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How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.

Road bike gearing can be utterly overwhelming for beginner cyclists. There are gears and cables and shifters and clicking noises everywhere! But you don’t need to be intimidated. Bicycle gearing is a lot simpler than it seems. This guide will teach you how to shift gears on a road bike. 

We’ll also go through the basics of bicycle gearing and shifting. In this post, we’ll define some terms you may have heard before, such as rear cassette or front derailleur. 

Most importantly, we have a step-by-step guide for shifting on a bike. Plus, we’ll give you some beginner tips to avoid “cross chaining” and prevent you from dropping your chain. 

Road Bike Gearing Explained

Beginner’s Guide to Road Bikes Gears

Before we start explaining how to shift gears on a road bike, we must learn the terminology we’ll be using. There are many moving parts on a bike, and the shifting system is only one small part. The shifting system is what allows you to change gears. 

In the second part of this post, we’ll teach you how to shift gears safely and effectively. We’ll point out some beginner mistakes and tell you how to avoid them. Here is everything that we’re going to cover in the rest of this article: 

  • Everything You Need to Know About Gears on a Bike
    • Bike Gears
    • Gearing Definitions to Know
      • Shift Lever
        • Left and Right Shifters
      • Chain
        • Dropping Your Chain
      • Chainrings
        • Front Chainrings
        • Rear Chainrings
        • Chainring Teeth
      • Gear Ratio
        • Small Gear and Big Gear
      • Derailleur
      • Drivetrain
  • How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike
    • Moving the Chain Between Gears
    • How to Shift Efficiently
    • Beginner Tips for Gear Shifting
    • What Gear Should You Be In?
    • How to Avoid Cross Chaining
    • Why Cross Chaining is Bad For Your Bike

Everything You Need to Know About Gears on a Bike

Bike Gears

Bike gears typically refer to the combination of cogs and chainrings on a road bike. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, don’t worry; we’ll explain everything in a minute. 

As we go through each term, think about your road bike if you have one. Imagine what each part looks like and if you’ve ever looked closely at it. You don’t need to be an expert on each term, and no, there’s not going to be a pop quiz at the end of this article. 

This guide is meant to teach you about the critical components of bike gearing. That way, if something goes wrong, it will be easier for you to find the source of the problem. Let’s jump into it. 

Gearing Definitions to Know

Shift Lever

Shift levers are the components that are squeezed, moved, twisted, or tapped to change gears on your bike. Most road bike shift levers are curved pieces of carbon, plastic, or aluminum that fit in the palm of your hand. You will typically squeeze the shift lever (closing it towards the bars) to apply the brakes and push the lever in (towards the midline of the bike) to shift gears. 

In case you missed it, shift levers and brake levers are typically the same on road bikes. Both are located on the front and top of the handlebars, creating the hand position known as “riding on the hoods.” 

Other styles of bikes such as hybrids or cruisers may have a separate shift lever or shifter controls, and a separate brake lever. In this case, the brake lever is probably your typical squeeze lever, while the shifter controls are either twist shifters or thumb shifters.

gray and black road bike

Left and Right Shifters

On most road bikes, the left lever controls the front derailleur and brake, while the right shift lever controls the rear derailleur and brake. This is the most common lever set-up, but it is common for European riders to use the opposite set-up (e.g., left for rear and right for front). 

Shift levers typically have cables that run from the lever to the shifter. Internal cable routing means the cable goes through the bike’s frame to the shifter. In contrast, external cable routing means the cable runs alongside the outside of the frame to get to the shift lever. 

Top-end shifting systems are electronic, meaning no cables connecting the lever to the shifter. Instead, the system is connected wirelessly. 

Chain

Chains are the final piece of the drivetrain that connects everything, transferring power from the pedals and through the chain to the rest of the system. The chain is a roller chain that goes around each chain ring and through the derailleur systems. Without a chain, you wouldn’t be able to push power into the rear wheel and move your bike forward. 

Dropping Your Chain

One of the most common cycling terms is “dropping your chain.” This refers to your chain falling off the front or rear chain ring. At best, the chain will be caught by the derailleur (you see where the name comes from?) and be remounted to the chain ring in no time. 

In the picture below

Dropped chain road bike

At worst, a dropped chain will get wrapped around the pedal, chain ring, or derailleur, and it could even be twisted or broken. One of the most frustrating mechanical catastrophes in cycling is when your chain gets dropped off the inside of your front chain ring and ends up wedged between your bike’s chain ring and frame. 

If you have a carbon bike, do NOT try to yank the chain back out from between the frame and the front chain ring. This could damage or crack your frame, ruining the entire bike in a split second. 

