By Jim Langley

A couple of weeks ago in this column, RoadBikeRider founder Ed Pavelka explained how easy it was to significantly lower his SRAM eTap gearing. If you missed that, it’s here,

After that piece appeared, I thought about Ed’s wireless electric shifting and 22 gears, and it occurred to me that if you were just getting into road riding, you might be mystified just thinking about all that technology.

I also realized that it’s been a while since I’ve offered some beginners’ tips. And perhaps nothing intimidates new riders more than shifting. So this week, let’s go over a few basic tips for changing gears on a bicycle. Experts can turn the page, no need to keep reading. But you might want to share this article with any newbies you know. And if you have some good basic shifting tips of your own, please share them below in the comments.

Please note that these basic tips are for modern road bikes with derailleur drivetrains. That’s the type where the chain changes position each time you shift. There are also commuting and city bikes with internal gearing where you can’t see the shift action that takes place. That’s a different type and not covered here.

Understanding Shifting

In North America, it won’t be too long before spring arrives, which is one of the peak bike-buying seasons. If you’re shopping for your first road bike, knowing how to shift will make test rides easier and more valuable since you can get a better feel for the bike. If you can, buy at a bicycle shop so you can tell the salesperson that you’re new to shifting and ask for a quick lesson.

An easy way for the shop to do this is to put the bicycle in a repair stand. That way the wheels are elevated and it’s easy for you to pedal with one hand and shift the gears with your other hand. Because you’re not riding the bike but standing next to it, you can watch the chain shift across the gears as you operate the levers. Also, the salesperson or mechanic can explain how to operate the shift levers, which vary in the way they function depending on the brand and type.

Shifting like this and watching what happens is the best way to understand what’s going on with each shift. And you’ll see that it’s not mystifying at all. When you operate a shift lever, you control two mechanisms called derailleurs (some drivetrains only have a rear derailleur). They’re called that because their job is to derail the chain and push or pull it up or down onto different sprockets. As the chain changes positions, the bike gets easier or harder to pedal.

Tip: If you don’t want the bike shop to have to teach you shifting, you can learn on a friend’s derailleur-equipped road bike, too (ideally your friend will have the same shifting system you’re planning on getting on your new bike). You don’t need a repair stand, either. Just have your friend hold the bike off the ground by the seat as you pedal by hand and operate the shift levers and watch the chain change positions.

BASIC SHIFTING TIPS

Bicycle Drivetrains are Strong and Dependable

It’s only natural to hear 11-speeds or 20-speeds, etc. and worry that something’s going to go wrong – or because you’re new to it, you’re going to break the bike shifting badly. Actually, nothing you can do shifting a bicycle – no matter how many gears it has – will hurt it. So don’t worry, it’s okay to shift it as much as you want while learning, even if the gear changes aren’t easy and smooth yet.

You Have to Pedal in Order to Shift

The key thing to know for shifting a road bike is that you have to simultaneously turn the pedals with your feet and move the shift lever in order to change gears. It’s pedaling that allows the chain to climb onto and drop off the different sprockets on your bike as you change gears. If you don’t turn the pedals, you can try to shift with the levers but the chain won’t change position until you start pedaling.

Easy Does it On Pedal Pressure

As you saw if you shifted while pedaling by hand, the chain has to move sideways and climb up and down the different-size-toothed sprockets. In order for this to happen smoothly, the chain needs to flex sideways. To ensure it can, your goal whenever making a shift is to do it with very little pressure on the pedals.

Yes, you must pedal in order to shift. But all that’s needed is turning the pedals. If you’re pedaling forcefully, your bike will usually still shift, but it can make some scary grinding, crunching noises. Once in a while it might not shift into the gear you want, too, and you can end up stuck in too high a gear, which might force you to get off and walk. For these reasons, it’s best to try to always lighten up on the pedals when shifting.

Anticipate Your Shifts

In order to shift smoothly with light pedal pressure, experienced roadies watch the road ahead and time their shifts so that they’re not in a situation where hard pedaling is required. An expert riding technique is to take a couple of hard pedal strokes to speed the bike up enough that you have time to soft pedal a couple of revolutions and make the shift you need with light pedal pressure. For example, on a hill that suddenly steepens and catches you off guard.

If the road is wide enough (and it’s safe to do so), you can also turn and ride across the road to lessen the grade so you can shift with light pressure and then resume going up the steep in a nice, easy gear.

How to Find the Right Gear

If you’re new to road riding you may be thinking of your new bike’s multi-speed drivetrain like your car’s transmission. When driving, your car starts in first gear and goes into second, then third and so on. Road bikes aren’t usually shifted that way.

Instead, you start riding and pay attention to your pedaling effort – how easy or hard it is to ride down the road you’re on. You then shift whenever you feel like the gear isn’t quite right, making it easier or harder to pedal depending on what feels right to your legs and lungs. Keep reading for an advanced tip on finding the right gear.

You Might Shift a Lot, or Not That Much

The terrain and your fitness level determine how frequently you shift. For rolling rides, you might be almost constantly shifting to keep fine-tuning the gearing to match the ups and downs and to pace your effort over the length of the ride.

On flat terrain, you usually only need a few gears to dial in the right effort. As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to shift too much than not enough. Otherwise, it’s possible to exhaust yourself quickly, pedaling in too-hard gears (the effort feels easy but it’s taking a toll nonetheless, and it can catch you by surprise).

Use Your Cadence to Find the 'Right' Gear

“Cadence” on a bicycle is your pedaling rate, expressed in the average number of revolutions for one foot every minute. Most cycle computers and apps that connect with transmitters on your bicycle will read and display your cadence when cycling. If you don’t have a computer, you can also count for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to get your cadence.

Once you know what feels like a comfortable cadence to you, you can use that number to shift by. When you see your average cadence drop or speed up, you shift into a gear that gets your cadence back to where you like it. In this way you can manage your energy expenditure more carefully.

For a target cadence, know that newbies usually start at about 60rpm and experts are typically 90rpm or even more – but it takes a little practice to speed up that much.

Hopefully, the tips here help end any “gear fear,” and you’ll be shifting like an expert very soon.


Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.

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