Gearing Your Mountain Bike Right


Mountain bikers normally ascend and descend steeper and more varied grades of terrain than the average road cyclist. We all learn to negotiate these exhausting situations with greater efficiency, which means consistently maintaining the best pace with the least pedaling effort in most situations

To learn how to improve your shifting skills, you must know your best-fit cadence. This is your most efficient and steady pace and is measured in terms of rpm, or how many rounds the front sprocket makes in a minute on average when you are consistently cranking the pedals.

It has been shown in systematic trials that the average cyclist is more competitive in performance when maintaining average cadences of between 85 to 95 rpms. Professional racers are used to determining their optimum rate precisely in trial runs, but for the purposes of this article let’s just assume that you need to maintain a rate of about 90 for as long as possible.

Mechanical Operation


Your bike’s gears (technically sprockets) are mechanical parts which transmit the energy you put into pedaling to the wheel at the rear. These parts deliver their most efficient output when you can maintain a steady pace over longer periods.

  • When you find yourself shifting downwards for easy gearing on inclines, you are working to increase your pace at a steadier rate.
  • When you shift upwards for hard gearing because you’re mostly coasting along, you’re doing mostly the same.
  • As you’ve experienced, you use the lower gearing ratio of the big front sprockets to keep steady going at low speeds as well as climbing steeper grades.
  • ​The high gearing of the small front sprocket is reserved mainly for keeping steadier paces at higher speeds and for powering sprints.
  • ​You need to know which front chain ring to engage and when to do so if you want to be an efficient cyclist. Most bike designs come with a set of dual chain rings or big sprockets to which the pedals are attached. When you pedal, the rotating motion acts to drive the entire transmission.
  • The smaller sprockets mounted on the rear wheelset are normally engaged when you need to ascend at speeds lower than twenty miles per hour. The larger sprockets in that group are best engaged to attain faster speeds on level rough terrain or flat roads.
  • Many beginning bikers make the mistake of connecting their chains between the small front drive sprocket and the tiniest sprocket in the cluster at the rear. This practice is known as cross chaining, and doing it often can have a poor effect on your gearing efficiency and may also wear down your transmission much faster.

Some riders find the compromise ratio of cross chain combination useful in certain conditions, but generally it’s not efficient. In this configuration, the chain must run at a slant between the two clusters of sprocket (also known as derailleurs). The sideways stretching motion adds stress and friction and the heavier load will eventually degrade the chain and sprockets at a faster rate.

When and How to Shift


You need to anticipate things so that you can shift earlier than really needed, in order to keep a steady and efficient pace on both roads and trails.

If you wait to shift until you’re already going fast downhill, you’ll likely find yourself lagging everyone, with your chain noisily derailing under stress as you belatedly adjust through the lower gears.

  • You are changing gears in constant anticipation of terrain changes, so keep your focus way out front. You are trying to spot upcoming grades and surfaces as well as obstacles, so that you can better respond with adjustments to your gearing and riding stance well in advance.
  • You can usually climb a low hill without need for shifting. But in taller terrain or steeper roads you will normally have to shift to a lower gear (big front sprocket) in order to climb more efficiently and thus easily.
  • After tight turns where you had to slow down or even brake a bit, you may also need to shift downwards in order to accelerate more efficiently as well.
  • You will need to shift downwards to the big front sprocket when you’re about to ascend a steep hill. If you do this too early you may find yourself spinning out wastefully in the low gear. To avoid this get a feel for when your pace starts to slow, to the point where switching to lower gears will not result in a sudden and even jerky change of pace.
  • All these techniques are best learned from long experience, but it’s helpful to remember that you want to keep your pace steady as much as possible during transitions between terrains.

Gearing Done Right

Another error cyclists usually make is to grind gears or pop off chains by putting too much stress on certain parts of the derailleurs. Here are a few things to keep in mind, and one situation to avoid.

  • Chains when shifted have to catch onto different sprockets of varying sizes. If the links of the chain and the cogs on the sprockets don’t mesh smoothly and completely, too much pressure can apply at points where links may get forced off or cogs may get warped, or their teeth snapped off or abraded badly.
  • You need to be smart with your pedaling. Ease a bit off your current pace in the moment you squeeze the levers. Make this your habit, for your shifts will become more graceful as result of putting a lighter running burden on the gears.
  • With traditional shifters you apply force by hand in order to initiate the action, so don’t hesitate to effect that lever to get to higher gear combinations when needed, except for the cross chaining combinations mentioned.
  • If you do not squeeze the lever fully, shifting may not complete and may result in the chain failing to engage short of the next ring on the sprocket. Exert positive control when shifting, for even if you swing a lever too far, you will at most engage an extra gear further up or down the range.


Practice using your bike’s controls to gain confidence in how they work. Different derailleur systems have different lever designs and actuation styles, and you will need to find the best ways for mastering by hand the various control schemes.

Some of the newer electronic shifters are designed to shift properly even when you are pumping pedals while standing on an uphill, but these features do little to alleviate the added stress on the chain which comes from all that force being roughly applied. The basics of smooth and consistent pedaling coupled with smart early shifting will always apply.

Few things are more relevant to cycling efficiency than learning how to pedal smoothly and shift gears early in smart anticipation of changing conditions along the route.

About the author


Hey there, I'm Lisa, founder and editor in chief here at Recreation Space. We found fitness through recreational activities. And we want to share it with you. We believe in empowering people with knowledge to make smarter, healthier choices in their lives.

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