Jim’s Tech Talk
My wife and I were back in New England last week. It’s where we both grew up. We drove across the country from our home in California to be there for our nephew’s wedding and my 50th High School reunion.
October is a magical time to be back east because nature usually puts on an amazing show with the changing of the leaves (photo below). We parked our rolling hotel room (our RV) in my wife’s sister’s driveway in North Hampton, NH and had a grand week hanging with the family.
Danni’s “New” Bike
While there I learned that my great niece, Danni had been gifted a used 27-speed Trek bicycle. Her mom asked if I would check it over. It only needed a minor tune-up, which I took care of. I also made sure the bike and her helmet fit correctly.
Next I checked that Danni knew how to brake and to ride with traffic on the right side of the road. When I asked if she knew how to shift she said “yes!”
But when we went for our first ride together around the neighborhood it was obvious she did not. Because on the little hill behind her house, instead of shifting into an easy gear she got off and walked. So we stopped and I held her bike up and instructed her to pedal with one hand and shift with the other.
That way she was able to watch the chain move and feel while pedaling with her hand what’s going on when she shifts onto different gears. I also went over what I consider the 5 basic rules of shifting “properly.”
In case, like Danni, you’re new to shifting a bike, here’s what I covered with her. I know most of you RBR readers long ago mastered changing gears but there are sure to be some roadies reading this that would appreciate your tips and probably even some beginners like Danni, so please share your best tips in a comment.
Disclaimers: Danni’s bike is a pretty standard triple drivetrain. She has twist grip shifters. I realize that with some triples, the rules about both front shifts making it a lot easier / harder don’t necessarily apply. That rule also doesn’t apply to single chainring (1X) drivetrains obviously. If Danni had had a 1X bike, it would have been easier to explain shifting, which is one of the reasons 1Xs have become so popular in my opinion.
Also, I know that how to operate all the different types of shifters is another lesson altogether, so I’m assuming you already know how yours work – or will learn before shifting your bike. Danni understood how hers worked.
5 TIPS for SHIFTING PROPERLY
Ease your pedal pressure when shifting
In order to shift a derailleur bicycle the chain has to move onto the different cogs (on the rear wheel) and the different chainrings on the crankset (the crankset is the part the pedals are attached to). You must keep pedaling for the chain to change positions when you make a shift.
For a smooth, quick shift to occur it helps a lot to ease off on the pedaling pressure. That’s because the chain moves best if it’s flexible. If you’re pedaling forcefully, such as when climbing, the chain becomes almost rigid and that makes shifts rough, more grinding or forcing the bike into gear than quickly and easily making the change.
I tried to teach Danni the riding technique that lets you make a nice almost zero pedal-pressure shift. I told her that whenever she needs to shift, she should pedal more softly. The feeling is pedaling to turn the pedals around and complete the shift, NOT pedaling to drive the bike down the road.
I also told her the trick on hills to do this, a few hard pedal strokes to get the bike moving fast enough so that you can ease off the pedal pressure just long enough to make a nice shift without pedal pressure. Also, that it’s best to shift into the easier gear you need before you get to the steepest part of hills.
When you’re starting out it takes practice to master these techniques but Danni seemed to understand and her shifting improved. The next time around our little loop she shifted and made it up the small climb.
The “right” gear is the one that feels right to you
When most new shifters ask how to do it, they usually want to know what the proper or right gear to be in is. A common misunderstanding that may come from driving, is that you should start in first gear and shift up through the gears.
That’s actually a little like the way you shift on a single chainring bike because you are limited to shifting up and down the rear cogs (the cassette). It makes things simpler.
But Danni’s bike has 3 chainrings and a cassette. So I wanted to make sure she understood that finding the proper, right or best gear is not about how many gears you have but about how you feel when pedaling.
I told her to find a pedaling rate and effort that’s comfortable for her and to learn to change gears to be able to maintain that manageable pedaling rate. I explained that it can feel harder or easier to pedal as the terrain changes but by shifting into the different gears that feel good (right) she should be able to ride right up even steep hills and keep going for as long as she wants.
Danni lives in a hilly area where you need to shift often into easier or harder gears in order to maintain a comfortable pace on the bike. But even if she lived where it’s flatter I would have told her to shift gears frequently because it helps with pedaling efficiency and ensures you don’t run out of gas.
Each rear shift makes it a little easier or harder to pedal
Since Danni has two shift levers, she needed to understand how to use them. I told her that the right lever has 8 clicks and that each click makes a shift into another gear that makes it a little easier or harder to pedal.
Because of how nicely the right lever lets you fine-tune the gearing (pedaling effort), I told her that’s the lever to use the most. And, I explained that you usually shift up or down a couple of gears, but that it’s fine to shift right up to the top or bottom cog if that gear feels right.
Each front shift makes it a lot easier or harder to pedal
I have found that lots of new riders find triple shifting confusing and that simplifying it helps. I did this with Danni. I told her that she would use the left shift lever less frequently than the right. And that it controls the 2 shifts available on the front sprockets, the “chainrings.”
I showed her how the difference in the sizes between the 3 chainrings were much larger than between the cogs on the rear wheel. And I explained this means it’s even more important to ease the pedal pressure when making front shifts.
I then told her that front shifts are used to make it a lot easier or harder to pedal with a single shift since each shift moves that chain onto a much smaller or larger chainring.
Then as an overall shifting guide, I told her even though it’s not entirely accurate, that a good way to think of shifting a triple drivetrain bicycle is to think of it as having 3 ranges of gears. A range for steep terrain (the smallest chainring), a range for rolling terrain (the middle chainring) and another for dowhills and when the going’s easy (the largest chainring).
Since she lives where it’s rolling, I recommend she start out by leaving the chain on the middle chainring. I told her to practice and master rear shifting and then start practicing and getting front shifting down.
If I had more time in New Hampshire with Danni, I would have been able to finish the lesson riding more with her. But, for the time we had together she learned a lot and was really enjoying showing her parents her new skills when I left.
That’s the basic shifting primer I gave Danni and a lot of what I would tell anyone learning shifting. Please share the tips you’d have given a new rider like Danni. Or ones you were taught when you learned to change gears. Shifting is one of the most challenging things for many new roadies and hopefully together we can help end their gear fear.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. A pro mechanic & cycling writer for more than 40 years, he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Tune in to Jim’s popular YouTube channel for wheel building & bike repair how-to’s. Jim’s also known for his cycling streak that ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.