How To Shift Your Gears

If you’re not riding a “fixie” (a bicycle with no gears) then you need to know how to shift those gears and use them efficiently while riding. Whether you have 7, or 24 gears all it takes is a little practice to make it perfect.

Shifting your gears is one of the fundamental mechanical functions of your bike. Learning how to shift may seem basic, but gearing practice is something that even veteran riders can work on. Proper gearing will not only improve your speed it will also make the ride more comfortable and increase your endurance on longer rides.

The terminology can get tricky but here we will keep it uncomplicated. Note that for our use I’m not getting into the different kinds of bicycles only the basics of how to shift. If there’s something I don’t cover on your bike please leave a question in the comments.

How Many Gears Do I Have?

In simple terms, you could determine this number by multiplying the number of cogs in your rear gears by the number of front gears your bike has. For example, if your bike has 7 cogs (rings) in the rear and three front gears (rings) then you have a 21-speed bike. However, adult bikes are rarely referred to in this way in the modern bicycle industry because, basically, more doesn’t always mean better.

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Rear (Cogs) Gears

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Front Gears

There will always be more rear gears than front gears on your bicycle. On three-speed bikes, the gears are inside the hub of the wheel so you don’t see them.

What Hand Does What?

Left hand: Controls the front gears/front derailleur by moving the chain up and down the chainrings. These levers cause big jumps in gears for sudden changes in terrain.

Right hand: Controls the rear gears/rear derailleur by moving the chain up and down the cogs. These levers are for small adjustments to your gearing to use during slight changes in terrain.

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My bike is a hybrid with 24 gears. The right side controls the rear gears (8) and the left side controls the front gears (3). It’s important to note on the right, the lever on the bottom of my handlebars is low and the one in front (under my brake lever) is high.

Depending on the type of bike you have your shifters may look a little different. On road bikes (any bike with drop handlebars), your shifters are the same levers you use to apply your brakes. To operate the shifters you push the lever sideways until you hear a click. For most mountain and hybrid style bikes with flat or curved bars, you shift the gears by using set paddles that you operate with your thumb. Some bikes operate with “grip shifters”, or a dial that is located to the inside of where you place your hands. For these systems, you change gears by rotating the dial forward and back.

No matter the differences, shifting mechanics are basically the same.

How To Shift

First gear is a low gear and twenty-first gear is a high gear. Downshifting means going to a lower gear, and upshifting means going to a higher gear. You can also say shift down and shift up.

Begin to shift into easier gears with your right hand early to keep a steady cadence. Remember, your right hand is for small changes in the terrain. If you find that your pedaling pace is slowing drastically, you will likely need to use the front derailleur (your left hand) to make the gearing much easier for the big climb ahead. But if you are already climbing up the hill and putting a ton of power down on the pedals you might notice your front derailleur doesn’t want to work. You will shift, hear a grinding noise but nothing will happen and you will likely come to a stop in the middle of the hill.

Instead of grinding those gears, you will need to put a little more power into your pedal stroke right before your shift then, lighten up on your pedal stroke as you shift. With less pressure on your chain, your derailleur will have an easier time popping your chain off the big ring and into a smaller one.

If you completely stop pedaling you won’t be able to shift at all!

Too often, I see people putting too much power into their pedals as they climb up a steep hill or legs flailing as they spin out on a gear that is too easy for the descent they are riding. Your goal while riding should be to keep a consistent speed throughout your ride. To do that, it requires one of two things: shifting or increased power output through peddling.

Shift Often For Increased Efficiency

When I ride, I watch the terrain and shift appropriately. Before I start up a hill or if I’m coming to a stop I will downshift ahead of time. That way I don’t worry about grinding gears when I go up a big hill or starting off in a harder (higher) gear after stopping.

When the riding is a little too easy that’s the time to shift into a higher gear. A higher gear will be harder to pedal but will take you farther at a faster rate.

