7 Tips to Shift Gears on Your Bike Efficiently

Jan Poshenko
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Left for Front, Right for Rear

When shifting gears on your bike, which way do you turn the crank? Confused? Don’t worry, a lot of people think they are shifting the wrong way. While the accepted way to shift gears has changed over the years, this 1920s H-D Service Manual shows that Harley-Davidson trained their mechanics to shift the opposite way that many people do today. In fact, they instructed mechanics to shift with the foot on the opposite side of the bike’s transmission.

To help you better navigate the choppy waters of shifting, here are some general tips.

Learn Your Gears

The first thing you should know is that there is nothing wrong with knowing your geared. Many folks fail to realize that cheap bikes have 40 or even 45 unique gear combinations.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with your bike’s transmission, and know that 3rd gear needs a lot of rpm to change gears, and 5th gear doesn’t need as much rpm to change gears.

Differences in transmission will affect your muscle memory. This is especially important when you transition between bikes with different gear ratios.

Pull or Push?

Keep Pedalling when Shifting


Most cyclists are taught that when shifting gears you stop pedalling for a moment to make the change in gears more effective [1]. This is true for some cyclists. Certainly if you are doing sprints and need to change gears quickly, it is important to stop pedalling for a moment to avoid changing cassettes and chains in the middle of a race or a sprint.

For the average cyclist, it is important to note that you don’t need to stop pedalling when in fact you should not stop pedalling. Changing gears is hard enough. Try changing gears while you are not pedaling and you’ll discover that it’s much harder.

Instead of stopping to change gears, simply use your other foot to make the change in pressure on the pedals and keep pedalling while you change gears. This will make your pedalling more efficient, and you’ll get to your destination sooner.

Back Off the Power

For you serious cyclists and triathletes here is an actual training tip. Instead of jamming down on the pedals and staying in the easiest gear as long as possible, learn to back off the power, especially if you are going uphill.

Shift down out of gear six. Now this may or may not be easy for you depending on the kind of bike you ride, if it's a flat bar you will need to get used to letting go of the bars to shift. If you are climbing a hill in a good gear, why shift to an easy gear? If you do decide to shift down, aim for a gear that will be easier to pedal than the one you are in, but a gear that isn’t so easy that you don’t train your leg muscles as you ride your bike. A good rule of thumb with gearing up hills is to keep your cadence (revolutions per minute) above 90, to help keep your legs in shape.

Anticipate the Shifts

One of the most common mistakes that people make while shifting gears on bikes is not anticipating the shift. One of the worst shifts you can do is to pull the lever while expecting the gears to change. Always check the rear view mirror before downshifting. It can also be advantageous to check in front of you. Also remember that downshifting gears doesn’t take the place of braking. You don’t want to slow down too much. Remember to keep pedaling.

Avoid Cross Chaining

In order to shift your bike efficiently, you need to avoid cross chaining. When you shift gears while you are constantly pedaling in your highest gear, you are creating a cross chain, which is a very bad thing.

Cross chaining is when you have the chain on a different sprocket in every highest gear. For example, in every highest gear, your cranks will be at the closest point to the rear wheel and the derailleur will be on the closest point to the front wheel.

While some cross chain is inevitable, you should avoid it as much as you can. Avoiding cross chaining will make your bike more efficient.

Maintain A Consistent Cadence

When shifting gears on a bike, the objective is to make the change as smooth and gentle as possible. You don’t want to take off or slow down abruptly, because this causes pain and can lead to nerves and tendons being damaged. However, if you don’t shift while pedaling, the pedaling can cause the bike to tip. To avoid these issues, pay attention to a consistent cadence. Always emphasize your pedaling when shifting, to avoid disrupting your cycling rhythm.

Shift in Sequence

Bike shifting is an art and it takes time before you can do it efficiently. Once you master it, you will be able to downshift and upshift gears from any position in the saddle, without even thinking.

Shift in Easy Gear

Before you start to change gears, make sure that your bike gear is in easy gear. Changing gears in hard gear can cause the chain to drop off the chain rings and cause an accident.

Shift in a Diagonal Pattern

Shift to the bigger chain ring when you need speed and shift to the smaller chain ring when you need to recover. The diagonally opposite rings move in opposite directions, which makes it easier to balance.

Keep Your Hands Weightless

While you move your hands, you need to keep in mind that you need to keep your hands as light as possible, especially when you are downshifting.

Downshift the Chainrings

Downshift the chainrings one by one and not the rear or front derailleurs; otherwise the chain will just fall off the chainring. Most modern derailleurs can handle rear or front shifting, but it is better to be safe than sorry.