How To Use Bike Gears: Beginner’s Guide

Gears on a bike make riding it much easier. They help you fly up steep climbs and power along flats with ease.

However, if you are relatively new to cycling, bike gears can be a little confusing.

Therefore, in this post, we will go through how to use bike gears properly and give you some tips on how to use bike gears.

In this article, we will go into bicycle gears for dummies and have a look at:

  • Why you need bike gears.
  • Your drivetrain components.
  • Gear ranges explained.
  • How to change gears on a bike.
  • Top tips on how to use bike gears.
  • Looking after your bike’s drivetrain.

Are you ready to climb hills like a boss?

Let’s get into it!

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

Why Do You Need Bike Gears?

Let’s start with the basics; what is the point of gears on a bike?

Bike gears allow you to maintain a comfortable pedalling speed on different gradients and terrain.

If your bike only had one gear, any increase in gradient would require you to put more effort into the pedals. Steeper hills would become increasingly difficult and very tiring.

By being able to change gear for a climb, you can achieve a comfortable pedalling speed, known as cadence.

Cadence is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). On a road bike, it is recommended that you pedal between 60 and 80 rpm. However, it would be best if you pedal at a cadence that is comfortable for you.

Every cyclist pedals at a different cadence, so there is no right or wrong answer to the question of what is a good cadence? Some people prefer to pedal faster in an easier gear, while others like to pedal slower in a harder gear.

You want to use your gears to help maintain your cadence, no matter how fast you are riding or the type of terrain. For example, if you are riding uphill, you should select an easier gear so that your cadence doesn’t drop too much.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

Your 6 Drivetrain Components

Before we go into how to change gear, we will give you a little overview of the different parts of your bike’s drivetrain.

The drivetrain of the bike is made up of all the components that you use to push or pull the bike along.

Knowing about drivetrain component is essential for learning how to use bike gears.

1) Crankset

The crankset is what your pedals are attached to.

It is made up of several parts, including the chainrings, which are the gears at the front.

Depending on your bike, it will have one, two or three chainrings to choose from.

2) Cassette

Your cassette is mounted on your bike’s rear wheel. This is the group of different sized gears stacked together in the centre of the back wheel.

3) Chain

A bike chain is a very simple component, but you won’t go anywhere without it.

The chain connects the cassette to the front chainrings. When you pedal, the chain turns the rear wheel, propelling you forwards.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

4) Derailleur

The derailleur is the component that moves the chain between the gears when you select them.

All bikes with gears have a rear derailleur. However, you only need a front derailleur if your bike has more than one chainring.

5) Shifters

To select your required gear, you need to use your bike gear shifters mounted on the handlebars.

There are several types of shifters, depending on your bike. But most bike gear shifters operate the derailleurs using cables. However, some modern high-end bikes have wireless electronic shifters and derailleurs.

It is common for the right-hand shifter to control the rear derailleur and the left one to control the front.

6) Drivetrains with Hub Shifters

You may have a bike with an internal hub. These bikes don’t use derailleurs, cassettes or several chainrings.

The significant advantage of internal hubs is that they require very little maintenance. They are straightforward to use, and you can change gear while coasting or stationary. However, they have a very limited range.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

Gear Ranges Explained

When you learn how to use bike gears, you will notice that different bikes have different gear ranges to cope with the nature of their riding.

If you’re wondering how to shift gears on a mountain bike, a mountain bike has lots of low ratio gears to help you tackle steep and technical climbs.

Whereas a road bike has higher gears to increase your top speed.

The issue with having lots of gears is that there is more to go wrong. This is something worth considering when you buy a bike or upgrade it.

Many mountain bike riders these days opt for 1 x drivetrains. These only have one chainring at the front.

Therefore, you don’t need a front derailleur or shifter. 1 x bikes are great for riding rough terrain, as there is less chance that your chain will drop off.

How To Change Gear

The following steps are relevant to bikes with a conventional drivetrain with two or three front chainrings.

These steps do not apply to bikes with a hub system, so you can skip this section if you have one.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

Changing Gear On The Front Chainrings

If your bike has three chainrings, start riding with the chain on the middle one. This will allow you to change gear up or down to suit the road or trail ahead.