If you want a more aerobic workout on flats shift into the next highest gear (making it a little harder, but not too hard, to pedal.) Downshift if you get too tired. Be careful to avoid hurting your joints (knees) so if it’s too hard don’t do it.

Shifting Basics Review

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 Low and high shifting levers circled for one side of this hybrid bicycle. Your bicycle might be different so identity your types of levers, dials, etc. before practicing shifting on your bike.

  • Use your left hand to shift the front gears.
  • Use your right hand to shift the rear gears. This hand gets the most use.
  • Gear down to make your pedaling easier but less powerful.
  • Gear up to make your pedaling harder but more powerful.
  • Practice shifting up and down in a flat area.
  • Only shift while you’re pedaling forward.
  • Pick a low gear when you start off.
  • Gradually gear up as you build up speed.
  • Shift down for hills and stops.
  • Shift up when on fairly level ground and for downhill areas.
  • Shift up carefully to avoid hurting your joints.
  • Avoid choosing gears that “crisscross” the chain. (Example: the front gear on the largest gear and the rear gear on the smallest gear.)

Everyone is a little different when it comes to how you ride your bicycle. The better you know your bike the better rider you become. Practice being at one with your bike and enjoy the ride!

A Word About Your Brakes

Brakes aren’t used when shifting but it’s important to know where yours are and how to use them. The right side is your rear brake lever that stops the rear wheel and the left side is your front brake lever that stops the front wheel. The most important thing to remember is to always use the rear brake first! With time you’ll learn to use both brakes together. You have to use both brakes to make stopping fast and safe.

My sister-in-law who knew how to ride her bike broke her jaw in three places when she forgot this important fact during a group ride flying over the handlebars after applying her left, front brake without the other. If you accidentally use your front brake while stopping you stop only your front wheel probably hurting yourself.

When I’m stopped I’ll also use my brakes to steady my bike when I’m getting on, etc. Your brakes are your friend.

Some Last Words

When you’re busy riding you should be watching the road in front of you for traffic, people, animals, car doors opening, street lights, debris, hills, and more. If you’re like me you’ll be looking at everything except those things. No worries because with practice and good habits, you’ll be handling it all without breaking a sweat (unless you mean to sweat.)

Sources: Drawings from WikiHow.
Some facts from Google searches.
Featured Image: The shifters and handlebars on my Norco, Rideau.

Be careful out there. Know your bicycle and your riding trails. Use hand signals. Be and stay safe.

2020-Another Year To Ride

There’s so much to look forward to in the new year! While many people are thinking of resolutions they usually break within the first few months I’m thinking about continuing what’s worked for me almost 4 years now. After putting the hustle and bustle of the holidays behind me it’s time to get back to riding.

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Whether you ride year-round or in the spring when the snow melts one thing you should do each year is to make sure your bicycle is in tip-top shape to ride. Parts can shake loose and bikes should be inspected and readjusted yearly especially if you ride daily. Yearly bike maintenance is imperative for safe riding.

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Yesterday I had a sobering reality while doing my visual check before a ride. I checked the front and back wheel levers for my quick release and everything looked good. I usually make sure they’re flipped down tight but I don’t physically manipulate them unless they look like they moved.

Right before we took off I noticed while jerking my handlebars (by accident) that something sounded loose. I first thought it was my cell phone holder on my handlebars because I was having trouble tightening it down. It wasn’t.

I shook it again and thought I saw my front tire move. No way! I picked up my front end and spun the tire, it was moving fine. Then I pushed the wheel sideways and noticed it was moving back and forth a tiny bit. OMG!

Although everything looked good I knew something was wrong. I tried the wheel release and it was very loose. I had a vision of happily riding along watching my front wheel come off and crashing violently. It was my worst nightmare!

I released the wheel fully, tightened the release screw, and put the wheel back on. I made sure the wheel was solid and the release screw was as tight as I could work it. I also checked the rear release which was good. I had saved myself from a world of hurt and a terrible accident.

