Bike Shifting 101

Simple Rules that Make Cycling Easier

1. Know Your Numbers

On the handlebars of a 21-speed bike (the most typical), you'll see a left-side shift lever with the numbers 1, 2 and 3, and a right-side shift lever with 1 through 7. The lever on the left controls the three chainrings on your front derailleur, and drastically change how easy or hard it is to pedal. The lever on the right controls the cluster of chainrings on your back derailleur and helps you make slight adjustments to your ride.

2. Use The Right Combos

"If you're climbing a steep hill, opt for lower gears—the 1 on the left side combined with 1 to 4 on the right," says Joanne Thompson, owner and manager of Bike Station Aptos in Aptos, California. "If pedaling feels way too easy, switch to a higher gear—the 3 on the left side combined with 4 to 7 on the right—to help you go faster." For everyday flat-road riding, she recommends sticking with the middle gear (the 2) on your left-side shifter and using the full range of gears on your right to fine-tune.

3. Shift Early, Shift Often

"Anticipate the road ahead and shift gears before a hill, just like you would in a manual-transmission car," says Thompson. (Make sure to ease into gears, because if you make huge jumps—like clicking from the 1 on your left-hand shifter to the 3—your chain might slip off your bike.) "There's no such thing as shifting too often, so frequently change gears to find a cadence that's not too hard or easy," she says. "Soon you'll be able to do it without thinking."