If you only have two chainrings, you can start with the chain on either of them.

Shifting with the left-hand shifter through the chainrings makes large adjustments to your cadence. When your chain is on the smallest chainring, your pedalling will be much easier while speeding up your cadence. You will use the smaller one when climbing hills.

When you approach a downhill section, to make your pedalling harder, choose the larger chainring. This will give you more control over your speed. You can select the larger chainrings when you have lots of momentum on the flats too, this will allow you to ride faster.

Going Through The Gears On The Rear Cassette

The gears on the rear cassette allow you to make small adjustments to your pedalling.

When your chain is on the larger gears, your paddling will be much easier. Therefore, you select larger gears for riding uphill.

Just like the chainrings on the front, the smaller gears on the cassette make your pedalling harder. These smaller gears are ideal for descending.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

As a beginner, when you are in the moment, you may struggle to remember which gears do what. However, after a couple of rides where you need to change gear often, you will soon develop muscle memory.

It doesn’t take long until you can change gear intuitively. The familiarity gained from experience will ensure that you will climb efficiently and descent with speed and confidence.

However, before you jump on your bike hunting for hills, keep reading for some top tips on how to use bike gears.

Tips On How To Use Bike Gears

The following tips on how to use bike gears apply to all types of bikes. Therefore, if you are a roadie, mountain biker, or commuter, you will be able to benefit from them.

Anticipate What Is Ahead Of You

Keep your eyes on the road or trail ahead of you so you know what is coming. This is so you can plan what gear you need to be in to maintain your cadence.

It is best to change gear just before you start climbing a hill. If you change too late, you will begin to slow down, as you have to put more effort into the pedals.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

If you miss time your shifting and have no choice but to change gear while climbing, go through the gears one at a time. But it is also essential to reduce the pressure you put into the pedals by about 20% while you are shifting.

Doing this will create smoother gear changes and not put unnecessary strain on your drivetrain, which could damage it. If you put too much pressure on the pedals while shifting, you will hear lots of grinding and banging noises, so you will know you are doing it wrong.

When you get to a downhill section, you should select harder gears for extra acceleration. To be smooth and efficient, get into the harder gear before you descend, but you can go through several gears at a time while riding downhill.

Change To An Easier Gear If You Are Struggling

When you are learning how to use bike gears, you may be tempted to select a larger gear. Larger gears may seem faster, but they will zap your energy quickly.

Therefore, if you shift into an easier gear, you will pedal at a higher cadence, making your pedalling more efficient.

It is best to maintain the highest cadence that you find comfortable for the entirety of your ride. This is something you will get to learn after a few rides. But, you can buy a bike computer that will monitor your cadence as you ride.

How To Use Bike Gears, Explained

2 Tips On How To Use Bike Gears With More Than One Chainring

1) Only Use One Shifter At A Time

If you try to change gear with both shifters simultaneously, you will put unwanted stress on your drivetrain. Also, it is easy to get confused, causing you to select the wrong gear.

Keep your gear shifting simple, and only use one shifter at a time. It is important to remember that the front chainrings make big changes to your pedalling, while the rear gears make small changes.

2) Don’t Cross The Chain

Selecting gears that stretch your chain diagonally is known as cross chaining, which is easy to do when you are learning how to use bike gears.

Using the two extremes puts lots of strain on your drivetrain, which will wear it out prematurely. To avoid this strain, ensure your chain only sits on gears that are reasonably aligned to the front chainring you are using.

Now You Know How To Use Bike Gears

With all this information, learning how to use bike gears may seem tricky. But all you need to do, is keep all these tips in mind when you next jump on your bike. All of these details will become second nature with practice, so all you need to do is ride!

Now that you know how to use your bike gears effectively why not put your skills into practice and hit the hills, or try your best at going fast!

Check out these articles to test your gear skills:

How To Bike Uphill Effectively: 10 Uphill Cycling Tips

How To Cycle Faster: 9 Tips To Speed Up

Photo of author
One of BikeTips' regular writers, Tom is a mountain biking expert living in the French Alps. When he isn't writing, he can be found charging downhill on two wheels or a snowboard! Tom's other passion is fitness, which goes a long way to help him make the most of the Alpine lifestyle.

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