Advice How to

How To Use Bike Gears For Dummies

How to use bike gears for dummies. Enjoy.

Oh dear lord. What are you doing Gary? I've told you a hundred times already. Twist the left up to go down.

What is it that you don't understand you clown.

I really can't make it any clearer.

Sound familiar? All your mates thinking you're a grade A wolly because you're not up to scratch with the technicalities of gear changing. Don't worry they're all a bunch of MAMILs anyway.

But it is genuinely annoying when gearing doesn't make sense. So I've put together this simple, easy to follow, how to use bike gears for dummies guide. 

Hope it helps!

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Bicycle Gears Explained

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So before you decide to give it all up and just get a Fixie. Here's the guide. It's only six steps!

1) The Gears

Unless you do actually have a Fixie, in which case you don't really need this guide. Most bikes will have either two or three chainrings in the front (the cogs by your feet), and anywhere between 7 to 11 gears in the rear (the cogs on the back wheel).

You work out how many gears a bicycle has by "x" the value of the two cogs together. For example, if your bike has 3 cogs at the front and 7 cogs in the rear, it would be a 21 geared bike. 

You can think of gears as the same thing as speeds​. So a 21 geared bike is a 21 speed bike.


When the chain is on the smallest cog at the rear, it will be harder to pedal than when the chain is on the biggest cog at the rear. Every time you change a gear it will only increase or decrease in difficulty slightly. 

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It’s a different story on the front. Peddling will feel easier when the chain is on the small cog and harder when it’s on the big cog.

Changes in peddling difficulty will also be more noticeable on the front chainring.

How To Remember 

Think of it as your front chainring being the main gear, e.g., 1,2 and 3, and ​the rear cog as all the numbers in-between 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc.

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2) A Top Tip

Much like the handy "righty tighty, lefty loosey" phrase I always say to myself when attempting and failing at DIY. You can use the saying "right is the rear"​ to easily remember which side of the handlebars your gears are on.

Unless of course the gears have been installed the wrong way round, in which case you'd have to say "right is the chainring at the front." And I'll admit, it's not quite as catchy.​..

3) Top Tip Number 2​

Another tip? I'm too good to you. 

Something I advise to people that are still getting used to using gears is to keep the chain on the middle chainring at the front, and just worry about making smaller, incremental changes with the gearing at the rear.

This way you only have to worry about one shifter on the handlebars, and the whole process is a lot less complicated.

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4) Time Is Of The Essence

Time is of the essence. That is a phrase that I don't know the meaning of. But it makes me sound articulate, so I'll keep it in here.

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Actually, I'm pretty sure it has no relevance to what I'm trying to say, but no bother!

Basically... the reason a bike has gears at all is so that you have the ability to pedal with relative ease over varying types of gradients. Be that steep, flat, or downhill. ​

It comes down to knowing what gears to use at what time.

You'll want to use a harder gear when you're on the flat, or when the wind is giving you an extra boost from behind, and you'll want to use an easier gear when going up a hill.

If you're unsure what gear you should be in when going uphill, make sure you shift before the terrain changes and make sure you ease off on the pedals as well. If you push down too hard while changing gear, you're likely to make it slip, skip, or just break everything all together!

A scenario I've been in far too many times for an expert cyclist is coming to a standstill halfway up a hill. I've usually begun climbing the hill in the wrong gear and been unable to change it because I would have had to push down too hard. 

Don't be a doofus like me and get it right at the foot of the hill! ​

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5) Don't Do This 

So now you're flying up hills, just as fast as you're flying down them. The name calling has stopped, and you're feeling pretty good about yourself. They've nicknamed you "Gary the Gear," and you've had a couple of T-shirts made up.

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But before you get the private number plate printed, make sure you avoid partaking in the greatest bike gear changing faux par known to man.


Did you just shiver? Me too. I know...It's even worse than reading when Harry Potter says Voldemort.

Cross-chaining is when you've got the chain on the biggest cog at the front, and the largest cog at the back.

Ratios like this limit your gear changing options if you need to shift again, but more importantly, it puts stress on the components and increases your chances of breaking stuff.

There will be no "Gary the Gear" Christmas party chanting if your chain snaps mid-ride and you've got no spares.

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6) Mike's Absolutely Legendary Gear Changing Cheat Sheet 

My cheat sheet is the reason you're here. I know you heard rumors about this down the local bike club. I'm going to give you the ultimate "how to use bike gears for dummies" cheat sheet.

I should be charging for this sort of advice but here goes!

Down Hill 

Front = Big or Medium Chainring
Rear = Small Cog


Front = Middle 
Rear = Middle

Up Hill

Front = Small or Medium Chainring
Rear = Big Cog​

There we have it, no more excuses. Get out there and get practicing! Or, if you need a little more clarity, here's a great "how to" video from the Global Cycling Network. 

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1 Comment

  • Thanks I think I am going to have to read this a fair few times before I *get it* mind. What happened to the good old days when we just pedaled?! So I should just start with middle middle and pedal on flat ground then right!