6 Shifting Tips To Be A Faster Cyclist Today

Shifting gears is an under-rated skill in cycling. On the wall in our Colorado Springs Training Center, there’s a Murray-branded steel Serotta hanging on the wall. It’s the bike I rode in the 1985 Giro d’Italia, complete with a 53/42 crankset, 12-23 freewheel, and friction downtube shifters. Back then shifting gears was a major component of strategy. Even with advances in technology, including electronic shifting, deciding when and how to shift is still an important aspect of performance.

With friction shifting you had to take your hands off the handlebars to do it (unless you could shift with your knee like Sean Kelly), which meant everyone around you knew when you did it. Shifting often telegraphed your next move; when someone reached down to shift you could tell they were about to attack, or they needed an easier gear to get up the hill, etc.

Listen to Chris Carmichael on “The Packfiller Podcast”

You had to think ahead about when you were going to shift, too. If you were in a tight pack, fighting for position as you went into a sharp corner before a steep climb, you had just a split second to get into the right gear. If you missed that shift, you lost ground in a hurry. And with friction shifting you couldn’t just hit a button or click the lever; you had to find the gear with precision.

When it came to finishing sprints, friction downtube shifting meant committing to a gear and sticking with it. Reaching down to shift again wasn’t an option, which is why Kelly’s ability to shift with his knee in the middle of sprint came in handy.


While I am in no way advocating a return to friction shifting or downtube shifters, I do think shifting gears has become an underappreciated skill. The mechanics and accuracy of shifting are no longer in doubt, but the gears you choose and the timing of your gear shifts can play a major role in your success as a cyclist. Here are a few tips to help you make better shifts:

Gradually shift into easier gears on a climb

When cyclists approach a steep climb they either sequentially shift into easier gears as the climb progresses, or dump the chain to an easy gear all at once. I recommend the sequential method because it enables you to maintain more momentum in the early portion of the climb and helps you find the best gearing for the power and cadence you want to maintain. One big shift to the largest cogs on the cassette is a more random, Hail Mary approach, and you lose a lot of speed in the process.

Start shifting back to higher gears over the tops of climbs

If you are trying to stay with a group or set a new personal best time over the summit of a climb, be aware of your gearing and power as the grade levels off near the top. You can either increase your cadence to keep your speed and power up, or you can shift into harder gears as you approach the summit. A lot of people lose contact with the group in the final 200 meters of a climb because they simply continue grinding along in the same gear and at the same cadence even as the grade lessens.

Shift 1-2 cogs when you stand and sit

As you get out of the saddle on a climb or even to just stretch your legs on the flats, shift up (harder gear, smaller cog) 1-2 cogs on the cassette. When you stand your cadence typically slows and now you have your full bodyweight pushing the pedal, so riding a harder gear helps you maintain momentum and avoid the dreaded “kickback” effect which can lead to overlapped wheels and crashes in a group. When you sit back down, shift back down (easier gear, bigger cog) to bring your cadence back up to the desired speed.

Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

Accelerate, then shift

It is easier to rev a lighter gear (larger cog) than a heavier gear (smaller cog). If you’re trying to launch an attack, bridge a gap, start a sprint, or simply speed up after a sharp corner, first accelerate by increasing cadence in the gear you’re in and then shift into a heavier gear to continue the acceleration. Think of it like a manual transmission car (for those of you who remember them…). Revving the engine to higher rpms before upshifting meant faster acceleration than upshifting with low rpms.

Roll a bigger gear in the draft

If you’re in a large group and cruising along in the draft at a moderate pace, rolling a heavier gear can save you energy and keep your individual pace steadier. When power output and intensity are relatively low, you don’t need to add a lot of energy to your pedal stroke to maintain your position in the group. You can reduce the aerobic cost of producing that lower workload by rolling a larger gear. However, be aware of changes in pace, because rolling that heavier gear will make it more difficult for your to respond quickly to pace changes. If the intensity is high it’s better to ride a gear that enables a faster cadence so you can adjust your speed more quickly and produce less force per pedal stroke.

