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For those who are new to biking, knowing how to shift gears on a mountain bike can be a challenge when also dealing with rough and unfamiliar terrain. For those who are more experienced, a quick review of gear changes and shifters can improve your performance during your ride and increase your enjoyment of your surroundings.
Our guide will explain how to shift gears on a mountain bike and also offer greater detail on how shifters and gears work. When you understand more about how the parts of your bike work, you are in a better position to use them wisely and troubleshoot them when needed.
What Is A Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes are generally characterized by their light frames that are sturdy enough for rougher terrain. These bikes also tend to have tires with more broad and deep treads than street bikes but also feature multiple gears.
Initially, the mountain bike was designed for riding on mountainous areas, but these bikes are commonly used now for different kinds of rural terrain. Many mountain bikers follow established bike paths that run through forests, over small mountains, and across rock filled areas.
In general, a mountain bike is much less likely to be damaged while riding over this kind of terrain than a street bike and the bike frames come outfitted with more robust suspension. The gears and shifters on a mountain bike are somewhat similar to what you’d find on a street bike, but other components will be vastly different and better suited to handle rougher terrain.
About Mountain Bike Gears And Shifters
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Before you head out for your next ride, you’ll want to inspect your gears, shifters, and other parts of your drivetrain to make sure they are in good condition. While you are looking, wipe away any debris such as mud, grass, or old grease, and scrutinize the metal components.
It can be challenging to imagine what all of the drivetrain components do when you use your hands to move the shifters on your handlebars, but if you can consciously think about these mechanisms you could very well improve your ability to shift at the right times.
Different bikes will have various brands of gears and shifters so don’t be surprised if your bike parts look different than some of the others that you’ve seen. Many different manufacturers provide guidance on their websites for how to maintain these parts but understanding how they work is also very important.
The drive train consists of multiple pieces including these parts:
- Front chainrings (also called the crankset)
- Rear cassette
All of these parts come together to form what is collectively called the drivetrain, but some definitions vary and only include the chain, crankset, rear cassette, and derailleurs. Bikes tend to have at least one and up to three cranksets, and bikes that have two cranksets are conventionally called “doubles.”
The cassette is an easily identified part of the bike as it is the series of differently sized cogs that are on the side of the center of the rear bike wheel. This part is typically on the right side of the wheel, and each cog features teeth that allow the chain to connect.
The bike chain is probably the most well-known part of a bike, and it connects the various parts of the drivetrain and powers the bike forward when you pedal by engaging the chainrings, and cassette. Bike chains should be inspected regularly to look for debris, signs of rust, and the need for lubrication.
Derailleurs connect to your shifters and are located near the cassette typically. Some bikes will have front and rear derailleurs, and when you move the shifter, the derailleur adjusts the chain accordingly to the specified gear. Some wires run between the shifters and the derailleurs, and one shifter can connect to one derailleur via this wire.
Alternative Bike Drivetrains
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Some bike drivetrains will feature different parts that are selected to help improve performance or riding enjoyment. Electronic shifters are a great example of a drivetrain upgrade as they allow the rider to shift using a clicking motion instead of moving a lever.
Batteries power electric shifters and use electronic wires to tell the derailleurs how to adjust for different gears. This system won’t work without a power source, but it’s far less likely to shift the chain incorrectly and offers higher precision during gear shifts.
An electronic shifter can be an ideal solution for those who have weak hands, and riders can shift whenever they please. Another component that helps with shifting is an internal gear hub which replaces the derailleurs and contains the mechanisms that change the chain inside of a hub at the rear wheel.
This type of gear hub is an advantage because it keeps out debris, dirt, water, and other grime that would otherwise gunk up the parts and need to be cleaned. This protection also helps reduce the amount of required maintenance in general but does place limitations on the number of gears available.
There are a select few bikes that use what is called a belt drive. The belt drive is a belt typically made from carbon fiber or urethane and replaces the chain on a bike. Using a belt is preferred as it is cleaner, quieter, and stronger than a chain while also requiring less maintenance overall.
