Road Cycling Skills

Technique: How to Use Your Gears Efficiently

We teach you how to get the best out of your gears

Tired of unpleasant ‘clunks’ at the wrong moment, and struggling when you don’t need to? Learning how to use your gears efficiently could make all the difference to your cycling. 

Being able to cruise through the cogs and find the perfect gear for your terrain will make you faster, more efficient – and it’ll make the ride more enjoyable too. Not only that, it’ll help ensure your chain lasts longer, too.

This is the definitive guide to efficient shifting that will save you time and mean your chain stays in good condition. We’ve got a few more articles on the topic that you might also like: 

How to Use Your Gears: beginner basics

Learning how to use your gears will mean you can set off in the right one – this rider will struggle to move off in that big gear!

Many beginners underuse their gears, plugging away in a high gear (big cog at the front, small cog at the back), expending lots of energy, churning the pedals at a low speed. Others find themselves pedalling furiously not getting very far, as they are in too low a gear (small cog at the front, large at the rear).

The key on how to use your bicycle gears efficiently is to start by finding the right gear. This means you can keep a steady rate of pedalling, or cadence, without feeling like you are pushing too hard or too gently through the pedals.

How to Use Your Gears: which lever changes which bike gear?

Learning how to use your gears means knowing which shifter does what

Which shifter does what, then?

Left-hand shifter/lever: controls the front derailleur, which guides the chain over the chainrings near your pedals – providing large jumps in gears. On the front, the bigger the chainring, the more resistance you get. 

Right-hand shifter/lever: controls the rear derailleur, which guides your chain over the back cogs – where you fine-tune your gearing. On the back, the bigger the cassette cog, the less resistance you get.

The best way to get to grips with this is to experiment, ideally somewhere quiet rather than out on the busy roads.

Tips for Your First Road Ride with Chris Boardman

Beginner Road Cyclist 101: TWC Catalogue of Advice to get you Started

How to Use Your Gears: what gears should I use?

Your bike will ‘work’ in any combination of front and rear gear – but using the right combinations will feel beautifully smooth.

Here are three good gear choices to use. Using these combinations will make for smooth gear changes.

Low Gear

This is a great gear for climbing. Switch down to this gear combination as you approach the climb. You’ll be able to climb the hill slowly and steadily with less effort.

Front gear = Small chainring

Back gear = The largest sprockets (e.g. 1-3)

Middle Gear

This is a great gear for everyday terrain when you’re cruising along on a flat road or on undulating terrain. You want some resistance, but not too much. If the road goes up and down a bit, you’ll probably flick between the rear gears to cater for changes.

Front gear = Small chainring on double/compact or middle chainring on a triple

Back gear = The middle sprockets (e.g. 3­-6)

High Gear

This one is great for descending, accelerating, or for use when you want to go nice and fast on a flat road. In a high gear, you travel a long way for each turn of the pedal.

Front gear = Big chainring

Back gear = Smallest sprockets (e.g. 4-7)

How to use your gears: which gears should I avoid?

Some combinations are best avoided. They will feel clunky, could cause your chain to slip, and will certainly cause it to wear.

Avoid these combinations…

Chain Crossing – large chainring

This is called ‘crossing the chain’ – using the large chainring (most resistance) at the front and the large (least resistance) cog at the back.

It may cause your chain to slip, not shift properly, and will stretch and damage the bike chain over time.

Front gear = biggest chainring,
Back gear = biggest sprocket

Instead of using these, shift into a smaller chainring and add resistance with a smaller cog.

Chain Crossing – small chainring

This is another example of chain crossing – at the other extreme. The chain is in the small chainring (least resistance) and smallest cassette cog (most resistance).

The also may cause your chain to slip, not shift properly, and will stretch and damage the bike chain over time.

Front gear = smallest chainring
Back gear = smallest sprocket

Here, the rider should shift into a larger chainring and use the gears around the middle of the cassette.

Cadence and efficiency when changing gear on a bike

Using the right gear will make everything so much easier

Thinking about your cadence, the rate at which you are pedalling at, can help you to answer the question – ‘am I in the right gear?’ Try experimenting with different gears on climbs, descents and even on the flat, as it will help your cycling efficiency.

Using a high gear that causes your muscles to scream means you use ‘fast twitch muscle fibres’. These will get you where you want to go quickly, but consume more glycogen and cause fatigue. They’re great for short, sharp efforts. Using a low gear using ‘slow twitch muscle fibres’. These are best used for endurance and if you stick to this low gear, high cadence approach you’ll be able to ride for longer. So put simply: if you want a short fast ride that will make you fatigued quickly but increase your ‘power’, use higher gears. If you’re out all day, be conservative and twiddle lower gears.

For each ride, imagine you have £10 (a limited amount of energy) in your pocket to “spend”. Each time you have to make a hard effort or are pushing really hard on the pedals think to yourself: “Am I spending my money wisely?”

Top tips for finding the right gear when cycling

A good way to understand your cadence and get the right gear on your bike is to find a nice quiet bit of road and practice riding at different cadences. For one revolution you count one foot doing a full revolution. It is best to count this at the bottom of the pedal stroke.

On flat or rolling terrain on your own or in a group, you should be looking to have a cadence of between 80-90 revolutions of the pedal per minute.

It’s also worth experimenting with different cadences and work out what feels most natural to you. The same goes for climbs; generally, the optimum cadence is between 60-80 revolutions per minute. Again, find a quiet hill and ride up it at different cadences and see which one got you up the hill for the least amount of energy spent (remember that £10 note). You can then try climbs of the different gradient, but always look for that optimum cadence and decide what gear is going to get you to that cadence.

You might also like… 

Tips for Your First Road Ride with Chris Boardman

Beginner Road Cyclist 101: TWC Catalogue of Advice to get you Started

How to Corner On a Road Bike 

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