What Bike Gear To Use: A beginner’s guide on when to use high and low gears


Many cyclists are unclear about what gear they should be using and when. As a regular cyclist, I remember the confusion around high and low gears, especially when it came to which one I should be using on a hill or when starting my bike. I thought I would take some time to explain bike gears so that you can understand them a bit more quickly than I did. So, what bike gear should you be using?

In general, you want to shift your bike gears to adjust for the speed at which you are turning the pedals (your cadence) rather than the speed at which the bike is moving. Aiming for a cadence of 70 – 100 RPM is the most efficient way of cycling and helps to ensure your legs do not tire out too quickly.

So, we’ve established that you need to be adjusting your gears to match how quickly you are turning the pedals, but what does this mean in reality, and what is the best combination of gears to achieve this? I take a look into these and give you some examples of which gears you should be using for hills in the rest of the article.

What bike gear should I be in?

Which bike gear is the easiest?

First things first, I think it is important to clarify the basics. With so many different terms being thrown around about bike gears, it can be a little confusing.

In general, most bikes have 2 parts to their gears, a front ring, and a back ring. Quite confusingly, each of these rings acts in a different way as you are using your gears.

The front ring

The front ring is the most impactful gear. Often there are only 2 or 3 gears to choose from on this ring and they make a large difference to your cycling.

On the front ring, the larger the cog that your chain is on, the harder it will be to pedal but the faster your wheels will spin with each pedal.

The front ring is normally controlled by your left shifter (the gear changer on the left-hand side of the handlebar)

The back ring

The back ring is designed to help fine-tune which gear you are in. Changes on the back ring will have a much smaller impact on your cycling but will allow you to make smaller adjustments to your gears. The back ring normally has many more gears than the front ring (sometimes up to 12).

On the back ring, the larger the cog that your chain is on, the easier it will be to pedal, but the slower your wheels will spin with each rotation.

The back ring is normally controlled by your right shifter (the gear changer on the right-hand side of the handlebar)

High Gear

Gearing up to a high gear (also called a big gear or top gear) means that you are making it harder to pedal but giving yourself more speed.

To go into a high gear you need to either go into a bigger gear on your front ring, a smaller gear on the back ring, or a combination of the two.

A higher gear will require more effort to cycle but will turn the wheels more quickly.

Low Gear

Gearing up to a low gear (also called a small gear or bottom gear) means that you are making it easier to pedal at the expense of speed.

To go into a high gear you need to either go into a smaller gear on your front ring, a larger gear on the back ring, or a combination of the two.

A lower gear will require less effort to cycle but will turn the wheels more slowly.

GearDifficulty
Bigger cog upfrontHarder
Smaller cog upfrontEasier
Bigger cog at the backEasier
Smaller cog at the backHarder

How to choose the right gear?

In general, beginner cyclists make the mistake of aiming for a certain speed with their gears rather than a certain cadence. You should be shifting your gears to allow you to keep a certain pedaling speed rather than a certain bike speed.

For example, if you are pedaling slowly because it is too hard, you need to consider shifting down a gear, and if you are pedaling too quickly because it is too easy then you need to think about changing up a gear.

Simply put, if it’s too hard to pedal (either because you are cycling uphill or because you are tired) then you should downshift. If it’s too easy to pedal (generally because you are cycling downhill) you want to consider upshifting.

What is cadence?

Cadence is a term used in cycling to measure the speed at which you are turning the pedals. Cadence is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). Cadence is simply a measure of how many times you turn the pedals in 1 minute.

In general, you should be aiming for between 70 and 100 RPM of your pedals, as this is the most efficient way to cycle. You want to be choosing your gears to help you maintain a cadence of 70 to 100 RPM, not using them to adjust your speed.

So for example, if you are riding uphill, you will want to put yourself into an easy gear so that your cadence does not drop too much

Crossing your chain

It is also important to ensure you are not crossing over your chain between the front and back gears (for example using the largest cog on the front gear and the smallest cog on the back gear).

This is because crossing the chain over like this stretches the chain out and may damage it (the distance the chain has to cover when it is crossed over is longer than the distance when it is straight).

This can cause excess strain on the chain itself and cause it to wear out more quickly or even snap. On top of this, when you are crossing your chain over, the extra strain can cause the chain to skip gears as you shift between them or cause the chain to fall off the cogs completely.

A final reason to ensure you are not crossing your chain is that it can also cause you to lose power as you cycle, meaning that you will have to spend more energy to travel at the same speed.

What bike gear to use on a flat road?

So, we’ve established that you should be riding to match your cadence and not your speed, but what does this mean in reality?

When cycling on flat ground you should make sure that your “legs aren’t giving out before your lungs”. Cycling at a higher gear puts more work on your legs, changing down to a lower gear allows you to cycle at a higher cadence, effectively moving the work from your leg muscles to your whole body as a whole.

This is one of the most common mistakes beginner cyclists make, cycling is a cardio-based exercise, cycling on the flat should not cause your legs to feel like you’ve been doing a day of squats in the gym.

Change gear so that your lungs give out before your legs

For most people, a middle gear will be a good choice to maintain this cadence when on flat ground. When in a middle gear like this, cycling should feel fairly effortless for your legs.

Personally, when cycling on a flat road, I use the largest gear on the front and adjust the rear gears to suit the exact area I am cycling in.

What bike gear to use on a hill?

When going uphill

When going uphill you will want to move into an easier gear, for example moving into the smaller ring on the front and the larger ring on the back.

In general, you want to try and pick which gear you will be using for the entire hill at the beginning of the incline. This is because it is not very effective to change gears mid-way through a hill or incline. This is one of the few times where you may want to ignore your cadence and either push a little harder or stand up out of the saddle if you are finding the climb particularly hard.

The effort of changing gear while on an incline can take away some of your momentum and energy, slowing you down and making the climb harder. On top of this, it can also cause your gears to jump or skip when shifting.

When going downhill

Going downhill is much simpler than going uphill. When going downhill then you will want to use your higher gears (where you have to push hardest but the wheels move the most quickly). This allows you to maintain your cadence and gives you the fastest speed.

Changing gears during a descent is also perfectly fine for the bike, there is no risk of lost momentum or chain slips while changing gear on a descent.

What gear should I start my bike in?

In general, you will want to be starting your bike in a fairly low gear (but not the lowest). This compromise allows you some speed when pulling away, without giving your legs too much work.

It is important to consider which gear you will want to pull away in as you approach a stop sign or traffic light.

Bikes are unable to change gear unless the pedals are moving, so if you come to a stop in the incorrect gear, it can be difficult to change back to the correct one.

You need to be thinking in advance about which gear you will want to be in and make sure you are shifting down to this gear with enough time that your bike can comfortably shift down before you come to a stop.

Overall

As you can see, choosing which gear you want to cycle in can be a bit more complicated than you might first think. However, in general, you can’t go wrong with remembering to match your gear to your cadence and ensuring you are not crossing over your chain.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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