How to Shift Bicycle Gears

If you're a little uncertain about how to use your gears, don't feel bad. It's probably because no one ever gave you a clear explanation of how to use them. Read on. I think I can help. First, I'll give you a lot of information about gears, which will sound like a lot to remember, but don't worry about that. That's mainly background stuff. The actual instruction is only a couple of sentences.

Why All Those Gears

We get this question a lot at the bike shop. First of all, the purpose of gears is simply to make the bike easier to pedal up hills and to enable you to pedal down them, if you want to. The reason they put so many gears on bicycles is so that you’ll have just the right gear for any hill you might encounter.

Better still, gears enable you to ride long distances and use less energy doing it. Have you ever noticed how when you walk or run that you have a natural pace or rhythm you fall into. It's the same idea with the bike. You set your pace on the pedals, then change the gears according to the hills to maintain it. With a lot of gears, the steps between them are smaller, and you can find just the right one to keep a nice, even, efficient pace.

In reality you won't use every gear on the bike, but having a lot of gears is very useful. You’ll be surprised how far you can ride and how easy the hills are, once you’ve mastered your gears.

The Shifters. The majority of bikes, although this is changing these days, have twenty-one, or more gears, and two shifters to change them: one on the left for the front derailleur and one on the right for the rear. Some shifters change the gears by twisting the grip, some by pulling and pushing triggers; and others, as on road bikes, by swinging the brake levers sideways. (More about road bikes later.)

The left shifter has three gears. It's for making big changes, for getting you in the ballpark. Number one is for steep up-hills. (You won't use it very often.) Number two is for flat ground and gentle hills (for most of your riding), and three is for down-hills.

The right shifter has seven (or more) gears. It's used for making smaller changes, for fine tuning. Most of your shifting is done here.

Note that the left and right shifters work opposite from each other. For example, where you would pull the lever on the right to shift to a bigger number, on the left, pulling the lever shifts to a lower number.

About the Numbers: Bigger numbered gears are for going faster; smaller ones are for going up hills. Thus, clicking to a bigger number on either side makes you go faster. It's like the speedometer in your car. Bigger numbers are faster. People understand it in different ways, but shifting to a higher gear (or higher number) makes the bike harder to pedal (or tightens the pedals) and you go faster. Conversely, shifting to a lower gear (or lower number) loosens the pedals to make the bike easier to pedal up hills, but you go slower. So once again, bigger numbers are for going faster; smaller ones are for going up hills.

Rule 1. You must be pedaling when you change gears. That's because the chain has to be moving in order for the derailleurs to "derail" the chain from sprocket to sprocket. If you click the shifters without pedaling, the gears won't change until you do start pedaling, and when you do, you'll hear some very disconcerting noises. You also don't want to shift the gears while standing still. It stretches the cables. That's like fingernails on a chalk board to a bike mechanic. That's why they grimace when customers sit on bikes in the showroom and play with the shifters.

Tip 1. Pedal at a brisk pace. We often have customers come in the shop and say they like to pedal in the higher, harder-to-pedal gears in order to get a good leg workout. However, it’s better to pedal faster using the easier-to-pedal gears than it is to muscle the harder ones more slowly. “Spinning” the pedals will increase your stamina on longer rides, and it enables you to accelerate more quickly. In weight training parlance, spinning is like doing higher reps with a lower weight. This technique is also easier on your bike. It will shift better and you'll get more mileage out of the transmission before it needs replacing. I promise you’ll get a good leg workout, not to mention a good cardio one.

Rule 2. Lighten the pressure on the pedals when you shift. If you remember nothing else, remember that. Of course you have to be pedaling to shift gears, but take the load off of the pedals when you shift. A light touch on the pedals significantly smooths the gear change; it prevents those horrible grinding noises when you shift; and it lengthens the life of your drive train. You’ll have to anticipate your shifts a bit as you approach the hills, but once you get your timing down, it only takes a beat to lighten the pressure on the pedals and change the gears.

