Friday, January 14, 2011

Mountain Bike Shifting Techniques For Beginners

One of the very first skills that you need to master as a beginning mountain biker is how to shift the drive train of your bicycle properly.

This short article will explain the basics of mountain bike gearing, and several crucial shifting strategies for you to implement.

Explaining the Gears
The front gears on a bicycle are called "chain rings." They are numbered from the inside to the outside. Until recently, almost all bikes had 3 chain rings, but now some have two and some only have one. We'll consider just a bike with 3 chain rings in this post.

The back gears on a bicycle are called "cogs," and are also numbered from the inside out. The number of cogs varies from bicycle to bicycle, but we'll just talk about a bike with 9 cogs.

As you'll notice, the chain rings are smaller on the inside and larger on the outside, and the cogs are larger on the inside and smaller on the outside. Don't be confused by this, because the closer the chain ring or cog is to the inside, the easier it is to pedal. I'll refer to this as a "lower gear." 

Shifting Strategies
In short, you want to use lower gears for going up the hills, and larger gears for going down the hills. This helps you to maintain momentum. 

As you are riding along, make sure that you shift early. Down shift before you start climbing a hill, because once you are on it and your chain is taught and under power, it won't want to budge from the gear that it is already in. Shifting the chain rings is almost impossible when your bike is under power, but if the hill isn't too steep you may be able to shift the back cogs. Don't count on it, though.  In order to insure that you shift preemptively, make sure that you focus on looking down the trail.

When you are approaching a downhill, shift up to keep your pedal cadence even and to maintain your momentum. Also, when descending rough singletrack on a hardtail (or even on a full-suspension bike), to keep your chain from bouncing off of the gears consider "stretching" the chain as much as prudent by using a bigger chain ring/cog combination than you might normally.

But whatever you do, make sure that you do not cross chain! That is, do not use the smallest chain ring with the smallest cogs in back or the largest chain ring with the largest cogs. This stretches the chain sideways too much and could cause it to "suck," and get stuck. As a general rule, use chain ring #1 only with cogs #1-5, chain ring #2 can usually be used with all of the cogs, and chain ring #3 with cogs #5-9.

Get Out and Practice!
With these few basic tips, you should be shifting like a champ in no time! Now all you need to do is get out on the trails and practice!

Your Turn: If you're an experienced mountain biker, what other tips would you like to add to this list? If you're a beginner, do you have any other shifting questions that you would like answered?

Want to learn more skills? Read the rest of the series!


eastwood,  January 16, 2011 at 4:15 PM  

This is a great explanation for beginners. My only addition would be don't be afraid to use your lower gears. Don't try to mash through everything, learning to spin and keep a good cadence up is important to riding. Don't think you have to be superman and stomp up the hill.

Greg Heil January 16, 2011 at 7:11 PM  

Great advice eastwood, thanks for adding that!

Unknown June 29, 2014 at 4:35 PM  

so im a newb should i always shift my chainring first and then shift the cog

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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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