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Close-up of a Shimano rear bike derailleur and gear cassette

Bike Shorts: How To Shift Bike Gears in the Right Direction

Few things can make you feel as silly on the bike as shifting in the wrong direction.

If you’re speeding downhill and accidentally shift into an easier gear, now your legs are spinning wildly and you’re not going any faster. If you’re climbing, it suddenly got a whole lot harder. It could even be enough to make you fall over.

This mix-up happens to newer cyclists far more often, but it’s still known to trip up even the most seasoned riders from time to time. That’s why, as always, our friend and longtime cycling coach, Darryl MacKenzie, has some pointers on how to shift bike gears in the right direction.

Note, what we’re discussing here primarily applies to Shimano derailleurs, which are by far the most common type of derailleur on today’s bikes.

Where Shifting This Gets Confusing

If you find yourself constantly questioning whether you’re pressing the right button when you shift, you’re not alone. Coach Darryl often runs into cyclists who never even touch their front gear shifter because it’s “too confusing.” 

There are a few reasons gear shifters confuse cyclists. First, some of it may come down to how you’ve heard it explained before. If anyone has ever tried to get you to understand your shifter by talking about gear chain inches and mechanical advantages, your eyes probably glazed over, leaving you no closer to remembering which way to shift bike gears.

The second reason relates to what you’re seeing with your eyes. The cogs on the rear wheel get smaller as you move out from the wheel, while the chainrings on the front get bigger as you go away from the bike. Does that mean you need to shift in opposite directions to go into easier or harder gears, depending on whether you’re shifting in the front or back? It’s enough to make your head spin, and you definitely don’t want that while you’re riding.

Which Direction Should I Move the Chain?

To help cyclists get the hang of this, Darryl always starts with the chain, not the buttons on your shifters. If you know which way you want the chain to go, that will help you remember how to shift.

Here’s what you need to remember: In both the front and the back, the farther the chain moves away from the bike, the harder it will be for you to pedal.

So, when you’re going downhill, you want to shift the chain away from the bike. When you’re climbing, you want to shift it toward the bike.

Which Button Should I Push?

Now you know which way you want the chain to go. But how do you make it happen? Well, remember this: On both the front and back shifters, the bigger button will take you to a bigger cog or chainring.

This can be a little tricky because older shifters had more obviously large and small buttons. On newer ones, the “bigger" button will be the longer of the two.

Armed with this information, you can put it all together. Looking down, you see that your big chainrings are on the outside in the front, and your big cogs are on the inside in the back. So if you want to shift to an easier gear in the front, press the smaller button on your front gear shifter to move the chain toward the bike and onto a smaller chain ring. If you want to shift to an easier gear in the back, press the bigger button on your front gear shifter to bring the chain toward the bike and onto a bigger cog.

That’s all you need to know about bike gear shifting! The next time you’re getting ready to shift bike gears, remember these two rules, and you should have no problem making the right choice. 


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by Gaby Stein from Pixabay