Tip 2. Use the low number on the left with the low numbers on the right and use the high number with the highs. Thus, if you're in gear number one on the left, you should use it with gear numbers one through four on the right. Likewise, if you're in gear number three on the left, you should use it with gear numbers four through seven on the right. Number two can be used with numbers one through five, and sometimes six, on the right.

This tip has to do with chain line. Using the highs with the highs and the lows with the lows avoids “cross-chaining” which prevents those rattles and rubs you sometimes hear in your drive-train. (You'll most likely remember this tip when you start hearing noises.) Of course with the number of gears that come on today’s bikes, you can avoid cross-chaining and still find a comfortable gear in which to ride.

Tip 3. Remember to shift back down to a lower number gear before you stop. That makes it easier to start off next time. (Two on the left and one on the right is a good combination for starting off.) It takes a little coordination to brake, pedal, and shift gears at the same time, but a little practice will get you there.

Putting It All Together

So here it is in a nutshell. You must be pedaling when you change gears. A brisk pace is good. On the right side, twist the grip (or pull the trigger) to a bigger number to go faster, then twist back (or push the lever) to a lower number to go up hills. Use the left shifter for big changes, fine tune with the right. Be sure to lighten the pressure on the pedals when you shift, and shift to a lower gear before you stop. And that's it.

Road Bikes

Everything above also applies to road bikes. The only difference is the shifters themselves. Three things to note here: One, the shifters are built into the brake levers; you push them sideways to shift. Two, they are not numbered; and three, the left shifter has a “trim” feature for the front derailleur.

As above, the left shifter is for making big changes and the right for fine tuning. To shift to a higher on the right, you push the paddle-like lever behind the brake lever inward. To shift to a lower, easier gear, you swing the entire brake lever over.

Also as noted above, the left and right shifters work opposite of each other. So, where you'd push the small paddle on the right shifter to go to a higher gear, the small paddle on the left takes you to a lower one.

Since the shifters are not numbered, you have to look down to see which “chainring” on the front and which “cog” in the rear the chain is on in order to determine what gear you're in.

One way to understand the gear layout is to note that when the chain moves outboard (away from the center of the bike), be it on the front or the rear, you'll be shifting to a higher, harder-to-pedal gear for going faster. Conversely, as the chain moves inboard, the bike shifts to an easier gear for going up hills.

If you were to assign numbers to the chainrings, and you have three chainrings on the front, the smaller, inner one would be number one (for steep up-hills), the middle one would be number two (for flat ground and gentle hills), and the big, outer ring would be number three for down-hills. If you have only two rings, think of the smaller one as number one and the bigger one as number three.

Side note: With a two-ring setup you'll notice that there is a huge jump when shifting from one ring to the other. Called a “compact crank”, this design enables the same gear range as a “triple”, but it's a little simpler to use and a little lighter weight. However, it will necessitate more “double shifting”, meaning that when you shift the front, you'll have to shift the rear at the same time in order to find your next gear.

Continuing with number assignments, the biggest cog in the rear would be number one, the next one down number two, and so on.

Having explained all that, however, try not to get bogged down with the inboard/outboard thing or with what number gear you're in. After a while you'll develop a pretty good sense of what gear you're in without having to think about all that.

Do remember not to cross-chain, which prevents the chain from scraping on the front derailleur. On a road bike you avoid cross-chaining by not running the big chainring in the front with the big cogs in the rear, nor similarly by running the small ring up front with the small cogs in the rear.

The chain rub is also mitigated by the trim feature on the left shifter. Sometimes after you shift to a bigger ring on the front, you'll hear the chain rubbing the front derailleur. That's because the derailleur has to over-shift a bit to get the chain all the way up on the bigger ring. What the trim feature does is retract the derailleur after the shift in order to stop the chain from rubbing. If you tap the small paddle lightly after the shift, you'll feel a faint click. It will move the derailleur inboard a tad but not change the gears. (If you tap too hard, it will change the gears.)You'll most often need to trim the front derailleur after you shift to a bigger ring, especially if you're in a bigger cog in the rear. You may also need to trim when you're in the big ring and start moving up the range from the smaller to bigger cogs in the rear. Don't worry about remembering all of that though. Mainly just know that the trim feature is there. You'll remember to use it when you hear the chain rubbing.

