DadHTP penned a lovely guest post about shifting bicycle gears.  This is a topic that cofounds many cycling newbies.  After four years of riding, I’m still trying to figure out gears.  Hopefully, his wise advice will help us both!  (Here’s a fun little interview with DadHTP about his cycling history.)


I’ll admit the first time I rode a bike with gears, I was clueless. Pedal?  Don’t pedal? Shift?  Don’t shift?  Being young and a guy, I learned by not asking. It’s a technique that works – just not very quickly!


Here’s what you basically need to memorize:


  • Left shifter:  Front gears
  • Right shifter: Rear gears
  • Everyday / Flat Riding: big gear in the front, small gear in the back
  • Hill Riding: small gear in the front, big gear in the back
  • Never use the big/big or small/small gear combination as you’ll pop your chain off.
  • In most situations, you’ll want to do big in the front, small in the rear, and shift the rear gear as necessary to account for rolling hills.  If you anticipate a huge hill, you’ll want to shift to small in the front, big in the back.


Most road bikes have three gears on the front (some have two), which are controlled by your left shifter. The rear gears usually have 7 – 9 gears.   The reason a bike has gears is that most people are comfortable with a pedaling cadence ("leg speed") around 80 – 90 rotations per minute (RPM).  Depending on the different surface, your cadence will naturally increase or decrease if you don’t change gears. 


There are simple ways to tell if you’re pedaling in the wrong cadence (and therefore, in the wrong gear):


  • If you’re short of breath and your legs are going really fast, you need to shift to a harder gear (first using the rear gears and then shifting up front, if necessary).
  • If your leg muscles are killing you and your knees hurt, you need to pedal at a higher cadence with less effort.  Switch to an easier fear (first using the rear gears).


Or, you know, you could always get off your bike and walk it up the hill…..


To figure out your cadence without a computer, time six seconds on a watch and see how many times your right knee comes up.  Add a zero to that number.  That’s your approximate rotations per minute.  If your cadence is much higher or much lower than 80 – 90 RPM, you’ll want to play around with your gears to figure out how to get your pedal stroke more efficient.


I love hills, but there are basically two ways up – power or time.  As you tackle a hill, shift to a gear that allows you to keep your cadence up, and in the hills, a little higher is better for most people.  Intervals (hard ones) and gym work are the only ways I know to develop power.  The other approach is time – go to an easier gear, keep your cadence up, and go slowly. 


Some other miscellaneous tips about gears:


  • You must be pedaling when you change gears. The chain has be in motion for the derailleurs to move the chain from sprocket to sprocket.
  • While you must keep moving as you shift, lighten the pressure on the pedals while shifting. 
  • Downshift at the bottom of a hill.
  • Downshift as you stop so it’s easier to start.
  • Also, at a coffee break, sneakily put a friend’s bike in the hardest possible gear to pedal. This is really very funny. Trust me.


I realize this is touching the surface of a very complicated subject – I’ll follow the comments and answer questions if I can.


Confused yet?  I sure am!  If you have any questions about shifting gears – or cycling in general – for DadHTP, ask away in the comments section!



  • Ellie@fitforthesoul August 1, 2011, 2:07 pm

    oh man bicycling is more complex than I thought! I love it yet I don’t own one anymore, but will someday! 😀 Hi DadHTP! I think you’re going to inspire many people with this!

  • Kate (What Kate is Cooking) August 1, 2011, 2:13 pm

    Definitely confusing but helpful! I don’t have a road bike but this is good to know in case I get one 🙂

  • Heather August 1, 2011, 2:13 pm

    Love this! The hardest (and scariest) part for me is not using the combinations that might pop your chain off- I always forget what gear I’m already in!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 2:25 pm

      I need to ask my editor not to throw in random “facts” – the big/big or little/little combination won’t break anything or make the chain fall off – it’s just puts a lot of friction load on the chain your legs have to overcome.

