How To Use Gears On A Mountain Bike: The Complete Guide


When I was starting out, I just wanted to get out there with my mountain bike, but I knew that before I stepped into the world of mountain bikes, it was probably best to acquaint myself with all its dos and don’ts (Source). I had to know everything about the bike, the chainrings, and tires, and probably most importantly…the gears!

So I did a lot of research, learned everything I could, and here I’m going to share everything you need to know about gears and mountain bikes. But first, the big one…

Man on mountain bike on rocky hillside

How Do You Use Gears On A Mountain Bike?

There are normally between 7 to 36 gears on a mountain bike. Try to anticipate when to shift gears before you need to. Prepare to change before either an incline or decline. With practice, you will learn which gears work best for you in different terrains.

That’s the short answer, but what follows is everything you need to know, from what mountain bike gears are, how they function, which ones you should use on what terrains, and how to keep them clean so they can serve you for a very long time!

What Gears Are On Your Mountain Bike?

Let’s start with what’s on your bike. First up, chainrings. I know everyone knows about chainrings, because who hasn’t gotten a loose chainring while riding a bike in their childhood?

But what’s different about mountain bikes is the number of chainrings on the front and the back (Source).

You read that right: front and back.

For older versions of mountain bikes, it’s normal for there to be around 3 chainrings on the front, whereas more modern bikes usually only have 1 or 2.

The size of these chainrings will vary depending on the number of their teeth. If the chainrings are bigger, they have more teeth; if they’re smaller, fewer teeth. The most common sizes are usually around 30T to 42T.

If you look at the rear gear (that’s a tongue twister!), normally there are around 7 to 12 gears which also go by the name ‘cogs’; this forms the cassette.

Cassettes ranges can go from 11-42T to 10-50T, where the initial number refers to the number of teeth in the smallest cog of the cassette. 

As the cogs go up in number, so do the teeth.

With me so far?

Good. So how do you know how many gears your bike has?

Let’s do some simple math: multiply the number of front chainrings with the number of cogs in the back cassette. So if your bike has 2 front chainrings with 10 cogs in the rear cassette, there are 20 gears in your bike.

How Do The Gears Work?

So now that I’ve explained what the gears actually are, how many and where they’re situated, let’s get into the real work and find out how they manage to keep my bike running.

This may not be the most glamorous knowledge to have, but if you find yourself in a pickle, it’s better to know how the gears work, so you can try to piece together why on earth they’re not working.

Okay, here’s how it goes:

When you push the pedals with your feet, the crank arms begin to rotate. Since they’re connected to the chainring, the chainring starts to spin.

The spinning chainring makes the rear gear rotate. 

The rear gears rotation causes the rear wheel to begin turning, and that’s it!

You’re off, up, and away! 

It didn’t sound that difficult, did it? And now that you know how it works, you can go out and look at your bike and see the whole process in action, which makes fixing your bike infinitely easier.

How To Shift Gears

Remember earlier, when I talked about how important it is to learn the dos and don’ts of mountain bikes? It was for good reason. 

For those of us who made the shift from a regular bike to a mountain bike, admitting that I didn’t know how to work the gears on my mountain bike, or that I couldn’t do it well, wasn’t an easy thing to do. 

But I knew that for my safety and the safety of others on the trails with me, I needed to learn every single technique out there. 

So here they are; don’t be like me and learn them before you get on that bike!

It’s not really the same as a regular bike, a motorbike, or a car; clicking the shifter won’t always do the trick. You need to know when to shift gears, too.

If you find yourself struggling to pedal, whether that’s pedaling being too easy or too hard, then that’s your signal: shift your gears.

  • For that first gear shift, when you’re just testing the waters and playing around with the shifts to see what works and what doesn’t, start slow. Keep riding until you find yourself in a comfortable speed and rhythm. If you’re on a flat surface, you’ll need to make use of the bigger chainring. Remember not to change gears while you’re pedaling hard.
  • If you find yourself needing to shift the chain to the middle chainring, remember to click the front shift; it’ll move you into middle gear, which helps you ride on soft land, as well as climbing in windy areas.
  • Shifting a gear leads to a change in the gear’s resistance, so if you’re doing it, remember to shift-click, since that aids the move in the chainring.
     
  • To change to high gear, shift the rear cassette into middle gear and right shift from front gear to the large chainring.
  • When you find yourself near the mountains, and you’re ready to start making that incline ride, then opt for a lower gear. Changing gears over and over while you’re riding at an incline, or having a high gear, will only lead to too much pressure on the chainring, causing it to fall and make a lot of noises you don’t want to be heard on a mountain.

For a full tutorial in shifting gears on a mountain bike, then check out this video:

Shifting Techniques You Need To Know

When you’re riding, it’s a good habit to know when you’re about to shift, because that way you’ll be able to get into the proper gear before it’s time. Whether it’s an incline or decline, try to anticipate your moves before you hit that bump.

Try not to shift the front and rear gears at the same time. Of course, it’s completely possible to shift one after the other, but shifting them together is going to put too much pressure on your numerous chainrings.

For those with modern bikes that have more than one front chainring, try to make sure that you don’t put too much pressure on them through any process.

This could occur through cross chaining, or shifting gears together. You want them to last you a long time, so treat them with gentle care!

When Should You Shift Gears?

A common mistake that most rookies to mountain biking make is that they think they should change gears when they’re doing something that’s putting pressure on the gears, like going uphill or breaking downhill. 

In fact, that’s a big no-no. You need to peddle in order to maintain chain tension, yes, and pedaling is what makes the chain thread onto the next cog, but if you try to change your gear while the chain is in the middle of threading onto the cog is like asking the chain to relieve you of all duties.

Which it does. 

