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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.