How to Shift Gears on a Mountain Bike: Shift Like a Pro

Learn how to shift gears on your mountain bike in 3 simple steps.

Your mountain bike has gears for a reason – to make pedaling easier or harder, depending on the terrain. Learning how to shift gears on a mountain bike is a key part of riding a mountain bike, and it’s not as difficult as you might think.

It’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of how the gears on your mountain bike operate before going forward. This way, you’ll be able to make educated decisions when it comes time to change cassettes or acquire new bikes.

You may jump to the appropriate section by clicking one of the links below, or you may read on for all the information you’ll want to know about how to shift gears on a mountain bike.

#1 – How Mountain Bike Gears Work
#2 – Common gear configurations
#3 – How to shift gears on a mountain bike

#1 – The gears on a mountain bike

The number of chainrings on your bike’s front will range from one to three. If your bike is older, it likely has three chainrings, while more modern bikes often have one or two. The sizes of these chainrings are referred to by the number of teeth they have. Larger rings obviously have more teeth than smaller ones. Some common sizes include 30T or 42T.

You will most likely have seven to twelve gears in the back (also known as a cassette). The cassette is formed by this rear group of gears. When looking at a cassette’s specifications, you’ll see a range.

How to Shift Gears on a Mountain Bike: 1x12 mountain bike drivetrain

The smaller first number represents the number of teeth on the smallest cog in the cassette. The bigger number relates to the number of teeth on the biggest cog in the collection. The total number of teeth on each intermediate cog will fall within this range. On your bike, you may simply multiply the number of front chainrings by the number of cogs in its rear cassette to determine how many gears it has.

#2 – Common gear configurations

The most popular gear configurations for modern mountain bicycles include one or two front chainrings. Single front chainrings are known as “1x” or “one-by.” Bikes with two front chainrings are abbreviated to “2x,” whereas bikes with three chain-rings are referred to as “3x.”

Three front chainrings were formerly standard on older mountain bicycles, however, this has become less popular in recent years.

Common gearing options for mountain biking:

1×10, 1×11, 1×12, 2×10

Mountain bikers need fewer smaller jumps because they can rapidly change gears to adapt to their surroundings. By comparison, average speed is much higher on the road, so having more smaller gear changes helps them maintain a good cadence.

The weight of your bike can be lightened by using a 1x chainring rather than 2x. The choice between one-by or two-by is preference-based. One advantage to one-bys is that they lose the front derailleur, resulting in less weight; however, they then have fewer options for gears and may require more work to power through climbs in an imperfect gear.

However, if you’re a stronger rider, this may not be an issue. The simplicity of one-by setups is another benefit. With only a single shifter to worry about, it’s easier for new riders! Also, thanks to the fewer moving parts there are fewer components that can fail or cause maintenance issues.

#3 – How to shift gears on a mountain bike

Although it may look easy to click the shifter and shift gears, there are still a few practical techniques you should follow. By implementing these tips, you’ll reduce the likelihood of your chain dropping and decrease wear on your drivetrain.

The Basic Gear Shift

When pedaling becomes too difficult or easy, it’s time to change gears! Shifting gears ahead of time is recommended for steep ascents!

What gear should I be in?

Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to gears. Assume you’re attempting to pedal up a steep hill in a high gear. You’d have to push really hard on the pedals and grind your way up the hill, whereas if you tried it in a lower gear, your force input at the pedals would be lower but you could spin faster.

The amount of energy you put in is roughly the same in each scenario. The work done is equal to force times distance, so if you reduce the force requirement by half, you’ll be cycling twice as fast.

Your legs and knees can only take so much force, so at a certain point, it’s smarter to change gears in order to reduce the amount of force you’re putting in and raise your speed.

You’ll develop a sense of what works for you over time, but the key is to find equilibrium between pedaling too slowly and going too fast. The perfect cadence will vary from person to person, though it’s often seen as falling within the 70 to 100rpm range. Before continuing, invest some time in learning about how gears work on mountain bikes. This way, when it comes time upgrade cassettes or buy new bikes, you can make informed decisions based on your needs.

When should I shift my gears?

The most important aspect of shifting gears is knowing when to do so. Try to predict changes in your speed and plan ahead for gear changes. For example, as you approach a tight corner, anticipate that you will need to slow down and shift into a lower gear before speeding up again after the turn.

If you’re cycling uphill or against the wind, it will seem like more work than usual, so shift to a lower gear before starting up again. Similarly, if you need to stop at a traffic light, downshift while you’re still moving so that it’s easier to start pedaling when the light turns green.

One big rule is that you should never shift gears when you’re standing still with an external drivetrain; always make sure you’re pedaling first so the gears engage smoothly. And take your time shifting between gears until finding the one that feels right.

Another mistake to avoid is cross-chaining. If you have many chainrings, it’s best to stay away from tiny-small or big-large sprocket-chainring combinations. The extreme angles at which this puts the chain cause accelerated wear and strain on the drivetrain.

And that right there is how to shift gears on a mountain bike. By following these tips, you’ll be able to make gear changes efficiently and extend the life of your drivetrain. So get out there and enjoy the trails!

How to maintain your drivetrain

The next topic to think about is how to care for your drivetrain. For example, if you don’t clean your chain properly, it will damage the rest of your drivetrain components.

Find out more on how to maintain your drivetrain here.

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