How to Shift Bicycle Gears

Gear Shifting Tips & A Tale from Your Bike Mechanic

I've been fixing, selling, and talking to people about bicycles for over twenty-five years. Yet with all this experience, folks still sometimes surprise me. They teach me things I didn't know, or they remind me of things I just assumed everybody knew, things that I take for granted having worked on bikes for so long. Hereís an example of what I mean.

We had a customer bring in his road bike a while back because he was having chronic problems with his gears slipping, especially when he pedaled hard up hills or when he was starting off. We had recently replaced his chain and cassette and made all the requisite gear adjustments, but he was still having problems. He returned to us for another look. We took the bike out for a test ride, and double-checked that all the adjustments were done properly. We noted that there was some wear on the front chainrings, but saw nothing obvious that would explain his gear slipping.

Now I've learned over the years to listen carefully to customers as they explain problems they are having with their bikes; and although their descriptions sometimes take a bit of translation or reading between the lines to get to the problem, Iím careful not to dismiss even the silliest sounding explanations. Iíve often learned something new in these circumstances and have enjoyed diagnosing mysterious problems I havenít seen before. (After so many years, the finer, more esoteric points tend to keep oneís interest.) This gear-slipping episode was getting interesting.

At this point, since the gears won't slip for us, (It never happens for the mechanic when you bring it to the shop, does it?) I suggest that we go ride together and see if his gears would slip on him while I observed.

So, we ride around the block. As we come to the stop sign on our test route, I see immediately that he has not down shifted to a lower gear before he stopped. As he starts off in high gear, I can just hear the transmission groan as he loads it with some 200lbs of muscle. Itís no wonder heíd been having gear issues. All this time heís been starting off from a dead stop in high gear!

Now our rider is a sharp guy. Heíd had this bike for close to a year. I assumed he had mastered his gears long ago, that he knew to down shift before stopping. I assumed everybody knew you had to down shift before stopping. And if they didn't, they'd figure it out after the first time they had to start off in high gear. Not so. Even with all these years of experience, Mike still learns new stuff. In this case, about assumptions.

Itís with this experience in mind that I submit these gear shifting tips. You may already know this stuff, but you know what they say about assuming.

But first a couple of fundamentals; number one: the purpose of gears is to make the bike easier to pedal up hills and enable you to pedal down them. The idea is to maintain a constant pace on the pedals and change your gears according to the wind and terrain conditions. Once you find your pace, that rhythm, you can ride all the way to California if you want to.

Fundamental number two: you must be pedaling when you change gears. That's because the chain has to be moving in order for the derailleurs to "de-rail" the chain from sprocket to sprocket. That's also why it's best not to click the shifters when youíre sitting still. Besides stretching the gear cables, the bike immediately changes gears when you start off again, usually with some very disconcerting noises. Shifting your gears while sitting still is like fingernails on a chalkboard to your bike mechanic.

Now back to the gear shifting tips.

Tip one: Pedal at a brisk pace. Itís better to pedal at a brisk pace using the easier to pedal gears than to muscle the harder gears more slowly. This technique will increase your stamina over a longer ride and will enable you to accelerate more quickly if you need to "jump". I promise youíll still get a good leg workout. A brisk pace on the pedals also improves the shifting.

Tip two: And this is hugely important. Lighten the pressure on the pedals when you shift. Keep them turning, but don't be muscling down on them while you shift. Lightening the pressure on the pedals significantly smoothes the gear change, reduces those grinding noises when you shift, and lengthens the life of your drive train. Youíll have to anticipate your shifts a bit as you approach the hills, but it only takes a beat to change your gears on a hill once you get your timing down.

Tip three: Use your low numbered gears on the left with your low numbered gears on the right; and use your high numbered ones with the high ones. 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 number three on the left, you should use it with gear numbers five and above on the right.

This tip has to do with chain line. Although no real damage is done using the wrong gears together, avoiding them prevents those rattles and rubs you sometimes hear. With the number of gears that come on todayís bikes, you can avoid "mixing your highs and your lows" and still find a comfortable gear in which to ride.

On road bikes, where you have to look down to see what sprockets the chain is on to determine what gear your in, avoid running the large sprockets on the front with the large ones in the back, and similarly, avoid using the small ones in the front with the small ones in the back. Another way to say the same thing is, when youíre chain is on the inboard ring on the front, it should be on the inboard cogs in the back. Similarly, when youíre chain is on the outboard ring on the front, it should be on the outboard cogs in the back.

Tip Four: Remember to shift back to a low gear before you stop so that youíll be in an easy gear for starting out again.

When to change gears will be pretty obvious. Youíll want to shift to an easier pedaling gear (i.e. down shift to a lower number) when the bike gets hard to pedal up hills, and then shift to a higher gear (higher number) so your pedals can catch up when you go down one. Thus, we have come full circle on our gear shifting discussion. Gears make it easier to go up hills and let you pedal down them.

So the moral of this whole gear shifting story is this: Never hesitate to ask your bike mechanic questions about your gears, even if you do become the subject of a bike mechanic's tale. But if he (or she) can't duplicate the problem you're having, don't be surprised if they ask you: Do you pedal at a brisk pace when you shift your gears; do you lighten the pressure on the pedals when you shift; do you avoid certain gear combinations; and do you start out in low gear? If you say yes to all of these questions, then your bike mechanic will look for other problems. It may turn out to be something interesting.

52 Comments so far...

Very helpful without being overly technical. Thank you

-Posted on Apr 19th, 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 27th, 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 6th, 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 12th, 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 23rd, 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 27th, 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 29th, 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 19th, 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 23rd, 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