Bike Doesn’t Shift to First Gear (How to Fix It)

man fixing bike

There’s nothing worse than having something that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. This is especially true when it’s something like your beloved bike! If it won’t shift to first gear that’s not the end of the world, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

If your bike isn’t shifting to first gear, your H limit screw may need adjusting. If that doesn’t do it, then it might be caused by an overly tight gear cable. Both of these conditions have easy fixes. You most likely won’t need to take your bike to a bike repair shop for these issues.

In this article, we’ll discuss some important information to know before you start trying to fix your bike, and then we’ll get into a couple of things you can try to fix your bike’s shifting issue. The ability to change gears is a useful one, so let’s get your bike back in top condition!

Important Bike Terms to Know

Though there are lots of bike professionals out there, you may not be one of them. So, this is your small crash course on bike mechanics, filled with important terms to know, along with details about how some of them work.

The first one is the derailleur. Fancy word, right? It’s also an important mechanism, but the mechanics of it are actually pretty simple.

  • There are two derailleurs on your bike, one at the front and one at the rear. Today, we’ll mostly be talking about the rear derailleur. A derailleur is a mechanism that shifts the chain at the rear cogs.
  • Inside the derailleur is a spring. This spring is constantly pulling the derailleur outward.
  • The derailleur is connected to the shifters on your handles by a cable. This cable also holds against the spring for the various shift positions that your bike is equipped with.
  • On the derailleur, there are two limit screws, the H-limit screw and the B-limit screw. The limit screws are responsible for keeping the derailleur from moving too far inward (into the wheel) or too far outward (into the frame).

Next, we have the process of indexing. There are many processes, none of them related to bikes, that are also called indexing, but here is yet another version of indexing for you to add to your bike repair vocabulary.

Indexing is the process of lining up the guide pulley with the cogs so that each shift lines up with each cog. Basically, indexing is fine-tuning the mechanisms of your bike to make sure it runs even more smoothly.

Another thing you’ll need to know about bike designs before you start working on this fix is what a barrel adjuster is. The barrel adjusters are found near the rear derailleur. Rotating these adjusters allows you to move the shift increments ever so slightly.

How to Fix Problems with Your H-Limit Screw

Now that you know about the derailleur, indexing, and barrel adjusters, you’re ready to start fixing your bike. Before you start, you’ll need the tools listed below.

  • A bike repair stand. You’ll need this to keep your bike off the ground. This’ll make it easier to check to see whether or not the repairs you try worked. You may notice as you go through these steps, you need to pedal to check if something worked. That’s a lot easier when you don’t have to try to ride your bike inside your crowded garage.
  • Screwdriver. Park Tools recommends a #2 Phillips screwdriver or a flat-head screwdriver.

Like we mentioned before, if your bike isn’t shifting into first gear, there are a couple of things that could be causing it. Before doing anything to your bike, look at the derailleur hanger. If it’s straight, what I’m about to recommend should work great. If it’s clearly bent, however, there is a whole other set of repairs, so the suggestions below won’t be helpful quite yet.

One possible problem could be that the H-limit screw is screwed in too tightly. Shift the front derailleur to the largest cog, and shift the rear derailleur to the smallest that you can. Obviously, if your bike is unable to shift to first gear, you won’t quite be able to get to the smallest one yet. To fix this, grab your screwdriver and turn the screw counter-clockwise a few turns. Then, pedal your bike to see if this works.

If this doesn’t quite do the trick, and the bike still isn’t shifting outward, this is where the barrel adjusters come into play. Turn them a few rotations clockwise. Then, pedal to see if that worked. If it didn’t, or if you’re still confused, watch the video below, or take your bike to a bike repair shop.

Here’s a helpful video that explains how to fix a bike that isn’t shifting properly.

What if My Bike’s Derailleur Hanger is Bent?

A bent derailleur hanger can also cause your bike to have problems with shifting. The derailleur hanger is a small piece of metal that attaches the derailleur to your bike. If it is bent, it can typically be bent back into the proper position. This will require a bit of effort. If you’re out on the trail and just need it to work a little longer, by all means, go ahead and bend it back if you can.

Even though it is possible to just bend it back, if you want a clear diagnosis and a proper fix, you really need to use a derailleur alignment gauge. In this Park Tools video, they suggest a DAG 2.2. For more information about fixing the alignment of the derailleur hanger, I’d suggest watching that video.

Most people don’t have a derailleur alignment gauge just lying around, so for this kind of issue, you may want to take your bike into a bike repair shop, especially if you want to ensure that your bike gets fixed correctly.

Another reason to take it in may be that you can’t figure out what’s wrong with it. If that’s the case, a bike repair shop will have plenty of experts to help fix your bike’s problem and will be able to make it good as new again.

My Recommended Gear for Year-Round Cycling on a Budget

It took me years of trial and error to figure out the best and most affordable setup for my daily bike commuting. I would only recommend the gear that is good quality for a good price. Here’s my full year-round gear recommendation guide.

Want to know how much your cycling gear should cost? Check out my guide with different budget options here.

Ride on!

Benjy Suzaki

Hi, I'm Benjy Suzaki and I love cycling with my kids. Biking has been a big part of our family life ever since I decided to bike everywhere instead of drive, including to my job in NYC from New Jersey. is all about how to make biking a priority in your daily life through bike commuting, bike maintenance, and riding with kids.

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