How to shift gears on a mountain bike

Learning how to shift gears on a mountain bike effectively is an essential skill for beginner mountain bikers to learn.

Shift the right way and you’ll find many things in mountain biking become a whole lot easier. Easier climbing, accelerating, slow tricky corners, getting over obstacles, keeping up with others, and the list goes on.

Sounds nice…

But as a beginner mountain biker it’s hard to get better at all those things if nobody teaches you how to shift gears.  Your first rides may be a case of just trying to keep up with your buddies.  No time to ask questions there.  You’re too busy puffing and pedaling!

Well the wait is over.  Here are…

The rules of gear shifting love

Follow these rules to develop good shifting habits that will enhance your riding style and efficiency in no time

  • never force the chain with your shift lever pressure, but rather think of shifting as ‘guiding’ and ‘allowing’ the chain to change place
  • whether changing to a harder gear to speed up or an easier gear to slow down, always keep pedaling during the shift, but back off your pedaling force just prior to every shift and until the shift completes
  • anticipate the trail conditions ahead of you and change to the right gears in advance.  This will help you maintain as much momentum as possible, increasing your riding efficiency and speed
  • for hill climbing in particular, make sure you change to the easier gears just before you think you need to.  This will help you keep as much momentum as possible and are back on that next gear with smooth pedal power at the right time. If you wait till you have to change gears it’s too late!
  • lubricate your drive train and gear shifter cables regularly with good quality mountain bike chain oil (easiest way to lubricate cables here)
  • always ride with a good chain line

Shifting gears like a real mountain biker

Often beginner mountain bikers use a pedaling speed which is too slow, say 55 – 60 revolutions per minute.  This slow RPM or cadence puts unnecessary strain on your knees and kills your momentum at the hills.  Slow pedaling also slows gear shifting by increasing the amount of time it takes for gear ramps and pins to help shift the chain.

Sure, we’re only talking the difference of seconds, but pedaling and hard produces shifting delays. And these delays ultimately affect the speed at which you think and act on the bike. So speed up that pedaling rhythm and not only will your gears shift faster, your confidence will improve and your decision-making on the bike will become faster too.

How fast should you pedal?

As a beginner mountain biker you should start pedaling all your rides at around 80 – 85 RPM (revolutions per minute).  This pedaling speed may feel too fast and slightly weird at first, but the pay-off will come.  Sure, you won’t be able to keep that RPM up the hills, but start on 80 – 85 RPM for general flowing trails.

Once you’re used to this faster pedaling cadence, increase it to 90 – 95 over the next several rides as your cardio-vascular fitness improves.  You’ll notice significant improvements in your gear shifting, momentum, hill climbing and general pedaling efficiency because of this higher cadence.  On top of that mountain biking will become much more enjoyable for you.  Smiles all round!

  Super Tip : Increasing your pedal revolutions (more RPM) doesn’t mean you need to go faster on the trail.  What it means is you need to change to the right gear that allows you to pedal faster (more RPM/ cadence) while keeping the same bike speed as before.

Do you really need to do all those things?

Yes you do need to do all those things.  It’s no secret to advanced mountain bikers that so much of what you do on the bike revolves around the rules of gear shifting love and shifting with purpose and precision.  If you make a commitment to learn these basics now, so much more mountain biking skill and efficiency will simply slip into place.

But relax!  It won’t take very long to get a lot better.   Shifting gears will soon become totally automatic.  You’ll know without thinking what gear you should be in and exactly which gear to shift to next.  And I bet you can’t wait for that day.  And to help you get to that day sooner, keep in mind…

Shifting isn’t just about timing

Shifting isn’t just about timing and knowing exactly when to change to an easier gear for the hill and stuff like that.  Shifting is about protecting your drivetrain – your chainrings, rear cogs, derailleurs and chain – by treating them well.

So look after your drivetrain. Follow the rules. Especially the last two:  Lubricate and ride with a good chain line.  Oiling your shifter cables, chain and derailleur linkages might sound like an obvious way to give your bike some love, but riding with a good chain line is very important, too.

In fact it’s so important that I’ve dedicated a whole new page to teaching how to ride with a good chain line.  Check it out here.

  Super TipMUST READ!!! 22 Gear Shifting Dos and Don’ts – How to Gear Shift Like a Pro

And keep this in mind

More often than not a broken, twisted or jammed bike chain is the result of poor gear selection and gear shifting skills.  You might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later your poor shifting skill and bad chain line habits will catch up with you and bust your chain and your fun ride to pieces.  So, please, follow the rules.  And on top of that…

Replace your bike chain often

(learn how to fix a broken chain fast here)

Most mountain bikers don’t replace their bike chain anywhere near as often as they should.  So when should you replace yours?

  • For an occasional mountain biker every 12 months
  • For a regular mountain biker every six months or sooner
  • For a high mileage rider every three months or sooner

This guide is for normal dry dust, dirt and occasional mud conditions, using a Shimano XT or XTR/Durace chain.

Replace your chain even sooner if you ride really muddy, sandy or dirty conditions!  And always lubricate your chain before each ride.

Why a Shimano chains and why so often?

  • Shimano XT and XTR chains have proven time and again that they have superior low wear and stretch rates
  • regular chain replacement ensures your cogs and rings will last longer
  • regularly fitting a high quality chain reduces compatibility problems

In general, low quality chains stretch and loosen far quicker, resulting in your cog and chainring teeth elongating and needing replacement sooner.

If your gear teeth elongate too much you’ll have all sorts of gear shifting and chain compatibility problems when you try to fit a new chain.  The spacing between the teeth will have changed so much that they won’t match up with your new chain’s link spacing.  When that happens the only fix is to replace the whole drivetrain.  Ouch!

On the other hand, replacing your chain often and keeping it clean and lubricated results in far less wear and elongation of your cog and chainring teeth.

Just think of the benefits

  • Your drivetrain will run smoother and shift gears better, for longer
  • Your rear cluster and chainrings need only be replaced half as often, or even up to a quarter as often.  We’re talking years, my friend.
  • When fitting your next chain in 3 months time, the new chain matches the old cog and ring teeth almost perfectly, because the old chain didn’t have time and mileage to stretch and elongate the gear teeth like crazy

Sure, you’ll be buying chains more often, but keep an eye out for mountain bike chains on sale and get them half price or less.  In the long run you’ll be saving by not having to buy new gear clusters, chainrings and derailleurs.

And on top of the saving, you’ll have far fewer chain hassles and enjoy better shifting.

So why not get a new chain today.  You’ll be so glad you did and your bike will love you for it!


Where to Next:

22 Gear Shifting Do’s and Don’ts You Need to Know
How to Ride with a Good Chain Line
How to Fit a New Bike Chain the Easy Way

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