Bike-Handling Basics #8: How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series covers the basics — from cornering to descendinghandling rough surfacesriding out of the saddleriding in a pacelinedoing tricks on the bikedrafting — and now shifting on a road bike.

Learning to shift properly and at the right time can cause fewer mechanical issues and improve your overall efficiency, resulting in a higher average speed and increased endurance. While shifting gears on a bicycle might seem relatively straight forward, good shifting technique can take time to master and is a skill even experienced cyclists can improve upon.

From the basics to more refined techniques, here’s everything you need to know about shifting gears on a road bike.

Shifting can sound awfully complicated if you don’t quite understand all of the terminology. Before you learn the basics of shifting, here’s some of the bicycle gearing lingo you should know:

Chain rings: This refers to the number of gears you have on the front of your bicycle, where the pedals attach to the bottom bracket. Most road bikes have a large and small chain ring, but some road bikes have three chain rings (small, medium, large) while some newer model adventure or gravel bikes have only one.

Cassette/Cog: A cassette is the collection of gears called cogs located on the rear wheel. The number of cogs on a cassette can vary on road bikes, with newer models having up to 12.

Teeth: This is the number of notches on the front chain rings and cogs of your cassette. If your cassette range is 11t–30t, this means your smallest cog has 11 teeth, while your largest cog has 30 teeth.

Derailleur: Road bikes have one front derailleur to move the chain from the big chain ring to the small (and vice versa) and one rear derailleur to move the chain up and down the cassette.

High gear: If you shift to a higher gear, it will become harder to pedal. The highest or hardest gear on a road bike is the largest chain ring on the front and the smallest cog on the cassette in the back. The highest gears on a road bike are often only used on long downhills or for short, high-speed sprints.

Low gear: The opposite of high gear, shifting to a lower gear makes it easier to pedal. The lowest gear on a road bike is the small chain ring on the front and the largest cog on the cassette in the back. Lower gears are often utilized when spinning easy for recovery and for tackling long, steep climbs.

Number of gears: The number of gears your bike has can be determined by multiplying the number of front chain rings your bike has by the number of cogs on your cassette. If you have 3 chain rings on the front and 11 cogs on your cassette, you have 33 gears. How large a range of gears you choose to have on your bike is highly individual. Some cyclists prefer to limit the range of their gearing to save weight (two chain rings versus three), while others are willing to sacrifice weight and precision for a higher variety of options.

To shift your bike to higher and lower gears, you’ll use the shifting levers located just behind your front and rear brakes. Here’s a basic breakdown of what your left and right shift levers control.

The left lever: On Shimano-style shifters, moving both the left shifting lever and brake lever inward simultaneously shifts the chain from the small chain ring to the large chain ring, making it more difficult to pedal. When riding in the big chain ring, moving only the shifting lever in moves the chain from the large to the small, making it easier to pedal.

The right lever: The right shifting lever moves the chain up and down the rear cassette. On Shimano-style shifters, moving both the shifting lever and brake lever in at the same time causes the chain to move up the cassette to a larger cog, making it easier to pedal. This is often called downshifting. By moving only the right shifting lever in, the chain moves down the cassette to a smaller cog, making it harder to pedal. This is often called upshifting.

While Shimano is one of the most popular drivetrains, SRAM and Campagnolo are two other options you might have on your bike. Keep in mind shifting will be slightly different on these drivetrains, as the brake lever doesn’t move and stays in a fixed position.

SRAM uses a double tap technology, with the shifter lever controlling both the up and down movement of the chain. If this is your style of drivetrain, long and short pushes inward on the shift lever control up and down movement of the chain on each side. The Italian manufacturer Campagnolo uses a lever and a button to move the chain between lower and higher gears on the front chain ring and rear cassette.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can begin to practice techniques that will make your shifting smoother and your pedaling more efficient. Below are a few tips to help you get started.

1

SHIFT OFTEN

It’s common for beginner cyclists to use the same gearing for long durations instead of frequently shifting between gears. Get comfortable with trying different gear ratios to find which gear is the most efficient for the terrain you’re on. This helps you conserve energy and saves your legs from fatigue. For small changes, stick to shifts with the right shifting lever. When a bigger change to your speed is necessary, shift between your chain rings on the front with the left shifting lever.

2

MONITOR CADENCE

One way you can tell you’re in the right gear is by monitoring your cadence. If you have a cadence you know you’re most comfortable riding at, shift so you maintain this cadence. For example, if you plan to ride your long ride in Zone 2 and feel most comfortable riding at 90 revolutions per minute (rpm), shift whenever your rpms begin to rise or dip below 90. Just make sure you stay in your desired training zone or power meter range.

3

DON’T CROSS CHAIN

There are a few gear combinations that can cause your chain to stretch at an angle that could cause slipping or rubbing on the derailleur or frame. Cross chaining occurs when you use the big chain ring on the front and your largest cog on the cassette (the cog with the most teeth) or when you use the small chain ring on the front and the smallest cog on the cassette (fewest teeth). These two gearing combinations should be avoided to prevent damage to your bike and drivetrain.

4

GET INTO THE RIGHT GEAR BEFORE YOU NEED IT

Waiting too long to shift slows you down and kills your momentum. Instead of waiting until you’re on the climb before you decide to shift from the big chain ring to the small, switch to the small chain ring just before you hit the bottom of the climb. This makes for an easier shift without grinding your gears and allows you to start the climb without losing too much speed.

5

LIGHTEN UP ON YOUR PEDAL STROKE

Dropped chains are commonly caused when applying too much torque through the pedals while attempting a shift. Before you decide to shift from the small to the big chain ring (or vice versa), speed up a little and then lighten up on your pedal stroke. The decrease in tension on the chain, puts less pressure on the derailleur and makes for an easier shift while decreasing your chances for throwing your chain.

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.

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