So here's the summary for road bikes. You must be pedaling when you change gears. A brisk pace is good. On the right side, push the smaller paddle in to go faster, then swing the entire brake lever over to go up hills. Use the left shifter for big changes, fine tune with the right. Be sure to lighten the pressure on the pedals when you shift, avoid cross-chaining and trim the front derailleur when necessary. Shift to a lower gear before you stop.

Thanks for reading. Come see us.


52 Comments so far...

Very helpful without being overly technical. Thank you

-Posted on Apr 27th, 2008 by reubenr

Very helpful information to me as a novice! But, the article is hard to read, since the font type is very light grey rather than black. Hope you can revise so this can be read by us older bicyclers.

-Posted on Apr 27th, 2008 by Myles Greene Smith

This helps me alot. I had no idea how or when to shift on a bike. I have never even driven a standard transmission car and I'm 55 years old. Thank you so much for recognizing that you can't assume everybody knows about shifting.

-Posted on May 14th, 2008 by Not too old

Very helpful to someone who hasn't ridden since he was a kid many, many years ago.

-Posted on Jun 3rd, 2008 by Doug

This was great advice, I'm glad I happened to come across this site before any damage could occur to my new set of wheels! No wonder my old bike in highschool had so many shifting and general gear related issues.

Cheers Mate!

-Posted on Jul 28th, 2008 by Sam

Excellent article. I've been biking for 50 years and am glad to have read it in advance of purchasing my first 21 speed bike. It should be included with the purchase of every new bike.

-Posted on Sep 3rd, 2008 by bob02vw

Thanks! I didn't know how to figure out my gears and nearly killed myself doing a triathlon with some challenging hills.

-Posted on Sep 23rd, 2008 by aj

Thanks. They say you learn something new each day and today i learnt about how to use my gears properly. Cheers

-Posted on Sep 25th, 2008 by Andrew

I could kiss you I'm so happy right now!!!!1 I thought my new 21 speed mountain bike was defective!!!! Thanks so much!!!!!

-Posted on Oct 19th, 2008 by Kathleen

proper gear changing is the difference between a fun ride that gives you a workout and not proper = hard work that is no fun at all. remember the object of a $1000+ bicycle is to be on the road not on the rack

-Posted on Jan 29th, 2009 by brisco

Thank you so much. My poor bike has been hanging in its rack for much of the time I've owned it because my friends just looked at me like I was an idiot for asking for help learning to ride my 21-speed bike. Now I'll feel more comfortable riding my bike.

-Posted on Feb 8th, 2009 by Rochelle

This is a great article! I've NEVER seen instruction on how to shift gears before, just tried to figure out myself. I can relate to the fellow in your article, especially the constant catching of gears. Thanks!

-Posted on Mar 19th, 2009 by Deb M.

Great Advice, Understandable, hopefully this should make may cycling experience better. So used to old gears on bike, and would never have thought to lower gear as I stopped, but hey I have to on my car so it stands to reason the bike would like the same. Thanks

-Posted on Apr 26th, 2009 by Nicola

Thank you for explaining in terms that I can understand. It isn't always obvious to figure things out unless explained!!!

Thanks again

-Posted on Jan 26th, 2010 by Gear struggler

Great article! Clear and very pedagogical.
After living my whole life in the flat South American Pampas, I have just moved to hilly Seattle. A week ago I received my first 21-speed bike ever, and this article has helped me understand the mechanics and logic behind it all. Now I khow how everything works and should work.
Thank you!!

