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Should you use low gears or high gears on your bike? And when? Well, it all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Low gear is the trusty workhorse, ready to take on the toughest hills and rough terrain with its extra torque and control. High gear, on the other hand, is the speed demon, always ready to take you to new heights of speed and power.
In this post, I’ll take a look at the biggest 11 differences and uses of both the low gears and high gears on your bike. I’ll also take a look at:
- Understanding low gear vs high gear
- Selecting the right gears for YOU
- Shifting between low and high gears
- Do more gears on a bike mean a bigger difference between low and high gears?
Low Gear vs. High Gear — 11 Differences
Low gear and high gear both have their uses when cycling, and understanding the differences between them can help you get the most out of your ride.
Let’s take a look at 11 significant differences and uses of both low gears and high gears. (Source)
Low gear requires the rider to apply more force to the pedals, which can be tiring over long periods. You have to spin the pedals at a high cadence for minimal forward momentum.
Low gears are only really used when high gears are not possible – e.g. when climbing hills, or going over extremely uneven ground.
In flat or downhill conditions, high gear requires less force to be applied to the pedals, making it easier to maintain a consistent pace for longer periods.
2. Physical Components
The physical components of low gear include a smaller chainring and a larger cog, while high gear uses a larger chainring and a smaller cog.
The cog at the rear is linked to the pedals, so a bigger cog needs more pedaling.
The cogs and chainrings result in a lower top speed in low gear and a higher top speed in high gear (when conditions are equal).
3. Different Surfaces
Low gear is better for maintaining traction on slippery or uneven surfaces, as the slower speed allows the rider to react more quickly to changes in terrain.
For example, low gear will work well on:
- Excessively wet roads
- Muddy trails
- An uneven surface
High gear is better for maintaining momentum on dry, smooth surfaces where the rider can take advantage of the higher speed.
For example, you should use high gears on the following:
- Flat roads and pavements
- Going downhill on relatively smooth surfaces
- Cycling with the wind behind you
4. Drivetrain Wear
Interestingly, if you’re looking to preserve your bike for longer, then low gears are the way to go.
This is because of the impact on your bike’s drivetrain. The ‘drivetrain’ is just a fancy name for all the part of your bike that helps to propel it – think pedals, chains, gears, derailleur, cogs, and cranks. (Source)
Low gear puts less strain on the bike’s drivetrain, as the lower speeds and torque result in less wear and tear on the components.
High gear, on the other hand, puts more strain on the drivetrain due to the higher speeds and torque.
So, if letting your bike last long-term is your goal, lower gears are the way to go.
5. Energy Efficient
The question of energy really links to what kind of terrain you are cycling in.
If you are going up a steep hill, even lower gears are going to be sapping energy (and high gears will be impossible to use!)
However, if everything is equal, then the low gear is better for conserving energy, as the rider can maintain a consistent pace without having to exert as much force on the pedals.
High gear is better for maximizing power output, as the rider can take advantage of the higher speeds to generate more power.
On flat roads, high gear results in a slower cadence, or number of pedal revolutions per minute, which can be easier on the rider’s muscles over long periods.
Low gear results in a faster cadence, which can be more challenging and may result in muscle fatigue.
Also, even though you are pedaling faster in low gear, you would be traveling much slower.
In general, your cadence is one of the biggest things that you should be thinking about when selecting what gear you should be in at any given moment.
In general, reasonably seasoned cyclists try to move with an RPM of between 60-80 (revolutions per minute).
To maintain this cadence in climbs, you need to go to as low a gear as possible, whereas higher gears are fine in downslopes and on flats.
Here is a simple table that shows the kind of RPM to expect from different levels of cyclists:
|Type of Cyclist||Average Cadence RPM|
7. Uphill & Downhill
Low gear is useful for maintaining a consistent speed while climbing a hill, as the rider can apply a steady force to the pedals without having to worry about losing control of the bike.
High gear is useful for quickly accelerating or maintaining high speeds on flat or downhill sections, as the rider can take advantage of the higher cadence and torque.
Your choice of gear is just one of the decisions that make a big impact on how you cycle up hills. For more excellent tips on how to cycle up hills like a pro, check out this Youtube video by GCN Network:
In low gear, the bike may feel more sluggish and difficult to accelerate, but it is easier to maintain control at slower speeds.
In high gear, the bike may feel more responsive and easier to accelerate, but it is more difficult to maintain control at higher speeds.
9. Beginner Friendly
Using low gear can be helpful for riders who are just learning to ride a bike, as it allows them to practice controlling the bike at slower speeds before tackling higher gears.
Certainly on flats, however, experienced riders will prefer high gear for its higher top speeds and ability to generate more power.
