How to Fix Bike Gears That Won’t Shift (Causes and Solutions!)

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If you’re reading this, then you’re likely a gearhead like me. My bike and I go on all sorts of adventures together. So when it breaks down, I feel responsible for my baby.

Today, I’ll show you how to fix bike gears that won’t shift. It’s a more common problem than you think, meaning, don’t feel bad just yet.

Roll up your sleeves, and let’s get down to business!

How to Fix Bike Gears That Won’t Shift

Bike gears that won’t shift will prove a challenge on the road, but not in the garage. With the proper tools and the steps below, you’ll be back on your favorite bike in no time.

Before I get to it, though, let’s recap the basics of bike gears.

You have your front-shifting gears and your back ones. Both are essential for a smooth ride. Switching gears requires a functional clicker that can tighten one cable and loosen the other.

This process is also known as upshifting and downshifting (in case you’re more familiar with the technical terminology).

So, when these bike gears won’t shift, you exert more effort riding and find it difficult to switch gears when necessary.

Materials Needed

With the above in mind, here’s a list of tools you’ll need:

  1. A bike repair stand (optional, but will make the process easier)
  2. Set of Hex or Allen keys
  3. One Phillips screwdriver or a flathead one (depending on your gear type)
  4. A cable cutter (let’s hope you don’t have to use it)
  5. Lubricant or oil

Step 1: Diagnose the Issue

The first step always includes knowing what went wrong with your bike gears. Ask yourself any of the following questions:

  • Are the bike gears shifting up and down with one click or not?
  • Is the chain dropping off to the side? Is it shifting further in a particular direction?
  • Have the derailleurs or chains worn off? Is the derailleur hanger bent?
  • Is the upshifting smoother than the downshifting or vice versa?
  • How does the chain look? Is it bent or damaged in any way?

Diagnosing the issue will then help you identify the culprit.

Step 2: Identify the Cause

Now to pinpoint the cause behind the issue you’re facing. Luckily, the reason behind your bike gears not shifting will probably be one of the following four. Which one it is will depend on the answers you provided above.

1.    Improperly Indexed Gears

Indexing problems are common with new bikes and beginner bikers. In case your chain is acting up, then properly indexing your gears is the way to go.

You’ll also notice that the derailleurs and your gears aren’t aligning as perfectly as they should.

2.    A Damaged or Worn-Out Cable

Cable for shifting gears on a bike

The bike’s cable and its housing are integral in smoothing the transition between multiple gears. When bent, damaged, or worn out due to wear and tear, the cable can no longer perform its function properly.

If you frequently ride on rough terrains, your cable becomes more susceptible to damage.

3.    Loose Limit Screws

Limit screws help you go up and down bike gears without missing a beat. When you can’t reach a certain gear, or the transition isn’t as smooth as you’d like it to be—loose limit screws might be the reason.

These screws should be just snug enough, but not too tight that the tension is high.

4.    Misaligned or Unclean Chain

A stretched-out chain is one with nails that are perhaps loose or = worn out. An elongated chain will affect the cassette as well. The chain’s B-tension screw might be misadjusted, too.

In case everything looks good, the chain may simply require a good cleaning and lubing up.

Step 3: Set Up Your Working Station

Work station for working on bikes

By now, you should know the problem behind your bike gears not shifting as well as what caused it. It’s time to mount your bike on a stand or turn it upside down for quick and easy fixing.

I like to start by cleaning the bike thoroughly. I also recommend checking that parts of your bike are lubricant enough, too. This way, we eliminate the possibility of a dirty cable or an ungreased chain being the culprit.

Future tip:

If your gears are back to normal after you finished this step, try lubing up your bike once a month from here on out. You may need to clean your bike more often than that if muddy, wet, or rough terrains make up your usual bike route.

Step 4: Check the Alignment of Various Bike Parts

We’ve arrived at the obvious conclusion: misaligned bike parts are dangerous and greatly affect your performance on the road.

In other words, double-check that the regular wear and tear hasn’t messed up the alignment of your gears or derailleurs either. As such, this step requires a keen eye, but with the proper knowledge, you can perfectly align your bike again.

Go over the barrel adjusters as well. These are important in aligning both the rear and front derailleurs, as well as the chainrings.

A pro tip:

Turn your bicycle with each tightening or loosening of the screws. Doing so helps you monitor the situation better. Remember: screws and bolts should always be snug, and never too tight.

Step 5: Tighten Up Those Screws

If aligning your parts didn’t cut it, perhaps it’s time to examine those multiple screws again.

Start with the limit screws because they’re normally where the problem of non-shifting gears begins. After all, limit screws go hand-in-hand with how far inward or outward a derailleur will move from the spokes and cassettes.

Not only that, but limit screws also control how high or low the chain will go in relation to the cassettes.

So, knowing that, it’s natural to assume that loose limit screws will mess up how smoothly you transition between bike gears. As such, ensure that they’re screwed properly.

Other screws to check on would be the ones around the bike chain. To repeat what I said before, these tiny bolts help not to stretch the chain so much when in motion.

Step 6: Replace the Cable If Necessary

A damaged cable does more bad than good, especially since a bike’s cable is vital in ensuring it runs effortlessly.

To identify an unsuitable cable, look for signs of damage. The cable could be bent, for instance, or there might be cracks and dents around the housing. Worse, there may be debris or dirt caught in the housing’s inner workings.

In that case, you can get away with simply removing, then cleaning out the housing. It’s a tedious task, though. That said, if the cable is already damaged, you’re better off replacing it altogether.

So, it’s time to bring out those cable cutters. It shouldn’t be hard to snip off the old cable. The actual struggle lies in putting in a new one.

That’s because replacing a cable requires a steady hand and an experienced eye. To give it to you straight, changing out an old cable at a trusty bike shop is best.

Final tip:

If your cable and its housing run straight down into the rear derailleur, then you have nothing to worry about. You may need to clean the cable, but there’s no need to replace it just yet.

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AUTHOR

Paul Tuthill
Growing up in Scotland, Paul developed a love for the outdoors and a desire for adventure from an early age.