      • Heather August 1, 2011, 3:20 pm

        Really? My bike shop told me to avoid the same thing. I don’t always listen & haven’t had any problems yet, but my husband’s done it twice. That definitely makes me less nervous though!

        • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 3:26 pm

          It does wear the chain faster, but mostly it’s a newbie mistake so people try to avoid it.

      • Dani August 1, 2011, 3:32 pm

        I’m confused – why did Caitlin add in facts that aren’t even true?

        • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 3:45 pm

          Here’s why that gets repeated in bike shops, and I wasn’t that surprised to see Caitlin added that.
          IF your chain is cut to the absolute shortest length (i.e., one or two less links saving 2 or 3 grams)AND you throw a full power, sweeping shift in the rear (across multiple gears – possible or not depending upon shifter)it imposes a lot of strain on the chain, and if it’s going to fail, this is probably when. If there are 50 cyclists in the country that the 3 grams makes a difference to – as in affects their income, I’m surprised. OTOH, lots of bike shops have one mechanic who wishes he worked for one of those 50 people, and sets every bike up as a race bike. Sorry for the rant.

          As far as dropping chains, extremely common on bikes that aren’t maintained and very rare on bikes that are.

        • Dani August 1, 2011, 3:48 pm

          Ahhh okay, I see! Thanks for replying!

        • Marissa C August 1, 2011, 4:49 pm

          That would be my husband…he built his own bike and measured EVERY SINGLE PART so his bike is just barely over the weight limit…and under it on some scales 🙂

    • Sara August 1, 2011, 2:38 pm

      I also have trouble with this (when I was test-riding my bike at the shop, I popped the chain off). I think of it in terms of combinations of numbers rather than big/little. My front gear has 3 gears, and the rear has 7. My default for starting on flat terrain is 24 (2 front, 4 rear). I might shift to 25 as I build speed, maybe even 35 if I’m going downhill, or 23 if I’m going uphill. Thinking of gears as a two-digit number has made a huge difference in my shifting confidence!

      Oh, and avoid 31 or 17 to prevent the chain from popping off.

      • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 3:10 pm

        really – if the derailleur limit screws are set properly, chains rarely fall off. Mention it to your mechanic next time you get a tune up.

        • Sara August 1, 2011, 3:14 pm

          Thankfully they fixed it right there, and I haven’t had a problem since! And they gave me a lesson in shifting…I grew up riding single-speed bikes with coaster brakes as a kid, so I didn’t know the first thing.

  • Katie G. August 1, 2011, 2:15 pm

    love this! thanks for the quick tips! shifting gears still always confuses me!

  • Aine @ Something to Chew Over August 1, 2011, 2:31 pm

    Great tips, thanks! 🙂

  • Lisa August 1, 2011, 2:35 pm

    These are great tips! As a fairly newbie cyclist I’ve had to learn the hard way about this stuff!

  • Angela August 1, 2011, 2:35 pm

    I feel like am idiot for asking this, but what do you mean by big and little? If I want a big gear do I move the shifter forward? Backward? I have had my vintage road bike for a year and still have no idea how to shift!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 3:18 pm

      ooops – look at reply to #8 and hey, Wendi, I don’t understand the question. See how it works after the chain, cassette and a tune up.

  • Wendi @ A Southern Yogi August 1, 2011, 2:49 pm

    what about the movement of gears in back then front? The reason I am asking is because sometimes, I have a hard time shifting my front gears – actually the biggest issue I have is shifting from the lowest gear to the middle. I do need a new chain and I think he’s replacing the cassette in the back so hopefully that’ll help it shift better, I don’t know!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 3:15 pm

      the physical size of the chain ring or gear – move the lever, look and see where the chain went.
      Big/little can be confusing since “I put it in a really big gear and crushed them” means big in front, small in back – unbelievably, part of the reason for this goes back to penny-farthing bikes – the ones with the huge front wheel and tiny rear one. Literally, only in America – like inches and pounds.

