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Shifting Gears Makes For Better Bicycling

By Sheila Ascroft

cycling skills shifting gearsDo you suffer from bicycle gear phobia? The overt signs are:

  • struggling up hills because you leave the gears in one position no matter what.
  • pedalling like crazy on downhills because you leave the gears in one position no matter what!
  • feeling totally confused by the 12 or 27 or gazillion gear options on your fancy new bike?
  • yearning for that old 3-speed CCM bike you had as a kid?

Relax. This primer on smart shifting will make cycling fun again. The first thing is take this article and go stand by your bike. (It would help if you can volunteer your spouse or neighbour to assist you or else put your bike onto a work stand or a trainer.) Now you can look over and identify the basic parts of the drive train and see how they make the bike move. Every bike


with more than one gear has five basic things: shifters, front derailleur, chain rings, rear derailleur and cogs.

There are two shifters on the handlebar. Depending on the kind of bike you have the shifters may be part of the handle grip you twist, push/pull gizmos on top of the handlebar or, on the expensive road bikes, they might be hidden behind the brake lever. Regardless, the left shifter, moves a cable that moves the front derailleur, which is clamped onto your seat tube above the chain rings. (They look like large round metal plates with shark’s teeth.) The front derailleur moves (derails) the chain up or down from one chain ring to the other. You may have two or three chain rings.

The right shifter moves the rear gears which look like a cluster of very small chain rings only with fewer teeth – these are called cogs. This cluster may have anywhere from five to nine cogs. Newer bikes have more cogs for more gear options. So you can see how the number of gears can vary. With three chain rings at the front and nine cogs in the rear, you have a choice of 27 gears. With only two chain rings and seven cogs, you have 14 gears. The shifting basics are the same. The more gears you have, the easier and better your cycling.

The newest shifters have an optical display of numbers. The left shifter has 1, 2, 3 to correspond to the number of chain rings. Now have your volunteer hold your bike up by the seat so the rear wheel is off the ground. Rotate your pedals with one hand and use the other to move the left shifter. Watch how the front derailleur cage shifts over, i.e. derails, the chain onto the next chain ring. Keep pedalling and try a few more shifts. Good.

Granny gear for uphills
The smallest of the three chain rings is number 1, the “granny” gear. This is used for going up hills. Number 2 is the middle chain ring. It is used for most of your riding. Number 3 is the big chain ring and is only used for going down hills or for really fast, hard riding with the wind at your back. Most of the time you will stay in the middle chain ring and only use the right shifter for the rear cogs to fine tune your ride. If you have just two chain rings, you will probably stay in the smaller ring, unless you have strong leg muscles to power the bigger ring. The tooth count jumps by 10-12 teeth from chain ring to chain ring. A granny may have 28, a middle ring 38 and a big ring 48 or 50. This is a huge difference in terms of pedalling effort. So with the chain rings, just remember: the smallest chain ring makes pedalling very easy but you go slower, the biggest makes pedalling harder but you go faster. (Compact chainrings, now all the rage on new road bikes, usually have a 36/50 teeth with 10 rear cogs. This gives quite a large range of gears while eliminating the extra weight of a triple.The shifting principles remain the same.)

Now try the right shifter – keep rotating the pedals! Why? Because the chain has to move to contact the specially designed teeth (shorter and indented) that act as on and off ramps. The right shifter will probably have numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, although the latest bikes have 8 or 9. These numbers correspond to the rear cogs. A right shift moves the cable attached to the rear derailleur which then moves the chain from one cog to another. Cogs have fewer teeth than chain rings. With only one or two teeth difference between each cog, the change in pedal effort is much less dramatic with each shift. Rear shifting is best for those slight terrain or wind changes. OK, put the bike down!

Unlike the chain rings where the smallest ring is closest to the bike frame, in the rear the largest cog is closest to the bike frame. Don’t get confused by this. If you are shifting by the numbers on your shifter, the higher the number the harder the pedalling. The number 1 cog is the biggest and will feel like the easiest, and as you progress down to number 7 or 8 or 9, the pedalling will become harder to do but the bike wheels will move faster. If you don’t have numbers, simply look down as you ride and see what cog you are in.

Gears are the great equalizer
Most cyclists don’t shift enough and this can lead to sore knees, pulled tendons or worse. It can also make you tired before your ride is over and wear out your drive train prematurely. You probably already have a certain pedalling rate (cadence) that you prefer. It usually ranges from 70 to 90 revolutions a minute. Whatever cadence feels good to you is fine – for now. The trick to maintaining it is to shift every time you feel your pedalling rate slow or speed up. If you follow this rule on a rolling route, you will be shifting often to keep that comfortable cadence – that’s the secret to easy cycling.