Lighten up when you shift

This is a problem that is getting less common as more athletes go to electronic shifting, mechanical derailleurs and shifters improve, and athletes move to single chainring setups. However, it’s still an issue I see every single time I go to a group ride or event. When you are shifting between chainrings you will achieve a smoother and faster shift if you ease up on the pedals. If you are mashing the pedals as you upshift to the big ring you are more likely to get a grinding and slow shift. If you’re mashing the gear as you shift to the small chainring you risk throwing the chain off the crank. Electronic shifting and newer mechanical shifters are much better at shifting under high load if you have to do it, and clutch rear derailleurs help minimize dropped chains when downshifting because they minimize chain slap.

Have a Great Weekend,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time

Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Comments 14

  1. Pingback: Pedaling and Shifting 101 — Empire State Ride

  2. Friction shifting, especially to the riders in front of you, could be absolutely stealth, a silent killer when preparing for an attack. All you had to do was over shift slightly, say from the 15 down to the 14, and the chain would slip onto the harder gear whisper quiet.

    Now all you had to have was the legs to follow through on the attack?!…

    Good read all the same, thanks!

  3. I laughed when you said, as you near the top and it begins to get easier or levels out…My experience after 3Million feet of climbing in 5 years is that 90% of the time, the crest of a hill or mountain ramps up, not down…Nonetheless, the article was a good reminder of all things shifting. I liked the advice to lower cadence and go smaller cog in the draft to save energy.

  4. I’ve been riding for years climbing just using my large front ring. I’ve never used m small one in so long I can’t remember . Reading different stories , magazines etc. I’m thinking this might not be the best way anymore. Being over 60 likely not going to be able to for long anyway. What’s your opinion?

    1. Good article. I am amazed at the number of cyclists who do not understand how to take advantage of the full spectrum of gears to improve their performance. Why even have components with 22 gears if you are only using half of them? The great cyclists maintain a smooth, steady cadence usually >90-95 rpm’s (some hold an even higher average cadence!!!)
      Think about being more like a gazelle than an ox on the bike; you will be much more agile & athletic if you shift gears to maintain a steady cadence & relatively steady power output.
      If you don’t anticipate changes in the gradient of the road, or wind direction and shift gears accordingly, you lose a lot of time because you have allowed yourself to slow too much while mashing in a big gear instead of shifting and then when you shift, your legs are too burnt out, or you lose time “spinning out” in a gear that is way too easy & your power output drops.
      The biggest compliment you can get from experienced cyclists is that you are a “smooth wheel”.
      Better to be known as the “smooth wheel” in the group than “that guy” who is lumbering along in a monster gear deluding himself that he is strong.

  5. Ask yourself is shifting the lazy solution? Are you using you legs AND brain?

    Wanting an easier gear while climbing? Ask if you are pedaling in full circles or just stomping down. Use ALL muscles instead bailing to an easier gear.

    Topping a climb, a rolling hump or in a group? Don’t be so quick to shift to a fewer tooth cog. SPIN. Faster muscle recovery, improve readiness to group actions and speed the shift if and when it is needed. Muscles won’t bog down too.

  6. Downshifting is done with your eyes. Anticipate the shift and make the move before you need that lower gear. Let the grade or hill come to you. Shifting should be relatively quiet; no one around you should hear the gear change. Possible exception: Di2 and electronic drivetrains. It shouldn’t sound like you just ground up your rear cassette.

    Good advice about spinning up before an upshift.

  7. Remember the first Shimano bar end shifters? Keeping a LOT of pedal pressure while moving the lever half to three-quarters to the next cog? With pressure on the pedals the derailleur couldn’t shift, but lighten up on the pedals and you could click into your pre-selected cog without signaling your intentions. When the gods smiled and it worked.

  8. That was a good refresher on shifting. I find sometims I’m shifing on a climmb and forget to ease up, so I maybe causing drivetrain strain and loosing speed. I especialy enjoyed the older pictures old and new bicycle, as well as your Giro D’ italia picture. 30 years back. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *