10 reasons why your shifting sucks (2024)


It’s all too common to just tolerate inferior shifting performance. But if your drivetrain occasionally skips, mis-shifts, grinds or binds, then it can surely be better.

While this article isn’t a complete solution to perfect shifting, these are the problems shop mechanics are likely to resolve first.

It’s worth pointing out that the solution to each suggested cause requires some level of mechanical knowledge. If it’s not working out, it’s well advised to get the assistance of a good mechanic – after all, what’s the point of owning a quality bike that doesn’t function as intended?

1. Cable tension and limit setting

The most obvious and common causes for poor shifting are down to poor adjustment and the most common thing to go out of adjustment is cable tension. Indexed drivetrains rely on correct cable tension so that the shifters pull the derailleur to the intended spot. Cable systems wear and ‘stretch’, and will inevitably lead to a loss in shifting precision.

In the simplest of terms, sluggish upshifts can be caused by too little cable tension; while slow downshifts could be too much tension.

Limit screws set the extremes for which a derailleur can travel. Too often people wrongly play with these screws when shifting goes bad.

  • How to adjust the gears on your bike – video
  • How to adjust a rear derailleur
  • How to adjust a front derailleur

Another to consider is B-tension, which adjusts the rear derailleur body angle (or more simply, the height gap between the derailleur and cassette). It’s something that Dylan Coulson of SRAM Australia Dealer Service Direct sees as a common cause for poor shifting on 1x drivetrains.

Notably, a bent derailleur hanger is common cause for what can seem like a wacky limit adjustment (more later).

2. If the cable ain’t slick, give it the flick

A mechanical drivetrain relies on the cable being as drag free as possible. If your cables are old, dirty, rusted, kinked or just poor quality, then they’re likely hindering that shift – replacement is the answer. It’s why electronic drivetrains are said to be so ‘set and forget’, as they just don’t suffer from these cable woes.

“Replacing with good quality cables on a regular basis is a great help to better shifting,” says Matthew Potter, a technician and neutral service mechanic at Shimano Australia. Coulson at SRAM repeated this solution, stating it’s the very most common issue seen.

As Potter pointed out, electrolyte or sugar-based drinks have a habit of gunking up cables, and if you’re on a road bike, it’s always worth cleaning out the cable guide that sits beneath the bottom bracket.

10 reasons why your shifting sucks (1)

Personally, I like to use quality, but non-coated stainless steel inner cables. The issue with many fancier (and expensive) coated cables is that the slickness doesn’t last, and often leads to more gunk within the housing as the cable coat wears off. It’s good practice to replace the housing (the sheathing that the inner cable runs through) when you replace the inner cable too.

3. Rear derailleur alignment

This one I’ve mentioned before, but rear derailleur hanger alignment is such a common issue because of the fragile hangers on most modern bikes. If you ever travel with your bike, have others leaned against it or just bump it wrongly, there’s a good chance your rear derailleur is sitting skew.

Even if you’ve never done any of these things, it’s possible the hanger was bent from new. One shop I worked at taught me to check hanger straightness on every bike build, with over a quarter proving to need a tweak. Speaking from firsthand experience, plenty of shops don’t do this.

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Although there are DIY methods, a derailleur hanger-straightening tool is the best option for ensuring the hanger is square to the cassette. These tools can be had relatively cheaply, with the likes of LifeLine or X-Tools (they’re the same) offering copies of the proven Park Tool design.

Before you use such a tool, make yourself familiar with how it works, ensure your wheel is straight and tight in the dropout and the hanger is snug. Also, I use the valve stem as a reference point, this is so wheel trueness won’t have an effect on the measurement.

4. Chain health, lubrication and cleanliness

When was the last time you closely inspected your chain for damage or wear? Measuring a chain for wear will not just save you from replacing your cassette and chainrings prematurely, but it’s likely to help achieve precise shifting.

  • Chain wear explained

Even if your chain isn’t worn, it’s possible a bad shift damaged it previously. Look for kinks, pins pulling out or stiff links. One tip for this is to slowly back pedal the crank with your hand. Look at the rear derailleur pulley wheels – you should see them jump if there is an issue with the chain.

10 reasons why your shifting sucks (3)

Additionally, a filthy chain/drivetrain will not just wear out quicker and cause drag, but it will be more sluggish to shift, so best keep it clean. Likewise for a dry chain that squeaks along with every pedal stroke. Lastly, if your chain length is wrong, it could be a cause for poor shifting in extreme gear combinations.

5. Housing lengths

This one often goes by unnoticed, but how long the cable housing is can greatly affect your shift quality and consistency.

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Too long, and you’ll be adding unnecessary friction to your shifting and risking a snag with someone or something else. However, go too short and you may find the housing changes cable tension on its own or the bend is too tight for the inner cable to move freely. This is most apparent in the segment from the chainstay to the rear derailleur, where the housing can be pulled with the rear derailleur when a front shift is actuated.

The importance of housing length is amplified on full suspension mountain bikes, where the suspension action can commonly cause a change in cable tension if the housing length is insufficient.

6. Front derailleur position

Front shifting is something that so many look at as a dark art. With this, a common issue (beyond cable tension and limit screw setting) is incorrect derailleur height. The outward cage of the front derailleur should sit as close to the big ring as possible without making contact. The use of a thin coin as a gauge may help.

Additionally, the angle at which the derailleur sits will commonly affect shifting. For most derailleurs (SRAM Yaw excluded), the outward cage should run parallel to the big ring. Some experienced mechanics may tweak it differently, but I won’t get into that.