-Posted on May 5th, 2009 by New in Seattle

Hi it took me 1 to 1 1/2 hours,but I did it all
by myself. It made me feel so good to shift
through the gears and see them work.The next
time they need adjustment it's not going to take me 1 or 1 1/2 hours. your online video is
grate. you saved me a lot of time and money.

-Posted on May 14th, 2009 by Wilfredo Ruiz

This is a great article. The last time I was on a bike it only had one gear and that only worked when you pedeled the bike. So being confronted with 21 gears was a bit disturbing and I was ready to look for an old red Schwinn. Your article made it very clear how and when to shift. I'm ready to give it another try!

-Posted on Jul 7th, 2009 by Raul Rodriguez, Claremont CA

Thank you, well written, appears to really want to help, and not make new riders feel stupid, again, thank you.

-Posted on Jul 13th, 2009 by Ant

Great... well written article
I learnt a bit there :)

-Posted on Jul 21st, 2009 by barry

I learned tip #1 going up a steep hill - a guy pedalling furiously in a really low gear passed me as I was trying to push too hard in my medium gear. After that I started that hill in a much lower gear than I thought I needed, and it has made a huge difference!

-Posted on Jul 24th, 2009 by Chris

I'm visiting in Holland, and just bought a Dutch bike... and was having gear problems... exactly like described in the article. Thanks so much for the very clear and helpful explanation!

-Posted on Jul 24th, 2009 by Em-in-Holland

Reading this makes me feel quite smart. I had figured most of this out on my own.

-Posted on Jul 24th, 2009 by Smarty Pantz

Great article. I just got my bike yesterday and this really helps. Anyway I was wondering is it bad for the bike if you shift gears often ?
My friend told me that he shifts only when going uphill... and that shifting is bad for bike if you do it a lot. I use it almost as if I am in a car. Shifting down when I need to stop, and shifting up when I want to go a bit faster.

-Posted on Aug 19th, 2009 by Spacer

Nice job man! Helped me in my project.

-Posted on Aug 21st, 2009 by TOTTI_RULED_&_RULES

Hi there,
Fantastic job guys!! I work in the bike industry myself in Toronto and Montreal (Canada) and was looking for some videos on "how to" to recommend to my customers, one site linked to another one and a couple of hours later browsing on yours made me put you in my list of places to visit some day, keep the good work!
I'll meet you some day.

-Posted on Apr 18th, 2010 by D. Ishikawa

Great knowledge for someone new to road bikes like myself. I really appreciate the informative descriptions and tips. I did not previously know these things and this new found information will surely make my rides better.

-Posted on Aug 22nd, 2009 by New Rider37

THANK YOU,I thought maybe there was something wrong with me,I bought my Felt roadbike almost 30 months ago and am still using the same gear I was bragging to everyone that I don't even shift gears going up hills Then I decided to shift gears one day and couldn't figure it out.So thank you

-Posted on Aug 28th, 2009 by danellen

You've answered all my burning questions about gears but was too embarressed to ask! Many thanks for saving me face.

-Posted on Aug 30th, 2009 by Geimfari

Great Artcle. I wasn't always downshifting when slowing down at Stop Signs. My chain would jump to another gear sometimes, and it was happening while pedaling in higher gears while going slow.

-Posted on Aug 31st, 2009 by Tom

Thanks a lot for your valuable tips.. they will surely be helpful for the cycling community :-)
Good Luck.

-Posted on Sep 10th, 2009 by Vikram

Thanks! Good to know! Kim

-Posted on Oct 9th, 2009 by aqthwlow

Very helpful! I'm using a friend's very nice bike, so taking good care of everything is very important. This should help my riding out quite a bit, as a novice!

-Posted on Oct 19th, 2009 by Eric

Really enjoyed the article. It will help me on my

-Posted on Dec 5th, 2009 by Pops

Thanks for the great explanation and helpful tips. I learned a lot about what I have been doing wrong for the past 10 years.

-Posted on Jan 19th, 2010 by Preemo

yay! This is a great article. Very helpful. I think most bike shops think working the gears is obvious. It's not! Thank you.

