When we were kids, we rode a fixed gear bike. We pedaled harder and slower to go uphill and to go downhill. Finally, we just coasted and let the terrain pull us along. And on the flats, we flew! We pedaled as fast and hard as our little feet would go.
Now that we have bikes with gears pedaling is much easier. But now we have another challenge – what gear should we use? And when? And what bike gear is the best to use on a flat road?
When riding on a flat road, choose the hardest gear that you can pedal at a comfortable cadence, or around 90 RPMs for the fastest speed possible. On the other hand, if you are riding with others, you may need to choose an easy gear to match their pace.
In this article, I’ll discuss in depth all the different factors that play into this simple question – what gear should you use on flat roads?
What Bike Gear to Use on Flat Road?
The simplest way to explain which gear to use on a flat road is simply to use the one that allows you to pedal comfortably.
For example, if you are riding on a flat road and it feels too hard to turn over the pedals, or your cadence is too low, then shift to an easier gear to allow you to pedal fast and more easily.
On the other hand, if you find you are spinning too fast and the bike isn’t traveling very far, you may want to shift into a harder gear to give more resistance to your legs and a higher speed to your bike.
If you’re feeling extra tired, you might choose an easier gear. If you need to go faster, you might choose a slightly harder gear. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the gear and gear ratio that works best for you.
Note – that if you want to build muscles, you might want to select a hard gear that makes you really work.
Low Gears, Middle Gears, High Gears
There are three types of gear; low gear, middle gear, and high gear.
For riding on flat roads, it is recommended to use the middle gear. It is a common choice among bikers as it helps you reduce pressure from your feet onto the pedals.
Many recent models of electric bikes contain built-in automatic gears that can change according to your terrain and situations automatically without any assistance from the rider.
Ideal Gear Ratio for Flat Roads
While choosing the right gear ratio, it is important to consider a few factors including leg strength, personal preference, the elevation of the terrain, etc.
If your daily terrain is mostly hilly areas then using a low gear ratio will result in your legs moving at a very high speed, which can cause accidents.
But if the ratio is too high then you’ll want to push your bike while going up a hill because it will be too hard to pedal.
For flat roads and surfaces, the ideal gear ratio is 2.6 to 3.0 (Source).
With a cadence of 90 RMP, the lower value of this range will allow you to ride 30 km/h and with the upper range, you can go up to 34 km/h.
However, if you are a beginner and starting with a fixed gear or single-speed then the gear ratio of 2.7-2.8 will be perfect for you.
You can get your gear ratio changed later after riding your bike for some time. This will allow you to figure out whether you need a high gear ratio or a lower one.
Are Gear Ratios Same for Everyone?
Gear ratios are different for every biker as they are based on their preferences.
The gear ratio that you opt for is a personal inclination.
If you are a beginner, then you can take advice from someone more experienced, when choosing the right ratio.
One thing to remember here is that your gear ratio and preference will change with time and the development of your muscle mass.
Why Your Bike Has Gears
Your bike has gears to help you maintain a steady and comfortable cadence no matter what the terrain.
For most people, the most comfortable and efficient cadence is around 90 RPMs.
However, this is very individualized, and some cyclists find that a slightly faster or slightly slower cadence is more comfortable.
When you ride uphill, you’ll shift to an easier gear to be able to keep your legs spinning when the terrain gets harder. Your speed will be slower, but it will still be easier to pedal uphill.
When you fly downhill, you’ll shift to hard gear so that you can continue to pedal when it’s easy. Your speed will be faster.
Riding on the flats, though, is a different story. Of course, you want to keep that nice and comfortable cadence, but what gear should you use?
What Kinds of Gears Do Bikes Have?
On a typical road bike, you will have a variety of gears that you can use.
For example, your bike may be referred to as an 8, 10, or 11 speed. But your bike actually has many more gears than that!
Attached to your pedal, you’ll find 2 or 3 chainrings. These are the gears that make the big changes when you shift, and in the United States, you’ll find the shifters for these on the left-hand side of your handlebars.
On the back wheel, you’ll find the cassette, a group of 8 to 11 cogs, where the words eight-speed or 11 speed come from.
The cassette in the back is for fine-tuning your cadence so you can keep it exactly where you like it. You’ll shift the cassette in the back with the shifters on the right-hand side of the handlebars.
Here’s where it can seem a little bit tricky.
The small chainring in the front is easier and the large chainring in the front is harder. But in the back, the smaller cogs make it harder to pedal, and the larger cogs make it easier.
So for the sake of argument, using the smallest chainring in front and the largest cog in the back gives you the easiest gear you have.
You’ll spin the pedals faster and easier, but the bike won’t move as far for each pedal stroke.
On the other hand, using the large chainring in the front with the smallest cog in the back would be the hardest gear to pedal, but each pedal stroke would push the bike further.
Examples of Bike Gears
For example, riding up a very steep hill will make the pedals harder to turn over.
You’ll want to use the smallest chainring in the front and a larger cog in the back. You’ll go at a much slower speed, but this will enable you to spin your pedals faster.
On the other hand, you’ll put your bike in the large chainring in the front and a smaller cog in the back when you are going downhill. Otherwise, it will be too easy to pedal, and you’ll just end up coasting.
On the flats, you will likely choose something in the middle. You’ll most likely use the larger chainring in the front and a middle cog in the back.
