Tired of dragging your claw up the hill every time? Gears make cycling more comfortable and efficient, whether you have to climb hills or just ride through the city. Understanding the basics of how gears work can completely change the way you ride. So learn these techniques today and ride your bike in style!
Part 1 of 3: Recognizing gears
This section will teach you how to tell if your bike has gears, and if so, how many. Click here to go straight to the switch section.
Step 1. Count the number of sprockets at the pedals
If you want to learn to shift gears on a bicycle, you will really need a bicycle with gears. Fortunately, you can easily check this. First look at the pedals. In the middle are one or more metal rings with teeth that engage the chain. These are the front sprockets. Count the number of gears you see.
Most bikes have one, two or three front sprockets
Step 2. Count the number of sprockets on the rear wheel
Now look at the rear wheel. You should see that the chain continues from the front sprockets over a second set of sprockets, in the middle of the rear wheel. These are the rear sprockets. Count how many you see.
If your bike has gears, there are usually more sprockets in the rear than in the front. Some bikes have ten or more sprockets in total
Step 3. Multiply the two numbers to find out how many gears your bike has
Now simply multiply the number of front sprockets by the number of rear sprockets. This will give you the total number of gears your bike has.
- For example, if you have three sprockets in the front and six in the rear, your bike has 3 × 6 = 18 gears. If you have one sprocket at the front and seven at the back, then your bike has 1 × 7 = 7 gears.
- So if your bike only has one sprocket at the front and one at the back, you have 1 × 1 = 1 gear. Such a bicycle is sometimes referred to as a 'pedaler'. Unfortunately, you cannot shift gears with these bikes.
Part 2 of 3: The basics of shifting
Step 1. Use your left hand to shift the front sprockets
Bicycles with gears almost always have the controls on the handlebars. If you use the control on your left hand, a so-called derailleur moves the chain from sprocket to sprocket. There are a few types of controls that are common on bicycles. These are:
- Adjusters with a twist grip that you operate by turning your wrist
- Small switches above or below the handles that you operate with your thumbs
- Bigger switches next to the brakes that you operate with your fingertips
- Rarer are electronic switches or switches mounted to the frame of the bicycle
Step 2. Use your right hand to shift the rear gears
The rear sprockets have their own derailleur. With your right hand you can move the derailleur from left to right, moving the chain from sprocket to sprocket. The rear sprockets almost always have the same mechanism as the front sprockets.
Step 3. Shift down to make pedaling lighter but less forceful
You can shift gears to make cycling easier in certain situations. Downshifting (shifting to a lighter gear) makes pedaling faster and easier, but each revolution of your pedals will get you less far. There are two ways to downshift:
- Switch to a smaller sprocket at the front.
- Switch to a bigger sprocket at the back.
Step 4. Shift up to make pedaling harder and more powerful
The reverse of downshifting is upshifting, or shifting to a higher gear. This makes pedaling harder, but each revolution of your pedals will take you further and give you more speed. There are also two ways to upshift:
- Switch to a bigger sprocket at the front.
- Switch to a smaller sprocket at the back.
Step 5. Practice shifting on a flat spot
A good way to learn gear shifting is simply to try it! Find a safe and level place (like a park) and start pedaling. Now try to switch up or down. You should hear a click or rattle, and feel your pedals get heavier or lighter depending on which way you've shifted. Practice with both switches and switch both up and down to get the hang of it.
Step 6. Only shift while pedaling
This will probably take some getting used to if you are used to a bicycle with a coaster brake. The chain can only engage a new sprocket when it is taut, and for this you have to pedal forward. If you shift gears while pedaling back or not pedaling at all, the chain will not be tight enough and will not engage. When you then start pedaling again, the chain can rattle or even come off the sprocket, and that is not useful when cycling.
Part 3 of 3: Learning how and when to shift gears
Step 1. Start in a low gear
The first few revolutions you make with your pedals are often the hardest, because you have to accelerate from a standstill. So when you start riding your bike, use a low gear to make acceleration faster and easier.
- It is also best to do this when you come to a stop and then have to start pedaling again (such as for a red light).
- If you know that you are going to come to a stop soon, it is a good idea to switch back so that you can accelerate more easily later. This is especially true if you know you're coming out of a tricky one, such as a driveway leading uphill.
Step 2. Gradually shift up as you build up speed
As you go faster and faster you will notice that the lower gears feel too light. If you want to build up more speed, shift up. You will notice that the pedals feel heavier and that you can continue to accelerate.
If you're riding in moderate terrain (eg in the city with a little hill here and there) a gear somewhere in the middle will work just fine for your normal cruising speed. For example, if you have 18 gears (three cogs in the front and six in the rear), the second cog in the front and the third cog in the rear will be a good middle-of-the-road option
Step #3. Switch back for hills
This is an important skill, and if you don't do this, you will have to lift your bike up on tougher hills. It is almost impossible to cycle uphill in a high gear. In a low gear you can get up the hill steadily without too much extra effort.
You may find it difficult to get up hills slowly in a low gear at first. That makes sense: because you have a low speed, it is more difficult to keep your balance. Fortunately, at low speed it is also easier to get a foothold if you lose your balance
Step 4. Shift up for relatively flat sections and descents
If you want to build up speed, it is best to use higher gears. Gradually shifting up to the highest gears will keep you accelerating until you reach your top speed. Be extra careful if you go that fast, because you hurt yourself much more easily.
Using a high gear is pretty much the only way to accelerate when descending. Lower gears can't spin the chain fast enough to keep up with the wheels on a descent, making it nearly impossible to accelerate further on top of the descent gear itself
Step 5. Be careful when upshifting to avoid joint injuries
It can be very satisfying to "pump" your bike forward in a high gear, but in the long run it can be bad for your joints. Moving forward with such a great effort on a bike in too high a gear can put a lot of strain on your joints (especially your knees), which can lead to pain and even injury. Also to train your heart and lungs it is better to cycle in a lower gear and at a regular pace.
Just to be clear: you can of course use your higher gears, but only if you work towards them gradually after you have already built up some speed
Step 6. Avoid gears where the chain is very skewed
If you look at your chain as you shift, you may notice that it is sometimes slightly diagonal. This is not a problem, unless you choose a gear where the chain is very skewed. This can cause your chain to wear out and even break after a while, and in the short term it can cause chatter and derailment of the chain. As a rule of thumb, it is best to avoid the largest and smallest sprockets both front and rear. Or, in other words:
- Avoid it largest front sprocket with largest rear sprockets.
- Avoid it smallest front sprocket with smallest rear sprocket.
- In strong headwinds, use one gear lower than you normally would. You will then go a little slower, but you will last longer at a constant pace.
- The size difference between the front and rear sprocket determines how hard you have to pedal to move forward and how fast you move forward. For example, if the two sprockets are nearly the same size, your rear wheel will turn once for every revolution of your pedals. If, on the other hand, you have a large sprocket in the front and a small sprocket in the rear, your rear wheel will spin several times for each revolution of your pedals. This allows you to achieve higher speeds, but it takes more effort to accelerate.
- Play it safe and use a gear that is too low when driving uphill. Pedaling so fast with less counterbalance is exhausting, but it's better for you than fighting yourself up the hill. Moreover, you can last longer.
- Downshift early for a climb. You want to avoid having to downshift in a rush while you're already going uphill.
- Many people find between 75 and 90 rotations per minute the best pedaling speed to maintain for a longer period of time. At this speed, your pedals will make a full revolution in a little less time than it takes you to say "twenty-one."