Instead, leave the chain where it is and get a ride home. If you’re an experienced mechanic, you can try removing some parts (such as the front derailleur or chainrings) in order to remove the chain. Or you can break the chain to fish it out. But if you’re not an experienced bike mechanic, we recommend taking your bike to a local shop where a professional mechanic can help get your chain out.

Beginners needn’t worry too much. You should never drop your chain if your bike is set up properly with the correct gearing and derailleur system. 

Chainrings

The chain rings refer to the spiked circles connected by your chain. Your front chainring (the spelling of chainring can also be chain ring) is the larger chain ring that is centered around your crankset and bottom bracket. Your pedals attach around the front chain ring. 

black Stronglite bicycle sprocket

Front Chainrings

Road bikes typically have two front chain rings, the “big ring” and the “small ring.” The big ring is used on flat roads and for racing and time trials, while the small ring is used for low-speed rides and climbing. A typical road bike will have a 53/39T, which means that it has a 2x (two chain ring) setup with a 53-tooth chain ring and a 39-tooth chain ring. Skip to the next sub-heading to learn about chainring teeth. 

Rear Chainrings

Rear chain rings are most often referred to as the rear cassette. Rear cassettes are typically 10-speed or 11-speed on most road bikes, which means they have 10 or 11 different gears. This is why bikes are some times called an “11-speed bike.” The cassette relates to the grouping of gears rather than a single gear known as a cog. 

The most common rear cassette is an 11×28 with 11 different gears, with the 11-tooth cog being the “smallest” gear and the 28-tooth cog being the “biggest gear.” 

While it is technically correct to refer to the rear gears as the “rear chain rings,” no one ever uses that term. Instead, cyclists usually say things like “rear cog” or “I was stuck in my 11.”

Chainring Teeth

Every chain ring has a certain number of teeth, which refer to the points that stick out around the edge of the chain ring. You can’t miss ’em. 

The bigger a chain ring, the more teeth that chain ring has. For example, the biggest chain ring on a typical road bike has 53 teeth, which is the big front chain ring. 

However, it is crucial to remember that a lot of bike gearing and shifting is the opposite of the front and rear gears. We’ll cover this topic in depth below in How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike. But for now, you need to know that bigger front chain rings have more teeth, and small chain rings have fewer teeth. 

In summary, cyclists always describe gearing based on the number of teeth that chain ring or cog has. For example, a cyclist might say, “I was using the 28 for that climb because it was so steep,” referring to the rear cog with 28 teeth. 

yellow bicycle with grey pedal sprocket

Gear Ratio

Bicycle gear ratio refers to the combination of front and rear gear at any moment. Gear ratio is expressed as the front chain ring x rear cog, such as “53×11.” 

When cyclists talk about what gear they are using, they may respond with their gear ratio (e.g., 53×11) instead of just one gear (e.g., “I was in my 28.”) 

Along the same lines, when a cyclist says they shifted into a harder gear, they are referring to moving up the big chain ring or moving the rear cog to an easier low gear.

Small Gear and Big Gear

Cyclists typically refer to their “biggest gear” as the hardest gear and their “smallest gear” as their easiest gear. Confusingly, the words big and small don’t align with the cogs’ physical sizes. Don’t overthink it. 

To “wind up your big gear” means that you are getting ready to sprint in the 53×11, for example. If a cyclist says they had to use their smallest gear on a climb, they are talking about using their 39×28 to get up that hill. 

In most cases, “small gear” means riding easy, while “big gear” refers to riding hard and fast. 

Derailleur

Derailleurs are components of the gearing system that move the chain from one gear to another. They also help hold the chain in place and prevent it from falling off the chain rings during gear shifts. 

Most road bikes have two derailleurs: front derailleur and rear derailleur. The front derailleur is located directly above the front chain rings. In contrast, the rear derailleur is located under the rear cassette. 

gray stainless steel and black bike wheel

Drivetrain

The drivetrain refers to all the moving parts that make up the gearing system and transfer power from the pedals to the rear wheel. Bicycle drivetrains include the chain, chainrings, and cassette.

How to Shift Gears on a Road Bike

When you shift gears on a road bike, you are physically moving the chain from one chain ring or cog to another. Well, you’re not grabbing the chain with your hand. Still, you’re operating the lever that then uses the derailleur to move the chain physically. 

In other words, you control the shift levers, the shift levers control the derailleurs, and the derailleurs maintain the position of the chain. 

Moving the Chain Between Gears

Shift levers come in all different shapes and sizes, including trigger shifters, twist shifters, and button shifters. Most road bikes use simple levers for their shifters, of which there are two on each side of your handlebars: one shift lever moves the chain to the left while the other shift lever moves the chain to the right. 

