Bike Basics: Gears (pt 2)


“I have no idea what the left side shifters are for or how to use them.”

This past week my husband and I had the pleasure of biking in Colorado with his family. Unfortunately, the Boda Boda did not get a plane ticket, so she stayed home and I rented a bike from Epic Mountain Sports in Winter Park (great staff and great rates – I highly recommend them!) Back to the story – given the mountains and hills, I noticed that I was getting to the top of the gears and the bike wasn’t quite working like I wanted it to. I then remembered the gear changer on on the left side and that I needed to get the front gears involved.

I’ll start by saying this – gears are meant to keep you pedaling in a rhythm (in the bike world this is called your cadence). Whether you are climbing a mountain or cruising along a flat street, the goal is for your pedaling to always be in the same, smooth, even rhythm. You’ll adjust your gears accordingly so that at no point you are pedaling furiously fast or painstakingly hard and slow. The League of American Bicyclists suggests a cadence of 75-95 rpm, meaning your pedals make a full rotation 75 to 95 times per minute.

On the right side of the handlebars you have the back gear shifter – on the bike I was using there were 8. However, on the left side, there was a shifter with a 1, 2, and 3. Often people assume that this means there are basically three sets of eight gears – all increasingly hard – in essence giving you 24 gears. This is not the case and can actually lead you to stretching the chain and confusing yourself.

Instead, think if of it like a gradual process on both sides. If you live somewhere like Chicago, you will likely do most of your shifting on the right side (which changes the back gears) and primarily leave the left side (the front gears) alone. However, if you find yourself biking around various inclines, here is an easy way to remember it. (I stole this from the wonderful Sarah over at Courage to Run). Although I couldn’t remember her little saying at the bottom, having it laid out so simply helped my photographic memory.

The combination of gears I should use, so I don’t stretch the chains too far are:

Left gear 1, use Right gear 1—3

Left gear 2, use Right gear 2—6

Left gear 3, use Right gear 3—7

That way, if the front or left shifter is on the biggest, the back is on the smallest. Make sense?

An easy way for me to remember this, (cause like I said, my memory…eh…),

Going up a hill? ONE through THREE makes it easy.

Small incline or flat? TWO through SIX, just right

Down a hill? THREE through SEVEN, ahhh, heaven.

Changing gears comes in handy when you've got attractive cargo like this.

Changing gears comes in handy when you’ve got attractive cargo on the Boda Boda like this.

A few gear reminders: 

–       Don’t shift while stopped (unless your bike is specifically designed to do so).

–       Downshift before you stop – it’s not good on your chain to start off pedaling hard in a high gear (such as coming off a stop sign).

–       Don’t “cross chain” – this is when your chain is going between the extremes on your front and back gear. For example, don’t have your front gear (left shifter) on 1 and your back gear on 8 (right shifter). It’s called “cross chain” because if you look down, you’ll see the chain stretched across the extreme points between the two sets of chain rings.


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