How to Shift a Bicycle

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.

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 that. Let’s start. Oh, and keep pedaling as you shift the gears – the pedals carry the chain from one gear to the next. Got it? 

Shift the Front Gears

Push the down lever on the left side until there’s a little “1” in the window. The chain will clickety-click itself down to the smallest gear in front. 

Click the right lever until there’s a little “3” showing on that side – that’s a good, safe 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 left lever until it’s at “2.” We’ll leave the right lever alone.

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 left lever to “three.” 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.

If the rear cluster has 7 gears, riding around on gear 3 or 4 will be your standard cruising mode. The difference is that 3 will be a little easier to pedal, while 4 will give you a little greater speed. 

Say you’re cruising down the road with number 2 in front and number 4 in back. You come to a slight hill.

Instead of using the front gears, which make big, dramatic changes, you click the back gears down to 3, which makes the it slightly easier to pedal. The hill gets steeper, so you click down to 2 in back. You can probably make it just fine, but you can still click down to 1 in back and sail right over. 

Let’s Take a Ride

If it’s more of a grade than a hill, now you can click down to 1 in front. With the small gear in front, number 1, turning the smallest 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 front gears up to 2, and click back up to 4 in back.

Now click up to 3 in front – you can feel each pedal stroke shove you down the hill. Take the rear gear 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 in front and gear 8 in back. 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 in front and 1 in back. Click up to 2 in front first. 2 – 1, that’s not bad. Now click the back 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 front gear set at 2. It’s the best mix of ease and performance. For general cruising, set the back gear to 3 or 4.

When you come to a stoplight, shift the rear gear 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!


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