Teach Me to Ride a Bicycle

I just bought a second-hand bicycle to ride to work. I’m excited about it, too - I can get some exercise and save gas!

Regretfully, until today I hadn’t been on a bicycle in probably 20 years. I know how to ride in a general sense, but I’m unsure how to actually operate my bike.

On each of the handlebars is a gear shift that looks like this, only oriented horizontally. The one on the left has “Low” and “High” and the one on the right has the numbers 1 through 5.

For riding on flat gound, where do I want each one set? Also, there are two places on my route where I’ll have to ascend a hill; what setting do I want for climbing hills? Also, how do I shift? Do I have to be pedaling or coasting?

Thanks in advance.

It’s like in a manual-shift car - if you want to go uphill, you choose a lower gear, which means pedaling is easier but speed lower. On flat ground, you choose a higher gear, which means you can go faster. I haven’t seen a set of shift handles as the one you describe, but I suspect that your bike has ten gears. You pick the lower five by setting the left handle on “low,” so the five numbers on the right let you pick gears 1 through 5; for gears 6 through ten, you set the left handle on “high” and use the right one to shift between gears (so e.g. gear 7 would be left high, right 2). As I said, I haven’t seen this combination of handles, but I’ve seen frequently shifts with the left handle numbered 1 through 3 and the right one 1 through 7, for a total of 21 gears. Just try a bit and you’ll see how it works.

I’ve seen differences as to if you have to pedal or coast during shifting. I believe that the most common method is to coast while you’re operating teh switches but pedal immediately afterwards (because the chain has to be moving in order to flip to another cog wheel), but YMMV.

Blasted search function is down, so I can’t find the post I made on this topic recently.

Not to worry, as usual, Sheldon has the answers:


The first article on that page is on shifting. Unfortunatly, Sheldon passed on a few months back. Read what Sheldon says, and if you have questions, I’ll be happy to try to clear them up.

By the way Sheldon’s site is a treasure of all things related to bicycles. You’d be silly not to bookmark it.

Some tips:

  • At first, just stick the “low/high” into a fixed setting (whichever one you’d like) and operate just the rear gear (1-5). That should give you enough range to get used to things.

  • There’s no “right” gear for any situation. Just pick whatever feels comfortable. Some people like a faster pedal cadence; others, slower (but more force is needed for the same speed).

  • Since you can’t shift while stationary, anticipate stops and downshift before you come to rest at the intersection or whatever. That way, you’ll be ready to take off when ready. (Otherwise, you’ll wobble your way through half the intersection trying to get into a gear that you can accelerate with.)

  • Find an empty parking lot and play around with the gears for an hour. Gain some feel for the delay between moving the shift setting and having the chain grabbed by the new gear (1/4 to 1/2 pdeal rotation, perhaps.)

This may not be right, depending on the bike. Some ten-speeds used half-step gearing where the large chain-ring ratios fell between the low chain-ring ratios. This required use of both levers to access the next closest gear. In any case, the high and low ranges typically overlapped by several gears. *

What is always true is that the tallest (fastest, but hardest to pedal) gear always uses the large front chain-ring (high) and the smallest rear sprocket (5). The lowest gear always uses the smallest chain-ring (low) and the largest rear sprocket (1).

In general you will use the rear derailleur (1-5) a lot more than the front (H-L) one. Rear derailleurs work much more smoothly than front ones. You use the front one when you run out of range on the rear, or when trying to find just the right gear for the grade, wind, etc…this is where the overlapping ranges help.

If the OP can post the brand and model of the bike, or (links to) photos of the front and rear sprockets, I can give advice specific to this bike.
*Given only 10 speeds, this is likely a 70’s bike boom vintage machine. In that case the chain-rings would be at most 12 teeth different, as that is about the limit of what will shift reliably without ramps and pins.

your link isn’t working for me. But it sounds like you have a typical older 10-speed bike.

you keep pedaling while you shift.

