When Do I Shift?

When Do I Shift?

Coach Cathyby Coach Cathy

One of the more common questions by new athletes is, “When do I shift?” This is not an easy question to answer since there isn’t really a right or wrong time, just the optimal time.  It is best not to overthink the simple act of shifting, but you should be aware of a few tips that may help you become a better cyclist as well as to help improve your bike’s performance and longevity.

Lighten your pedal pressure. Have you ever dropped your chain while riding? Dropping your chain may have resulted due to a drastic shift in multiple gears while pedaling under heavy pressure.  This occurs because the derailleur tension cannot compensate for the rapid change in chain position and the chain can drop off the chain ring. Usually this situation arises when you are caught off guard by a steep climb or a sharp curve. The safer option is to be in an easy gear and to keep your cadence a few rpms above your normal range since it is easier to drop to a harder gear than it is to force the chain up the cassette to an easier gear. Also, lightening your pedal pressure will help prevent wear on your bike components since shifting under heavy pressure may cause undue stress on your derailleur, chain and the teeth of your cassette.

Avoid cross-chaining. Cross-chaining means your chain is in either the outer or inner chain ring up front and crossed over to the opposite gears in the back. This combination adds undue stress to the chain and increases wear. If your gear is in the biggest chain in the front and the biggest cog in the rear, then the best solution is to shift down to the inner chain ring in the front and then shift up two or three cogs in the rear and find a suitable gear ratio with a much better chain line. This avoids chain rub and potentially dropping your chain.

Spin, don’t mash. Some athletes “mash” the big gears, and others are “spinners.” Those who “mash” ride with a low to mid cadence (less than 70 rpm) with high resistance and “spinners” pedal at a high cadence with less resistance. The key is to find the gear that allows for a comfortable cadence with a comfortable amount of resistance (roughly 80-100 rpm); not too fast and not too slow. As a result, there is less muscle fatigue, less stress on the cardiovascular system, and less risk of injury to the knees.  Additionally, the bike chain will shift better without undo pressure at a high resistance.

Shift into a low gear for stops. When you are coming to a red light or stop sign, you should down shift to a low gear (faster rpm). When you begin to pedal again, you won’t have all your weight on the pedals to get the bike to respond and it is easier to get back into your pedals and to begin moving quickly. This is one situation where you can really wear out the drive train quickly by staying in a high gear during stops.

Change gears regularly. Maintaining a comfortable cadence with a comfortable amount of resistance no matter the situation is ideal. If you encounter a strong tail wind, then shift up and ride fast at a comfortable cadence. Shift gears for an upcoming hill early and shift down and ride up slowly at an equally comfortable cadence. Maintaining a relatively constant cadence will improve stamina for longer rides. Also, changing gears regularly helps spread the workload that any gear has to perform and that spreads out the wear that any particular gear will endure.

Remember that proper shifting will help improve your bike’s performance as well as your own performance. Hopefully these tips will help you. For additional assistance, please complete the form to the right to talk to an Experience Triathlon coach and schedule a bike assessment.

Happy cycling!!

Cathy Obordo is a USAT certified Triathlon Coach with Experience Triathlon.   As leaders in the endurance services industry, Coach Cathy and the Experience Triathlon staff help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life.  Learn more about Coach Cathy and Experience Triathlon at www.experiencetriathlon.com.


USA Triathlon (2012), Complete Triathlon Guide.

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