The way to get around this is by using a power stroke. It isn’t as intimidating as it sounds; essentially, a power stroke is when you do one or two hard pushes followed by some soft pushes. During the soft pushes, you quickly change your gear.

Once the chain has made the transition and gotten attached to the next cog, and your gear has shifted, you can go back to pedaling hard or braking, depending on where you are.

Mountain biker riding downhill

Tips To Remember When Using A Mountain Bike

Mountain bikes are a whole different beast when it comes to bike riding.

Even though I went into it thinking it would be the same because I had been riding my bike so for so long, and I was so practiced in riding on rough surfaces, during winter and at night, that I was invincible and needed no training, I was so, so wrong. 

There is nothing that can compare to the high of bike riding, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t need those extra lessons learning to use the gears on a mountain bike before I got on one.

So, let’s get into it. What basic guidelines do you need to follow?

Well, for one, practice makes perfect. I know it seems like a silly thing to read in a guide about mountain biking gears, but it really makes a world of difference – it’s what differentiates a rookie from a pro. 

Ride on different surfaces to get a real feel for what they’re like. It’s what will help you figure out a couple of things: you’ll realize which surfaces require what kind of riding, which surfaces require what kind of gear shifts, and how comfortable you are with making those gear shifts in the moment.

I know that the first time I rode my mountain bike on an actual mountain, I went in acting like some macho hotshot as if I knew exactly what I was doing.

Cue me starting on an incline, panicking and freaking out because I didn’t know which gears I should be shifting to, and why my bike was making such loud and terrifying noises, or why the chainrings kept falling off!

Another important tip to keep in mind is that you need to make ample and smart use of the front brakes on your bike. When you brake, how hard or slow you brake, decides the smoothness and enjoyment of your ride so make sure you practice using the brakes on every incline and decline as you go.

When making the purchase, make sure to do a lot of research beforehand.

The person in the shop is going to try to sell you the most expensive piece of equipment they have, and convince you that that’s the only one you need to have in order to get what you want out of a mountain bike, but hold fast! Know what you want, what kind of bike you need, and what you want to use it for.

Don’t install random things if there’s no need for them. Get only the gear that’s required, rather than gear that will make you or your bike look cool. You don’t want to miss out on getting the best bike lights for your safety because you were too busy getting the hottest paint done.

Stay calm. Mountain bikes necessitate a rough track and terrain (that’s where all the fun is!) but sometimes things can get a bit too bumpy, and you start to feel like you’re all alone on a mountain track and it’s getting late at night, and no one will find you till morning- stop.

Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re a trained professional, even if you’re not.

Wear clothes that are light and comfortable. If it’s cold or raining, don’t put on heavy gear that makes it more difficult to ride and potentially puts you at risk-instead, just wait till the weather’s better!

Which Gears You Should Use

Okay, so the exact answer to this depends entirely on you, your bike, and your terrain. If you’re biking to a mountain hill that’s known for its smooth paths, but investing in high gears, then someone out there has tricked you.

It’s pretty simple: got lots of climbing and inclines to do? Opt for low gears. Got lots of declining and downhill biking to do? Opt for high gears.

It’s not rocket science, but it is completely possible to get duped by a salesperson if you go in without having done your research. And you have if you’re still smart enough to be reading!

Common Gear Terms You Need To Know

As I mentioned at the beginning of this guide, the days of the 3 front chainrings are long gone.

Nowadays, most mountain bikes come with either 1 or 2 front chainrings, because 3 chainrings are just…unnecessary. Rather than helping in rough terrains, more often than not they make the experience more difficult. 

The current bikes with 1 chainring are referred to as 1x or one-by, while the 2 chainrings are referred to as 2x or two-by. Knowing these abbreviations isn’t a requirement, but it shows people that you know what you’re talking about, which is impressive on its own.

The most common gearing options that you need to be aware of are 1×10, 1×11, and 1×12, or 2×10 and 3×10. 

For mountain bikers that are used to rougher terrains, it’s common to need larger gears so that they can easily accommodate their larger gear jumps. Smaller gears are more preferable for riders who prefer smoother terrains since they help them find the right cadence. 

Also, the lack of or addition or chainrings also has a pretty drastic effect on the weight of your bike. Add more, and your bike gets heavier. Add less, and your bike is light as a feather. I think we both know which one is preferable.

Taking Care of Your Bike Gears

I shouldn’t have to explain why this one is important. Having gears that are up to date with regards to maintenance can be the difference between life and death.

It’s also what leads to the longevity of your bike, and once you invest a certain amount of time, love, and money into your mountain bike, you want it to be around for a long time,

The drivetrain is often the dirtiest part of the bike, meaning that if you let the dirt and gunk build up over time, your gears won’t be shifting quite as smoothly as they used to, and the chainrings are more likely to drop more often.

But fear not! Use warm, soapy water, dip in a nice brush, and get to work. If you’ve really let that gunk build-up, you might need the help of a degreaser to help scrub everything off properly; just make sure not to skimp on the effort, as smooth shift gears will lead to a better riding experience.

If you’re really committed, then invest in some mountain bike-specific tools. There are brushes that can get all the way in between your cogs to clean them up and make them nice and shiny, while other tools come with brushes that boast of a curved tooth section to get into all those small, thin crevices.

Conclusion

Well, I hope I’ve about covered everything you need to know about using gears effectively on your mountain bike. After all, the gears were put there to help you get up mountains easier, so use them wisely and they’ll serve your bike and you for a long time.

Martin Williams

Martin has been tearing up all sorts of trails on a range of bikes ever since he was young. He once cycled across France, and once fell into a canal on a hybrid. He writes about everything to do with cycling on our site. You can find out more about him at bicycle2work.com/about-martin-williams/

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