One easy way to decide this is to know your gear ratios. To figure out which gear you want, take a couple minutes and do this math calculation: (it’s easy, really.)
for each of the 10 possible combinations of gears, you just calculate a number, with is the number of inches that the bike will move forward every time your feet move one full rotation of the pedals.
The numbers will be between approx 30 and 100. Obviously, you have to use about 3 times more muscle power to move forward 100 inches than 30 inches

So the “100” gear is the hardest one on your legs.Use it when you are going downhill. The “30” gear is the easiest one to pedal–use it when you are going up a steep hill. The “60” gear is in the middle and good for flat ground, etc…

Now do the math:
First–count the number of teeth on each of the 5 rear sprockets and the 2 front ones.(you may have to get one finger greasy, and rotate the chain a bit to make sure you see all the teeth.)

Now divide the front number by the rear number, and the multiply it by 27 (assuming your bike has 27inch diameter wheels)

For example : the larger front ring of ,say,52 divided by a rear 14 equals 3.7 , times 27 equals 100. A nice gear for going downhill.
The smaller front, say 43, divided by a larger rear gear (say 27) equals 1.6, times 27 equals 43. This is a good gear for saving muscle power for each rotation of the pedals, so use it for going uphill. (the tradeoff is that you will not go as fast, and will need to pedal more rotations to cover the same distance. )

write it all down once, but don’t worry about using all 10 combinations at first.You’ll have trouble memorizing it all (gee…which is the lower number: high front sprocket with gear number3 in the rear, or low with gear number 4, or vice-versa, etc)
Just pick 3 or 4 options (for uphill, downhill and flat) and use them only. After a while, you’ll get used to it, and it will be easier to remember the whole sequence and you can be more picky about selecting any of the 10 gears.

Pedal while shifting.

Anticipate when you have to shift down to a lower gear. If you wait until you’re pumping really hard going uphill to downshift, your gears won’t like it unless you get good at releasing a little pressure when shifting, which takes practice.

You want to turn the pedals while shifting, but don’t apply much if any pressure to them. Alternatively “pedal” slower than needed to propel the bike. This called unloading the drive train. This is especially important when shifting the front (H-L) gears…modern bikes shift the rear gears fairly well under load, but 80’s and earlier vintage bikes don’t respond as well. * Even today’s bikes ,though, will shift nicer and last longer if you unload to shift. DO NOT try to shift while pedaling hard!

  • In the late 80’s/Early 90’s Shimano developed several innovations for derailleur drive trains, known collectively as SIS (Shimano Indexed Shifting). By that time 6 rear cogs were pretty well standard, and 7 were starting to show up…so it is a good bet that a 10 speed bike (only 5 rear cogs) missed this. It is interesting that your right shifter has numbers on it. It is possible that you have one of the pre-SIS incarnations of indexed shifting. Some of these worked fairly well, but were not what the big name racers were using, so never caught on. Once Shimano succeeded with SIS, Sachs (now SRAM) and Campagnolo were eventually able to come up with similar systems, but SunTour (who up to then had arguably the best functioning derailleurs ) ran out of capital and died.

:rolleyes: I ride regularly and often and I have never done this for any of my bikes.
Some sage advice I was given when I first took up riding again (as an adult) back in 1996:
You will probably find that about 60 RPM on the pedals is most efficient. That means one pedal stroke per second. It is easy to count off one-thousand-one and compare that to your pedal cadence. If you are much slower than 60 RPM you are in too high a gear, if you are much over 60 RPM you gear is too low.
I have fond this advise to be pretty close to right on. I went so far as to buy a cycle computer that displayed my cadence and my natural rhythm was about 62 RPM. After all these years of riding, it is a bit higher, but if I am on a bike without a cadence display the one revolution per second is a great guide line.
Mistakes I see new riders make:

  1. Trying to mash too high a gear Pedal cadence of 45 or less. Your legs will get real tired real quick. Downshift and pedal faster! It is way easier in the long run.
  2. Seat too low. When the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke, you knee should be almost straight. If it has any noticeable bend in it, try raising your saddle. Even if you think your saddle is high enough, try raising it a bit (1/2") and see if it makes a difference.
  3. A helmet is not a yarmulke. I don’t care if you are Jewish, you do not wear it centered over the top rear corner of your head so that your forehead is exposed. A helmet needs to cover your forehead so that if you do a face plant your head is protected.
  4. Follow the rules and have fun. Read up in your states laws and see how a bike is expected to act. follow those rules. Have fun! At first it probably won’t be much, but after just a bit, the wind in your face and the sound of the chain changing gears becomes addicting. Enjoy.

