How To Use Bike Gears

For those new to cycling, knowing how to use bike gears can be a confusing experience as some bikes seemingly have so many to choose from. A modern high-end road bike can easily have 24 gears, with some more budget bikes actually potentially having even more! This article aims to inform you how to change gears on a bike correctly, which can not only improve your riding, but also help components such as the chain last longer.

Gears that you shouldn't use

It might sound odd that there might be gears on your bike that you shouldn't use, but in some cases it's true. On bikes with more than one chainring (the cogs at the front), you should try and keep the chain line as straight as possible. This means that when you are in the smallest chainring at the front, you should aim to only use the first few gears on your cassette (the group of cogs at the back) so that the chain doesn't need to stretch too far over to reach the gears. Similarly, if you are in the largest of the chainrings at the front, you should aim to only use the last few gears on the cassette. This not only helps keep your gears running smoothly as the chain is running as straight as possible at all times, but because the chain is straight there is less stress being put on the links so the chain will last longer. Bikes with only one chainring at the front shouldn't need to worry about avoiding gears as the manufacturers take this into account when designing the bike frame and attempt to make the chain line as straight as possible at all times.

How to change gears on a bike

With the above information in mind, a lot of learning how to use bike gears comes down to experience, personal preference and ability.

In terms of preference, not everyone's leg strength and fitness are the same, so you need to see how you feel in a gear and respond accordingly. If you are finding that it is difficult to pedal and you are having to put a lot of effort in to continue pedalling, then change down a gear. Conversely, if your legs are spinning too quickly to be comfortable, then change up the gears until you reach a comfortable pedalling speed, or cadence, that you are comfortable with. Make sure to pay attention to chain line at all times; if you are getting towards the middle of the cassette in the smallest chainring and you are finding it too easy to pedal, change up to a larger chainring on the front. When you do this, you may need to change back down a gear at the cassette to compensate for the large jumps in between chainrings.

In terms of experience, you will find that the more you ride, the better an idea you will have about which gear you should be in. If you can see a climb coming up, you will be able to anticipate which gear you are likely to need prior to getting to the hill so you can begin gradually changing as you lead up to the hill. This means by the time you arrive on the hill you are in the correct gear already and you shouldn't need to alter your cadence very much at all.

Don't change gears under load

You should make sure that you only change gear when you are not putting too much pressure through the pedals. The reason for this is that as you change gear, the chain will need to move between the cogs and if too much pressure is applied at the same time it can cause the gears to slip, or even worse, it can cause the chain to break. Try and anticipate when you are likely to need to change gear and do it before a hill becomes to steep. If you are already on a hill and need to change gear, try and build up some speed so you can then pedal gently for a short time allowing you to change gear, and then return to your natural cadence one the gear has changed.

How to use the gear shifters

There are many different styles of gear shifters but they all fundamentally work in the same way. The derailleurs move by shortening or lengthening the gear cables, which is done by the shifter. Almost all gear shifters now are "indexed" which means that the shifter makes sure that with each gear change, the derailleur moves the correct distance to align itself with the gears.

Mountain bikes most commonly use a shifter that is positioned just under the handlebars. The shifter on the right hand side of the handlebars operates the rear derailleur, and if you have a front derailleur, it is operated by the shifter on the left hand side of the handlebars. There are two paddles on both of these shifters, pressing one will change up the gears and pressing the other will change down the gears. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with which lever performs which action and placing your bike in a bike stand is a great way to do this.

Road bikes now mainly use dual-control levers, sometimes called STIs, that operate the brakes and gears from the same place. Pulling the lever towards you will operate the brakes and the paddles/levers in the other areas of the controller will operate the gears. Different manufacturers' shifters operate the gears in different ways, so again, placing the bike in a stand will give you the opportunity to familiarise yourself with how the controls work.

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