We’ve always taken issue with the phrase ‘as easy as riding a bike’ which, putting aside the fact that many people can’t ride bikes, is not exactly a true statement. Sure, most people can hop on a bike and pedal away (once you have the balance issues down), but you’re not truly riding a bike. You aren’t truly riding a bike until you have mastered every aspect of how it works, and there is no aspect that takes more effort to wrap your head around than the bike’s gears.
Truth be told – if you want to properly ride your bike, then you’re going to need to understand how to use the gears. Understand how the gearing system on your bike works, and you’ll find your rides easier. Getting into the right gear, and climbing up hills will be easier. Get the right gear, and it’ll be incredibly easy to pick up speed and travel at an astonishing rate. We’re going to help you to get into the right gear on your bike.
Think of this as a complete guide to bike gearing. We’re not only going to talk about how to change gears on a bike for beginners, but we’re going to tell you about the type of gear systems. We’ll tell you how they work, and we’ll even give you an overview of the various components that make up a bike’s gearing system. So, yes. We’re going to cover a lot. However, we hope that by the end of this, you’re going to feel much better educated. In fact, we don’t hope that you’ll be better educated. We know that you will.
Types of Gears
Gearing systems on bikes can be broken into two different types. Although, admittedly, these are rather broad types. There may be ever so slight variations between the two, depending on the gear manufacturer:
- External derailleurs
- Internal gear hubs
Let’s tell you what each of them offers.
This is the most common type of gear system found on a bike. If you’ve ever had to bike with gears, chances are high that it had an external derailleur. You’ll know if you have a derailleur if you notice a small lever-type thing at the back (this is the derailleur, more on that soon), along with a cassette of sprockets. As you change gear, the derailleur will move the chain up or down this set of sprockets.
External derailleurs are known for being lightweight, and very easy to produce. They also sit on the bike a little bit better than internal gear hubs. In fact, internal gear hubs can cause a bit of imbalance due to their weight.
Internal Gear Hubs
Internal gear hubs are a little more complicated than external derailleurs, mostly because every company seems to have its own design for them. These gear hubs function in a very similar way to the gearboxes that you may find in a car.
At the center of an internal gear hub, you will have a fixed gear known as a ‘sun’ gear. The gears that revolve around the sun gear are known as ‘planet’ gears (hence why this system is often known as the planetary gear system). As the user changes gear, a series of clutches will be either be locked or unlocked to dictate which ‘planet’ gears will be active around the sun gear. The more gears that are active, the higher the gear. We’ll talk more about that soon.
For now – all you really need to know is that internal gear hubs are completely sealed units. This means that they require far less maintenance than a derailleur. In fact, they probably don’t need any maintenance at all. The downside is that they are much more expensive, and they are often very heavy. This can have an impact on how you cycle.
It is also worth noting that, unlike an external derailleur, the bike does not have to be in motion when you change gear on an internal gear hub.
Gear Shifting Mechanisms
So, now we’re going to need to get a bit mechanical on you. Gears on bikes are incredibly complex. We won’t go through the entire mechanical process of switching gears. As we said – it is complex. However, we do want to give you the briefest overview of what happens when you move that gear shifter. (If you don’t know what a gear shifter is, we’ll explain more about that shortly!)
How an External Derallieur Works
As we said – most bikes have an external derailleur.
As you look at your bike, you’ll see a collection of cog-looking pieces of metal. These are known as your chainrings when they are at the front of the bike and cogs at the rear. As you change your gears, your bike’s chain will move up and down these rings. If your chain is on the larger ring, you’ll find it harder to pedal, but get more force behind each pedal motion. The smaller the ring, the easier it is to pedal, but the less force behind the motion. You’ll learn how this works later.
As you change gears, a small pulley will trigger the derailleur to move up or down. As the derailleur moves, it retains tension on the chain, while also guiding the chain to the new location on the chainring.
The process is slightly more complicated than this, but if you are learning how to change gears, you probably don’t want to know the mechanical ins and outs of every part of the process.
How a Hub Gear System Works
Hub gear systems are an engineering marvel, and it would take pages and pages of information to tell you exactly how they work. So, as we said, we’re going to keep things simple here.
Hub gear systems have a fixed gear in the middle known as a ‘sun’ gear. There will then be several other gear cogs known as ‘planet’ wheels. If you know your science, then you’ll know the planets revolve around the sun. Although, let’s be honest, you probably didn’t need to know much about science to know this!
As you engage your shifter, small pulleys will engage various clutches in the hub gear system. When this happens, certain planet gears may be made ‘active’ or ‘inactive’. The combination of ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ gears will dictate the gearing on your bike.
No matter the mechanical process behind your gearing, the result is the same – you’ll find it harder or easier to pedal.
There are a variety of components in a gearing system, so we figured we would give you a quick overview of what each part does. This way, if somebody tries to talk to you about gearing, you’ll know what is going on.
