The idea to cover a few basic shifting tips came to me on last Saturday’s ride. We were climbing a steep hill and one of the riders dropped her chain. When I rode up alongside she was already off her bicycle trying to put the chain back on with a stick. I showed her the easy way to get a chain back on and thought beginner shifting tips would be a good subject to cover. (This article assumes you’re still in the majority of roadies with mechanical derailleurs. For the most part, these tips don’t apply to electronic shifting, which largely does away with these issues.)
Let’s start with some of the reasons chains come off and shifts aren’t as smooth as they should/could be. One of the key things is how hard you’re pedaling when your shift. Everyone knows that they have to pedal in order to shift. That’s what moves the chain and lets the shifters and derailleurs derail the chain, shifting it from cog to cog on the rear wheel and chainring to chainring on the crankset in front.
What a lot of riders don’t understand, however, is that to get a smooth, quiet, quick shift, you need to pedal a certain way, and that’s with very light pressure on the pedals. It should feel like you’re soft pedaling, your only purpose to keep the chain moving so that you can shift it. So, you ease off the pressure with your feet, make the shift, wait for the chain to click into the next gear and then reapply the pedal pressure.
Tip: I should add that there are situations where you might have to “grind it to find it,” as the car people say, and keep some force on the pedals as you shift. An example is when you’re racing a buddy and not wanting to lose ground but having to hit the next gear. Most drivetrains can handle this and today’s designs with shifting gates and ramps on the cogs and chainrings, not to mention electric derailleurs (if you’re lucky enough to have them), are made to work even under pressure. But to save unnecessary wear and tear and avoid dropping your chain, it’s still best to back off the pressure.
I know you’re already ahead of me and wondering how in tarnation you can ease the pressure off the pedals to shift when you’re riding up a hill? You have to shift in order to keep your momentum and get up the hill. And you can’t ease the pressure off the pedals or you’ll roll backwards and crash, right?
Actually, no. You can ease the pressure off to make a smooth shift, even on steep hills. You just need to know a little trick. It involves taking a few hard pedal strokes before you shift. This gives you just enough speed to almost coast for a second and turn the pedals for the sole purpose of making that all-important shift and getting into the easier gear nice and smoothly.
This technique takes a little practice but it works great. As I mentioned, you can force the rear derailleur into gear even under great pressure. But, if you use soft pedal pressure you’ll greatly reduce the chances of mis-shifts, dropped chains and also reduce wear and tear on the drivetrain.
Tip: You can use the hill technique for front shifts, too, but it’s usually best to avoid shifting the front derailleur on the steepest part of a hill due to the risk of dropping the chain. Using another driving example, just as you would in an under-powered car with a stick shift, you anticipate your shifts and select the proper gear before you get to the steep part of the hill.
You can watch your shifts – but be safe
The most important thing is to keep your eye on other riders, cars and any other hazards. But, if it’s safe to do it, you can look down and watch front and even rear shifts. And this is a good way to get in tune with how long it takes to complete a shift and when you can apply pressure to the pedals again. Watch it a few times and you’ll have a better feel for the timing of the shifts and won’t have to watch it unless you’re not sure.
You can practice shifting this way in an empty parking lot or a quiet street to master your shifting-with-light-pressure technique. But wherever your practice, be careful and don’t run into anything while you’re looking down. It’s an easy mistake to make and even on quiet roads, conditions change, so watch out.
Shift dropped chains back on
If you do shift the chain off the chainring or it falls off over a bump, in most cases there’s no need to put it back on with a stick or get your hands greasy reinstalling it. Instead, use your soft pedaling technique and operate the front derailleur shift lever and see if you can shift the chain back onto the chainring.
To do this, pedal gently and push the shift lever. With luck the chainring teeth will catch the chain links, engage and pull the chain right back on. Sometimes the chain will jump right over to the large chainring. If that happens, just shift it back onto the chainring you want to ride in.
You never want to force the chain back on by pedaling, though. If you try to pedal and you can’t because the pedals stop with a metallic clunk like something is blocking them, you’ll need to dismount and put the chain on by hand or with that stick. The reason is because the chain came off in such a way that it got jammed between the crankset and frame. In that case pedaling will only jam it worse or even damage the chain.
But, in my experience that’s a lot rarer than being able to pedal it back on, so that’s always worth a try.
Tip: If the chain comes off on a hill and you have enough momentum and it’s safe to do it (no traffic coming from behind), try steering sideways across the road and soft pedaling the chain on. No? Then you can either pick the bike up by the seat and pedal the chain back on by hand (if you lift the bike high enough so that the drivetrain is vertical, gravity will help the chain hang right next to the chainring and make it want to go back onto the chainring as you pedal). Or, turn the bike so it’s heading back down the hill, hop on and soft pedal the chain back on before U-turning and heading back up the hill.