7. Just worn out?

No matter how well you adjust everything, if the parts are worn, they aren’t going to be precise. The chain, cassette and/or chainrings are the most likely items to wear out and will typically give visible or measureable cues – such as hooked teeth or a lengthened chain.

That said, derailleur springs will lose tension overtime, and pivots will get sloppier. Shifters can wear out too (if you ride enough), and most cannot be serviced back to health. But before you go sinking money into these more expensive components, best try a new cable/housing or get a second opinion.

8. It could be the frame

Unfortunately, some frame designs can be the cause of crappy shifting. This is most true for internally routed frames from a few years prior, where thin guide sheaths or tight bends would cause excessive cable friction, with no respite available. Ever seen a new frame model claim ‘improved cable routing’? It’s because the old version was terrible.

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This most definitely applies to time-trial and other slippery frames, where cables are run internally through multiple strange angles. In some cases, standard cables and housing just won’t work, and you’ll need to resort to more expensive, low-friction stuff that can handle tight bends.

As Potter points out, “Because it’s such a nightmare to change, they’re not replaced as often as they should be.”

9. That chain line

Chainline refers to the position of the rear cogs, or front chainrings’ crank, in relation to the midline of the bike. Effective chainline is thought of as the position of the front and rear cogs in relation to each other. That all said, chainline is a topic that would quickly blow the word count of this article and so I’ll keep it overly simple.

If you’re struggling to use certain gears without strange rubbing, chain dropping at the front or your chain appears to be a wild angle in ‘usual’ gears, then it’s possible that the relative position of your chainring/s is off. Older three-piece crank systems allowed this to be adjusted by changing the bottom bracket spindle length, some newer crank designs allow this to be adjusted with spacers, while others just say ‘tough luck’.

10. Perhaps you’re just doing it wrong

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In the end, even if everything is set up perfectly, there’s still the human aspect. Shifting under power or not clicking the shifters into place correctly are both likely to result in poor shifts, or worst, damage to the components. Learn to ease up on the throttle (your legs) when you actuate a shift – your bike will love you.

10 reasons why your shifting sucks (2024)


Why are my gears not shifting smoothly? ›

This is a common gearbox problem, and there could be multiple reasons behind it. The causes of this issue could range from a faulty clutch, or damaged shift linkage, to low transmission fluid levels. It could also be due to a misaligned clutch cable or the need for a clutch adjustment.

Why are my gears hard to shift? ›

Transmission Fluid Low or Poor Condition – Vehicles low on transmission fluid or that are operating with worn out or contaminated fluid are likely to experience hard shift conditions. Lack of adequate lubrication within the transmission can cause several problems, including hard shifting.

Do shifters wear out? ›

That said, derailleur springs will lose tension overtime, and pivots will get sloppier. Shifters can wear out too (if you ride enough), and most cannot be serviced back to health. But before you go sinking money into these more expensive components, best try a new cable/housing or get a second opinion.

How do you fix rough shifting? ›

Start with the easiest fix

In this case, check the transmission fluid level first. Low fluid can lead to a transmission that shifts hard. It's important to find out why the fluid is low and fix any problems. It could be a leaky seal or other mechanical defect.

Why is my car lagging when I change gears? ›

Shifting delays are often caused by many things but most commonly due to poor maintenance or high mileage. Transmission fluid, in addition to acting as a coolant, keeps internal seals lubricated to help prevent hardening or wearing out.

What causes weird shifting? ›

If your vehicle is shifting hard, jerks when shifting, or shifts in ways that it usually doesn't shift, it could be a sign that a part is either wearing out or failing in your vehicle's transmission. Transmissions are computer-operated in this modern day, so a bad shift solenoid or sensor could be the culprit.

Why does my chain jump when I pedal hard? ›

Cables on older bikes are often neglected and not refreshed in a timely manner, causing corrosion in the housing and excessive friction in the shift cables, which will result in poor shifting performance and manifest in behavior like shifting multiple gears at a time or – you guessed it – chain skipping when pedaling.

Is it bad to shift gears fast? ›

Changing gear is all about timing and power. Lower gears are going to give you more power, but going too fast will burn out your engine. Higher gears are more efficient, but if you go too slow you'll stall.

What are the symptoms of bad gears? ›

How to tell if your gearbox is failing: 10 warning signs
  • Check for gearbox fluid leakage. ...
  • Check dashboard warning lights. ...
  • Gears become unresponsive. ...
  • Listen for any unusual sounds. ...
  • Beware a shake, jerk or grind. ...
  • There might be a rumbling in neutral. ...
  • The smell of burning rubber could be an omen. ...
  • The car struggles to change gear.
Feb 24, 2022

How long do shifters live? ›

Age: Shifters are quick to mature both physically and emotionally, reaching young adulthood at age 10. They rarely live to be more than 70 years old. Alignment: Shifters tend toward neutrality, being more focused on survival than concepts of good and evil.

How much does it cost to fix shifters? ›

The average cost for an Automatic Trans Shift Cable Replacement is between $311 and $356. Labor costs are estimated between $172 and $216 while parts are priced between $140 and $140.

Why are my gears hesitating? ›

Hesitation. Your car hesitating when you accelerate is an issue that can be caused by transmission problems. It is possible for you to mistakenly think your gears are slipping when in fact it is your engine hesitating. It is also common to experience issues when switching from park to drive for transmission problems.

What does a slipping transmission feel like? ›

Typically with transmission slipping, it may feel as if your gears are changing for no logical reason. Your engine may start to create a whining sound or pitch when it occurs. Alternatively, it may feel like you haven't got enough power to drive at the desired speed.

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