This is one reason I’m against quick-release wheels! Yes, it’s nice to get the wheel off easily for many reasons but if they aren’t tight your wheel can come off. Some bikes have a guard in place so if it accidentally opens your wheel is held on but it’s no guarantee.

I don’t wish to scare you but I rode with a friend some months ago who thought he was having a front brake problem until he discovered the wheel release had come open. He rode like that for miles and was extremely lucky his wheel didn’t come off. People don’t usually have that kind of dumb luck.

Now, most new bikes come with quick-release wheels (front and back) so it’s very important to do a visual hands-on check of your bicycle every time you take a ride. Safety first!

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What To Check Before A Ride

Take the time to look at your bike before a ride. You will want to put your hands on it.

  • Check tire pressure and add air if needed. The correct pressure will be on your tires.
  • Check the frame for any damage or rust and cables for any bends, or frayed edges.
  • Try your brake handles and make sure your breaks are engaging. The brake pads or discs shouldn’t be worn.
  • Make sure your tires have good tread on them with no aging rubber or cracks in the sidewalls.
  • Manually check your front and back wheel release levers making sure they are tight and flipped shut.
  • Check the condition of your chain. Chains need to be kept clean and lubricated.
  • Keep your (rear wheel) gears clear and clean of debris.
  • Is your seat the correct height? Your leg on the lowest pedal should be fully extended with a slight bend in your knee.
  • Handlebars should be straight and tight.
  • Secure any gear properly and keep away from your spokes.
  • If wearing pants use clips or straps to keep them tight at the ankles and away from your spokes.

If you find something you can’t fix do a search for a good bike shop in your area. They will be glad to answer any questions you might have. They can tell you how much air should be in your tires (if you can’t find it) and can do yearly maintenance on your bicycle if you can’t do it yourself. A good bike shop is the best tool you can have.

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Yearly Bike Maintanence Musts

  • Inspect and adjust your derailer.
  • Inspect and adjust your brakes and brake system.
  • Inspect and adjust your chain and drive system.
  • Clean and lubricate your chain and drive system.
  • Clean and inspect your frame for wear and rust.
  • Inspect and tighten screws and parts on your frame.
  • Check tires for loose or bent spokes, worn bearings, etc.
  • Inspect tire rubber for wear.
  • Inspect all cables, cable housings, and connections.
  • Inspect handlebars, hand grips or handlebar tape, mounted brake handles, and shift levers.
  • Inspect fender clearance and hardware.

If you take your bike into a shop they will do all of this for you including cleaning your bike. Ask your shop for a list of what they charge for maintenance, cleaning, and services.

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I’m excited to have my 4 year riding anniversary coming up on Feb. 20th! Although I’ve had a bicycle my whole life I’ve only spent the last 4 years being serious about it. I started riding 20-30 miles every other day for my health and sanity. I was 60 pounds overweight and depressed on meds in very bad health after having the worst 4 years of my life. Bike riding is now a healthy habit that has kept my weight off and helped me to get over my sleeping problems. That’s what made me do this site I wanted to spread the word about how healthy bike riding is for people of all ages. (Read my full story HERE.)

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Whether you believe in resolutions or not I hope this is the year you decide to get healthy and stay that way. I’d like to encourage you to consider riding a bicycle if you don’t already. It’s low-impact, gives you a strong core, a healthy heart, promotes good sleep, improves your balance and is so much fun! It makes me feel like a kid again.

On Bike With Bekkie, I have many articles that talk about the benefits of riding a bicycle and getting healthy.  How important it is to eat right. What happens when you ride a bicycle and more. I have lovely photographs I’ve taken while riding the Bay Trail. Having trouble sleeping? I got you!

The Bay Trail is a mostly paved trail that runs around the San Francisco Bay with a view of the city, the SFO airport, and many other gorgeous landmarks. The beauty of this area can’t be beaten with its marshes, man-made waterways, and the creatures that live here. Click HERE to see the map.

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I wish you good health and happiness in 2020!

