Shifting may seem complicated, but it's actually pretty simple. The bike's gears make it easy to adjust effort so you can keep pedaling comfortably regardless of what the terrain throws at you.
Bikes aren't shifted like cars, though. You don't start in first gear, shift into second, and so on. You shift by how your legs and lungs feel. And, just as the car engine is most efficient when run at a steady speed, your body (the bike's engine) is happiest when you're pedaling at a comfortable pace. For most people that pace begins at about one complete pedal revolution per second or slightly faster (sixty to eighty rpm, which may sound fast, but is easy to maintain over many miles). Experienced riders with a conditioned cardiovascular system can increase the pace of their spin to even higher levels, again related to proper shifting and choice of gearing.
Understand that, for the most part, there's no right or wrong gear to be in. Use the one that feels right for your legs and lungs at the time. And, unless you live where all the rides are pancake flat, shift a lot to keep your RPMs steady and pace yourself. If your legs ache, but you're not breathing at a rate consistent with your speed, or if your legs feel great but you're nearly out of breath, you need to shift to a different gear.
How do you actually shift? You probably already know that you must pedal in order to shift on a derailleur-equipped bike. But it's also important to ease the pressure off the pedals during the gear change. This makes the shift smoother and prevents possible drivetrain glitches. In order to do this on a hill, anticipate the steep section and shift into an easier gear before you get there.
Of course, shifting is done by moving the shift levers. You decide to shift when your legs are working too hard or spinning too fast because conditions have changed. All you need to know is whether you want to make it easier or harder to pedal and by how much.
Next, you choose which lever to shift (never shift them simultaneously). The right lever makes small differences in pedaling effort and is usually clicked once or several times. Shifting this lever moves the chain across the cluster of cogs on the rear wheel. On a newer bike, there are nine, ten or even eleven of these and they only vary size-wise a couple of teeth. The larger the cog, the easier it is to pedal and vice versa.
Contrarily, the left lever, makes larger differences in effort. Use it to make it considerably harder or easier to pedal. Operating this lever moves the chain between the two or three chainrings on the front of your drivetrain. Here, the larger the ring, the harder it is to pedal and vice versa.
So, a short ride might go something like this: You roll out of your garage and start pedaling and find the going too difficult. You click the right lever once but it's still way too hard, so you shift the left lever, which makes it much easier and lets you spin your legs at a good pace. You cruise toward the lake feeling fine but then your legs get heavy. A headwind! You shift the right lever twice and find a good rhythm again. Toward the back side of the lake, there's a short steep climb. You shift the right lever each time the hill steepens until you're in your easiest gear. Cresting the hill, it's all downhill home with a tailwind. Woo-hoo! You pick up speed quickly. You could coast but you want to keep pedaling to add a little speed and get the workout. You shift the right lever but need a larger change so you shift the left and head for home at supersonic speed.
Shifting becomes natural with a little practice and most cyclists don't even think about it. They just pedal along and shift whenever it feels right, selecting a gear by instinct. They shift constantly, too–maybe 100-plus times on a rolling fifteen-mile ride. If you can do that on your rides, you'll get the hang of shifting quick. If you'd like us to explain shifting in person come on in and we'll be glad to help.