Shifting and Gear Use

Bicycle gears are intended to make the cyclist’s ride more comfortable, but many riders are unfamiliar with or intimidated by their gears. I’ve heard many novice riders exclaim that their gears are too confusing, and so they always ride in the same gear combination.

Bicycle gears are much easier to use than many people think. Learning to shift can make your rides more enjoyable and help you get the best use out of your bike. In this post I will define the parts of the drivetrain, describe how the gears work, and explain how and when to use them.

Thanks to for use of this image.

Let’s start with some basic terminology. Clicking on the image to the left will bring up a larger view.

The front derailleur moves the chain across the chainrings. In this image, there are only 2 chainrings. However, many bikes have 3, and some only have 1. (A bike with only one chainring will not have a front derailleur.)

The rear derailleur moves the chain across the cogs of the freewheel. (Sometimes called a cassette, but for the purposes of this article, I will use the term freewheel.) The number of cogs on freewheels vary, but 7 or 8 are common. A ’21 speed’ bike has 3 chainrings and 7 cogs.

A cable connects each shifter to its derailleur. Tension on the cable pulls the derailleur one direction, and a spring in the derailleur pulls it in the other direction.

Now that you’re familiar with the parts of the drivetrain, let’s look at each system more closely. We’ll use a 21 speed bike as an example.

The Front Shifter & Derailleur

The front derailleur is controlled by the left shifter. Many shifters are marked in some way, often numbered or with an ‘H’ for the high gear and an ‘L’ for the low gear.

The ‘1’ or ‘L’ refers to the innermost chainring (closest to the bike). This chainring delivers the least resistance and is useful for very steep inclines or soft terrain. The ‘3’ or ‘H’ refers to the outermost chainring (closest to the pedal). This chainring produces the most resistance and is useful for maintaining speed.

For mostly flat areas, like MSU’s campus, many riders find the 2nd (middle) chainring to be the most comfortable. Beginner riders may find it simpler to leave the chain on this chainring and only worry about shifting the rear derailleur.

The Rear Shifter & Derailleur

The rear derailleur is controlled by the right shifter. On a 7 speed shifter, ‘1’ or ‘L’ refers to the innermost cog. This cog gives the least resistance. ‘7’ or ‘H’ refers to the outermost cog, which produces the most resistance.

It can be confusing for some people that the highest gears correspond to the physically largest chainring but the physically smallest cog. It is better to ignore the size of the gears and remember that the inner gears are lower and the outer gears are higher in both front and back.

If your shifters are not marked, I recommend experimenting with shifting to see where the chain goes. You can them mark your shifters appropriately with a marker or tape.

When & How to Use Your Gears

So what gears should you use, and when? The main thing to remember is that the lower gears produce the least resistance and the higher gears produce the most resistance. Lower gears will give you the advantage in climbing hills and riding on loose terrain like sand. Higher gears will help you gain speed and power and prevent you from needing to pedal as fast. If you feel that the gear you are in is too hard, you should shift to a lower gear. If you are spinning your legs around a mile a minute and feel like you are not getting anywhere, you’ll want to shift to a higher gear. Remember to continue pedaling during shifting.

Shifting bicycle gears is much less complicated than shifting a manual transmission car. It is not necessary to always begin and end in the first gear. However, to make it easy on yourself, you should start in an easy gear and shift to higher gears as you gain speed. Shifting to lower gears as you slow down will ensure the bike is in an easy gear when you start again.

There are a few gear combinations to avoid. Riding with the chain in the innermost chainring and outermost cog (or the outermost chainring and innermost cog) puts a lot of stress on the chain because it is stretched sideways. Riding in these combinations will wear the chain prematurely.

Putting it to Use

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different gear combinations. The ‘right’ gear combo will depend on the terrain, the rider, and their speed, so the best way to learn is to play around and discover what works best for you. As you get familiar with the feel of the gears, you can begin to anticipate what gear combination will be best for upcoming terrain and obstacles. If you are approaching a hill, you’ll know whether or not you’ll need to downshift. It’s a good idea to shift a little earlier than when the gear is needed. That way you can carry your momentum instead of running out of steam.

Hopefully you are less intimidated by your bike’s gears and are now ready to try them out. If you’re still confused, bring your bike in to MSU Bikes (or take it to your local shop) and ask for a demonstration.


Author: Melissa

Store Manager at MSU Bikes Service Center.

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