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Best Mountain Bike Gear Ratio for Climbing? It’s This

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If you’re looking for the best gear ratio for climbing on a mountain bike, then there’s a short answer and a long answer. Here’s the short answer:

The best mountain bike gear ratio for climbing is 46 to 49 on a chainring and 16 to 18 on a cassette. For more diverse rides, mountain bike gears of ratios 46/17 to 42/17 are what work for flatter terrain or occasional hills. 

However, with that being said, the perfect ratio usually depends on the terrain you’re riding. There’s never just one solution. When it comes to bikes, you always have to adapt to the environment.

In this article, I’ll look at all the factors involved in selecting the correct gear for climbing hills, taking into account:

  • Your bike
  • Your rider dimensions
  • The type of hills
  • Your level of experience
  • And several other factors as well
Best mountain bike gear ratio for climbing

What do I mean by Mountain Bike Gears?

Often, gears are drivetrain system components. They can also be called a groupset in technical terms. There are a lot of parts that work together to form this groupset.

These can consist of chains, front/rear shifters, cassettes, front/rear derailleurs, and chainrings.

How Do Gear Ratios Work?

Gear systems are complex mechanisms that include numerous components. These can involve derailleurs, chains, cassettes, shifters, and chainsets.

On its own, this gear ratio refers to the ratio between the chainring teeth and the number of teeth on the cassette’s cogs. This ratio is determined by your chosen chainring and sprocket.

For example, if you ride with a large chainring of 50 teeth and a small cog of 12 teeth, the gear ratio would be 50:12 (or simplified to 4.2:1).

This implies that the gear would multiply every turn about four times for your bike to rotate. And, the larger your gearset ends up being, the greater distance you’d cover for every rotation.

In contrast, a low gear ratio would be achieved with a small front ring and a sizable back cog. These mountain bike gears are usually more comfortable due to their ratios being more similar.

For instance, a low gear ratio would be about a 34 teeth front ring and 32 teeth back, resulting in a 1.06:1.

Recommended Mountain Bike Gear Ratios

In most cases, average physical abilities on a mountain bike work with just a 32×34 ratio. At least, that’s what I recommend.

However, riders can usually get away with a compact chainset of 50×34 and an 11×32 cassette.

Often, touring bikes and tandems would use a triple chainset too. Although, this is because of the heavier loads they’re meant to carry.

Advantages of Single Chainring Systems

Single chainring systems come with numerous advantages. These can include cheaper maintenance, less friction, longevity, and a beginner-friendly design.

What Would Work For Uphill?

You’d want your mountain gear ratio to be easier to deal with during climbs. Because of this, lower gears are what you want to opt for.

This would be achieved by the smallest front chainring and largest cassette cog (rear gear); pedaling would be easiest and will provide the least resistance in this ratio.

mountain biking up a trail on a hill
Apply the smallest front chain-ring and the biggest cassette cog when climbing in steep and tough terrain

Consider How Strong You Are

Cycling ability and strength are crucial factors worth considering before choosing a gear ratio.

They work well for cyclists who enjoy rides or races across longer climbs and restrictive roads. These can include riding across mud, asphalt, or dirt.

You can also see these rides typically associated with technical singletrack descents that don’t ask for a lot of pedaling.

Gear Ratios worth Testing

As brushed upon earlier, ratios can correlate a lot with your riding style and terrain.

This makes sense because they’re meant to help your bike adapt to the limits of your ability. Whether you enjoy long technical climbs or going over somewhat steep hills, there’s a gear ratio for everything.

In consequence, the following are a few gears you can keep in mind for varying landscapes:

2×10 Gear Ratios

If you’re particularly looking to deal with long climbs for training and altitude racing, a 2×10 ratio would probably work best for you.

Since these heights have limited oxygen, riders need simpler gear combinations for powering through terrains without tiring themselves out. Plus, this ratio can also be applied to longer distances.

1×11 Gear Ratios

If you’re looking for simplicity and weight savings, 1×11 is the way to go.

These gear ratios are ideal because they eliminate the need for a derailleur. You don’t need a front shifter on the left side, and you have one less chainring to deal with.

Not to mention, this lack of shifting would eliminate any possibilities of you dropping your chain; this makes riding your bike less mechanical.

The Perfect Climbing Gear Ratio

The key to traversing steep terrain is energy conservation. You don’t want to get exhausted while traveling uphill; that’s just inefficient and dangerous.

So, to reach a compromise, you’d need to opt for lower gear ratios to make it simpler to pedal uphill.

They are just more ideal and make traveling more effortless.

For example, you could go for a ratio like 1.06:1. This would imply that your back wheel would move one revolution per turn of your crankset.

On the contrary, if you’re a bulkier cyclist who’s looking for a challenge, a higher gear ratio would help provide a better workout. It makes it a little harder for hills, but it’s definitely a worthwhile exercise.

mountain biker on trail on hill
A 1×11 gear ratio is perfect for simplicity

The Perfect Descending Gear Ratio

In contrast, descent would always be a lot easier than the ascent.

Consequently, I recommend a gear ratio that’s the polar opposite of your ascending gear ratio.

This means a high gear ratio that encourages more revolutions per pedaling cycle; this would correlate with a large chainring and less significant cog configuration.

