How to Shift Gears on a Bike Like a Pro
Learning how to shift gears effectively will increase the enjoyment of your rides and help boost your endurance.
Effective shifting allows you to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm (cadence), save energy, and become faster. In addition, you can avoid getting stuck in a high gear at a traffic light or at the beginning of a climb, for example.
Maintaining a consistent cadence involves anticipating changes in the road or trail ahead, getting accustomed to your bicycle gear shifter and drivetrain, and lots of practice.
This guide will give you the information you need to begin shifting like a pro so that you can get the most out of your bike rides.
Why Do Bikes Have Gears?
Bike gears are all about efficiency. A wide range of gears allows riders to pedal at a consistent cadence while riding on varied gradients, terrains, and in windy conditions.
With a range of gears to choose from, you can climb or descend steep gradients and ride with or against strong winds, which would be extremely difficult or impossible on a bike with one gear. Additionally, the steadier your cadence, the less energy you expend, allowing you to ride longer without tiring.
Without gears, your cadence would drop significantly each time you began climbing a steep hill. In this situation, you could continue cycling seated or ride out of the saddle, both requiring vastly more energy per pedal stroke.
Conversely, to ride fast downhill or with a tailwind without gears would require an extremely high cadence, causing you to bounce on the saddle and possibly lose control.
To further understand gear shifting and how it works, we will briefly cover the main components involved and how they interact.
Bike Gear Shifting Basics
It’s helpful to understand some common terminology and how the components work to help get the most out of your gears. This section will touch on each of the relevant terms and parts for shifting.
- Higher or harder gear = the small cogs on the cassette and big chainring(s)
- Lower or easier gear = the bigger cogs on the cassette, smaller chainring(s)
*Note: many cyclists refer to high gears as ‘big gears’ and low gears as ‘small gears.’
The cassette is a series of cogs at the rear of the drivetrain, descending outwards from big to small. The large cog on the cassette is the lowest/easiest to pedal; the smaller the cog, the higher the gear and the harder it is to pedal.
Cassettes contain a series of cogs up to a max of 13, each with a specified number of teeth (represented using a lowercase t, 11-28t).
The relationship between cog and chainring teeth determines the gear ratios. The more cogs there are, the smaller the jump between gear changes; smaller increments allow riders to maintain a smoother, more efficient pedal stroke.
Bike Chainrings — 1x, 2x, 3x
Chainrings are the larger plates at the front of the drivetrain attached to the cranks. The chainrings oppose the cogs, meaning the bigger the chainring, the higher the gear and the more effort it takes to pedal. Conversely, the smaller chainring(s) is easier to pedal.
Again, having more chainrings decreases the gap between each gear and provides a broader gear range, allowing riders to find the correct cadence when tackling very steep gradients. That said, most manufacturers try to minimize the number of chainrings to save weight and reduce drivetrain complexity for easier adjustments and repairs.
Number of Gears
The number of gears increases each time you add cogs to the cassette or a chainring to the drivetrain. However, each time you add a chainring, this creates more overlap between gears. For example, the 53×23 ratio and 39×17 ratio on standard double chainset road bikes are identical gears.
This overlap means you may only add eight or nine unique gears instead of an extra 12 when changing from a 1×12 to a 2×12 setup.
Gear Ranges and Ratios
A gear range includes the number of gears and the distance between the highest and lowest. An extensive gear range is essential on climbing bikes or downhill bikes. For example, most mountain bikes have a wide gear range set lower to facilitate climbing, whereas performance road bikes have wide ranges with more high gears to facilitate high-speed riding.
Gear ratio refers to the relationship between the number of teeth on the front chainring and the rear cog. You want small gear ratios for the easy gears and bigger ratios for harder ones.
For example, a 34t front chainring paired with a 32t rear cog is smaller (1.06:1) than a 34-28t (1.21:1) combination making it better for climbing. Conversely, a 50-10t pairing provides a larger gear ratio (5:1) than a 50-12t cog (4.16:1), making the 50-10t better for descending and riding at high speeds.
Front Derailleur and Shifter
The left-hand shifter connects to the front derailleur allowing you to shift your chain between the chainrings at the front of the drivetrain.