  • Chelsea August 1, 2011, 2:58 pm

    Gah I need to memorize all of this stuff somehow eventually haha! Like you said though I think it’s just with experience that I’ll actually memorize it all and get used to my bike. I have a Trek mountain bike I need to get some use out of!

  • Hillary August 1, 2011, 3:04 pm

    Your dad is hilarious and very helpful! Great combo : )

  • Mary August 1, 2011, 3:18 pm

    Thanks Dad HTP! Super helpful tips. as a cycling newbie, I have a really hard time shifting gears and knowing when to shift and when to not shift and what goes with what.

  • Lindsay August 1, 2011, 3:22 pm

    The best tip here is downshift before stopping. I have to remind myself to do this EVERY day. I hate getting on my bike to start my commute home and being in a ridiculously hard gear! Plus I look like an idiot then trying to pick up speed and barely being able to get the pedals around 🙂

  • Katie August 1, 2011, 3:34 pm

    Thanks Dad HTP! My dad’s really into biking, too. Whenever we go for a ride he’s always trying to get me to use my gears more – but wonderful as he is, he never explained them quite so thoroughly. Very helpful!

  • Jane August 1, 2011, 3:45 pm

    OMG! Thank you for posting this. I’ve been meaning to research this and it has been very intimidating not knowing what I should be doing on my bike. Thank you! SO useful!

  • Ash @ Good Taste Healthy Me August 1, 2011, 4:06 pm

    This post rocks! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m getting into spinning and I’d love to take my bike out onto the road at some point. But I’m very inexperienced!

  • Katie @ Life... Discombobulated August 1, 2011, 4:13 pm

    What a great post! I have had no clue about gears for the most part, and have just played around with them, trying to find the right gears for all types of situations. This will be tremendously helpful!! Now… if only I can remember the “rules to memorize”… I don’t suppose there are any good, easy ways to remember what to do with the left and right gears for flat or hilly surfaces? 🙂

  • Mary @ Bites and Bliss August 1, 2011, 4:23 pm

    I test rode a few road bikes the other day and they were trying to explain the gears. I pretty much had to say “Just let me hop on, I’ll figure it out as I go!”

  • Rosie August 1, 2011, 4:43 pm

    I’m genuinely confused — who knows how to ride a bike but doesn’t know how to change gears?? Or do they have “automatic” bikes in America? In Europe cars are mostly manual drive, fair enough — but I find it hard to believe that “manual” bike gears aren’t widespread or their use common knowledge…. Sorry if I sound rude I just am, well, confused… And I love getting advice about perfecting running and swimming and yoga — please keep up all your amazing and interesting posts 😀

    • Jaime August 1, 2011, 5:34 pm

      I think the post was meant to provide tips for efficient riding and to prevent injury or damage to your bike. I have been able to ride a bike for over 20 years, but now that I will be commuting often over 15 miles a day proper technique is more important.

    • DadHTP August 2, 2011, 4:27 pm

      It is odd – Americans almost totally use bikes for sport, so if you don’t do that…you may never learn. I didn’t realize there was a serious racing sport until I was in my 30s. Think soccer (football) with much less recognition. Ask an American the all time great cyclist? Lance. Ask almost any European and get a puzzled look and “Eddy, of course”.

  • Annette @ EnjoyYourHealthyLife August 1, 2011, 4:43 pm

    Blew my mind. Heh. My husband tries and tries to explain it all to me… no avail. But very informative!!

  • Marissa C August 1, 2011, 4:51 pm

    I tend to like riding in the “harder” gears…drives my husband nuts. Especially when I leave it in hard gears and about kill myself trying to clip in the next time I ride. Shame on me.

    • Kim August 1, 2011, 7:52 pm

      Me too! It just feels better to me.

  • Jaime August 1, 2011, 5:17 pm

    I am new to bike riding so this was a great post. Do you have any posts relating to tips on clipping in, or bike clips/shoes in general?

