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Last Updated on April 12, 2021

Most of us buy bikes without fully understanding how the bike's gearing system works. The purpose of a bike's gearing system is to help you make the most of your pedal power.

The pedal transfers the energy to the wheels via the chains. When you shift gears, you are choosing the effort level you need for each pedal stroke. If you understand the basics of how bike gears work, their effect on chainrings and the rear cassette sprockets, you can ride fast and farther.

Unfortunately, a lot of riders have a basic understanding of how bike gears work. In this article, we want to make you a savvy bike rider who knows the ins and out of shifting bike gears. 

Sound's good, right!! Let's get started.


Understanding the essential components of bike gears

Bike gears help us pedal our bikes fast, climb up the hills fast, and enjoy the ride. However, if you want to know how to shift bike gears, you need to know the gears' different components first. Here are the essential parts that you need to know:


bike crankset

It is the part attached to the pedals and pedals and chainrings. A standard bike will have one to three front chainrings.


bike cassette

Your bike's rear stack of cogs(gears) is located on the right-hand side of the rear wheels. If you want to know the number of gears you have, you need to multiply the number of chainrings by the number of cogs you have at the back


It connects the rear cogs with the front chainrings. It makes it easier for you to turn the wheel when you turn the pedals.


bike Derailleur

This device guides the chain from cog to cog or from chainring to chainring when you change gears. A lot of bikes come with rear derailleurs, but others may lack the front derailleur.


bike shifters

They are controls that make it easier for you to change gears. You will see them on the right and left-hand side of the bikes.

The proper gearing system

Once you have known the parts of the gear parts, the next thing is knowing proper gearing. It is the part that most people either miss or ignore. Proper gearing improves your speed and makes the ride enjoyable.

Most importantly, it also speeds up your endurance, especially when you are taking longer rides. The challenge that most people face is understanding the difference between low and high gears. Most importantly, when to use each.

Low gear

The low gear is excellent when you want to climb a hill or steep. The low gear represents the smallest chainring in the front and the largest cog on the rear gear. This position makes pedaling easy, especially when you are riding uphill. You will pedal the bike very well with the smallest amount of resistance. Other bike riders all call it downshifting.

High gear

The gear is excellent when you are descending. The high gear system represents the largest chainring in the front and the smallest cog on the rear gear. Pedaling in this position is hard when riding uphill because you will need to use a lot of energy. This position becomes easier, especially when you are accelerating downhill. The other name for high gear is "upshifting."

How shifting bike gears using shifters

Now that you have the basic knowledge of gear parts and gearing systems. The next thing is knowing how to shift gears either from low to high gear or from high to low gear.

Bear in mind that bike shifters do vary depending on the type of bike you have. For instance, if you have a road bike, shifters are the levers you use on the brakes. If you want to operate a shifter, you will need to push the lever on the side until you hear a sound.

Mountain and hybrid style bikes will have a set of paddles (shifters) that you can operate with your thumb. What’s more, some bikes will have grip shifters or dial that you can operate by rotating the dial forward and back. 

The shifters have an enclosed protective casing. When you click the gears, the cable tightens and loosens, giving out either more or less force on the derailleur, making the chain move up or down either on the cassette or chainrings. Here's the brief explanation:

Left-hand shifter

Your left-hand controls the front derailleur. It will move the chain up or down the chainrings causing either big or small jumps in gear during terrain change.

For instance, if your bike has three chainrings, shift the gear on the middle chainring and make adjustments in the rear cog either up or down. For bikes that have two chainrings, you can start with any.

  • If you are climbing a hill or valley, you may need to shift your chain to the smallest chainring at the front. That way, you will make pedaling easier for you.
  • If you are riding downhills and you need to control the speed, make sure the chain is on the largest chainring in front. That will make pedaling harder.

Right-hand shifter

The left-hand controls the rear derailleur or gear. It moves the chain up or down the cog. Use these levers when you want a small adjustment to your gearing. 

  • If you want to make your pedaling easier, you need to move the chain to the largest cog at the back while climbing a hill.
  • Moving your chain to the smallest cogs will make pedaling harder, and it is best used when you are riding downhill.

It might be a challenge remembering all these tiny details. The best way to understand all these is by practicing and experimenting until they become second nature in your muscle memory.

Three tips to remember when shifting gears

Tip #1: Anticipate the terrain

Shift the gears before you start climbing. Don't wait until you are halfway to begin changing the gears. Otherwise, you will use a lot of effort and apply lots of pressure on the pedals.

When you are changing gears on the hill, make sure to shift one gear at a time. Excessive noise while shifting the gear signifies that you are applying a lot of pressure on the pedals. Excessive grinding can make your drivetrain wear out quickly.

If you are riding downhill, you can shift more than one gear simultaneously. If you are not used to the terrain, always stick to the easier gear.

It can be tempting to use hard gears because it pedals fast, but you'll have to use lots of strength and energy, which can take a toll on your legs. Using the easier gear is more efficient as you learn how to ride a bike on different terrain.

When riding a bike, make sure you use the highest pedaling speed that keeps you comfortable so that you can sustain the ride without getting tired.

After a few rides, you will have a sense of good cadence that works for you. What's more, you can invest in a bike computer that lets you monitor your ride's cadence.

 Tip #2: Take time to shift gears

Always use one shifter at a time before using the next one. That way, you reduce the stress on the drivetrain. Never shift both the front and rear shifters simultaneously.

If you want to shift, always start with the front chainring to make a big adjustment, and then after two minutes, use the rear cogs to make minor adjustments to the gear settings.

Tip #3: Never cross-chain

A lot of new riders don't know what cross-chain is, and some find it excellent. Cross-chain is simply shifting the gears in the opposite extremes of the rear cassette and the front cogs at the same time.

 Cross-chain poses the biggest problem on the drivetrain. Anytime you change the gear, ensure the rear cogs are relatively close in alignment with the front chainring. There are two examples of cross-chain:

  • Big/big- This is positioning the largest cog in the cassette and pairing it with the largest chainring at the front
  • Small/small- this position the smallest cog in the cassette and pairing it with the smallest chainring at the front.

Both of these positions stretch the chains and can cause severe damage to the drivetrain when used often. What's more, the chain can slip or make the front derailleur make noises. Either way, you will be riding the bike uncomfortably and causing more damage.


Shifting bike gears is all about choosing the right cadence and pedaling with minimal effort. With more practice, you will understand when to shift gears while riding on different terrain.

Most importantly, you will discover the best cadence that works for you. The good news is, with the guide we have provided above, you won't have any challenges shifting your bike gears on different terrain. If you can't remember all that we have discussed, you can bookmark this article for future references.

Harold Whitford

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About the Author

My name is Harold Whitford, a husband, father, and avid cyclist with a Bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from the University of Delaware. Having been in the industry for more than 15 years, I have a number of the road race and national time trial championships in my bag.

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