Everything You Need to Know About Shifting | Cycling 101

Marc Lindsay
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.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.