Idiot’s guide to gear shifting – Part 2 (Shifting)

It may sound beneath you, but given the number of people James Thornhill-Fisher saw struggling over the basics of gear shifting he thought he’d better address the issue. So it’s back to the basics to help you extend the life of your components, in Part 2 of the gear shifting series.

After reading last month’s column (Idiot’s guide to gear shifting – Part 1 (Technology) you know the components that make up your drivetrain, now let’s get on to the action, actually choosing and changing gears. The most important thing here is that there is no such thing as the ‘right’ gear. Choosing a gear depends on numerous factors, not the least of which is comfort. Really, gearing is a personal preference, so you and your friends will probably ride in different gears, even if you are going the same speed on the same trail. However, one thing to consider is your cadence.

Cadence is another word for your pedalling speed (basically, how fast your legs spin in circles.) This is measured in RPM, or revolutions per minute. Cadence is important because it directly impacts your comfort level. Pedalling at a slow cadence usually means you are using too hard a gear and your leg muscles will tire out quickly. It can also hurt your knees. A good rule of thumb is to keep your cadence fairly high, usually in the range of 75-90 RPM. Aim for 80RPM.

Aside from comfort and cadence, the middle of your gear range is a good starting point. Say you’re starting out on a flat road at an easy to moderate pace (on the “27 speed” bike.) You should be in your middle ring (2) up front, and roughly your fifth largest cog (5) in the rear. 

To make small adjustments to your speed, you will want to shift the rear derailleur. If you need to go a little faster, shift to a smaller cog (shift to 6, 7, 8 or 9). If you want to ease up on the pace, shift to a bigger cog (shift to 1, 2, 3, or 4).

When you come to a steep climb, or a long downhill, you will want to make a big jump in your gearing. So instead of shifting the rear derailleur, you’ll shift the front derailleur first, down to the smallest front ring for climbing and up to the biggest front ring for going downhill.

Don’t cross your chain

You need to keep your chain running in a straight line for the bike

to ride smoothly. You do that by using certain combinations of gears and avoiding others. You should not for example ride in the 3rd ring in the front and the 1st cog at the back, as it puts undue strain on your chain.

When you’re in the small chainring in front, you will want to use the biggest five cogs at the back, numbers 1 – 5. When you are in the middle chainring in front, you can use most of the cogs, but I would stick to numbers 1-7. When you are in the big chainring at the front, you should stick with the smallest cogs, 4-9 at the back. This will keep your chain in a fairly straight line.

When to shift

To shift smoothly and keep a constant, comfortable cadence, you want to anticipate your shifts. If you are approaching a steep hill climb, you want to shift down to an easier gear before you need it. The steeper the hill, the more gears you will want to shift down. If you wait until you can barely turn the pedals before shifting down, you’ll have a real painful time trying to climb the hill! Trying to force the gears to change into a lower gear while under heavy tension is called “Power Shifting” and destroys your drive train. You also run the risk of snapping off your rear derailleur. Likewise, if you are going downhill, gradually shift up as you gain more speed. Don’t wait until your legs are spinning around like crazy!

Another thing to anticipate is starting up again after you come to a stop. If you are riding in a big gear, you will want to shift down as you slow down and come to a stop.

Proper shifting technique

The basic principle is that you have to be pedalling for the bike to shift gears. The chain needs to be moving forward for the derailleurs to do their job, so always pedal when shifting. The trick is that you need to be pedalling lightly and softly for the bike to shift smoothly. It’s called “soft pedalling”. If you are pedalling too forcefully, your leg power will override the derailleurs and there will be no shifting, just grinding noises!

So here’s how to shift: As you move the shifter with your hand, simultaneously ease up on your pedalling for one stroke. You should hear and feel the shift complete smoothly. Then you can resume pedalling with full force.

That’s all there is to it. Most people I see that have trouble shifting simply need to try soft pedalling. It is a common misconception that you need to pedal hard and fast to get a shift to complete. Proper shifting actually calls for the opposite approach! Just get out there and practice…

 Related Content:  Idiot’s guide to gear shifting – Part 1 (Technology)

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