot) and shift through all the gears in the front and rear to understand how they feel while riding. Cyclists spend most of their time shifting the rear gears to find their cadence sweet spot.

The Shifters
Typically, the left-hand shifter changes the front gears, and the one on the right controls gears in back. If you get flustered on the fly, remember this mnemonic device: “right equals rear.” For bikes that only have one chainring in the front (also known as “1x” or “one-by”), you will only have a right-handed shifter, unless you built your bike for the rear to be shifted on the left side.

Different brands of shifters all function slightly differently, but all shifters are pretty intuitive. Consult your bike shop at the time of purchase on how yours work or simply jump on your bike, make sure to pedal, and push your shifters to get a sense of how they function.

When to Shift
You want to shift to an easier gear on hills (climbs) or when you’re riding into the wind. Use a harder gear on flats or if the wind is blowing from behind (a tailwind). When in doubt, shift before the terrain changes, especially on hills. Don’t wait until you can feel the incline kick in before you shift; shift gears in anticipation of the incline. When you shift, keep pedaling but ease up on the pedals, especially on hills—if you’re pushing hard or if you stop pedaling completely, the chain may skip or fall off.

Tips for Shifting Gears
*Use only the rear cogs and the small or middle front chainring when you’re just getting comfortable on a bike.
*Look down to see what gear you’re in if you’re not sure.
*Shift whenever a more experienced rider does.
*Avoid cross-chaining, where the chain is at an extreme slant either in the big ring up front and the biggest cog in back, or the small ring up front and the small cog in back. This not only stresses the hardware, but it also limits your options if you need to shift again.

Shifting Cheat Sheet
For: Uphills and headwinds
Use: Small or middle front chainring and bigger rear cogs

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

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