Friday, June 06, 2008


I’m always surprised to see that often times people are riding multiple speed bikes and are completely clueless about how to use them. Then I realize that not everybody as the sacred knowledge to decipher these gears, shifters and all possible combinations. I can understand that all this can be a complete mystery to many of you, so let’s go ahead and solve it.

First off, I’ll explain what you have to work with, we’ll use the typical 3 gears in the front and 7 in the back to explain how to use your drivetrain effectively. On a multiple speed bike you have generally 3 gears in the front, called chain rings, and 6 to 8 in the back on the rear wheel. The front gears are controlled by the shifter on the left of the handle bar. The first one is the smallest and the easiest, it is often called the “granny gear”. That gear is typically used for climbing steep hills or getting people back on bikes like it did for me 16 years ago. The middle gear is the one that is used the most on flat surfaces while at cruising speed. The biggest and hardest gear is used when you are going downhill with the wind at your back.

Some of you more experienced riders reading this are probably going “what is he talking about?”. Remember that I am addressing the neophyte here and most people who get back on a bike don’t have the same legs as Lance Armstrong. Strong riders with many miles on their leg muscles can ride a bike from a dead stop using only the biggest gear or chainring. A newer or more casual cyclist would bust his/her knees doing this. So to recap, smallest gear = easy, middle gear = normal cruising, biggest gear = hard.

Now the front gears are used with the combination of the ones on the rear wheel that are controlled by the shifter on the right side of the handlebars. In this case, the logic is reversed, the first and biggest gear being the easiest and the last and smallest being the hardest to pedal. I will list some combinations that will make your riding easier and you will see that although you might have a 24 speed bike, in reality you will effectively use about 5 or 6 of them.

Climbing a steep hill

1st or 2nd gear in the rear, first gear in the front.

Riding on a flat surface or slight incline

1st to last gear on the rear, middle or second gear in the front.

Riding downhill

Last gear in the rear, 3rd or biggest gear in the front. (If you’re not scared. If so, stay in the middle gear)

If you are a new or recently returning cyclist with dead legs, you can stay on the smallest gear in the front and use all the gears on the rear wheel for all your riding. At some point you will develop more endurance and be able to move on to the middle one. Hardcore cyclists who ride thousands of miles a year will be able to do just about everything with the biggest gear only, but for the mere mortals like you and me, you should stick with the middle one.

One final note, always shift gears ahead of time. If you change gears while applying full power to the pedals, you take a chance of breaking your chain. Plan your shifts ahead of time and you’ll be ok. I hope I managed to explained this properly. Your comments and questions are, as usual, more than welcomed.

Til next time, ride safe and Godspeed.

Gerry J


jaf said...

Very timely, Gerry! My lady friend has been using her multi-geared bike as a singlespeed because she's unsure of how to use the gears.

I could teach her, but. . .well, I could just link to your site instead. Thanks again.

Gerry Lauzon said...

jaf, I wasn't too sure about publishing this post and thanks to your comment I'm happy I did. Simple things sometimes are not.

Gerry :)

WestfieldWanderer said...

Not best to recommend using extreme combinations of gears, that is, biggest at the front and biggest at the back and vice versa. Too much "bending" of the chain and on some bikes tends to be noisy as the chain rubs along the front derailleur cage. Also tends to cause excessive wear on the whole system. Unnecessary too, as many of the gears on a derailleur system are duplicated in different settings and you would find roughly the same ratio in a less "wearing" setting.

Admittedly, all the above is very difficult to get across to a newbie, so perhaps that is why you advocate using all the rear gears in the "granny" ring?

Gerry Lauzon said...

Yes, the granny ring used in all gears is not the best as is using all the gears on the biggest chainring. But a new rider with dead legs will have a better time on the granny gear and he will be off of it in no time and back on the middle gear. It's just there for the time to rehabilitate his/her leg muscle. I totally agree with your comment, thanks for posting it.

Gerry :)

Anonymous said...

Gerry, just found your blog and am excited that the current entry is on gears! My parents just got me a re-fitted mountain bike, and as embarrassing as it is to say at 29, it's my first bike with a gearshift. I drive a stickshift car, so I'm OK with the shifting, but my gearshift seems to slip a lot. When I'm pedaling, the pedals will lose their tension and kind of 'skip'. It makes hills and standing up to pedal kind of a risky affair, since I'm in a high-traffic area and lose balance when it happens. Is this an issue with the chain, or the gearshift? Is there a way for me to fix this on my own, or should I bring it to a shop? Sorry for such a long and specific question, and thanks for any help you can offer me.