  • Jen August 1, 2011, 5:49 pm

    I am also fairly new to cycling and grew up in Miami (aka all flat, no need to bother with the gears). Now I live in NYC and bike commute over a bridge to get to work. Using Sara’s gearing numbers example from Comment #3 (my bike is also a 21-speed, 3 in the front and 7 in the rear), here’s my question:

    My around-town gears are 25 and 26. When I’m climbing the bridge (~3.8% grade), I shift down to 23 or even 22 if I’m breathing heavily. Is just staying on the 2nd (middle) front gear OK? I can’t think of any NYC situations where I would ever need more power… But I’ve also heard that if you don’t shift through your entire range of gears every once in a while, it can cause issues with the chain.

    Also, how important is it for me to learn how to fix my own flat? There are a lot of bike shops along my route, and I’m kind of afraid to learn. 🙁

    Thanks in advance for answering questions!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 6:30 pm

      If you’re in the middle ring in front, you need a larger gear in back to make it easier to pedal.

      Flats aren’t hard to fix – Caitlin may have a post, and I know youtube will show you.

  • Molly @ RDexposed August 1, 2011, 6:22 pm

    My dad taught me, too!!

    Can you some how get Andy Schleck to post some bike tips? That’d be great.

  • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 6:31 pm

    I take it all back.

    shows how to shift using brain waves – really.

  • Rae August 1, 2011, 6:37 pm

    Just a tip for hills, Caitlin…if you scootch forward on the saddle a bit more, you’ll have more power to motor up those hills-you’re pretty stretched out on your bike and that limits your power. Next time you can make Sugarloaf your you know what 😛

  • Dotsie August 1, 2011, 7:24 pm

    Great post-I need to print, study, ingrain in memory! I love how you two ride together. I ride with my Dad, too! 😀

  • Chelsea @ One Healthy Munchkin August 1, 2011, 7:48 pm

    Before this post, I didn’t even know what the two sets of gears were for. Thanks for all the information!

  • Haley August 1, 2011, 8:09 pm

    I cannot even tell you how perfectly-timed this post is. Just started commuting by bicycle in Philly, decided to get cocky today and mess with the gears on my way to work. Chain popped off, had to pull over and put it back on. Had to continue the rest of the ride with jet black greasy hands, and ruined my skirt. This is very straightforward and valuable for all bike riders. Thanks, Caitlin and DadHTP!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 8:39 pm

      ooooohhhh – too bad – here’s a tip – a baggie with a wet wipe and latex gloves rolls up really small with your spare tube.

  • ksco August 1, 2011, 8:55 pm

    and don’t forget the sram gear system if you’re feeling really frisky/adventurous with bikes. it’s a one-two tap system. good times and makes climbing hills a breeze (especially on a 400-mile cycling trip through new england!).

  • Katherine August 1, 2011, 9:11 pm

    I have never actually had a bike that shifted gears!

  • Luvwhatyoudo August 1, 2011, 9:55 pm

    Where was this post when I first got my road bike in April? I was just in teh shop learning how to adjsut it because the chain was slipping. Any thoughts on cross chaining??? It is big in the front little in the back. I have heard it is bad and then I have heard it is fine. Always so confusing!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 11:18 pm

      Cross chaining is another term for using the big-big or small-small combinations – not stylish, wears the chain faster, may be noisier but won’t break anything.
      Whoa – just reread your comment – big-little isn’t cross chaining – it’s what you do to go fast.

      • Luv What You Do August 2, 2011, 11:26 pm

        ha…see I am still confused 🙂 I find that I ride on the big front wheel and towards the middle of the back, but shift down (bigger) for the hills. Am I better off shifting in the front? Does that make sense? I appreciate the feedback!!!

        • DadHTP August 3, 2011, 12:00 am

          If you can get up the hills in the big chain ring, and only shift in the back, that’s perfect, you’re strong, and I’m glad I’m not chasing you up hill.

        • Luv What You Do August 3, 2011, 7:38 am

          I think it’s because I am in Chicago so our ‘hills’ are a little different. Thanks Again!

