Shift Happens

One of the things I love about riding a bike is how you can really get to know a place.

Ride through a neighborhood  on a beautiful afternoon and meet folks out pulling weeds or planting their gardens, at dinner-time you’ll get an opportunity to smell the lovely supper-time scents wafting through the air.

Bicycling exposes us to the textures and fluctuations of the land itself that you wouldn’t get to experience in nearly any other way.

Slight grades go unnoticed with motorized transportation where you have a machine working against gravity for you, and while walking is awesome, it’s slower step-by-step pace loses some of the nuances in translation.

The biggest challenge for many newbies is shifting gears to keep a comfortable pace.

A friend of mine recently told me about the last time she rode a bike.

It was a few years ago now, and she was so excited to go to the park just a few miles from her house, but there was this little hill, and she ended up having to walk the last block and a half because she just couldn’t turn the cranks any more.

I asked her if she tried shifting her gears, and she said bashfully, “I guess not, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She’s not alone. 

Many folks responded to the what’s-keeping-you-from-riding survey that they were afraid of hills/climbs or were confused by shifting gears.

And honestly, I think those issues, generally speaking, are often two sides of the same coin.

Here are a few tips to help the beginner understand why, when & how to shift gears:

First of all, everyone’s bike is just a little different, in terms of how many speeds it has, or what kind of shifters are on the bike.

Regarding the drive train: You’ve got the chainring set up at the front – where the pedals are, and cogs in the back, where the rear wheel is.


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This is how a bicycle works, right?

You apply pressure to the pedals, and the crank arms turn the chain ring. The chain applies force to a cog in the back via the teeth, and the rear wheel moves.

This is 101-level stuff, to be sure, but it is fundamental to the understanding.

A single-speed bike is exactly what it sounds like: The bike has one gear, or one speed. The rider cannot up or downshift. Meaning that it’s harder to ride up hills.

A bike might have one, two or three chainrings on the front – called, not surprisingly, single, double, or triple.

The spindle on the back might have up to 11 cogs to choose from.

If you multiply the number on the front by the number on the back, you have the total number of speeds available for your drive train.

That means if you have 3 rings on the front and 9 cogs on the back, you have 27 different speeds that the bike will operate at.

Lower numbers are low gears, higher numbers are high gears. More on this in a minute.

Are more gears better?

Not necessarily. It’s more about available gear ratios than the number of gears itself.

What does that mean?

Well each chainring and each cog has a certain number of teeth on it that a) move the chain, as is the job of the chainring and then the chain transfers that force to the cog which b) moves the wheel.

When you divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the cog, you get the gear ratio.

The higher that number, the harder it feels to pedal. That’s the bare-bones basics.

You can read more about it here. Try not to let your eyes go crossed. Moving on.

Why do you shift?

Everyone has a different, natural cadence or rhythm to their locomotion. A speed at which your legs are chugging along comfortably and efficiently – not too fast or slow.

As you encounter a slight uphill grade (also known as a climb or ascent), you’ll feel your legs slow down, and the pedal strokes will become more challenging. You’ll exert more energy and effort to try to move forward

Likewise, as you encounter a downhill grade, you’ll feel your legs speed up awkwardly, the pedal strokes will be light and without effort or effect. It’ll feel “too easy” like you’re not actually getting any force on your pedal stroke.

Now, remember how your bike has a variety of speeds or gears to choose from?

When you encounter that uphill grade, if you downshift into the next lowest gear you will spin your legs at roughly the same cadence with a little less effort being expended and thus a little less power being transferred into the rear wheel.

When you get over that hill, and you’re heading down the other side, you shift up.

Not following?

Here are the basics: the lower gears are easier and slower, the higher gears are harder and more powerful.

You downshift into a lower, easier gear when you’re at the bottom of a hill, or on a climb. You upshift on the other side of the hill to get more power onto the wheel and accelerate.

The trick is to downshift before your legs tell you that it’s necessary, because by then you’ve lost momentum, power, and energy. But don’t worry about that yet.

It is a good idea not to have the chain at too extreme of an angle, which means the far left chainring and the far right cog. That stretches the chain and can cause problems down the line.

How do you shift?

Well, that depends on your specific bike set up.

One thing that is always true is that the left shifter controls the front derailleur, the mechanism which moves the chain on the chainrings near the pedals/cranks, and the right shifter controls the rear derailleur, which moves the chain on the cogs at the rear wheel.

Derailleur (pronounced dih-rey-ler) is a French word which literally translates to a device causing disengagement or derailing.

There are many different styles and locations of shifters, depending on the style of the bike and the positioning of the rider.

You might have thumb shifters or trigger shifters and are common on mountain bikes, hybrids or other straight-bar bikes. My Specialized hybrid Dingo has trigger shifters.

Another common type of shifter on a straight-bar bike is twist-grip shifters, which mount right next to the handle bar grips. My little Schwinn MTB faux pas Dexter had twist-grip shifters.

These types above often have numbers on the shifters themselves so you can see what number you’re at. Great for learning.

If you have a road bike or a bike with drop-bars, you might have downtube shifters, stem shifters, bar end shifters, or some variation of combo shifters – where the shifter and the brake lever are integrated into the same mechanism. They look like this for straight bars, or this for drop bars. My beautiful Soma road Double Cross Pele has a type of combo shifters.

I get it.

It can be scary when you’re first getting comfortable on the bike to shift gears, but trust me it is was less comfortable – not to mention downright demoralizing – to try to ride in the wrong gear for your body and the situation.

You can do this. It gets pretty easy, pretty quickly if you give yourself a chance to learn.

Not sure where your shifters are on your bike? Or how to use them? Or IF your bike EVEN has shifters?

Drop me an email – I can help.

Keep moving forward and enjoy the ride,


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By | 2017-04-15T20:00:13+00:00 April 5th, 2016|beginner|2 Comments
  • Christina Suarez

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll be taking a bike tour with my mom next year and I am no bike expert at all. Every piece of advice helps.