Winter Riding-How To Deal With The Cold

For some of you, ( like me in California ) riding a bike at any temperature below 50 degrees ( Fahrenheit ) is really cold. For this post, “really cold” is defined as below 32 degrees. There’s no reason why winter riding has to be miserable.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.

When it’s really cold, there’s simply no point in fighting the elements because there’s a fine line between building toughness and getting sick. That doesn’t count the built-up snow and salt on the roads that make traction hazardous. It also provides less room and visibility for drivers and can corrode your bike’s drivetrain fairly quickly. Within reason, exercising outdoors even in the extreme cold is both doable and enjoyable.

Most of the time, you can think of winter activities as “exercising in less heat,” rather than being too different from exercising in warmer temperatures. That’s because the body is still producing heat from exercise that will keep you warm. The difference is that you’ll lose heat from your body quite quickly due to the colder temperatures. Therefore, staying warm during exercise in the cold is really about balancing how active you are, wearing the right clothing, and taking some common-sense precautions.

 Breathing Cold Air

Most people have no problems from breathing in cold air during exercise, even with activities such as during cross-country skiing that requires rapid breathing. Your nose and airways are very good at warming up the air, so even very cold air is warmed up to nearly your normal body temperature by the time it reaches the more delicate lungs.

The main exception is athletes with asthma, as cold air might trigger an asthmatic episode. The same is true for athletes with exercise-induced bronchial-constriction. In this situation, heavy exercise can cause the muscles around the airways to react and make breathing more difficult. If this is a concern, one thing you might try is to wear a light bandana, scarf or mask. This will help warm up and add moisture to the air before it reaches your lungs.

Another way to help lessen the chance of breathing problems is to slowly warm-up before beginning heavier exercise. Not only will this be better for your body as a whole, but it will also help your breathing get used to the extra work that it’s being asked to do.

Wind Chill

Wind chill is the biggest risk when exercising in the winter. Negative 10 degrees in calm air may not feel too cold, but zero degrees in a strong wind can feel extremely cold. This is because wind greatly increases the rate of heat loss from your skin. This can cause you to lose body heat much faster, so you must take extra care. There are many weather apps that can help you track the wind where you live during your rides.

Really Cold Weather Tips

  • Be extremely careful when it’s cold and raining or when you’re near water. Water conducts heat 25 times as fast as air, greatly increasing your risk of hypothermia. If it’s a cold and wet day, consider doing something indoors instead, or make sure you have excellent rain gear. When it’s cold and wet, also try to keep stops or rest breaks to a minimum, as the act of exercising is generating a lot of valuable heat to keep you warm.
  • If you have the option, consider finding routes away from open exposure to wind. Ideally, find routes with lots of cover from trees or buildings and consider heading to the trails for something different.
  • Make sure you wear quality winter clothing with base layers. Wear garments closest to the body that wicks away sweat. Trapped sweat that can’t evaporate will also cool your temperature rapidly.
  • Layering definitely does work. Each individual layer acts as a barrier to the wind, and the sum of a few layers is usually greater than one single layer of the same overall insulation. Layering also lets you customize the degree of ventilation during exercise.
  • Last but not least, you lose most of your warmth through your head. Wear a hat or balaclava* under your helmet, especially with all the super-ventilating helmets out on the market.

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Me in my balaclava*. It can be pulled over my nose and mouth if need be. Be aware, they come in sizes and for women that is usually a small. As you can see it tucks into my furry pullover keeping cold drafts at bay. 

Dress For Success In Layers

The secret to all-year-round cycle clothing success, both on or off-road, is layering. It might be tempting to go and buy that awesome cycling jacket but that alone won’t provide enough performance to keep you truly comfortable in all weather. What every cyclist needs to do is dress in a way that can deal with changing external and internal conditions. Nothing is more miserable than over or underdressing.

