Shifting Gears – Road bikes

Learning to shift properly is almost an art, that when done right will cause fewer mechanical issues and improve your overall efficiency.   While shifting gears on a bicycle might seem like one of the basics, good shifting technique can take time to master and is a skill any cyclist could improve on.

From the basics to a bit more of the detail, we share the important things you need to know when shifting gears on a roadie.

What does that mean

Shifting can sound a little complicated to the new cyclists who may not be familiar with the terminology, so let’s take you through the lingo before we move on:

Chain rings: These are the gears at the front of your bicycle where the pedals attach to the bottom bracket. Most road bikes will have a large and small chain ring, while some newer bikes might only have the one.

Cassette: The collection of gears located on the rear wheel (individually referred to as cogs). The number of cogs on a cassette can vary on road bikes.

Teeth: The number of notches on the front chain rings and the cogs on your cassette. This is normally refer as a range e.g. a cassette range of 11t–28t would mean your smallest cog has 11 teeth, while your largest cog has 28 teeth.

Derailleur: Most bikes (unless you’re on a fixie is single from chain ring) will have a front and a rear derailleur.  The derailleur is what moves the chain up or down the chain ring or cassette.

High gear: The higher the gear the more effort you need to pedal.  High gear (highest) is when the chain is on the largest chain ring and the smallest cog on your cassette. High gears are used for descending or short high speed sprints.

Low gear: The lower the gear the easier it is to pedal. Low gear (lowest) is when the chain is on the smallest chain ring and the largest cog on your cassette.  Low gears are used to climbs and spinning easy for recovery for recovery..

Now for some Shifting Basics

Shifting gears is as simple as using the levers on your handlebars right?  Well that is true, but which one does what.

The left lever: The left lever is for your chain ring.  That’s the big one up the front where your pedal connects.  This lever moves your chain between the large and small chain ring.

The right lever: The right is the shifting lever that moves the chain up and down the rear cassette.

The actual way you shift gears will change between brands.  In some cases the brake lever will move, in others this is fixed.  The common theme will be the purpose of the left and right levers.  Take a few minutes before you hit the roads getting to know how your levers works.

Shifting Tips

Now you know where to find your shifters and how to use them, let’s talk through some of the principles to get you shifting smoother and pedalling more efficiently.          

Shift Frequently

It’s pretty common for new cyclists to use the same gearing for long durations instead of frequently shifting between gears. Deliberately change gears regularly so you get comfortable with different gear ratios and are able to find which gear is the most efficient for the terrain you’re on. This helps you conserve energy and saves your legs from fatigue. For the smaller changes, stick to shifts with the right shifting lever. When a bigger change to your speed is necessary, shift between your chain rings on the front with the left shifting lever.

Cadence is king

A good way to monitor whether you in the correct gear is by using cadence.  Most people will have an opinion on the right cadence, but for you beginners, were suggesting you find a cadence you’re most comfortable riding at, then shift so you maintain this cadence. E.g., if your planning a long easy ride and feel most comfortable riding at a cadence of 90 revolutions per minute (rpm), shift whenever your rpms begins to rise or dip below 90 while maintaining the same effort.

Keep you chain happy (No one likes a cross chain)

There are a couple of gear combinations that can cause your chain to stretch at an angle that could cause slipping or rubbing on the derailleur or frame. This is known as cross chaining and is most likely to occur when you use the big chain ring on the front and the largest cog on the cassette or when you use the small chain ring on the front and the smallest cog on the cassette. Avoid these combinations when possible to prevent unnecessary wear on your chain.

Get there before you get there

Shifting late can have the effect of slowing you down by slowing your momentum. Sift to the combination you need before you need it.  e.g. Instead of waiting until you’re on the climb before shifting from the big chain ring to the small, switch just before the bottom of the climb. This makes for an easier shift without grinding your gears and allows you to start the climb without losing too much speed.

Delicate does it

Dropping a chain (Chain jumps of in most cases the cassette, but can be the chain ring) normally occurs when you apply too much torque through the pedal during the shift. Before you shift, speed up your pedal stroke slightly, so you can then lighten it up during the shift without losing speed.  The decrease in tension on the chain, puts less pressure on the derailleur and makes for an easier shift.

So get out the road and practise.  You will be an expert in now time and a more efficient cyclist.