Knowing how to shift your gears not only helps you ride faster. It also makes riding more fun. So, let’s talk about how shifting works and when to change gears.
We’ll start by taking a look at the parts. Shifters are found on the front of the handlebars. They control the bike’s derailleurs, which move the chain from gear to gear across the drivetrain.
The left shifter controls your front derailleur, which moves the chain between the chainrings on your crankset. Shifting with your left hand will cause more dramatic changes and is helpful for riding on hills. By pushing the whole left-hand lever inward, the derailleur will push the chain up to a harder gear. A harder gear takes more effort to pedal, but your wheel moves farther per pedal stroke.
Pushing only the small inner lever inward will pull the chain down to an easier gear. This makes pedaling easier, but you won’t move as far or as fast. Your best bet is to use the smaller chainring, or the easiest gear, when pedaling up-hill. Use the big-ring, or hardest gear, when you’re riding downhill.
Your right shifter controls the rear derailleur, shifting the chain across cogs in the cassette. In the back, the smaller size cog is actually the harder, faster gear. The bigger cogs make for easier pedaling but slower speeds. This means your right hand shifter works backwards of your left hand. By pushing the whole right hand lever inward, the derailleur shifts the chain to an easier gear.
Pushing the small inner lever will shift the chain to a harder gear and faster speeds. Compared to front shifting, the difference between gears is much smaller out back. With practice, you’ll find that front shifting is helpful for big changes on hills. Rear shifting is good for fine tuning until you’re pedaling at a comfortable rate.
There are 2 gear combinations to avoid. This is when you’re in the hardest gear on one shifter, and the easiest in the other. We call these “cross-chaining”, because you’re running in opposite extremes.
Cross-chaining puts a lot of strain on the chain and often causes the chain to rub against the front derailleur. This makes a lot of irritating noise and can be rough on your gear.
So what gear combination is best? It’s a matter of personal taste. What we’re really after is the most comfortable and efficient rate of pedaling, or “cadence”.
In general, most riders find a cadence of about 90 pedal rotations per minute to be the most efficient and comfortable. A slower cadence can feel like a struggle. A faster cadence feels like you’re pedaling like crazy but going nowhere.
If you’re interesting in measuring your cadence, many cycling computers or apps can read this with a sensor. Using a sensor to measure your cadence can be a great way to learn when it’s a good time to change gears.
Finally, you need to keep pedaling while shifting, and it works best when you’re pedaling lightly. If you’ve got a lot of pressure on the pedals when shifting, the change tends to be clunky and abrupt. If you see a hill coming up, shift to an easier gear before you start climbing.
And that’s the 101 of shifting gears. If you’re totally new to this, it helps to practice shifting in an empty parking lot.