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Dressed for success. Today I’m wearing a furry winter sports pullover. It’s very warm but not windproof. Underneath I wear a sleeveless undershirt, a sweat-wicking long sleeve base layer, a Pearl Izumi ( water-resistant and windproof ) shell, and if it’s really cold a thermal underwear top. This is finished off by long workout leggings, and Pearl Izumi gloves with gel insert.

I don’t subscribe to dressing like everyone else when it comes to cycling. Road Cyclists have their cycling jerseys, shorts or bibs, and more. Cycling clothes are expensive but it doesn’t hurt to get a few good pieces to add to your riding ensemble.  I look for sales and am partial to the Pearl Izumi and Fabletics brands. The important thing is to layer what you do wear correctly for comfort and function.

How Should I Layer My Garments?

  • The first garment, which will sit next to your skin is the base layer. Base layers wick sweat away from your skin while also keeping you warm. A good base layer will help you stay cool and dry in summer, but warm and insulated in winter. I find a sleeveless undershirt made of a good sweat-wicking material under my base layer keeps my body extra warm without overheating on freezing days.
  • Softshell jackets make a good layer over the first garment. They have wind-stopping material and some elements of rain-resistance. A good shell is often your first line of defense against true winter riding elements. Some shells have removable sleeves and vents if you get too warm.
  • For really cold days I add another layer over the softshell. A waterproof or water-resistant coat long enough to cover your backside ( especially if you don’t have fenders ) is good. You don’t want the coat to be too heavy and that extra layer will help you stay warm and dry rain or shine.

These are only suggestions because there are so many variations depending on how you layer your clothes and what you like to wear. Just follow these outlines and use common sense.

Warm Leggings

Leggings ( or tights ) are made from different materials for the seasons. Most leggings are also sweat-wicking and will keep your legs warm and protected. If you get a sore rear-end while riding find leggings with sensible padded inserts. You can find workout leggings almost everywhere they have become more popular than blue jeans for everyday women’s wear, however, make sure they are thick enough to keep you warm. Bib tights for cycling are another alternative ( that men usually prefer, ) made for women too.

Protect Your Hands, Feet, Head, & Neck

Nothing has the ability to create quite as much pain on the bike than cold and wet feet or hands, so make sure your extremities are protected. Being dressed for cold weather success means nothing if a cold draft is blowing down your neck or through your bike helmet.

For your hands, swap fingerless mitts for full-finger gloves. If you use your phone while riding as a bike computer some gloves have fingers that work on touch screens that are very handy. Then, on the feet, use overshoes or oversocks to help keep toes warm and prevent water from getting into your shoe.

For your noggen, you can use any soft winter cap that fits over your head and ears and fits underneath your bike helmet. When you need something more I suggest the balaclava* which is excellent because it’s adjustable to protect any part of your face, ears, and neck. They are great neck warmers and tuck into your top layer. In winter I keep mine at the ready in my bike bag.

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This is a moto jacket that I use as my warmest winter outer layer. It has the features you want to look for in a good cycling jacket. It’s waterproof and windproof without a bulky lining. Those cuffs fit over my gloves keeping my wrists warm with no drafts. It has a high neck that keeps me warm. It looks heavy but is light enough so that my layers underneath don’t make me overheat. Fabletics makes the moto jacket, many of my baselayer tops, and my leggings.

Layering up can work if you cycle to work or are going out for a longer ride. What you wear will depend on what the temperature is, where you are riding and how long you will be cycling for. It might seem that there’s a lot of gear suggested here but it’s worth remembering that all of these garments are the types of products that will stand up to many years of riding. Also, layering is a total cycling clothing solution, suitable for all outdoor sports.

Dealing with cold weather during any season can make one miserable but winter is the worst. Really cold, cloudy, windy, dark short days that make even the best bike rider want to stay inside and hide. As long as you have the facts and know how to layer even you can turn that frown upside down and get back to what you love. And let’s face it, winter can be so beautiful!

*A balaclava, also known as a balaclava helmet or ski mask, is a form of cloth headgear designed to expose only part of the face, depending on how it’s worn. 

Stay warm and dry, be safe, and stay happy!