We’re talking strictly about derailleurs here since this is the system most newbies to gearing will have on their bikes.
The shifter is the part of the gearing system that you’ll physically interact with. The shifter will normally be on the handlebars, but it may be located on the frame if you have an older bike. As you move the shifter, a small pulley cable will be moved. This pulley cable impacts the next component.
The derailleur has two jobs:
- Maintain tension on the bike chain.
- Move the bike chain from one position to another.
So, as you engage the shifter, the derailleur will move at an angle to ‘lift’ or ‘lower’ the bike chain into position.
The gear rings (i.e., where the chain gets moved) on the front of the bike are known as chainrings. These are large, and you’ll often have just a few of them.
The collection of gear rings at the back of the bike are known as cogs. A collection of cogs is known as a cassette. The larger the cog the chain is on, the harder it is to pedal. The smaller the cog, the easier (but less power).
Steps to Change Gears
Now we’ve got all the complicated stuff out of the way, we’re going to help you with the actual gear-changing part. Again, we’re going to make things as simple as possible here. However, we’re fairly confident that you’ll be able to get to grips with it. We believe in you!
When You Should Shift Gears
We think the most difficult part about changing gears on a bike is knowing exactly when to change gears. Don’t worry – this is something that we struggled a lot with during the early days of our cycling. It took a lot of practice to get right. We didn’t have the internet back then, though. You do. This means that you can learn from our knowledge and speed up that whole learning process!
A lot of when you need to change the gears on a bike will be based on ‘feel’ or analyzing the situation. Here is when you need to change that gear:
- When approaching a hill. Always shift to an easier gear. It will make the climb a lot easier for you, albeit will be far slower.
- When you are entering a major downhill section, you’ll want to shift gear up to help control your speed.
- When you are cycling on a flat surface, switch to a harder gear. It will be tougher to cycle, but you’ll travel faster.
- If you are cycling on a flat surface (or even a slightly inclined surface) and you don’t feel that much resistance from the pedals when you are pedaling, then switch up a gear.
- If you are approaching a location where you need to stop e.g., at traffic lights, then switch to an easier gear. It will make getting started again much easier (kind of like in a car).
- This pretty much boils down to:
- Too much resistance – shift down a gear. Makes things easier.
- Not enough resistance – shift up a gear.
Obviously, you’ll have plenty of gears to play with on most bikes, so you may need to get the right fit for you. However, this is just part and parcel of understanding how your bike works. It will come with time. It did for us, and it will for you.
Whether to Use the Front or Rear Gears
Bikes will have gears on both the front and the back. The gear cassette on the front will do a slightly different job from the gear cassette on the back. As you get used to shifting gears on your bike, you’ll become intimately familiar with how changing the rear and the front gears will impact how you cycle. All you really need to know right now is:
- Switching the front gear will make big changes to your cycling. When you shift up the gears, pedaling will become harder, but you’ll have more speed. When you shift down, pedaling becomes easier, but you’ll be slower.
- Shifting the back gear will give you minor changes to your cycling. Think of the back gear changes as more of a refinement to your gearing to get the perfect gear. Up gives you more torque, and down gives you less torque (torque means power).
The front gear will get used a lot less often than the rear gear.
We’ll discuss this a bit more in the ‘tips’ section later, but it is important to know that while you shouldn’t need to change your front gear anywhere as often as the rear gear, it does need to be changed at certain points. This is because if the front and the rear gear are too far apart (i.e., you have a high front gear and a low rear gear) then something called ‘cross chaining’ will happen. Basically, the chains get under a lot of pressure, and it creates a huge amount of sound. It also causes chain wear and power loss.
At this point, we do want to point out that you should never change the front gear and the rear gear at the same time. If you want to make big sweeping changes to your speed and resistance, switch up the front gear. Get it to where you want it roughly to be, and then refine everything with the rear gear.
Once again – your gear changes will be heavily influenced by your bike and your riding style. We promise you that as you cycle more and more on your bike, you’ll get a feel for when it is right to make changes.
Knowing How to Use Your Shifter
The shifter is the part where you choose which gear you want. They come in a variety of different styles, and while they all have the same ‘goal’ of switching the gears on your bike, they are used in ever so slightly different ways.
We’re only going to focus on the shifters that you are most likely to encounter here. There are other shifter types, but these are often found on older bikes, and thus you won’t really see them if you pick up a more modern offering.
No matter what type of shifting system your bike has, the left hand will move the front gears, and the right hand will move the rear gears.
With this type of shifting system, you’ll spot very short levers on the handlebars. One lever shifts the gear up, the other shifts the gear down.
These shifters will have you twisting the end of the handlebars. Forward normally moves the gear up, and twisting back moves the gear down. They can be tricky to get to grips with, but many people end up preferring them.
These shifters can be tricky to wrap your head around because, to the untrained eye, they are almost invisible! Well, not invisible, but you could mistake them for your brakes. This is because integrated shifters are built into the brake lever.