  • Lauren @ Lauren Runs August 1, 2011, 10:08 pm

    This is very helpful! I’m just getting into cycling this summer and have been practicing these. I always like to see my tips written out though, as I’m a visual learner 🙂

    One thing I’d love to hear more about is turning. I hear that there is some technique to turning and knowing how to take a turn under different conditions. I’d love to read more about that! I was in my first triathlon (!) this weekend, and with two 180-degree turns, I was mighty nervous!

    • DadHTP August 1, 2011, 11:14 pm

      Are you talking about slow speed maneuvering? Just look where you’re going – literally. Watch Caitlin’s tri crash video and you can see she stops looking where she’s going and…boom. High speed stuff is more complicated – but it’s like walking – easier to do than describe with lots of different factors – road surface, camber (tilt of the road), weather, tolerance for risk…

  • Maria August 1, 2011, 11:01 pm

    You know what? I got a roadbike 2 days ago! Your post came at the right time for me being new at the bike!! And yes – sth about turning would be great too!

  • Kris @ tryingtotri August 1, 2011, 11:45 pm

    This was a good lesson for me! I was still a little confused, asked DH for a little clarification, and now feel I understand the process better. 🙂

    Living in the prairies, I have become comfortable using harder gears – I have had to shift to the smaller ring twice – to go over an overpass!

    I’ve had my bike since January, but I now feel I understand it much better. Thanks!

    • DadHTP August 2, 2011, 12:12 am

      hahahaha! In Miami we use to do repeats over the bridges for hill training!

  • Joanne August 2, 2011, 10:01 am

    I’m so bad at shifting gears. Practice makes perfect I HOPE. 🙂

  • Samantha August 2, 2011, 7:54 pm

    Thanks for the “Gears for Dummies” session. 🙂 We just moved this week from Guam (where I mostly rode on the trainer indoors due to heat and boonie dogs) to Japan (where I hope to build up to a metric century but there are LOTS of big, rolling hills). I have it filed away for when my bike arrives in a couple weeks.

  • Maria August 3, 2011, 12:12 am

    This is a great post, and has taught me a lot. I can’t wait to practice again this weekend.

    Question: my bike is new (a mountain bike) and has recently been tuned up, but I keep hearing a clicking noise even when I’m on a flat surface and know that I’m in the right gear.

    Also, might you/Caitlin be willing to do a post about biking road etiquette?

    • CaitlinHTP August 3, 2011, 9:06 am

      I can try!! the only real thing to remember is “ON YOUR LEFT!!!”

      • DadHTP August 3, 2011, 4:46 pm

        oh grasshopper….

  • Kelly August 3, 2011, 1:08 pm

    Thank you for this post. I don’t have all the terminology down but I got the gist of the post. I’m new to cycling and a friend of mine turned me on to shifting. It makes my rides much more efficient. I used to stay in the same gear for most of the ride thinking I was getting a better workout. Now I have a cadence monitor and try to stay in the 80s. My goal next year is to do an actual ride like a metric century or century. Now I ride trails and usually by myself. I’m looking to improve my skills and endurance over the next year. I look forward to your future posts.

    • DadHTP August 3, 2011, 4:47 pm

      Have a great time!

  • Shwetha May 31, 2013, 12:58 pm

    Have been searching for something this simple that will explain cycling gears. Thanks for this great article! It is such a great start for a person who does not have a clue about gears on a cycle.

  • Sarah June 28, 2013, 5:19 am

    Thanks for writing this informational article on how to cycle! Now, I just have to get out there and execute the process physically! 🙂


  • Karen @ Sugartown Sweets July 19, 2013, 9:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! Hubby and I have new bikes..just want to be sure I don’t tear it up on my first ride out! 🙂

  • Melinda October 18, 2014, 11:21 am

    I just purchased a time trial bike but I’m a total newbie(I got it used for an awesome price) however I can’t find anything online to teach me about the aerobar gear shifters. I know left is the big and right is the smaller gears but I can’t tell whether the knob pointing up is gear 1 or if gear 1 is the knob pointing towards the ground.

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