You know all about how to shift gears, and you probably do it well if you’ve been practicing, but it doesn’t hurt to learn the finer details of being in the right gear at the right time.

It’s one of those little things that can make a big difference over the course of a long ride or race.

The examples listed below give you a situation and what gear combination is best…

The Time: A flat road

The Gear: You should be in a medium to large gear; big enough that you can go fast, but still something you can pedal at a comfortable cadence. In a race, this would mean your big ring and a medium cog. Then just shift to a slightly smaller or larger cog on the rear, depending on how fast you want to go.

The Time: A long, gradual climb (road)

The Gear: Start out in a medium gear, slightly lower than when you were on the flat road. During a training ride or slow part of a race, you will probably be in your small ring and a smaller cog. This will allow you to conserve energy and quickly shift to a lower gear if you start to get tired (e.g. your cadence drops off.) If it’s a race where the pace is high or there are likely to be important attacks you must counter, stay in the big ring and use the big cogs. You don’t want a gap to open up if someone attacks and you’re stuck spinning in the small ring.

The Time: A long, steep climb (road)

The Gear: If the hill is steep, get in a small gear (small ring and a medium/large cog) that you know for sure is small enough for the climb. Make sure you shift to the small ring before you’re climbing – you don’t want to wait too long and have to downshift while applying lots of pressure to the pedals. (Soft pedaling while shifting is much harder on a steep climb compared to a gradual one.) Once comfortable, you can shift up to a higher gear using the rear derailleur, if necessary.

The Time: A switchback climb (road)

The Gear: This is a common scenario in the real mountains, and it’s the toughest situation for shifting. You’re going to be faced with big variations in steepness. So you need to be in a low gear for the steep switchbacks and a moderate gear for the flatter portions. If you’re a natural climber, you could stay in the same gear but stand for the switchbacks. If you prefer to stay seated, consider staying in the middle cog and shift the front derailleur at each switchback.

The Time: Before you attack (road)

The Gear: If you’re coming up on a sprint finish, or planning an attack, the most important thing to do is get into your big ring well in advance. If anyone is expecting an attack, and they hear your front derailleur, your cover is blown! So get in your big ring and use a bigger cog, maintaining a high cadence, until the moment is right. After you make your move, you can shift as much as you want to get up to speed.

The Time: A technical climb (MTB)

The Gear: Choose a moderate gear, something bigger than you’d use for a smooth climb of similar steepness. I like my middle chainring and a bigger cog. Why not the small ring? You need a fairly large gear so you can use leverage to power over the obstacles in your way. With a small gear, you’ll spin out the rear tire at some point, lose all your momentum, and end up walking the entire rest of the hill. That’s even less fun than having your quads burn from pushing the bigger gear!

The Time: A rocky downhill (MTB)

The Gear: This is a tough situation. You should be in a pretty big gear so you can use power and leverage to overcome obstacles. But you don’t want to be in too big a gear, in case an obstacle requires a significant speed reduction. Ideally, you can be in the big ring and a middle cog. The big ring is key because it keeps tension on the chain while the bike bounces over rocks. (Just be careful – if your chain is angled too much between the big ring and a big cog, it will likely fall off the rings!) Basically, use the biggest gear you can handle, while keeping a straight chainline.

The Time: A choppy dirt road, like rutted bulldozer tracks (MTB)

The Gear: This is the time to sit down and settle in, pushing a big gear at a slow cadence. Pushing the big gear puts more weight on your feet, so even if you stay seated (good luck pedaling on this terrain while standing,) it takes some pressure off your saddle… so your sensitive parts aren’t getting rattled around and bounced up and down from the ruts!


Note: Exact gear choice will depend on your personal set up. For example, your crankset – a triple chainring vs standard double vs compact double. Same with your cassette – 11-21 vs 12-26 vs 11-34 cog ranges. For mountain bikes, a hardtail vs full suspension will also be different. Practice until you get it right!


Any more situations you’d like me to add? Just chime in in the comment section below!

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