Do you know when to shift gears?
I hear people all the time shifting at the wrong time. It’s a skill that you definitely have to acquire and it comes with much practice and experience. But once you are able to shift gears smoothly and at the right time, you will see a dramatic improvement in your riding ability both for mountain biking and for road riding.
So let’s start with a basic look at the parts involved so that you can follow along as I talk about each piece.
What are the critical parts used when shifting gears?
I am glazing over the shifting triggers on your handlebars – you probably know what those are and how they function. If you don’t, here is a video explaining more about how they should work. The other parts that we want to look at are:
- The Chain
- The Chainring and Cranks
- The Cassette
- The Derailleurs – Most likely you have both a front and a rear derailleur
How do you know when you’ve shifted wrong?
Most of the time this happens when shifting from a hard gear into an easier gear, but it can happen the other way as well. As you shift gears, you lose the tension between your chain and the teeth of your chainring or cassette. The pop occurs when your chain abruptly re-aligns itself on the teeth and regains tension.
Your goal when shifting is to make the shift occur silently. The quieter you can make your shifting the better. This will help extend the life of your chain, the chainring and your rear cassette as well as saving you some energy used in the process. This also has the added bonus when racing of not alerting your competition when you shift into a new gear to make an attack.
To shift silently, you want to match the speed of your pedaling with the speed the chain is moving. To do this, briefly ease up on the tension you are applying to the chain as you pedal by pausing your pedaling or just slowing it down. When you flick your thumb paddle or trigger shifter to change gears, your feet should immediately be slowing or speeding up to match that new tension. Again, this takes plenty of practice, but by paying attention to it as you shift you will have the hang of it in no time.
When To Shift Gears
Now that you have a basic understanding of how to shift the gears on your bicycle properly, let’s talk about when to shift them.
There are 2 basic times that you will just about always want to shift.
- Climbing: To make the pedaling easier, you will shift to an easier or lighter gear. These are the bigger cogs on the rear derailleur, but the smaller cog on the front derailleur.
- Descending: To make the pedaling harder or to increase speed, you will shift to a harder gear. These are the smaller cogs on the rear derailleur, but the bigger cog on the front derailleur.
In a perfect world, everything would be flat and you could stay in the same gear the entire time. But everything is not flat and climbing or descending hills requires you to change gears to adjust effort levels or speeds.
Climbing Hills – Choose a small gear
When you are climbing a hill, you will want to shift into an easier gear. Pick a gear that is easy enough that you can maintain a high and fast cadence, but still gives you enough resistance so that your feet aren’t just spinning on the pedals. Be sure that you are shifting into this easier gear before you get to the hill. If you absolutely have to shift during the hill, you need to ease off the pedals for a moment while you wait for the chain to re-align. Once you crest the top of the hill, go ahead and shift up to a harder gear to help keep your speed and prepare you to go downhill. This is when you may want to move your chain into the small chainring with your front derailleur.
Remember that while climbing a hill is when most mis-shifting occurs and you will hear your chain popping.
Descending Hills – Choose a large gear
Descending hills is the easy part and the much easier to shift through. You will still want to focus on choosing a gear that lets you maintain a comfortable cadence, but when going downhill it is ok to slow your cadence a little in order to push a harder gear. Depending on how long the hill is, you will probably either stay or move up to the big chainring with the front derailleur.
Things to absolutely avoid:
- Shifting midway through a climb, unless you really have to. If you can maintain a comfortable cadence going up the hill then stay in the same gear and climb it out. Hills are tough and you will be huffing and puffing no matter what gear you use. If your pedaling speed slows down too much then you are probably going to stall during the climb and when you try to shift you won’t be able to match the speed with your feet fast enough. It is best to keep a strong steady momentum and cadence while climbing a hill.
- Using the small front chainring with the small rear cog of the cassette, or vice versa – using the big front chainring with the big rear cog of the cassette. This is called cross chaining and will wreck your derailleurs and chain if you do this frequently. It will also cause you to spend far more time in the shop having your shifting re-aligned.
Next time you head out for a ride, remember to keep your shifting in mind. Do your best to shift gears smoothly and keep them silent. Keeping this in mind will help you become a better rider and make your bike’s components last longer. If you have any questions, stop by the Texas Mountain Bike Trails Facebook Page or leave a comment below. I answer every question and comment. Ride safe and ride often!
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