Other than that, your descending gear ratio should consider your path’s surface. Flat surfaces require more sizable gear ratios due to their lack of friction. However, during races, this may not be as favorable.

Flat Road Gearing

If the area you’re climbing has flat roads, a standard crank might be a quality alternative.

It’s exceptional for athletes looking to prioritize power and speed over everything else. So, it works for fast sprints, but it may leave you defenseless against very steep hills.

On the contrary, if you’re not too keen on speed and just want to climb technical hills, you can settle for a mid-compact crank.

Though they don’t offer equivalent sprinting power, they work for more flexibility when riding across varied terrain.

What about Paved Hills?

When dealing with hilly and paved roads, middle gears are preferred. They provide enough strength to overcome hurdles.

But, at the same time, they don’t make it too tough to ride across undulating paths.

In addition, I suggest coupling your middle chainring with your triple rear cogs for maximizing efficiency.

Finding the Right Gears for Climbing

After considering it all, if you’re still unsure whether the mentioned gear ratios would work for you or not, you don’t have to worry.

The best part of gear ratios is they’re based on personal preference. They are meant to improve your enjoyment and performance, regardless of how unique it may be.

So, to help develop a better idea of how what works for you, you can try going with the following principles:

Experiment and Practice

This is probably the ideal way to find out what’s comfortable for you. As stated earlier, terrain and gradient could affect your abilities immensely.

Though I recommend lower gears for climbing, you can get a lot of specifics down by simply experimenting.

While on the same note, though practice can help a lot when finding your go-to gear ratio, beginners are advised to proceed with caution. Don’t be reckless with where you’re experimenting.

And, always choose places with as little traffic as possible. Definitely avoid roads until you feel comfortable with the level of pedal resistance!

Other than that, if nothing ends up working for you, you could always change your gears. But, it’s worth knowing that this might be more complex than you think; you can’t really just change the whole chainring or cassette.

You need to consider the capabilities of your derailleur.

And, try opting for chains depending on how high or low you’d like to go.

Cycling Cadence

Another aspect worth considering in gear selection is cadence. This is also defined as the number of revolutions your wheel would produce per minute.

It can be pretty bothersome to find the perfect zone for gears. This is because cadences vary amongst individuals.

In general, the right rhythm would relate to your terrain and ability.

Besides that, smooth rides aren’t entirely dependent on gear ratios. In reality, the quality of your ride often depends on how well you can utilize gears in preparing for the hills.

For instance, when approaching a mountainous region, you’d change gears to slow down; you need to switch to a lower chainring gear while going downhill.

At the same time, you’d have to slowly move to a lower rear gear for uphill journeys. This adaptability mid-ride is what makes a great cyclist.

Since no one has the same rhythm throughout a stride, you’d need to discover the specifics of gear settings on your own.

Whether it’s sticking to slow and steady while hard grinding a hill or sprinting upwards, discovering what works for you is one of the wonders of cycling.

What’s Unique about Mountain Bike Groupsets?

Mountain bike groupsets tend to be specific to mountain biking conditions.

Since these trials are often full of dirt and mud during winter, the sludge usually sticks to drivetrain components. This inhibits shifting and pedaling efficiency.

For this very reason, you can find these mountain bike chains utilizing mud shading technology. This would be done to lower the effect of mud. Plus, these mountain bike components would be designed to hold the chain in hilly terrains and during difficult jumps.

Other than that, you can also find mid-tier to high-end mountain bike groupsets with narrow and high-tension derailleurs. This specifically works well for preventing the chain from falling off.

What Was An Old Mountain Bike Gear Like?

If you look at the release of mountain bikes from 1980, you’d see a completely different gear set.

Modern bikes have changed practically every component found in their predecessors. These changes were done to meet industry standards and satisfy riders’ needs.

In particular, triple chainrings were used on old mountain bikes. In cycling terms, they can also be referred to as a 3X system.

In modern bikes, you’d usually find these triple gears replaced with just one chainring (or a 1X gear system). The main reasons for this change include ease of use and weight reduction.

What Was Wrong With The Triple Chainrings System?

Triple chainring systems had a couple of flaws that were unfavorable amongst the new-age industry. The first and foremost reason would probably just be that they were unnecessary.

There’s no actual reason for a chainring to have 42 teeth when ridden on hilly terrains that don’t need high speed.

Plus, triple chainrings can also be challenging to use. With more chains, you have more friction. As a result, it requires a degree of experience to ensure your chain is straight while remaining between the front and rear cogs.

This extreme friction can even be a nightmare for the lifespan of your drivetrain’s components.

Specifically, it can result in your chains, rear derailleurs, or derailleur hangers being affected or bent.

What’s Different In Modern Mountain Bike Gears?

New-age mountain bikes meet industry standards through their single chainring design.

This has been popularized amongst practically any new-release mountain bike, except for entry-level or 26-inch wheel bikes.

Final Thoughts

Gear ratios can help in various aspects of your riding experience. Whether over the side of a mountain or a short hill, there’s a gear ratio for it all.

The truth is that there’s no perfect gear choice that works for every terrain. The only way you can actually discover the best mountain bike gear ratio for climbing in your area is to simply go out there and try for yourself.

So, with that being said, go forth and test the waters of your gears!