- jeremiah

Gerry Lauzon said...

jeremiah, check on the left of the blog you'll see 2 articles on how to adjust your derailleur. It sounds like your chain sits "between" gears when you pedal and you would need to adjust the derailleur in my opinion to remedy the situation.

Gerry :)

ZAPPDOG said...

HI YA Gerry
Good pointers on gears. I agree with you. I run 95% of the time on the middle chainring with occasional jumps to the big one. I run through all 9 gears on the back after nearly every stop, everyday. It is supposed to put more stress in the extreme gears but I have been doing it on my machine for over 5 years and even the chain is still good. Just keep it clean and lubed.
Keep on peddlin

Anonymous said...

Great article. Confirmed a lot of what I already knew!

Anonymous said...

Hello, Gerry.

Since I sort of worked out how to stop all my gears clicking a while back (thanks to you and your site...) I now spend all of my time on the largest front chainring, a la Lance Armstrong. I don't bother to switch down when I'm pulling my three little lads behind me in the trailer and on the bike seat anymore either. It's great to be able to get about by peddle power alone - the fuel and gym membership savings are a happy bonus. Vive le velo!

Have a good weekend.

Gerry Lauzon said...

Hello Robert,

This happens when you put on some serious mileage, you build yourself a strong pair of legs that can handle the big chain ring more often. Keep on riding.

Gerry :)

Anonymous said...


I have to say your site has been immensely helpful. I have just finished taking apart a cruiser bike and a lot of it couldn't have been done without your site. And now! I know why it was so difficult to bike up that long, long stretch of uphill from my University!

Really appreciate your work and thanks for having such a great site for us to browse!

Gerry Lauzon said...

It's a real pleasure to do so.

Gerry :)

Righteous Metal Broad said...

Oh cool! I just discovered this blog tonight, and it totally deserves a spot in my links area.

I own a Raleigh Venture and I am not able to switch gears. I am constantly in the highest gear and for the life of me, I cannot get out of them. I guess the dealer I bought it from really didn't know what he was doing when he put it together, or it's defective. I haven't the foggiest of ideas.

I tell you what, on bike to work day, a bunch of us circled Los Angeles City Hall (we were gonna present the "Cyclists Bill Of Rights" to our mayor) and I was freaking dying! Because City Hall is on a hill...

I'll figure this thing out if it kills me, and it just might...


Gerry Lauzon said...

Thanks for the link Righteous, I made sure to return the favor in kind. Look up the derailleur adjustment article. It should get you back rolling properly.

Gerry :)

Anonymous said...

Very well needed article. I have been searching for years to find this information. Especially explained so clearly. I hope this dosen't offend you but God bless you for this post.

Gerry Lauzon said...

No offense taken Jack. It is my goal since the beginning of this blog to explain cycling to everyday folk who don't eat bike mags or follow the Tour de France. I found that regular bike riders were being left out and I'm happy to hear that I am able to reach folks like you. When I do so, I know I have succeeded in my mission.

Gerry :)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic!! Yes!, Im new to this cycling experience and loving every minute of it. Sunday evening, I purcashed a Fuji Newest 3.0 (24 speed). Monday night I went for a brief cruise and suddenly realized I didnt know how to effective shift gears. I thought to myself I needed some advice and help from someone with some bicycling experience, being new and not knowing anyone who rides would present a challenge. My thoughts this morning were to search the net, and my first hit was "How to use the shifters and gears on your bike". Thanks Gerry, this blog has given me the missing piece to my puzzle to ride more effectively while enjoying the sport of bicycling. Buddhist proverb says, "When a student is ready the teacher will appear"

Gerry Lauzon said...

"When a student is ready the teacher will appear", that's a pretty cool one. Glad I appeared at the right time.

Gerry :)

Andsetinn said...

I always try choose gears that allow me to use similar force and "pedaling per minute" independent of speed and terrain.

Just Me said...

I recently bought a Fuji Absolute 3.0 bike. The salesperson explained the 24 gears to me but when I got home, I forgot everything he said. So, in my confusion, I just let it stay in the same gear going up hills, down hills and flat. I NOW know that it is in the 13th gear.

This is the FIRST tutorial I read that I UNDERSTAND!! Thank you.

Gerry Lauzon said...

I'm glad that this post is still pertinent. Yet I'm not surprised. A lot of people mention to me often that they still can grasp how all of those gears work. I'm pleased that I could help.

Gerry :)

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