Switching between chainrings causes the most noticeable jump in gear and is typically done just before you lose or gain a lot of speed, for example, before reaching a steep gradient. So, shift to the big chainring when you’re about to descend and shift to the small chainring when you’re about to begin climbing.
Rear Derailleur and Shifter
The right-hand bike shifter operates the rear derailleur, moving the chain between cogs on the cassette. In addition, this derailleur tensions the chain when you switch between gears. Most gear changes are done using just the cassette cogs in response to slight fluctuations in gradient or conditions.
Low Gears vs. High Gears
The low gears on your bike include the small chainring(s) and the larger cogs; the high gears include the big chainring and small cogs.
Choosing a low gear vs. high gear depends on your cadence. For example, to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm between 80 and 100rpm going downhill or riding with a tailwind, you will typically choose a high gear. Conversely, choose a lower gear when riding uphill or against a headwind to avoid dropping your cadence too much.
Riding in a high gear for extended periods and “grinding the gears” is one of the main causes of knee pain.
Single-Speed Bikes Benefits
Single-speed bikes are specialized tools with one gear ratio. This design has several benefits for urban riding in mostly flat areas.
- Lightweight – A super-simple drivetrain saves lots of weight.
- Durable – These drivetrains are also highly durable as derailleurs are the most vulnerable components on a bike. Additionally, chains and cogs wear faster when switching between gears constantly.
- Easy maintenance – What makes single-speeds durable also make them easy to maintain. Fewer parts, such as no gear shift cables, mean easier adjustments and care.
- Cheap – A single-speed groupset costs much less to produce than the complex, multi-speed alternative.
When Should You Shift Gears?
It’s essential to change gears often to help save energy and increase endurance. By shifting at the correct time, you can maintain a smooth pedal stroke and consistent tempo, slowing the accumulation of fatigue.
Ideally, hold a cadence that works for you around 80-100rpm. But, of course, the exact tempo you prefer varies from person to person; some prefer higher, some lower.
The best time to shift is just before any change to the road/trail ahead that will cause you to increase or reduce your speed. Specifically, avoiding sudden drops in cadence will help reduce fatigue.
- Changes in gradient – Use the left-hand shifter for big changes and the right-hand shifter for slight ones. Shift to a higher gear to go downhill and a lower gear to go uphill.
- Sharp corners – If you must slow down considerably before cornering, shift to a lower gear so it is easier to accelerate again when you are clear.
- Traffic stops – If you are approaching a stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light, shift to an easier gear so you can accelerate smoothly when necessary.
- To ride out of the saddle – Shift up one or two gears higher to maintain a steady cadence when you want to ride standing up.
How to Shift Gears with Shimano, SRAM & Campagnolo
When learning how to shift gears, experimentation and practice are essential. So take your bike to a quiet area like a parking lot or neighborhood street to practice the following shifting tips.
There are various groupsets, shifting systems and drivetrain setups, each with slight differences. This section will cover the most popular ones from Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo.
Before reading further, remember that the left side shifters operate the front derailleur (chainrings) and the right side shifters control the rear derailleur (cassette).
However, electronic drivetrains, compared to mechanical ones, work slightly differently, requiring you to push the levers much less.
Changes between chainrings result in a big jump in gear, while moves between cogs on the cassette cause a slight jump in gear.
Shimano Total Integration (STI)
Shimano STI uses two levers on each side that move inwards to activate. These include the brake lever and another smaller lever behind it. Let’s assume the drivetrain has a double chainring and left-hand shifters.
- Left big lever = harder gear, bigger chainring
- Left small lever = easier gear, smaller chainring
- Right big lever: push the right big lever to move one cog at a time; press it in fully to shift two cogs.
- Right small lever: push in to shift to a harder gear/smaller cog.
SRAM’s double-tap shifting only uses the smaller lever. The left is for the front derailleur and the right for the back. The big levers only activate the brakes and don’t move inwards.
