This post is all about how to change gears, and how changing gears helps you to cycle more efficiently. Gears can be confusing for beginner cyclists. This post will help beginner cyclists understand how to change gears on a bike. It explains how gears work, why you should change gears on a bike, and how to do it!
I decided to write this post after getting many emails from readers saying they have problems changing gears on a bike, but don’t want to ask their friends about it. Well, it’s not like it’s something they teach in schools, is it? I hope this post solves the problem for those readers, and for anyone who is not completely sure about how gears work on a bike.
First, a Quick Cheat Sheet about How Bike Gears Work
Low gear is for uphills: easier pedaling = smallest ring on the front and one of the bigger cogs on the back
Middle gear is for flats: medium effort = middle ring on the front and one of the middle cogs on the back
High gear is for downhills: harder pedaling = biggest ring on the front and one of the smaller cogs on the back
What do Gears on a Bike Achieve?
The basic principle of gears on a bike is, quite simply, brilliant. Gears make pedaling:
- easier, but less powerful, when it is hard to cycle – such as on an uphill.
- harder, but much more powerful, when it is easy to cycle – such as on a downhill.
As a result, gears on bikes make it possible to get up huge hills – even mountains (once you’re fit enough)! They also make it possible to achieve great speed when you are cycling on flat ground.
How do Gears on a Bike Work?
But how do gears achieve this magic? Basically, you move a bike by pedaling, which rotates a chain, which turns your back wheel by pulling on chain rings.
Because of the laws of mechanics, when your feet turn a smaller ring in the front, it is easier to pedal. And each time you spin the pedals, the power is transmitted to the back wheel as the chain pulls on the teeth of one of the rear cogs. If you have selected a bigger chain cog on the back (that is, a lower gear), each turn of the pedals takes longer to turn the back wheel, because the chain is turning a bigger circle. So you have less power to create speed.
However, because it is a bigger circle, the amount of power needed to turn the back wheel is more dispersed, so it is easier to actually move the bike. So basically, a small ring on the front combined with a large ring at the back creates a lower gear, which makes it easier to move the bike in difficult conditions, such as uphill, or when pulling off.
The idea is that you start off in a low gear, so it is easier to pedal. As you pick up speed, it starts to feel easier and easier to spin the pedals, and this is when you change into a higher/harder gear, and can go faster and faster!
Gears at the Front of the Bike
The gears at the front of the bike consist of chain rings at the base of the pedals. Chain rings are metal rings with teeth that grip the bike chain. To see how many front gears your bike has, take a look at the base of your pedals and count the chain rings. There are usually between one and three chain rings.
The more front chain rings, the greater your range of gears, and the easier it will be for beginner cyclists to ride. So if you are buying a bike and can afford it, get one with three chain rings in the front. A device called a derailleur slides the chain across to a different ring when you change front gears.
Gears at the Back of the Bike
At the back of the bike, the chain loops around another, smaller metal ring. If you take a look, you will see that there are several of these rings, and that they go from small to big. They are called cogs, and there may be anything from three to ten of them. Together, they are called the cassette. The more cogs in your cassette, the greater your range of gears. As in the front, a device called a derailleur slides the chain across to a different ring when you change rear gears.
How Do You Figure Out the Total Number of Gears on a Bike?
You can put your chain into any combination of the front and rear chain rings. Therefore, the total number of gears on your bike is the number of front chain rings, multiplied by the number of rear cogs. For example, if you have three chain rings in the front, and seven cogs at the back, then you have 21 gears. This is also sometimes called speeds, as in “a 10-speed bike.”
If your bike has a numbering system on the gears, the lower numbers refer to the easier, lower gears. This means that if your bike has three rings at the front, gear no. 1 will the easiest gear. Gear no. 2 will be the middle choice for flat surfaces and cruising along. You would only use Gear no. 3 for downhills or high speed.
Why Should You Change the Gears on a Bike?
Basically shifting gears on a bike lets you use the power of your legs more efficiently to move your bike. The most dramatic differences occur when you change the gears in the front. As you move to a smaller front chain ring, it becomes noticeably easier to pedal.
When you are just getting started, it is OK to stay in the middle chain ring in the front, while you get the hang of the smaller changes that happen when you change the rear gears. Eventually when you start to tackle large hills, you are going to want to change into the easiest front gear. But to start with, just the 3 to 10 rear gears will help a lot with cycling. And some bikes only have rear gears, anyway.
How Do You Change Gears on a Bike?
Note that you should only change gears while you’re pedaling forward. This is because the whole point is to move the position of your chain, and this can only happen if your chain is in motion. Ideally, your pedals should be rotating, but you should stop applying pressure as you are about to change gears.
