shimano 105 shift levers

Not sure how to shift the gears on your road bike? No problem. It looks complicated, but once you see what the levers do, it’s not bad at all.

Most road bikes these days use the Shimano STI system which has integrated brake and shift levers. These are sometimes referred to as “brifters” and are quite a change from the old-fashioned down tube shifters.

Pictured to the left are Shimano 105 shifters. The Shimano Ultegra and Dura Ace versions use the same techniques.

(Note: If you are looking to learn about the concept of shifting gears, read my Beginner’s Guide to Shifting Gears first.)

This article will explain exactly how to use the Shimano STI shift levers.


Shimano STI Shifting – Basic Concepts

In this system, you have two levers on each side of the handlebar. There is a large brake lever, as well as a small shift lever behind it. (From a distance, it might look like one lever, but it’s actually split into two levers.)

The small lever has one function – to shift. However, the large lever doubles as the brake lever and a shift lever. (The braking method is simple though – you just squeeze the lever back to the handlebar as usual.)

To shift gears, you push the levers inward, toward the bike’s frame. Each lever is moved separately and in only one direction.

A general rule of thumb to remember: Pushing the bigger lever shifts to a bigger chainring or cog. Pushing the smaller lever shifts to a smaller chainring or cog.


Shimano STI Shifting – Hand Positions

You can shift gears from multiple hand positions on the hoods and in the hooks/drops. (The one position where you can’t shift gears is with your hands on top of the handlebar. You simply can’t reach the levers from there.)

Here’s how to shift the levers in either position…

Hands on brake hoods:

For pushing the large lever, I use my index and middle fingers together to get a strong push.

For pushing the little lever, I use only my middle finger. With the way I rest my hands on the hoods, my middle finger lines up perfectly with the little lever.

With hands in hooks/drops:

For pushing the large lever, I still like to reach out with both my index and middle fingers to get a strong push on the lever.

The difference is that for shifting the little lever, I will use my index finger.


Shimano STI Shifting – Right Shifter, Rear Derailleur

The right shifter (the one operated with your right hand) operates the rear derailleur. It will move the chain between the cogs on the rear cassette. Your bike probably has 9 or 10 cogs to shift through.

To shift to a harder gear:

Pushing the small lever in will shift to the next smaller cog. This puts you in a slightly higher gear.

To shift to an easier gear:

Pushing the large lever in will shift to the next bigger cog. This puts you in a slightly lower gear.

Note: A short, crisp push will shift up one cog. With a big enough push on the lever, you can shift up to three cogs at a time. Play around with the lever and you’ll learn to smoothly shift up one, two, or three cogs at a time.


Shimano STI Shifting – Left Shifter, Front Derailleur

The left shifter (the one operated with your left hand) operates the front derailleur. It will move the chain between the two or three front chainrings.

Keep in mind: Since you only have two or three chainrings up front (unlike the 10 cogs in the rear,) there are larger gaps between them. This means the levers must be pushed a little further than the right levers to complete a shift. This applies mainly when shifting up from a smaller chainring to a larger chainring, but you will notice the difference when downshifting as well.

To shift to a harder gear:

Pushing the large lever in will shift to a bigger chainring. This puts you in a higher gear.

You can do this in a single long sweep of the lever, or two shorter motions. This is because of a front derailleur feature known as “trim.” When shifting, you can actually shift to two different positions for each chainring. This is great for maintaining a proper chainline when you change cogs, but you have to remember that shifting to a different chainring might take 1.5 shifts rather than one.

This is the hardest shift to execute smoothly, even with a properly adjusted front derailleur. It might take some practice to get comfortable with the “feel” of it.

To shift to an easier gear:

Pushing the small lever in will shift to a smaller chainring. This puts you in a lower gear.

Be careful here, because if you don’t shift smoothly, the chain could actually drop past the small chainring and end up on the bottom bracket shell. This is the dreaded dropped chain, and you don’t want that!


Now go practice your shifting and pretty soon you will have it memorized!

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  1. Hi, I have just movedfrom a bike with the 12 gears and the gear levers on the downtube to a bike with 22 gears and the Shimano Utigra system. The bike is second-hand and when it arrived (yesterday) I had to fit the front wheel and the handlebar. When I tried to ride it I found the gears didn’t work at all. Using the levers doesn’t have any effect on either the front or the read deraileur. Have I missed something during the asembly or do the whole gear system need setting up?

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