A helpful way to remember SRAM shifting is:
- A short push until you hear one click = shift to a smaller chainring (left) or cog (right)
- A long push until you hear two clicks = change to a bigger chainring (left) or cog (right)
- Short push/single click = easier gear, smaller chainring
- Long push/double click = harder gear, bigger chainring
- Short push/single click = harder gear, smaller cog
- Long push/double click = easier gear, bigger cog
- Extra-long push = changes multiple cogs to an easier gear
Campagnolo combines a thumb-operated button on the inside and a small inner lever behind the brake lever for shifting. This ergonomic design offers a more natural hand position when riding in the drops.
- Left lever = harder gear, bigger chainring
- Left thumb button = easier gear, smaller chainring
- Right lever = easier gear, bigger cog. Push in hard to jump two cogs at a time
- Right thumb button = harder gear, smaller cog. Push in hard to jump two cogs at a time
This system is more intuitive than the road bike shifters described above and is used on many off-road bikes and urban bikes. Popular twist-operated shifters include Shimano’s RevoShift and SRAM’s Grip Shifters.
- Twist forward = easier gear, small chainring
- Twist back = harder gear, big chainring
- Twist forward = harder gear, smaller cog
- Twist back = easier gear, bigger cog
Trigger shifters such as Shimano RapidFire SRAM Trigger Shifters operate similarly. For Shimano, each side has two triggers, one for the thumb and another for the index finger. SRAM has two thumb triggers on either side, a small lever in front of a larger one. This system is most popular on mountain bikes.
- Left index-finger trigger = easier gear, smaller chainring
- Left thumb trigger = harder gear, bigger chainring
- Right index-finger trigger = harder gear, smaller cog
- Right thumb trigger = harder gear, bigger cog
SRAM Trigger Shifter
- Small trigger = easier gear, small chainring
- Big trigger = harder gear, big chainring
- Small trigger = harder gear, smaller cog
- Big trigger = easier gear, big cog
Why Is Cross Chaining Bad?
A crossed chain puts significant stress on the drivetrain, causing more rapid deterioration of the cogs, chain, and chainrings. In addition, this misalignment slightly reduces drivetrain efficiency, requiring you to work harder to achieve the same output.
Cross-chaining happens when you use the gears at the far end of the gear range, causing the chain to run diagonally between the chainring and cog. This effect is most extreme when using the big chainring with the biggest cog or using the small chainring with the smallest cog.
The component brand SRAM has in-built compensation for cross-chaining on their 2x chainsets, as they recognize the value of riding in the big chainring for ease of access to the higher gears.
Cross-chaining will also cause more chain wear, requiring you to replace the chain more frequently.
Tips for Proper Shifting
You can implement a few shifting tips to improve your technique quickly. As mentioned before, smooth, anticipatory shifting helps you maintain a steady cadence and save valuable energy.
1. Use the Highest Cadence That’s Comfortable
When riding seated, try to maintain the highest cadence you can without bobbing around on the seat. For some riders, this will be 80rpm; for others, it may be as high as 100rpm. Maintaining a high cadence ensures efficient energy use, boosting your overall endurance and cycling performance.
2. Anticipate the Road/Trail Ahead
The most critical part of effective shifting is watching the road ahead for changes. As described in a previous section, shift before any change that will cause you to slow down or speed up, including corners, traffic stops, and gradient changes. Doing this allows you to maintain a consistent cadence and avoid wasting valuable energy.
3. Shift Up or Down the Cassette Before Switching Chainrings
Moving up or down the cassette before shifting chainrings is a slightly more advanced technique that requires some practice to master. Doing so minimizes the effect of switching between chainrings. For example, quickly downshift two gears with one long press on the right shifter, then immediately move to the big chainring using the left shifters.
4. Don’t Shift When You Put Down Pressure
Don’t shift when the drivetrain is under lots of tension; otherwise, the chain could skip or come off. Avoid this by pedaling lightly until the gear change is made by guiding the pedals around using the existing momentum without actually pushing.
5. Do Regular Maintenance
It’s vital to keep your bike in good working order by periodically maintaining and cleaning the frame and components, especially the drivetrain. A system that isn’t lubed or is clogged with dirt and debris will not function correctly, causing loss of efficiency through poor shifting.