How to Use Your Gears

Although single gear bikes and three-speed hubs have their place, most bikes sold today have multiple gears. The purpose of multiple gears is to allow you to ride efficiently, without having to resort to walking up any hills or wasting your energy when riding descents or tailwind sections.

  • Road bikes usually have two chainwheels and anything from seven to ten sprockets on the rear wheel giving from 14 to 20 gears.
  • Mountain bikes usually have more gears than their road counterparts. A mountain-bike’s range of gears is also wider, to provide some very low gears suitable for steep off-road climbs.
  • Touring bikes often have gears similar to mountain-bikes, to cope with long, luggage-laden days with relative ease.

Racing cyclists on the road tend to pedal at about 90-100 revolutions per minute, as this is most efficient in terms of aerobic capacity and power. Off-road or leisure cyclists usually pedal at a lower cadence, perhaps closer to 70-80 rpm; riding off-road or uphill will inevitably lower your cadence but aim to keep it above 60 rpm at all times. Using your gears enables you to maintain that cadence to use your energy most efficiently, allowing you to ride faster for longer. As you get fitter and more proficient you will find it much easier to achieve and maintain this seemingly high cadence for longer. Select your gears to suit your cadence, not the other way round.

Even with the advances in modern gear design, gears do not like changing under very large pedalling pressures at low cadences. So when changing gear, especially uphill, ease off the pedalling pressure just a little to help the chain move across the sprockets or from one chainwheel to the next. This does require some anticipation on steep hills. Front gear changers can be particularly reluctant to move the chain to the smaller chainwheel so select your chainwheel before your cadence drops too low (below about 60 rpm).

When approaching junctions or coming to a stop, drop down a couple of gears (onto a larger sprocket) so that you can move off comfortably with a lower gear when you need to.

Be aware that you may not be able to use all of your gears. Avoid using the extreme gears (big chainwheel and biggest sprocket, smallest chainwheel and smallest sprocket) as the chain may be either too taut or too slack to work efficiently or may even foul the mechanisms. Listen to your gears too. If you can hear the chain ‘tinkling’ or ‘crunching’ against other parts, you may need to tweak the shifters to help centre the mechanism, or perhaps some closer inspection and technical adjustment may be required.

When descending, especially if you are freewheeling, shift the chain onto the big chainwheel and a medium cog, to keep the chain tight and prevent it from bouncing off. This will also be a more appropriate gear for when you need to start pedalling again.

With so many gears to use, you can fine-tune your cadence to within about +/-5 rpm of your optimum at all times. This is particularly useful when you are climbing or trying hard (such as when racing).

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