Bike shifting 101

Shifting 101 - A How To Guide on Shifting Bike Gears

7 minute read.

Shifting the gears on a bicycle can be a daunting task at first, with a lot of numbers and two derailleurs to keep track of. In addition to braking, shifting gears on a bike is one of the fundamental mechanical functions of the bike. Learning how to effectively shift gears is a basic skill that continues to grow and improve even for veteran riders. Proper shifting will increase speed, reduce rider fatigue, and improve endurance.

Quick Lesson

Ok, here is the most important thing to remember while riding any bike: THERE IS NO PERFECT GEAR! SHIFT!

So often, we see people putting too much power into their pedals as they climb up a steep hill in the big chain ring or legs flailing as they spin out on a gear that is too easy for the descent they are riding. Your goal while riding should be to keep a cadence (the speed at which your pedals make a full rotation) that as consistent as possible! To do that, it requires one of two things: shifting or increased power output. The thing about power output is, unless you are wonder woman, you have a limited supply. We suggest shifting often for increased efficiency while riding.

Climbing While Shifting

Liv’s Tip: Begin to shift into easier gears with your right hand early to keep a steady cadence. Remember, your right hand is for small changes in the terrain. If you find that your pedaling pace is slowing drastically, you will likely need to use the front derailleur (your left hand) to make the gearing much easier for the big climb ahead. But, if you are already climbing up the hill and putting a ton of power down on the pedals, you might notice your front derailleur doesn’t want to work! You will shift, hear a grinding noise but nothing will happen and you will likely come to a stop in the middle of the hill.

Instead of grinding those gears, you will need to put a little more power into your pedal stroke right before you shift then, lighten up on your pedal stroke as you shift. With less pressure on your chain, your derailleur will have an easier time popping your chain off the big ring and into a smaller one!

-Liv Cycling

Bike Gear Shifting 101


Is your bike ready to roll? Maintaining and cleaning your bike is essential to keep everything running smoothly, including your shifting. Bike maintenance is a breeze with the right equipment. From multi-tools and degreasers to professional work stands, grab the tools you need to get the job done right. Service that drive train, dial in those brakes and hit it hard this season!

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Bicycle Gears

The terminology surrounding bicycle gearing is half of the struggle when getting used to how a bicycle's gears work. Terms such as low, high, big, small, easy, hard, fast, slow, front, rear, and one-by, two-by, and three-by create confusion and make it difficult to understand what's going on. Let's break it down.

Low Gear

The low gear is the "easy" gear and is primarily used when climbing. The low gear is the smallest chain ring in the front, and the largest cog on the rear cassette. In this position pedaling will be easiest and the least amount of force will be required to push the pedals. Moving from high to low gear is called "downshifting".

High Gear

The high gear is the "hard" gear and is primarily used when descending and sprinting. The high gear is the largest chain ring in the front and the smallest cog on the rear cassette. This achieves the most difficult pedaling position and requires the most force to push the pedals. Moving from low to high gear is called "upshifting".

1x, 2x, 3x

The number of chain rings in the front of your bike determine what type of drivetrain you are running. Referred to as "one-by", "two-by", and "three-by". As the cycling industry has developed the trend has moved from three-by being the standard to most road bikes running two-by and mountain bikes running one-by's. This is able to be achieved by increasing the size and range of the rear cassette, allowing for a wider range of gears without the need for additional chain rings. By eliminating chain rings the bike becomes more efficient and has less room for mechanical error while under load.

___-Speed Bike

7, 18, 21-speed etc. We've all bragged about how many speeds are bike has. What exactly is the number referring to when a bike is considered a "21-speed"? Well this number is determined by multiplying the number of cogs on the rear cassette by the number of chain rings in the front. For example if a bike has two chain rings in the front, and eleven cogs in the cassette, then you are working with a 21-speed bicycle. Due to the popularity of 2-by and 1-by drivetrains it is no longer common to refer to bikes in this manner, as sometimes more gears is not the better setup in every situation.

How to Shift

With a basic understanding of the drivetrain system and how gears work now it's time to dive into how exactly your change from one gear to the next. The action of swapping the chain from one chain ring or cog to the next is achieved by pulling a trigger connected to the derailleur via cables.Depending on the type of bike you have your shifters can either be fashioned for flat bars or drop bars. With drop handlebars the shift levers are the same levers you use to apply your brakes, to shift gears you push the lever sideways until you hear a click. For mountain and hybrid style bikes with flat bars, you shift the gears via thumb triggers, completely separate from your braking system. Many kids bikes as well as comfort bicycles are fitted with grip shifters which allow the rider to turn a dial integrated into the handlebar grips to change gears, either forward or backwards.

 The cables that connect your shifters to the brakes are encased in protective housing. When you initiate a trigger pull on your shifter the cable either tightens or loosens, allowing the derailleur to move the chain either up and down on the chain rings or cassette.

Left Shifter

The left Shifter controls the front derailleur and swaps the chain between the front chain rings. This type of shifting is for big jumps in gearing for sudden changes in terrain and slope.

Right Shifter

The right shifter controls the rear derailleur and swaps the chain between the cogs on the rear cassette. This type of shifting is for small adjustments in gearing to use during slight changes in terrain and slope.

Big Lever

The larger of the two shifter levers will move the chain into the larger rings. Shifting into the larger rings with your right hand will make the pedaling easier, while shifting into the larger rings with your left hand will make it harder. Remember: BIG = BIG / RIGHT = EASIER / LEFT = HARDER

Small Lever

The smaller of the two shifter levers will move the chain into the smaller rings. Shifting into smaller rings with your right hand will make pedaling harder, while shifting into smaller rings with your left hand will make pedaling easier. Remember: SMALL=SMALL / RIGHT = HARDER / LEFT = EASIER

 Certain shifting systems have unique functionality including the SRAM "double tap" system, and older style grip shifter setups. See your specific manufacturer's instructions for the exact specifications on your drivetrain.


Cross Chaining

Cross chaining is the term used to describe when your drivetrain is in one of the following undesirable, and inefficient positions.


The Largest cog in the cassette (easiest gear) and the largest chain ring (hardest gear).


The smallest cog in the cassette (hardest gear) and the smallest chain ring in the (easiest gear).

While in these positions the chain is stretched at an angle that causes damage to the drivetrain over time, as well as increases the chance of the chain slipping or rubbing the derailleurs.

Drivetrains with the "Trim Feature"

The trim feature is present on some road bikes and allows for micr-shifting of the derailleurs to eliminate cross chaining and improve gear efficiency. If in the largest chain ring and you are approaching the larger cogs on the cassette you can micro-shift the front derailleur to allow more space and eliminate rub while in the potential cross chaining zone.


How do I Shift Efficiently?

All too often do we see cyclists putting max power into their pedals on a climb; or spinning out, legs flailing on a descent. The goal when cycling with gears is to keep a consistent cadence and maximize your power output. We do run out of energy, and by keeping a smooth cadence and shifting efficiently you will not only ride faster, but further!

Shifting often is a great way to stay active and efficient on the bicycle. Remember it takes time to develop a relationship with your bike's drivetrain, and start with the fundamentals. Thanks for reading our article on how to shift gears on your bike, we hope this arms you with the knowledge and confidence to chase that next KOM.

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