Everything You Need to Know About Shifting | Cycling 101

Everything You Need to Know About Shifting | Cycling 101

by Marc Lindsay
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Everything You Need to Know About Shifting | Cycling 101

While you’re getting in shape and figuring out how you can get a little faster on the bike, sometimes it’s the basics that get overlooked. From shifting terminology to what it really means to shift to a harder or easier gear, use this guide to learn everything you need to know about shifting your bike.


Before we talk about what gear is harder or easier, it’s important to understand basic shifting terminology. Here are a few terms you’ll need to know:


The levers on the handlebar behind the brake levers on a road bike that shift your bike (usually with a cable) to make it easier or harder to pedal


One of the series of gears on the rear wheel that the chain passes over. If you have an 11-speed bike, you will have 11 cogs on your rear wheel.


Also commonly referred to as a cluster, the cassette is the combination of all of your cogs.


The circular rings that attach to the crankarms to form a crankset. A double chainring road bike has two front rings, with a triple chainring is a crankset with three chainrings.


The spiked portion on a chainring or on any individual cog. The number of teeth on the front chainrings of a standard crankset are 53-teeth for the big ring and 39-teeth for the small ring. For the range of cogs on a cassette, the number of teeth can vary, but typically range from 12 teeth on the smallest cog to around 28 teeth on the largest cog.


The mechanism on either the front or back that shifts the chain from big chainring to small (or vice versa), or that shifts that chain up or down the cogs on the rear wheel.


The combination of gears your chain is using on the front chainrings and the rear cassette. If you’re using a 39-tooth front chainring on the front and a 17-tooth cog on the rear cassette, your gear combination would be 39T and 17T.


The mathematical computation used to determine which gear combination is harder or easier. You need gear ratios to compare your one gear combination to the next. For example, a 39T and 17T gear combination results in a gear ratio of 2.29 (39 divided by 17 = 2.29). A 53T and 28T gear combination results in a 1.89 gear ratio.



Knowing what gear to shift to is only half the battle. Out on the road, shifting at the right time can help you maintain your speed without losing your momentum. Here are a few basic shifting principles you should keep in mind while you ride:

  • The right shifter is for the rear cassette.
  • The left shifter is for the front chainrings.
  • If you aren’t sure when to change gears, shift when you see more experienced cyclists shift when riding in a group.
  • Try to shift before the terrain changes, especially when approaching a climb.
  • Don’t cross-chain, which means using the biggest chainring up front and the largest cog on your rear cassette, or using the smaller chainring up front and the smallest cog on your rear cassette. Doing so limits your options when you need an easier or harder gear, and switching from a large chainring to a small or vice versa on a climb can cause your to throw your chain.
  • Treat flats like a climb, using your small front chainring and the larger cogs on your rear cassette.


  • Hal Ballard

    Anticipating your start is also important for riding comfortably. When you know you’ve got to stop, like at a traffic signal or stop sign, shift down to your starting gear as you approach the stop.

    • Stanley77

      Had to get better brakes just to stop. Fuji touring=bad brakes…for me anyway.

  • Jack the Rebel

    This article doesn’t say much about when, why, and how to shift gears.

    • Rob

      This article doesn’t say much, period.

      • Bgddy Jim

        Truer words have never been written.

        • Stanley77

          I like fewer words were never written’ 🙂

    • laturkeyhtr

      Doesn’t say anything. Just tells the parts involved.

  • Rob

    …and just when I thought, “OK, good intro. I’d like to read this article,” it was over. Thanks for nothing.

  • Dennis Young

    Shifting is something you learn with experience. Everyone’s shifting requirements will be different. As you gain experience and your legs get stronger, your shifting sequence will change as well. In a 21-speed bike, for instance, as you get stronger, you will use Low-2/Low-3 more than Low-1/Low-2. You will also find you’ll use High-3/High-7 more than High-1/High-3. Bottom line; you’ll use fewer of your gear combinations overall, but more efficiently.
    I disagree with the last point of treating flats as a climb; I use flats to gain speed, therefore use Low-3 with High-6 or 7. This can really build up speed on a flat, assuming it’s safe to do so.
    Which brings me to my final point; anything you do on your bike should be done with safety first in mind.
    Happy riding! 🙂

  • Katie Pullen

    Is there a follow-up article?

    • LAD Chicago

      I certainly hope there is a follow-up article. For instance one that explains the first article.

  • Ken H

    I have a question I’m hoping someone can answer. If the ratio is the same, does it matter what the gear combination is? For example: if you’re using a 39T, 13T combo would there be any difference compared to using a 30T 10T combo? Would there be any difference in energy expended or pedaling force required?

    • Zeno

      No difference. Mechanical advantage is exactly the same, 3:1.

      • OwnedByTwoCats

        True, the mechanical advantage is exactly the same.

        What about the second-order effects? Does it make any difference that the chain is moving faster with less tension on a 39/13 than on a 30/10?

  • Bgddy Jim

    Wait a second…. Treat flats like climbs and use the baby ring and the large cogs?! I suppose folks can ride around in the baby ring, but only if they want to look like noobs. We ride with the chain on the Big Dog. The little ring is for “climbing”, not cruising…. UNLESS one is in the first month or two of the season. In that case, the baby ring will do. After the base miles are in, though, it’s big ring.

    • Dennis Young

      Three things I always advise new riders to take into consideration when shifting and what gear combination to use: weather, terrain, and fatigue. 🙂

      • Bgddy Jim

        And the three things I advise everyone: Big Ring, Big Ring, No Baby Ring beyond April.
        Of course, in southeastern Michigan that’s reasonable.

  • Rob Cee

    WHAT??? I was expecting some good advice for shifting chain rings from a flat ride to a hill without losing momentum. By the time I find the right gear, I’ve slowed to a crawl. This article wasn’t helpful!