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Cycling for Beginners: Mountain Bike Gears Explained

Words by Anthony Hood on 20/03/2022 16:00:00


Mountain biking is an exhilarating sport which can help you improve your fitness and reconnect with nature. Having a mountain bike also means that you can explore some of the roughest and most spectacular landscapes while having plenty of thrills – but hopefully not many spills – at the same time.

However, if you’re brand new to the world of mountain biking, you may be wondering how to make the most of your cutting-edge ride.

One of the most important things you need to be aware of is how mountain bike gears work, as knowing how to use gears on a mountain bike correctly will help you as you encounter different types of terrain and different gradients.

However, if you’re a little unsure and you need mountain bike gears explained in simple terms, you’re in the right place. Read on for our in-depth guide on how to use gears on a mountain bike to maximise your ride’s potential, wherever you are.  

Why do mountain bikes have gears?

Before we explain exactly how to go about using the gears on your bike, it’s important to understand why these bikes have gears in the first place.

As you may have guessed, the purpose of mountain bike gears is to help you and your bike cope more effectively with different kinds of terrain. This is particularly important with mountain bikes, as they are used in so many different locations. As a result, they are likely to encounter a wide variety of ground types – from loose gravel to hard-packed sand, scrubby hillsides or bumpy forest tracks.

Being able to shift gears depending on the terrain and the gradient will help both you and your bike have an easier ride and will boost your efficiency as you cycle along.

How many gears should a mountain bike have?

Because there are quite a few different makes of mountain bike, the precise number of gears a bike can have will vary. However, the majority of mountain bikes have anywhere between 7 and 28 gears, with adult bikes generally having more gears than mountain bikes designed for kids. Some custom-made bikes can have even more gears – up to 40 or more. It all depends on your particular mount.

Many experienced mountain bikers prefer to have a larger number of gears. However, if you’re just starting out, having a bike with dozens of gears can make things a little complicated, and even seem somewhat daunting as you try to familiarise yourself with the different gears and how they work. So when choosing your first mountain bike, it may be simpler to choose a single speed bike or a model with a lower number of gears.

What do low gears and high gears do?

When it comes to the difference between lower and higher gears, it helps to think of your low gears as the “easy” ones. In other words, these gears will help to make cycling much more fluid and less strenuous when you’re hitting a steep slope. This is because lower gears cause less resistance when you’re pedalling, which helps to save your energy as you push your way up a hill.

Higher gears, on the other hand, are designed to help you and your bike go downhill. They are also handy when your bike is travelling on loose, unstable ground, such as dirt or gravel, or if you are riding fast on flat terrain.

How do you change gears on a mountain bike?

Learning how to shift between gears at the right time is a skill which you will pick up with practice. This is why choosing a single speed bike is recommended for beginner mountain bikers, as it makes changing gears much quicker and easier.

However, if you do want a few gears on your bike, go for one with one chain ring on the front and several cogs on the cassette in the back – for example, bikes with 1x11 gear options.

When it comes to the actual technique of shifting gears, here’s how you do it:

1. First things first, slow your pedalling down so you can focus on the gear shifters.

2. To make a single gear change, press your shifter just once.

3. Keep pedalling in a regular rhythm until the transition has been completed. Don’t worry if you hear a little noise or feel a click as the chain shifts to the next gear.

Many bikes have a left shifter and a right shifter, with the left one being used to control the chainrings on the front of the bike and the right shifter controlling the chainrings on the rear of the bike. If you need to make a big gear change, use the left shifter and for smaller jumps in gear, use the right shifter. Here a few more helpful tips to bear in mind:

1.   Try to change gears in good time, before the new gear is actually needed. Don’t shift gears while straining uphill, change them before you reach the incline!

2.    Don’t shift front and rear gears simultaneously unless you have a single chainring on the front.

3.    Avoid cross chaining if you have a bike with more than one chainring.

How do you maintain your mountain bike’s gears?

Mountain bike gears experience a lot of wear and tear, and regularly become spattered with dirt, mud and gravel. As a result, they need to be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis, to make sure they keep functioning at their optimum level.

To clean your gears and chain, fill a bucket with hot soapy water and use a brush to clean away the mud and gunk. Once you’ve removed all of the dirt, adding a some lubricant is also a good idea, to keep both the gears and bike chain functioning smoothly. And there you have it – squeaky clean gears!

Find the perfect mountain bike for you

Now you know how mountain bike gears work, it’s time to choose the ideal bike to start your off-road adventures. Here at Switchback Cycles, we have an impressive variety of men’s and women’s mountain bikes, as well as plenty of parts, tools and bike cleaning products to help you keep your ride in tip-top condition!