Obviously, to apply the brakes, squeeze the brake lever. If you have integrated shifters, then moving the shifter from side to side will change the gearing up and down.
Electronic shifters are rare (but they are becoming more common). Electronic shifters require you to press buttons to shift the gears up and down. It is very easy. However, do bear in mind that these systems require batteries. You’ll need to change them every so often.
Preparing to Change Gears
So, now you know when to change gears, how to change gears, and whether to switch the front or rear gear, we have one final thing to talk about – preparing to switch gears. Thankfully, this is dead simple.
When you change gears, you should never slow down the pace you are cycling too much (but you don’t want to be cycling blazingly fast as this is unsafe). Keep your pace even, and then make the switch. Always do it slightly in advance of when you are going to need the new gear change. For example – if you are about to climb a hill, you don’t want to shift the gear right at the base of the hill, you’ll change 20-30 meters before you get to the base of the hill so you can get used to the new way of pedaling.
Over time, the actual change will become second nature. At the risk of sounding like a broken record – once you learn how your bike works, the gear-switching process becomes easy.
Practice Tips for Beginners
As we have said several times – learning how to change your gears is all about practicing on your bike. There is only so much that knowing the theory behind gear switching can teach you. Every single bike is different, so you need to get out there and practice. So, let’s share a few tips with you:
- Always practice in a safe location. When you are learning how to shift gears on a bike, try to ensure that there are minimal people around, and try to ensure that car traffic is at the minimum. This way, you can focus on your gear shifting rather than any potential dangers.
- Take things gradually i.e., don’t practice your gear shifting on a big downhill slope (or off-road) until you have mastered the art of gear shifting on flat surfaces.
- As we said before – you’ll want to use the front gear less than the rear one. The front gears are for those big changes, and the rear gears are for the minor adjustments. It is important that you keep the gears broadly in line with one another (i.e., do not have high on the front, low on the back). If you do not, you will experience cross-chaining. This will get very noisy, and it should be the only time your gearing system ever makes noise. If this happens, check your front & rear gear shifters (or physically look at the chainrings to see the physical position of the chain). If they are too far apart, adjust.
- We suggest you try and practice on as many different terrains and hill gradients as possible. Get familiar with your way of cycling, and how your bike reacts when the gears change. Over time (and this will take a lot of practice), gear changing will essentially become muscle memory for you.
As we said – learning how to use your gears properly takes time, and how you experience the different gears will depend on your physical strength and how the bike has been constructed. However, we promise you that the more you practice your cycling, the easier everything will become!
Troubleshooting Common Issues
As a beginner, when you are learning how to change gears, you may run into a few issues. In this section, we not only want to let you know that it is fine to slip up every now and then (we’ve all made mistakes while learning to cycle), but we also want to help you identify why those issues are occurring and give you tips for fixing them.
Chain slipping is often nothing to do with you, but general wear and tear on the bike. As your bike gets older, the teeth on the cogs/chainring will change. They may find it more difficult to grab onto the chain. If you are experiencing regular chain slipping, then talk to a bike expert. Your bike may need to be fixed.
If you have a new bike, then it is normal to experience a bit of gear skipping (when the chain skips from one gear to another with seemingly no input). This is just all the components stretching out properly. It should clear up after a few cycles.
If gear skipping is happening on an older bike, then it is likely down to a shifter cable that’s stretched a bit too far. The quickest way to clear this up is to tighten up the derailleur. It will have a small screw that makes this possible. You only need to make small adjustments. Look up a guide for your bike to learn how to make adjustments to the derailleur.
If this doesn’t fix the problem, then you may need to talk to a bike repair store.
Difficulty shifting your gears can be for a multitude of different reasons. This is not often something that you can easily fix yourself. Talk to a bike repair store. It could be down to poor lubrication, worn components, grime stuck in the gearing system, etc.
The only time where this is really an issue caused by you is if you have opted to change your gears while not pedaling fast enough. This can cause a bit of difficulty in the switch.
Finally – when you are learning to change gears on your bike, stay safe. Only change gears when you are in full control of your bike (don’t do it one-handed), and don’t change gears when you are pedaling too fast. Basically, use common sense. If you do that, learning to change gears on your bike will be safe, and you’ll also learn how to cycle much more efficiently.
Yes – we know we covered a lot about how to change gears on a bike for beginners. However, even then, we feel that we have barely scratched the surface of everything that you need to know, particularly when it comes to how the gearing mechanisms actually work. However, we do feel that we have given you enough information to know when to change gears and how to do it which, honestly, is all the information a cyclist really needs. You really do not need an idea of the mechanisms as long as you know how the gear changes will impact your cycling.
So, you’re now armed with immensely useful information. You can now put this to use and make your cycling so much more efficient. We believe in you!
Level Nine Sports: https://www.levelninesports.com/learn-center/bike-gear-education/shifters-101