-Posted on Apr 21st, 2010 by Sabrina, Portland Maine

Amazingly simple and articulate. Thank you Sir for your effective Gears 101.

-Posted on May 24th, 2010 by NewBee

so helpful im 13, and just got an avanti black thunder adn was wondering why it was making a weird noise but know i know and its stoped, thanks heaps

-Posted on Jan 28th, 2010 by NICKO

Thanks, I have just started riding again two weeks ago and am slowly building up with how far I can go - which is not very far at present. The bike I have purchased, like most bikes now, has gears - I haven't been on a bike since I was 18 and now I'm 55. There were no gears on my bike all those years ago - so all these gears were a mystery to me.
Now I will try to follow these clear instructions of yours and will be more confident in using them.

-Posted on Jan 30th, 2010 by Toni

the most helpful site that I have come upon so far... thanks

-Posted on May 2nd, 2010 by jen

Great one here! I learned it the hard way.. but caught it very quickly on my first ever long distance ride. But about the front and back chains, I had a mechanic told me about it when I had to change a punctured wheel in a foreign state.

-Posted on May 3rd, 2010 by Joeysia

Thanks! Count me among those who never really learned the right way to shift gears. I'm about to buy my 9 year old her first geared bike. Your article has helped us both!

-Posted on May 27th, 2010 by Karen

Thank you for the best, by far, explanation I could find.

-Posted on May 28th, 2010 by Mel

Fantastic explanation without being obnoxious! Thanks again.

-Posted on Jun 3rd, 2010 by JLO

Oh man. I've been riding a single speed for almost a decade, but just picked up an old ten-speed. The gears are a mystery to me at this point! This article was very helpful. I would never have thought to downshift at a stop sign. I was so used to mashing my pedals to start up! :)

THANK YOU for this article.

-Posted on Jun 7th, 2010 by brk

I just as confused as ever. I can't even find a website that will explain what gear I'm in. If the lever is at #2 on the left and #4 on the right, what the heck gear or speed is that? Is it top secret? And I've never heard any of this business about how to change gears. They don't tell you anything whatsoever when you buy a bike and nothing comes with the bike that tells you that. So just how the heck are we supposed to automatically know this? I'm ready to just give up on biking completely. I used to have a 5 speed growing up in the 70's and it was fine. Now they have 2 million speeds that I can't figure out how to work and if I don't do everything "just so" I have to bring it back to the shop after riding it 5 or 6 times and get charged another $100 plus dollars. What a racket.

-Posted on Aug 26th, 2010 by tg

Great and straightforward article.I have been having all these problem with gear shifting. Now I cannot wait to go out and try different gear combination and learn how to shift fast. Thanks

-Posted on Jun 20th, 2010 by Mir

I actually sought out these instructions, based on the "assumption", there must be a right, and wrong way to shift 21 speeds.
These tips were nearly all news to my ears, and I have little doubt, the vast majority of recreational riders are equally clueless.
Fact is, for most the basic lessons to learning how to ride, overwhelming end when the training wheels come off.

-Posted on Jun 24th, 2010 by Greyhorne

Yeah! I finally get it

-Posted on Jul 7th, 2010 by trapper

Thanks, a great article.

-Posted on Jul 19th, 2010 by Trek2.1 Owner

Nice article. So, what did you do to fix the problem? My gears occasionally slip and I also do the starting off in a high gear thing. What should I tell the bike shop they need to repair?


-Posted on Jul 26th, 2010 by Christy

Thank you for a terrific article. I just broke my housing because I wasn't shifting right, and ruined a couple of bike day opportunities...but now I'm fixed and I know NOT what to do next time. Thank you!

-Posted on Aug 5th, 2010 by cimero

Thanks a lot for this article. You are God sent to new bikers! After 2 days of riding my new 21 gear bike, I am happy to find your article. I can now ride smooth and avoid any damage to my bike.
Thanks again!!!

-Posted on May 26th, 2011 by Tom