How to change gears on a road bike | Gear shifting explained

Step-by-step guides on how to use Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM drop bar shifters

Shimano GRX RX810 shifters mounted on titanium gravel bike

This is a comprehensive guide on how to change gear on a road bike – or any other drop bar bike – including step-by-step instructions on how to use Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo shifters.

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If you’re used to flat bar shifters, road bike shifters can feel intimidating at first.

Unlike on a flat bar bike, the shifters and brakes are usually integrated into one unit on the bars. There are slightly different variations on the design, but this is by far the most common design on modern drop-bar bikes. They are sometimes referred to as brifters.

Cyclist riding Giant Defy Advanced Pro 2 through Spanish mountains
You can shift from the hoods – where you’ll spend most of your time – or the drops with road shifters.
Russell Burton

You can shift when riding on the hoods (this is when your hands are on the top of the shifters and will be your most-used position on the bike) or from the drops.

We have a more in-depth look at exactly how your gears work that’s well worth referring to if you’re a new rider but, as a brief refresher to make the language below more clear:

  • Easy gears (smaller chainrings, bigger cassette cogs) = smaller gear
  • Harder gear (bigger chainrings, smaller cassette cogs) = bigger gear

However, just to make matters even more confusing:

  • Upshift = harder gear
  • Downshift = easier gear

Lastly, talking about moving ‘up the cassette’ is a more ambiguous term. When we use it on BikeRadar, we use it in its most literal interpretation:

  • Up the cassette = from a smaller cog to a larger cog
  • Down the cassette = from a larger cog to a smaller cog

With that roughly as clear as mud, here’s how you actually go about using your road shifters.

How to change gears on a bike

How to use Shimano road bike shifters

STI shifters integrate shifting and braking into one unit
STI shifters integrate shifting and braking into one unit.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Shimano Total Integration (STI) shifters use a split lever design to change gears. A small lever just behind the brake lever shifts the chain onto a smaller cog, while the whole brake lever can be pushed to the side to shift to a larger cog.

  • Right-hand shifter controls rear shifting: Push the inner, smaller paddle inboard (sweeping from right to left) to shift down the cassette into a smaller cog (a bigger/harder gear). Push the brake lever inboard (the small shift paddle will come with it) to shift up the cassette into a larger (easier/smaller) gear.
  • Left-hand shifter controls front shifting: Push the inner, smaller paddle inboard (sweeping from left to right) to drop down into the smaller (a smaller/easier) chainring. Push the brake lever inboard (the small shift paddle will come with it) to shift into a larger (a bigger/harder) chainring.

Shimano shifters also feature a trim function on the front (left-hand) lever. Shifting the inboard lever with a smaller throw (roughly half as much as normal shift) will move the cage of the front derailleur inboard to stop the chain rubbing in certain gears.

Di2 (electronic) Shimano gears function in exactly the same way, but the mechanical innards of the shifting mechanism are replaced with small buttons. These can, however, be re-programmed to suit your needs and desires.

How to use SRAM road bike shifters

SRAM Apex shifter on Rondo road bike
DoubleTap levers use a single paddle.
David Caudery/Immediate Media

SRAM DoubleTap shifters use a single paddle to shift both up and down. A short click will shift into a smaller cog, and pushing the lever further will shift into a larger cog.

  • Right-hand shifter controls rear shifting: Push the paddle inboard (sweeping right to left) a small amount to shift down the cassette into a smaller cog (a bigger/harder gear). Push the paddle further inboard to shift up the cassette into a larger (easier/smaller) gear.
  • Left-hand shifter controls front shifting: Push the paddle inboard (sweeping left to right) a small amount to shift down into into a smaller chainring (a smaller/easier gear). Push the paddle further inboard to shift up into a larger (harder/larger) gear.
Side view of SRAM Force eTap AXS levers.
eTap levers work slightly differently to most other shifting systems.
Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media

eTap is SRAM’s electronic shifting system. Functionality can be customised almost endlessly but, set up to its factory defaults:

  • Right-hand paddle: Push the paddle inboard (sweeping right to left) to shift down the cassette into a smaller cog (a larger/harder) gear.
  • Left-hand paddle: Push the paddle inboard (sweeping left to right) to shift up the cassette into a larger cog (a smaller/easier) gear.
  • Both paddles together: Push both shift paddles simultaneously to shift between chainrings

How to use Campagnolo road bike shifters

Chorus gear shifter lever
Campagnolo shifters have a small thumb lever on the inboard edge of the lever body.
Robin Wilmott / Immediate Media

Campagnolo shifters are slightly different again – a shift lever behind the brake lever shifts into a larger cog/chainring on both the front and rear, while a thumb-operated paddle on the inside of the hood shifts into a smaller cog/chainring.

  • Right-hand shifter controls rear shifting: Push the shift lever behind the brake lever inboard (sweeping right to left) to shift up the cassette into a larger cog (a smaller/easier gear). Push down on the thumb paddle to shift down the cassette into a smaller cog (a bigger/harder gear) on the cassette.
  • Left-hand shifter controls front shifting: Push the shift lever behind the brake lever inboard (sweeping left to right) to shift up into a larger chainring (a larger/harder gear). Push down on the thumb paddle to shift down into a smaller chainring (a smaller/easier gear).

EPS (Campagnolo’s electronic shifting system) mimics the action of the mechanical shifters but, as with Shimano and SRAM, functionality can be customised.

How to use bar-end shifters and down-tube shifters

Shimano's first indexed down tube shifters
Down-tube shifters were the norm for decades.
Josh Patterson/Future Publishing

Bar-end shifters slot into the end of the bars and provide a lever which actuates your gears. These are very similar to thumb shifters and are available in both indexed and friction shifter forms.

These have popped up a little more recently providing a simple way of combining a hub gear with drop-bar brake levers.

Down-tube shifters work in much the same way, but as the name suggests, these are located on the down tube of the bike.

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Moving either of these levers towards or away from you will shift up or down the cassette or crankset.