How do you know what gear to select? Pick whatever gear that allows you to pedal comfortably at the moment. I cannot emphasize this enough. There is no proper sequence to follow. Some cyclists with great aerobic conditioning love to spin the pedals which takes little leg muscle effort and others with strong quads prefer to mash the pedals at a slower cadence.

Shifting the right lever one click will make it slightly easier or harder to pedal. If you’re going downhill, you might need to shift several times, and if you are still spinning out then it is time for a left shift onto a bigger chain ring. Back on the flat road, that big chain ring will probably be too hard to pedal so you will need to left shift to an easier (smaller) chain ring. Wait, is pedalling still too hard? Then make those right shifts until you find that rear cog that puts you back in your comfort zone. This works the same way in strong winds.

There are a couple more things you need to know. Two gear options should be avoided: the big chain ring and big cog combination or the small chain ring and small cog. If you have either combo, it is definitely time to shift. There will be another combination that will put less pressure on your chain and give you the same or better pedalling result. How come? Some chain ring-cog options are actually duplicates or close to it. Yup, you really have fewer gears to use than you thought. Finally, certain chain rings work best with only some cogs, not with all of them. Let me explain.

Practise, practise, practise
Without getting into the technical stuff about “gear inches” or confusing you further by saying the smaller cogs are actually “higher gears,” just remember that pedalling efficiency comes from good gear combinations. What this means is try to keep a straight chain line from front to rear. If you have three chain rings, think about using only three or four rear cogs in line with that ring. For example, if you have a granny (easy pedalling) gear and are climbing a steep hill, you will probably only need to use the three largest (easiest) cogs at the back. If you are way over in your smallest rear cog, then you could probably left shift to the middle chain ring and ease up a few cogs at the rear. Likewise, if you’re are on your outer (biggest) chain ring, you will probably be using the three outer or smallest rear cogs. The middle chain ring, because there is less chain angle, can be used with most of the rear cogs.

You will develop a feel for this comfortable pedalling rate with practice. If your legs are spinning way fast but you are hardly moving, it is time to shift! If you are struggling up a hill, it’s time to shift. Actually, it was time to shift when your pedalling rate started to slow at the bottom of the hill. Try to ease up your foot pressure while making the shift. It will take some of the stress off your chain.

Think ahead. If you have just come down a hill in the big ring and see a stop sign, use the left shifter to put you onto a smaller chain ring. This way when you start again, you won’t have to push so hard on the pedals.

One last thing. None of this information will help much if you have a rusty or dirty chain (a lubed chain is a happy chain) or if your shifter cables are so slack or stiff that you can’t make all the shift options or some gears seem to skip. See your local bike shop for mechanical help.

Sheila Ascroft

Sheila AscroftI’m an Ottawa writer/editor who has been road cycling for 20 years. I’m not fast or thin, but I ride 3000 km every year and have completed two 100-mile solo rides. For me, every bike ride is a joy ride. [www.sheilaascroft.com]

©Sheila Ascroft (originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, April 4, 2000)

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4 comments to Shifting Gears Makes For Better Bicycling

  • julie smith

    Fabulous thank you just replaced my gears cables and put my chain on the opposite to how you’ve explained lol, no wonder I couldn’t change gear, will recify this promptly. Thank you ever so much

  • Emily Qualich

    Great article. I just replaced my big chain ring. It was only 2 years old. I was told that it was because of cross chaining. I have a triple and started using the big chain ring for 90% of my ride. Thanks to your article I have a better understanding of when to shift. I not a novice. I have been riding for over 20 years, but went from a Trek 2100 ( that I owned for 20 years) to a Ruby Elite by Specialized. I essentially had to learn how to shift again. Would love more articles like this.

  • Colleen Else

    Great article. I have intuitively figured this stuff out over the years, but really appreciate how well you explained it. I don’t tend to use my granny gear often and tend to sit on the number 2 and number 3 chain ring. I see many people on the road on number 3 all the time. I keep experimenting, but am frustrated that I can’t sustain the speeds that others maintain. Keeping a pace of 25km/hour for me is tough, but I am constantly being blown away by people flying well over 30 km/hour. I am over 50 and have arthritis in both knees (although riding generally doesn’t cause me knee grief). I think I am in good shape. What am I doing wrong? Is it me or my bike?

  • Judi Rozelle

    THIS is a great article! Exactly what I needed to know when I needed to know it. I still consider my self a novice rider and just getting the hang of how gears, speed, skill and perceived effort interrelate. Thank you!

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