This is because as you apply pressure to your pedals, the chain is stretched taut at the top. You don’t want it to be too taut, because this makes it harder for the chain to move sideways. And it is definitely better not to try to change gears when you are standing up on the pedals, straining to pedal up a hill. If you do this, the chain may slip off a ring, and you may fall onto the cross bar and hurt yourself.
Basically, you control the front gears with a controller next to the left hand grip, and you control the rear gears with a controller next to the right hand grip. If you forget, remember that Rear and Right both start with an R!
Physically changing the gears depends on what kind of shifters the bike has. There are three basic kinds of shifters.
Grip shifters are changed by turning your wrist.
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These are small levers just below the handlebars. You work these with your thumbs.
Levers integrated into the brake levers
These are usually found on road bikes. You can see an example in the picture below. This is a close-up of one of the brake levers on my Specialized Tricross (reviewed here). The silver part of the lever works the brake; the black part tucked inside the silver part is in fact a lever for changing gears. You push it in one direction to change gears upwards, and the other direction to change them downwards. This is much easier than it sounds when I write about it!
Most commonly, the controllers work in opposite ways. For example, if you are using grip shifters, you will twist one way with your left hand to make pedaling easier, and twist the opposite way with your right hand to make pedaling easier. It’s best to practice changing gears in a safe place for a while before you take to the streets.
Eventually it will come naturally and you won’t have to think about it . But at first, it can be confusing. Luckily, the controllers on most bikes show which gear you are in, so you can look down to remind yourself.
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Tips for Changing Gears on a Bike
Avoid Extremes When Changing Gears
Do not ride with the big (hardest) ring up front AND the biggest (easiest) cog at the rear. For example, gear no. 3 in the front, and gear no. 1 at the back. Similarly, don’t ride with the smallest ring in the front and the smallest cog at the rear. Take a look at it sometime when you have your bike on a stand, and you will see why. It stretches the chain to its maximum angles. This is not very good for your bike, and your chain may slip off the cogs.
Advice for Changing Gears when Going Up Hills
As you approach the hill, change into an appropriate gear before you actually get to it. It is much easier and safer to change gears when you are not also grinding at the pedals to try and go up a hill. And in fact, the chain may slip off its rings if you do this. So be sure to get into the right gear before you start climbing.
Obviously, you are going to want an easier gear for hills (also called a lower gear). You want to get onto the smallest chain ring in the front, and one of the larger cogs on the back. Whatever you do, do not change the front gears (the big chain rings controlled by your left hand controllers) on a hill. You can get away with changing gears on a hill with your right hand, but not your left hand.
How to Use Your Gears to Go Really Fast on a Flat or a Downhill
As you pick up speed, you may start to notice that you cannot spin the pedals faster than they are already going all by themselves. That means that you cannot make the bike go any faster than it is already going. This is when you may want to make the gearing harder, so that you can go even faster. To achieve this, you need to get onto the biggest chain ring on the front. Then you can progressively make the rear gear higher and higher. You will be amazed at how much faster you can eventually go!
How to Use Your Gears to Pull Off from a Dead Stop
Say you are going very fast in a very high gear (that is, a gear that is difficult to pedal, but more powerful). If you suddenly have to stop, you are probably going to find it very difficult to pull off in that high gear. So if at all possible, try to quickly gear down to an easier gear before you stop your bike, so that you can pull off without too much strain.
Be Gentle with your Gears and Your Knees
As you get the hang of gears, you may be tempted to get into the highest gear possible as quickly as possible to pump up the speed. However, these higher gears can be hard work for your knees if you are straining too hard to spin the pedals. Generally speaking, it is healthier for your knees to be making fast spins on a lower gear – approximately 80 revolutions of the pedals per minute.
What to Do if Your Chain is Noisy or Keeps Falling Off?
In this case, your chain might need adjusting or replacing. Chains do wear out, and the more you ride, the quicker this will happen. A cheap Park chain tool will enable you to tell if it is time to replace the chain. Anyone can use this tool to check their chain. However, if the chain needs adjusting or replacing, this requires specialized skills, and is best done by your local bike shop.
Keep Your Chain Clean
Keeping your chain clean is vital to keep your bike running smoothly and efficiently. It is surprisingly easy to keep your bike chain clean – read our easy guide to keeping your bike chain clean here.
Related Post: How To Clean Your Bike Chain the Easy Way
I hope this helps – have fun improving your cycling skills! If you have any questions, please use the comments below. And if you found this post useful, please share the love by sharing the post using the social media buttons below.
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