10. Additional Weight
Low gear is helpful for riders who are riding with a heavy load, such as a trailer or a backpack, because it allows them to apply more force to the pedals to compensate for the added weight. This can make it easier to maintain a consistent speed and avoid losing control of the bike when carrying a heavy load.
Factors that may increase the requirement for a low gear include:
- Cycling into an extreme headwind
- Cycling with a heavy load
- Cycling in bulky weather
- Being a heavier rider (e.g. 300 lbs plus)
On the other hand, high gear is helpful for riders who are cycling with any of the following conditions applying:
- They have a strong wind behind them
- They are fitter and have greater endurance
11. Low Impact
Low gear is helpful for riders who are recovering from injury or who have limited physical strength because it allows them to pedal at a slower pace without overexerting themselves.
This can be useful for riders who are just starting to build up their strength and endurance after an injury or who are not physically capable of maintaining a high cadence.
Higher gear should be used with more caution if you are returning from an injury (subject to medical advice).
Understanding Low Gear Vs High Gear
Ultimately, the choice between low gear and high gear depends on the rider’s goals, the terrain they are riding on, and their level of experience.
Low gear is better for tackling challenging terrain or maintaining control at slower speeds, while high gears are better for maximizing speed and power output on smooth, flat surfaces.
What distance the bike travels with a single rotation of the pedals is defined by the gear ratio.
In low gear, a cyclist may only advance 1.6 yards for every full revolution of the pedals. That’s the best way to ascend a steep slope.
With a high gear, you could theoretically travel eight yards with each pedal stroke. That’s the way to go while you’re coasting downhill or riding with a tailwind.
Often the difference between the distance traveled by a single pedal stroke in low gear compared to high gear will be anywhere between 3 X to 7 X the low gear distance. So, if you travel 1 yard with one revolution of the lowest gear, you will travel between 3 to 7 yards with the highest gear.
Selecting The Right Gears For YOU
In the end, it’s all about finding the right gear for the job. Low gear and high gear are like two sides of the same coin, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Low gear is a dependable workhorse, providing extra torque and control when you need it most. High gear, on the other hand, is the sleek, aerodynamic racer, always ready to take you to new heights of speed and power.
Whether you’re tackling steep hills or flying down the open road, it’s important to choose the right gear for the task at hand.
Here’s a fantastic video that explains exactly how and when to use your different bike gears:
Shifting Between Low And High Gears (And Everything In Between) – 4 Tips
Here are 5 simple tips to help you shift successfully between gears on your bike.
Tip 1 – There Is No Perfect Way!
Remember this above all else when riding a bike: There is no perfect way to shift gears on a bike!
Tip 2 – Maintain A Steady Cadence
Maintaining a steady cadence (the rate at which your pedals turn once) is essential while biking.
This is irrespective of changes in terrain and going up or down slopes. Getting into your natural cycling rhythm will help you maintain speed and be as efficient as possible with your technique.
Tip 3 – Go Through The Gears Gradually
To maintain a constant cadence, start by shifting into lower gears with your right hand. Keep in mind that the right hand should be used for navigating subtle changes in the landscape.
If you see that your pedaling speed is significantly decreasing, you can utilize the front derailleur (with your left hand) to increase the gearing for the upcoming steep ascent.
Tip 4 – Avoid Grinding Those Gears!
If you are already pedaling furiously up the slope and you are slowing down, you may find that your front derailleur refuses to shift gears. You may shift gears, hear a grinding sound, and then coast to a stop in the middle of the hill.
To avoid having to grind gears, you should put extra effort into your pedal stroke just before the shift and then ease up as you make a move.
The derailleur will have an easier job shifting your chain from the big ring to the smaller rings if you loosen your grip on the chain.
Do More Gears On A Bike Result In A Bigger Difference Between Low And High Gear?
Bikes have anywhere between 1 and 27 gears. The most common numbers of gears are probably:
- 1 gear
- 3 gears
- 6 gears
- 7 gears
- 18 gears
- 21 gears
- 24 gears
- 27 gears
Certainly from 6-gears upwards, there will be a similar difference between the low and the high gear. The high gear will usually be somewhere in the region of 5 times faster than the low gear (give or take.)
Higher quantities of gears present more possibilities in the mid-range level of gears. But it has a pretty minimal impact on low and high.
Why do some people pick a Single Speed Bike?
No rule that says you must ride a bicycle that has gears; some individuals prefer to ride single-speed bicycles instead. These still have a gear, with the ratio established by the front chainring and the rear cog.
Commuters in relatively flat locations often prefer single-speed bikes because of their simplicity and low maintenance needs.
Some races utilize them (especially hill climbers) to save weight and simplify the shifting procedure, albeit in these situations, picking the right gear ratio is essential. (Source)