There is no substitute for just getting on the bike and experimenting. Just remember that the shifter on the left changes the gears in the front (attached to the pedals), which provide large differences from one to the other. The shifter on the right operates the gears at the rear wheel, which give you small moves from one gear to the other.

Just go out on some level ground. Start with both shifters somewhat in the middle, then get a little speed and play with the shifter on the left. You’ll see that when the chain shifts to the big gear next to the pedal it’ll be harder to pedal, but it’s good for going faster. After you feel you understand how those gears work, keep the left shifter in the middle and play with the shifter on the right.

As someone else already said, there is no “right” gear. There are a couple of wrong ones though. For instance you don’t want to be on the highest gear with the left shifter and the lowest one on the right. This creates something called “cross-chaining”. In addition to stretching the chain out, it can increase the odds of the chain coming off when you shift. I;ll just add that this is not a big deal. You just need to stop and lift the hanging chain back onto the sprockets and turn the pedal. Sometimes it’s easier to turn the bike over so it’s resting on its seat and handlebars to do this.

Congratulations on your new bike! It’s great form of exercise. But do be careful if you ride on streets. Be sure to get a good light in front and, even more important, in the back. Planet Bike makes the best one I’ve seen. It’s small, light, runs on two batteries, has a strobe (for great visibility), and costs about $25.00. And PLEASE, if you ride at dusk or night, don’t wear dark clothes. Darwin Awards and all that.

To the OP: You will find more specialized advice bike forums though some of the sub-fora can be rather snobbish, intimidating, and downright hostile to a newb. The “commuter” forum is fairly low key, and might be a good starting place, given your focus. Might be a good idea to check sheldonbrown.com before asking questions in the mechanics forum, he addresses all the common stuff you’d get flamed over.

Please don’t do this. Yes it provides convienient access to the drivetrain. It is also an effective way to damage the saddle, brake and shifter levers, bar tape, brake cables (on non-aero drop bar levers) and any handle bar mounted accessories.

When you see an old drop bar bike with both brake cable housings kinked just above the adjusters, this is almost certainly the reason why.

Even on a coaster-brake only cruiser, it can still damage grips or scratch the chrome on the bars providing a starting site for brown cancer (rust).

There is far less risk of damage just laying the bike on it’s side on the ground, as may be required for a road-side, or trail-side repair. In less austere circumstances, there is a good reason for the use of dedicated repair stands by professional and keen amateur bike mechanics, and a bicycle owner inclined to do thier own maintainace, adjustments, or repairs would be well served to purchase or construct such.

magellan01, I hope I haven’t given offense. This is one of those all-to-common practices that needs to die.


near cite with links to examples of inexpensive home built repair stands.

While I appreciate your comment, I think it’s much concern about very little. First, the OP doesn’t have drop bars with those shifters. Second if you turn the bike over carefully, you can eliminate the threat of any damage. Before I got more adept at light mechanics, I did this when I had to—mainly if the chain got jammed. And the first link you gave even grants an exception, i.e., if you have to hand-crank the pedals. If someone is new to bikes, this is an easier way to deal with the chain, as sometimes you have to turn the pedals.

That said, your advice is good and should be followed when it can be. Especially at home and you’re not stuck doing a road/trailside repair with a stand of any sort.

And absolutely no offense taken. I appreciate the input.

And… I hope this isn’t piling on to the point of overwhelming you, but here’s my beginning rider advice:

  1. Pedal faster, in an easier gear. Your legs won’t get tired as quickly.

  2. If the used bike is in working condition, but hasn’t been tuned up, before you bring it in for a tune-up, get a good pump (with a gauge that shows the pressure) and some chain lube. Ride around the block once with your bike as it is. Then oil the chain and pump up the tires to the right pressure (probably around 100 psi, for an old 10-speed). Now ride around the block again in the same gears, noting how much easier it is. Realize that the pump and lube were a very good investment. (NOW get a bike shop to take a look at it, and tune it up). If it’s been tuned up already, then wait a couple of months and do this.

  3. For safety, read this: http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/index.htm