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i can only shift into the biggest chainring when the rear cog is at 8, 7, maybe even 6. is that the norm for the shifting of the front deraileur?
 

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If I got it right, you can't shift down to the middle chain ring when in 3 smallest rear cogs.If it is the case, it is not normal. My guess is, the front derailleur is not installed properly(possibly, the cage is not parallel to the chainrings). There may be other causes too.
Look here for the tutorial :
http://www.utahmountainbiking.com/fix/
enter the "Derailleur, front replacement" and "Derailleur, front, tune".
 
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