1. How and When Should You Use Your Gears?

cycling in the mountains

You won’t find any signs along the road telling you which gear you should be using; it’s entirely a matter of feeling.

You should shift to a lower gear (smaller number) when you feel that you’re having to put too much effort into pedalling.

Conversely, as soon as you feel that you’re pedalling “empty” (without any resistance), you should switch to a higher (number) gear.

Ideally, find a balance between ease of pedalling and the need to feel some slight resistance with each turn of the crankset. Don’t hesitate to change gears frequently if you feel the need.

If your bike is equipped with only one shifter, then it’s very easy; just click away, or turn the handle, as you wish or feel the need.   If your bike is equipped with two shifters, and therefore two derailleurs, it gets a bit more complicated. In this case, you should be aware of the following.

  • Firstly: Before changing cogs (right-hand shifter), you should check whether your chain is on the correct chainwheel (left-hand shifter).
  • Secondly: While it’s mechanically feasible, you shouldn’t “cross” the chain. We say a chain is “crossed” when for example it’s on the large chainwheel and on one of the largest cogs, or, inversely, when it’s on the small chainwheel and on one of the smallest cogs. A chain that is crossed in this way will wear down more quickly and wear down the chainwheel and cogs faster too. Now you might just be about pipe up that you were doing just fine on that particular chainwheel and cog, you were going at a speed and level of effort that suited you, so what’s all the fuss about crossed chains and such? Yes, I understand. But go ahead and gradually change chainwheels and cogs, and you’ll find a setting that will give you the same feel at the same speed, without “crossing” the chain. To wind up this section, allow me to point out that a mountain bike with 3 chainwheels and 10 cogs has 30 speeds “on paper”. However, in real-world use, you’ll only be using about 12 or 13 of these. You should use the 3 or 4 largest cogs in combination with the smallest chainwheel. Use the 3 or 4 middle cogs with the middle chainwheel, and the 3 or 4 smallest cogs with the largest chainwheel. By shifting from one chainwheel to another and progressively choosing the correct cogs, you will always find the ideal speed, suited to your pace, how you feel, your fitness level, the gradient, traffic, the type of terrain, etc.

2.What You Mustn't Do

people cycling together

Never change gears while stationary.

  1. Always manipulate the shifters at the same time as you are pedalling.
  2. You are advised not to try to change both shifters at the same time as you risk derailing the chain or getting it stuck, or even breaking it.
  3. Unless you are sure of yourself, and are deeply worried about your pace, avoid changing several gears in one go.
  4. Avoid crossing your chain.
  5. As much as possible, try to anticipate your gear changes based on what you see coming up ahead.

    For example, don’t wait until you’re in trouble on a very steep climb to switch to an easier gear, because you’ll have a hard time with the switch due to the amount of force that you’re having to exert on the pedals.

3. Maintenance

people cycling in hill areas

To switch gears smoothly and efficiently, you have to keep your bike well cared for. Now, there’s no need to take it apart nightly to degrease and lube each piece with cotton swabs!

Make sure that you can shift to each gear properly, one by one, and that the chain doesn’t derail when moving to either the biggest or smallest chainwheels or cogs. If this quick check raises some concerns, take your bike to get a tune-up as soon as you can. Or learn how to do it yourself if you’re a DIY type person; it’s not that complicated, actually.

Make sure the cables that connect the shifters to the derailleurs are always in good condition.

It’s also very important that all of the cogs, the chain, and the chainwheels are always slightly lubricated. However, avoid using grease or thick oil that can quickly solidify into a thick greasy paste—you know, that black stuff that loves to get on your clothes.

Instead, use oil that is very fluid, or even better, use lubricating spray specially designed for bike drivetrains. Regularly clean your chain with a cloth, and lubricate it immediately afterwards. Take care not to spray or drip the oil on your brakes (the brake pads on the rims or the discs/pads).

The last thing—when you wash your bike, or you have used it in the rain, make sure that you don’t let your chain rust. Lubricate it after it has got wet.

Now you know everything you need to know about bike gears. If after reading this article 3 times a day for a month you still don’t understand a thing, immediately proceed to sign up at your local bike riding school!


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