Moving the front chain ring to the left means shifting into an easier or smaller gear. This shifts your chain from the big ring to the small ring, which is what you would do before the start of a steep climb. Moving your front chain ring to the right means shifting from the small ring to the big ring. This is precisely what you would do as you crest the climb and start down the descent. 

As for your rear gears, moving the chain to the right means shifting to a harder cog. You would shift your rear gears to the harder cog as you accelerate or prepare for a sprint. 

If you move the chain to the right on the rear cassette, you are making a shift into easier gears. This is the shift that you would make if you are decelerating as you start climbing up a steep hill. 

Those are the basics of shifting gears, but now we’re going to tell you how to shift gears safely and efficiently. 

How to Shift Efficiently

In the split second that you are shifting gears, your chain will be detached from your chain ring. Remember that you are physically moving your chain from one gear to another when you shift. It only takes a fraction of a second, but this can be important. 

Avoid pressing hard on the pedals at the precise moment that you shift. This might take some practice, but over time, you will develop an instinct to relax on the one pedal stroke that you are shifting gears. 

Most importantly, avoid shifting gears during an all-out sprint. This can cause your gears to slip (i.e. your chain slips over a few teeth before engaging) or your chain to drop. When you’re sprinting, you’re putting a lot of pressure on the chain and you’re probably throwing your bike around. Efficient shifting is done best when your bike is stable and you have a light but consistent pressure on the pedals. 

man in black jacket riding red bicycle

Beginner Tips for Gear Shifting

As frustrating as this may sound, smooth and efficient shifting comes with lots of practice. Professional cyclists shift intuitively, they don’t even think about it. Whereas beginner cyclists might be overthinking every single shift. 

When you’re first learning how to shift, remember to be smooth on the pedals and avoid shifting when you are pushing hard in your pedal stroke. There is no benefit to shifting gears quickly. It’s always better to shift gears smoothly. 

As you get more comfortable with gear shifting, practice shifting into corners and before and after hills. When you decelerate for a corner, try shifting into an easier gear so that your cadence stays the same as you exit the corner at a lower speed. 

The same goes for climbing. Practice shifting gears just before you are on the climb rather than when you have already started it. This allows you to find a comfortable cadence before the road gets steep, and you won’t get stuck trying to shift gears while also putting pressure on the pedals. 

What Gear Should You Be In?

Picking the perfect gear is a lot like choosing the perfect pair of shoes. We have some recommendations and guidelines for you to follow but at the end of the day, you have to find the gear that is best for you.

If you have a cadence sensor or a power meter, then you can use your cadence data to find your perfect gear. Your cadence is how fast you are pedaling, and it is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). When you shift into an easier gear, your cadence will increase at the same effort level. And when you shift into a harder gear, your cadence will decrease.

A cadence of 80-90rpm is recommended for most cyclists, but this can change based on the terrain. For example, you might be pedaling at a lower cadence of 70rpm on a steep hill, or sprinting in your fastest gear at 105rpm.

A good rule of thumb is to get into the gear where you are pedaling almost as fast as you can without your bottom bouncing up and down on the saddle. Your cadence should feel quick but smooth. And for most cyclists, this ideal cadence is around 80-90rpm.

woman riding road bike

Avoid Cross Chaining

Cross-chaining occurs when your chain is stretching diagonally across your front and rear gears. Imagine looking at your chain from above, and you can see if it is tracking in a straight line. 

If you are cross-chaining, your chain will not look straight. Instead, it will be reaching from the right side of the front chain rings to the left side of the rear cassette (as you can see in the picture above) or vice versa. An example of cross-chaining is riding in your 53×28 (above), which means that your chain is stretching diagonally from your big chain ring to your easiest rear cog. 

Why Cross Chaining is Bad for Your Bike

Cross-chaining is loud, inefficient, and dangerous. First, it is loud because your chain will be rubbing up against the front derailleur. Metal rubbing on metal usually makes a lot of noise. 

This rubbing wastes energy, which means that anytime you are cross-chaining, you are losing watts. 

Lastly, cross-chaining is dangerous because it puts extra pressure on your rear derailleur and especially your rear derailleur hangar which is the small piece that connects your rear derailleur to your bike’s frame. The diagonal pressure from cross chaining is much more likely to bend or break your rear derailleur, which is not a cheap and easy fix. 

To avoid cross-chaining, try to use the bottom two-thirds (e.g. 23-11) of your rear cassette with your front chain ring only. If you need an easier gear in the top third of your cassette (e.g. 28-23), you should shift to your small ring. 

In other words, don’t use your easiest rear cogs with your big front chain ring. And if you’re not sure if you’re cross chaining, just look down at your chain and listen for rubbing on your front derailleur. 

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.