Shifters On Mountain Bikes
There are generally two kinds of shifters that are found on mountain bikes, and they are grip shifters and thumb shifters. Grip shifters are located near the index finger on the handlebar and allow the rider to switch gears by twisting this part up or down.
The other kind of shifter is called a thumb shifter which is a lever that is located near the handlebar on each side. The rider pushes these levers using their thumb and one hand moves the gears up while the other moves them down.
Handy Tips For Shifting Gears
Knowing how to shift gears on a mountain bike is partially something you learn by feel and partly something you pick up by understanding how the bike parts work together. When you go out on your next ride, consider using some of these handy tips to see if you can improve your trip through more efficient shifting.
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The first thing you should do when you start mountain biking is riding around and experiencing different terrains and how it feels to pedal each one. You’ll want to stick to relatively easy ground, to begin with, but getting comfortable on your bike will allow you to later focus solely on improving your ability to shift without trying to also settle into a new bike.
Once you are comfortable, you can start experimenting with different gears and see what each one feels like on various kinds of terrain. When riding up an incline or into the wind, experiment with bigger rear cogs and smaller or medium-sized chainrings.
Find Your Rhythm
Once you’ve settled into your new bike, you’ll want to find a rhythm for how you ride and how hard you want to pedal as you move over different areas. If you put your bike in the wrong gear, it can be challenging to pedal which can zap the energy out of your legs and make your ride significantly less enjoyable.
When going uphill or over flat terrain, test out a few gears and find the best cadence for your pedaling. Pushing hard when you pedal might seem like a good idea and might make you think you are moving faster, but it likely will just make you tired and potentially damage your knees.
When you find a gear that feels comfortable on the type of terrain you are on at that moment, you’ll want to shift your gears so that you can stay in that comfort zone for as much of your ride as possible. Keep in mind that on more technical terrain this feeling of comfort may be challenged as you shift more often.
Use The Right Technique
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To avoid improper shifting, you’ll want to try and adjust where the chain attaches to the rear cassette cogs and the front chainrings, but you don’t want to make these adjustments at the same time. To prevent this mistake, you’ll want to stick to using one shifter mechanism at a time and giving the components a second or two to finish the shift.
You’ll want to be looking ahead and reading the terrain while also getting ready to shift at the most opportune moment. You don’t want to be halfway up a hill trying to switch gears as a beginner and avoid waiting to shift until you’ve just about stopped because you can’t pedal any harder.
It’s also worth reading up about how to avoid “cross chaining” which involves stretching the chain between opposite extremes on your cogs and cassette at the same time. Not only is cross chaining very inefficient, but it also makes it much more likely that you’re going to drop or break the chain on your bike.
Read The Terrain By How It Feels
When riding pay attention to how the terrain feels as you shift and try to make it so that pedaling feels easier as often as possible. If you are putting maximum pressure on your pedals and not getting anywhere, you are very likely using the wrong gears and making life harder for yourself.
It’s also not a good idea to let your pedals spin without any resistance, and you’ll want to find a happy medium between free spinning and total lock up as you pedal. Depending on the terrain, your strength, and how technical your path is you may decide to shift gears in different ways during various rides.
Don’t Shift When Under Load
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The quickest way to drop your chain is to try and shift while pedaling or applying a heavy load to the chain. This action can cause the chain to skip the teeth on the cogs or otherwise not line up correctly and separate from the mechanisms. When this happens, your only option is to get off your bike and put the chain back in place.
Cross-chaining can also cause you to drop a chain and the extreme angle that the chain is under during this time can also cause stress to the components and may even cause breaks. Cross chaining also limits the options you have for shifting gears at that point should you need to shift again.
Cross chaining may also make a noise similar to a grating or metal on metal type sound, so you’ll likely know when you’ve cross chained. To avoid this, it’s a good idea to get familiar with how the shifters and other parts on your bike work, and experiment with shifting on less challenging terrain when getting started.