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A Beginner’s Guide on How to Shift Bike Gears

The days are steadily getting longer, and we’re all slowly emerging from our winter period of inactivity. Thoughts of racing a bicycle along a forested single-track trail, or a tight city street, might soon begin to fill our minds. Biking is a nice middle ground — a bit more exhilarating than hiking, but not as expensive as buying a motorcycle. Perhaps you’re a mountain bike beginner, considering buying your first setup. Maybe you’re upgrading from a single-speed. You could even be looking to ditch your city-dwelling folding bike and start heading for the hills. Either way, shifting gears on your bike is almost always necessary for you to maintain optimum pedaling efficiency. Let’s explore the basics of how to shift gears on a bike.

Bike Gears Explained

A rear bike wheel with gears shown.

A gear is a component of the drive train of your bike. Gears, simply put, are pulleys that help you transfer power from your legs, through the pedals and cranks, then through the chain, and eventually to the rear wheel. A single-speed bike only has two gears — one attached to the crank and one attached to the rear wheel. Bikes with shifters and derailleurs (more on that later) have one or more gears attached to the crank and multiple gears attached to the rear wheel. On both types of bikes, a chain connects the gears on the crank to the gears on the rear wheel. Gears have a cogged outer rim, which meshes with voids in the chain to help you transfer power efficiently.

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Why Do I Need to Shift Gears?

Gears help you keep maximum efficiency while pedaling, no matter where you are riding. Approaching a hill? Downshift so your legs make more revolutions than the rear wheel, resulting in lower speed but higher torque. This makes pedaling feel easier. Descending a hill? Upshift so your legs make fewer revolutions than the rear wheel, leading to higher speeds but lower torque. This makes pedaling feel harder, but you’ll also go faster.

How do Gear Shifters Work?

The rear wheel of a bike showing the gears and chain.

If your bike has gears that can be shifted, it also has derailleurs. A derailleur is a device that you control with the shifter that causes the chain to switch from a bigger to a smaller gear, or vice-versa. Depending on the type of bike, there can be a derailleur on the rear gears only or one on both the rear gears and the crank gears. Gear shifters are connected to the derailleur(s) via an enclosed steel cable. The shifter’s job is either to pull in the cable (creating tension) or release the cable (creating slack), each corresponding to a movement of the derailleur.

How Do I Use Bike Gears?

The method for shifting gears on a bike depends on the exact shifting system that is installed. Presently, most, if not all, bikes that you can buy have the shifters installed onto the handlebars. Some older bikes have shifters installed on the bike’s downtube or at the very ends of racing-style handlebars. There are three main manufacturers of gear shifting components — SRAM, Shimano, and Campagnolo. Let’s have a look at a few common types of shifters:

Thumb Shifter

Close up picture of a thumb shifter.

Shifters like this are most commonly seen on mountain bikes. Typically, the larger lever (closest to you in the above picture) is pushed with your thumb to downshift. When ready to upshift, simply push the smaller lever with your thumb.

Combination Shifter

Combination shifter on white background.

Typically seen on hybrid or fitness bikes, these utilize your forefinger as well. Similar to a pure thumb shifter, you press the thumb lever to downshift. However, to upshift, you push the longer upshift lever with your forefinger.

Twist Shifter

SRAM twist shifter on white background.

SRAM maintains the trade name Grip Shift for its line of twist shifters. Similar in function to twisting a motorcycle throttle toward you to go faster, you rotate the grip shift toward you to upshift. When you’re approaching a hill and would like to downshift, rotate the grip shift away from you. Twist shifters are nice and compact; they don’t take up too much space on the handlebars.

Integrated Shifter + Brake Lever

Integrated shifter on white background.

Think of a road bike, with handlebars that curve forward and then down and back. Mounted to the downward curves are 2 brake levers — the tops of which are typically used to rest your hands while riding. Nestled in behind the brake levers are the gear shifters. While the brake levers are pulled straight back to actuate the brakes, the gear shifters are pushed sideways to change gears. This streamlined layout adds to aerodynamics and can increase biking speed.

Tips for Better Shifting

Shifting is fairly straightforward once you get used to it, though there are always ways to improve. Follow these tips to start shifting like a pro:

  1. Keep your shifting system maintained. Tension the cables properly, and keep the moving parts clean and lubricated.
  2. Pedal while shifting. Your bike won’t shift gears at all if you’re not rotating the pedals.
  3. Don’t shift under tension. Rather than downshifting midway through a tough climb, try anticipating it and downshifting before you start the climb. This ensures that there’s minimal tension on the chain, leading to easier shifting.
  4. Only shift 1-2 gears at a time. Changing between widely-spaced gears (ex. shifting from 8th to 1st) over too short a time could cause the chain to skip or even come off entirely.
  5. Adjust your shifters to fit. Most gear shifters can be positioned to best fit your hand size and riding style. Ride your bike around the block, find out where your hands naturally rest on the bars, then move or rotate your shifters to match. It makes sense to consider this as you’re figuring out what size bike you need.

As with anything — practice, practice, practice. Shifting gears on a bike can be tricky at first, but will get easier the more you do it. Soon enough, you’ll figure out how to shift well enough to give yourself the most speed while saving the most energy. Then, the world is yours to explore.

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