Biking 101: How to shift gears and climb hills

Ever wonder why so many people are obsessed with riding bikes? It’s because hopping on a bike can bring some of life’s greatest joys. But if you’re inexperienced or don’t have the basic know-how, you may be missing out on the incredible potential cycling has to offer. 

If you’re new to cycling or you simply want to brush up on some basics, you’ve come to the right place. At Bicycle Adventures, we’re passionate about all things cycling and are here to help you get the most out of your rides. 

One of the most important skills you can learn as a cyclist is how to shift gears. Proper gear shifting can make all the difference in how fast and efficiently you ride, and perhaps most importantly, how you feel on hills.  

Understanding Your Bike’s Gears 

Before diving into how to shift gears, let’s first discuss the different parts on your bike that work together to shift gears.  

Most bikes have two sets of gears:  

  • The front chainring – located near your pedals. You might see bikes with 1, 2 or 3 rings in the front. Typically, on new bikes you’ll see 1 or 2. We will talk about bikes with 2 chainrings for the purpose of this article. These two rings are used to make bigger jumps in your gearing to make your pedal strokes easier or harder. Your smaller chainring in the front is an easier gear and will be what you use while climbing. Your larger chainring is a harder gear and will be what you use when descending and on flats.  
  • The rear cassette – located on the rear wheel hub, the rear cassette typically has 11 gears on our bikes. This rear cassette is how you make minor adjustments while you ride to make pedaling easier or harder and to keep a steady cadence in the face of small changes in elevation or wind. Each piece of the rear cassette is known as a “cog” and in the back, your larger cog equates to easier pedaling and your small cog equates to harder pedaling.  

Along with your gears, you also have derailleurs and shifters.  

  • Derailleur: This piece maintains proper tension on your chain and moves the chain up and down your cassette in the back and back and forth between your chainrings in the front.  
  • Shifters: To move the derailleur you’ll use the shifters on the handlebars of your bike. Your right hand will control your rear derailleur, thus in charge of those minor changes in gearing and your left hand will control your front derailleur for when you need to make those bigger jumps.  

Cadence, Shifting and Climbing 

The general idea of riding is that you want to try to keep a steady cadence (how many times your feet/pedals rotate per minute) whether you are riding uphill, downhill or flat. A cadence of 90 rpm on flats is usually accepted as the “ideal” though riding at a slightly higher or lower cadence is totally fine. What you want to feel while you ride is the sense of putting some power into your wheels but not overworking and mashing through each pedal stroke. Your pedaling should feel smooth with a little resistance, you shouldn’t feel like your feet are just spinning freely. To achieve this feeling, go out on a flat road and play with your gears. You’ll notice that when you shift to an easier gear (small chainring in the front and/or bigger cogs in the back) your cadence will increase naturally and when you shift into a harder gear (big chainring in front and/or smaller cogs in the back) your cadence will naturally slow, and you’ll start to feel more and more resistance. Settle somewhere in the middle.  

Now let’s talk about changes in elevation. When you see a hill coming up, it’s smart to start down-shifting (moving into easier gears) early on so that you don’t get stuck when you hit the hill. Remember that your front chainring (controlled by your left hand) is going to give you a bigger jump in gearing, so use the left hand to shift to the small chainring in the front when you reach your hill so that you aren’t trying to mash uphill in too-hard gears. Then use the right hand to adjust your rear gearing, moving yourself to the larger (or largest) of the back cogs for the easiest pedaling. Even in this easier gear (small chainring in the front, biggest cog in the back) you will still probably pedal quite hard up some hills! If you’re comfortable standing up on your pedals, you can do that to make your uphill riding somewhat easier. If not, stay seated and keep turning those pedals over until you reach the top!  

Once you crest your hill, you’re going to want to start shifting up to your harder gears so that you maintain resistance through the pedals and control of your bike. If you leave the bike in its easiest gear and start going downhill, you’ll end up spinning your pedals without any control. Click through a few gears with your right hand to start shifting up (aka to a smaller rear cog), then use your left hand to move to the big chainring in the front. Once you feel resistance again, you’re set. You don’t have to pedal while riding downhill, but you’ll want to be set up so that if you do need to pedal suddenly, you’ll be prepared.  

Try A Bike Tour! 

If you want to learn how to get the most out of your bike, we recommend taking a bike tour. Riding on rolling hills is a great way to practice shifting gears because you’ll be constantly adjusting, so a tour like our San Juan Islands tour is a great way to learn more about shifting. Plus, you have the added benefit of being led by our passionate and knowledgeable professional guides, who offer an incredible opportunity to learn all about cycling.  But there’s so much more to touring than shifting gears! Bike tours provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From beautiful international destinations like Chile and Japan to local favorites like Oregon’s Crater Lake, discover and explore beautiful, exciting, exotic places with gourmet food and great people. Visit our website to view our many tours and book your next adventure today!



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