This will give you easy gear to pedal while maintaining a comfortable cadence and good speed.
Specific Bike Gears
The chainrings in front are known as cranksets.
It’s pretty standard for a road bike to have a 50/34 crankset. So the large chainring in the front will have 50 teeth, while the smaller one only has 34.
Remember, the smaller chainring in the front is the easier gear to pedal.
The cassette in the back has a variety of cogs. The smallest cog may have 11 teeth, while the largest has 28. This gives you an 11-28 cassette.
My Canyon Ultimate has a 50/34 crankset and an 11/32 cassette.
If you don’t know your crankset and cassettes, you can count the number of teeth on each one.
How Do Gear Ratios Work?
When you pedal your bike, each turn of the crank spins the back wheel. The gear ratio is just a fancy way of explaining how many times the back wheel spins for each turn of the pedals.
If you divide the number of teeth on the chainring your using by the number of teeth on the rear cog that you are using, you’ll get your gear ratio.
For example, if you were to use the 34 tooth chainring with the 34 tooth cog, you’ll get a 1.0 ratio. This means your wheel will turn one time for every one turn of the crank.
A smaller number means it’s easier to spin the pedals, but your bike won’t travel as far because the wheel won’t go around as many times.
On the other hand, a higher number means it will be harder to turn the crank, but you’ll travel further with each turn of the crank.
Why Do Gear Ratios Matter?
On my fixed gear bike, I only have one gear. The chainring is a 44, while the cog in the back is a 17. This makes my gear ratio about 2.44, which at a cadence of 90, should give me a speed of about 18 mph on a flat road.
But if I were to trade in that cog for a 20t to make it easier to pedal, I would only go around 15.5 mph, which is a gear ratio of 2.2.
So even a slightly lower gear ratio makes a big difference. It will be easier to pedal, but you’ll end up riding much slower.
On a standard road bike, you aren’t stuck with just one gear. You can adjust the gear ratio as your terrain varies.
On the hills, you want to use your smaller chainring with a larger cog, so perhaps you’ll be using a 34 in the front and a 32 in the back, which gives you a ratio of 1.06.
For every turn of the pedals, your wheel will spin 1.06 times. This is pretty easy to pedal uphill, but your speed will be slow.
If you’re heading downhill, you’ll want to use the big chainring in the front and a smaller cog in the back, perhaps a 50/11.
This gives you a gear ratio of 4.55, which is much harder. You’ll have more resistance turning over the cranks, but your bike will travel further.
So if you are traveling on flat roads, which gear ratio should you use? You’ll want something in the middle, from a 2.5 to a 3.5.
Using your 50t chainring with an 18t cog will give you a 2.78. So if your cadence is around 90 RPMs, this gear will put you at about 19.5 mph.
Best Gear for High Speed on Flats
If you want to go fast, you’ll need to use the big chainring in the front and a middle cog in the back.
If it’s too hard to turn over the pedals, you’ll need to shift to an easier cog. You can switch to a harder cog if it is too easy to turn over the pedals and you aren’t going fast enough.
Best Gear for a Hard Workout
If you aren’t concerned about speed but want to make your muscles work harder, you could use your large chainring and larger cogs.
This combination will make it harder to turn the pedals over and really work your muscles. However, it isn’t an efficient use of gearing to gain speed.
Best Gear for Recovery Rides
If you are going to do a slower ride or a recovery ride, you’ll want to pick an easy gear.
Use the small chainring in front and a larger cog in the back so that you resist the temptation to push hard. You’ll move at a slower speed, but there will be much less resistance on your legs and less stress on your cardiovascular system, as well.
Best Gear for a Mountain Bike
If you are riding a mountain bike on flat roads, you’ll have slightly different options.
The principles are the same, however. Choose the gears that give you the most speed at a comfortable 90 RPMs. Keep in mind that mountain bikes tend to have more ‘easy’ gears and less hard gears because they need to go uphill a lot.
Best Gear for a Gravel or Cyclocross Bike
The trend in gearing for gravel and cyclocross bikes is to use a 1x setup.
This type of gearing means the bikes only have one chainring in the front and a wider-spaced set of cogs in the back. For example, my Liv Brava has a 40 tooth chainring and an 11-34 cassette.
So the easiest gear would have a gear ratio of 1.17, while the hardest has a ratio of 3.6. So if I were going to ride it on a flat road, I would choose something around 40/13.
The trouble with 1x setups is that you can’t always finetune your cadence, so you may have to spin extra fast or a little bit slow to keep up with the people around you.
A Note About Crosschaining
Die-hard roadies might gasp in disgust if they see you crosschaining.
And while it isn’t the worst thing in the world, it is better for your bike to avoid it.
Crosschaining is when you use the big chainring in the front with the largest cog in the back or the smallest chainring in the front with the smallest cog in the back.
Using this type of gearing puts unnecessary tension and stress on your chain by stretching it diagonally. This makes your drivetrain less efficient in the short run and can cause extra wear and tear over time.
Crosschaining is typically unnecessary because those gears are duplicated in the other chainring, so choose the option which puts less tension on the chain.
There is no hard and fast rule, but to summarize – the gear you should choose for a flat road is one that helps you travel comfortably at an optimum speed for your level of fitness and to achieve a cadence of about 90 RPM.
Good luck with that flat road cycling, and putting these tips into action.