How to Shift Bicycle Gears

If you dread hills when you’re riding your bike, or if you’ve simply never quite figured out how the shifters work, this is great information to have.

When you buy a new bike, say a crossover bike with twenty-one speeds, nobody ever goes into detail to explain how to use those speeds, or what they do. Here’s your bike – have a nice ride. 

How the Gears Work

So, the gears are controlled by levers on the handlebars. The levers on the left control the front gears, while the levers on the right control the ones in the rear. 

There are only three gears in the front, but there can be as many as eight in back. Let’s start up front. 

There’s a ton of math involved, but you don’t need to know any of that. Let’s start.  

Shift the Front Gears

When you shift the front gears on your bicycle, pause pedaling when you click the lever. This gives the front shifter, called the front derailleur, time to get into place. The cadence is this: pedal, pedal, pedal, pause, shift, pedal, pedal, pedal.

Take a look at the levers on the left side of the handlebars. One will be marked with a little “L” or the word “Low,” and the other will say “H” or “High.” You push the Low lever to shift the chain down to the smaller gear, and the High to pull the chain up to the higher gear.

Push the Low lever until there’s a little “1” in the window. The chain will clickety-click itself down to the smallest gear in front.  This is first gear.

Now, let’s take a little ride. The bike is amazingly easy to pedal, and this will be great for hills. But you can’t go very fast without spinning round-and-round on the pedals.

So, click the High lever until there’s a “2” in the window.

Now it’s a little harder to pedal, but you can feel that there’s a lot more power with each stroke. You could ride all day on 2 in front and have a grand time. 

If you want to go really fast, click the High lever to “3.” That puts the chain on the big ring in front, and it’s much harder to pedal – at first. As you pick up speed, the pedaling gets easier. You’re working hard, but you are flying!  If you try to climb a hill in this gear, though, you are in for a terrible time.

That’s all there is to the front gears – 1 is for climbing hills and going slow, 2 is for general cruising, and 3 is for going fast. 

Say you’re out cruising along in 2, and you come to a hill. No biggy. Click down to 1 to climb the hill, and then, when you’re over the top, click up to 3 to shoot down the other side. Whee! You can travel in 3 until you’re tired, or you can click back to 2 to keep on cruising.

Shift the Rear Gears

The same principles apply to the gears in back. These are actually where you’ll do most of your shifting.

When you use the right gear shifter, don’t stop pedaling when you shift. The rear derailleur uses the momentum of the chain to make the shift. So, pause when you shift on the left, but keep pedaling when you shift on the right. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t shift both left and right at the same time! It’s a mechanical system, and you’ll throw the chain off for sure.

Just like the left gear shifter, the right shifter has two levers, one marked “L” or “Low,” the other marked “H” or “High.” When you click the Low lever, the chain moves in towards the biggest ring. When you click the High lever, the gears climb out towards the smallest ring.

Let’s pedal with the left shifter set to 2, and the right shifter also set to 2. It feels like pedaling a little kid’s bike! There’s almost no effort needed to move the bike, but you can’t go very fast, and you tire out from going round and round so fast! Push the High lever twice, up to 4. Now the pedaling is much more comfortable, and you have some power.

The left shifter makes big, dramatic changes, while the right shifter makes smoother, more subtle changes.

Let’s Take a Ride

Imagine you’re cruising along down the road with number 2 on the left and number 4 on the right. Things are going great, until it starts getting hard to pedal because you’re on a hill. You click the right Low lever down to 3, and it’s a little easier. It gets a little steeper, and so you click the right Low lever down to 1.

If it’s more of a grade than a hill, now you can click down to 1 on the left. With the small gear in front, number 1, turning the largest gear in back, number 1, you are doing the easiest possible pedaling you can do and still keep moving. These are called the Granny Gears, because even dear old granny could ride around on these.  But, try pedaling fast at this setting and you’ll wear yourself out in three minutes. The granny gears are for pedaling slowly up a long hill.

Now that you’ve crested the hill, it’s time for speed. Click the left High lever up to 2, and click the right High lever back up to 4.

Now click up to 3 on the left – you can feel each pedal stroke shove you down the hill. Take the right High lever all the way to 7 or 8. Now you’re pushing 20 miles an hour, the wind whistles through your hair, and you are going as fast as that bike can go. There’s no feeling like it. 

In a nutshell, the lower gears take very little work, but won’t let you go very fast. The higher gears require much more work until you get up to speed, but then they send you flying along. 

One thing to avoid is riding the gears at extreme opposites, like gear 1 on the left and gear 8 on the right. That puts the chain at an odd angle, and will probably cause it to pop off. Not good. 

Also, when you shift, go smoothly through the range. You’ve crested the hill at 1 on the left and 1 on the right. Click up to 2 on the left first. 2 – 1, that’s not bad. Now click the right up to 2, to 3, to 4… 2-4, that’s the standard cruising range. Now click the front up to 3… 3-4, you’re headed for speed now. And then you can click the back gears up to 5, 6 7, and 8.

Try to ride the bike with the left shifter set at 2. It’s the best mix of ease and performance. For general cruising, set the right shifter to 3 or 4.

When you come to a stoplight, shift the right shifter down to 2. When the light changes, keep pedaling until it seems too easy, and then click up to 3. And 4. And 5.

Now you are the gear master, and are to be congratulated! You mastered the gears! You did it!

Please Note: Do not use this procedure if you are not certain that you can complete it safely, or if it does not seem accurate. Skippity Whistles provides this information as advice, and cannot accept any liability from your usage of it.


©2022 All right reserved


Published by John D Reinhart

Author, technical writer, videographer, actor, and naval historian John D Reinhart is a very busy guy. You can find his novels as

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