How To Use Gears On A Mountain Bike: The Complete Guide

When I was just beginning, I wanted to get out and explore with my mountain bike, but before I could do that, I knew it would be wise to familiarize myself with the ins and outs of mountain biking (Source). I had to learn all about the bike, the chainrings, tires, and most importantly…the gears!

After conducting extensive research and acquiring comprehensive knowledge, I am now ready to impart everything you need to know about gears and mountain bikes. However, let’s start with the most significant aspect…

How Do You Use Gears On A Mountain Bike?

A mountain bike typically has 7 to 36 gears, and it’s advisable to anticipate gear changes before they become necessary, especially when approaching an incline or decline. With experience, you’ll discover the most suitable gears for various terrains.

That is the brief response, however, the subsequent information includes all the necessary details about mountain bike gears, their operation, appropriate usage on different terrains, and maintenance tips to ensure their longevity.

What Gears Are On Your Mountain Bike?

Beginning with the components of your mountain bike, we have chainrings. It’s safe to assume that most people are familiar with chainrings, as it’s a common occurrence to experience a loose chainring while cycling during one’s childhood.

However, mountain bikes have a distinct feature that sets them apart from other bicycles: the number of chainrings on the crankset at the front and rear (Source).

Yes, you read correctly: both the front and back gears are important to use on a mountain bike.

Typically, older mountain bikes have approximately three chainrings on the front, while newer models generally feature only one or two.

The number of teeth on the chainrings determines their size, with larger chainrings having more teeth and smaller ones having fewer. Typically, chainrings range from 30T to 42T in size.

Typically, the cassette – also known as ‘cogs’ – consists of approximately 7 to 12 gears located at the rear gear.

The range of cassettes can vary from 11-42T to 10-50T, with the first digit indicating the number of teeth on the smallest cog of the cassette.

As the number of cogs increases, the number of teeth also increases.

With me so far?

Alright. How can you determine the number of gears your mountain bike possesses?

To determine the number of gears on your mountain bike, you can perform a basic calculation by multiplying the quantity of front chainrings by the amount of cogs in the back cassette; for instance, if your bike has 2 front chainrings and 10 cogs in the rear cassette, then it possesses a total of 20 gears.

How Do The Gears Work?

Having discussed the gears’ definition, quantity, and location, it’s time to delve into their functionality and understand how they maintain the bike’s operation.

While it may not be the most exciting information to possess, understanding how the gears on a mountain bike operate can prove useful in troubleshooting issues that may arise.

Let me explain the process:

As you apply pressure to the pedals, the crank arms initiate rotation, which in turn causes the chainring to spin due to their connection.

The rotation of the rear gear is caused by the movement of the chainring.

Once the rear gears start rotating, the rear wheel will begin to turn.

Begin your mountain biking adventure!

It may not have seemed challenging, but now that you understand the mechanics, you can observe the entire process in action on your bike, making repairs significantly more manageable.

Is a mountain bike suitable for daily commuting?

How To Shift Gears

As previously mentioned, understanding the proper techniques and precautions for mountain biking is crucial.

Transitioning from a regular bike to a mountain bike can be challenging, and acknowledging that one lacks knowledge on how to operate the gears or is not proficient at it can be difficult.

However, I was aware that in order to ensure my own safety and the safety of fellow trail riders, it was imperative for me to acquire knowledge of all available techniques.

These are the essential gears for a mountain bike, and it is recommended to learn them before riding.

Using gears on a mountain bike is different from using them on a regular bike, motorbike, or car as simply clicking the shifter won’t always work and it’s important to know when to shift gears.

If you encounter difficulty in pedaling, either due to it being too effortless or strenuous, this is an indication that you should adjust your gears.

  • When experimenting with gear shifts on a mountain bike, it’s best to begin cautiously and gradually. Find a comfortable pace and rhythm by riding for a while. If you’re on level terrain, utilize the larger chainring, but avoid shifting gears while pedaling strenuously.
  • When you require the middle chainring, make sure to use the front shift to move into the middle gear, which is beneficial for riding on soft terrain and ascending in windy regions.
  • When shifting gears on a mountain bike, it is important to remember to shift-click as this will assist in moving the chainring and changing the gear’s resistance.
  • When switching to high gear on a mountain bike, move the rear cassette to the middle gear and shift the front gear to the larger chainring.
    When riding uphill on a mountain bike, it is advisable to use a lower gear instead of constantly shifting gears or using a high gear, as this can put excessive pressure on the chainring and cause unwanted noise.

If you want a comprehensive guide on how to shift gears while riding a mountain bike, be sure to watch this video:

Shifting Techniques You Need To Know

To effectively use gears on a mountain bike, it is important to develop the habit of anticipating when to shift, so that you can get into the right gear before encountering any obstacles or changes in terrain, whether uphill or downhill.

Avoid shifting both the front and rear gears simultaneously as it can exert excessive pressure on the multiple chainrings, although you can shift them one after the other.

If you own a contemporary mountain bike with multiple front chainrings, it is important to avoid exerting excessive force on them during any procedure.

It is important to avoid cross chaining or shifting gears simultaneously in order to ensure the longevity of your gears. Therefore, handle them with care.

When Should You Shift Gears?

Many beginners in mountain biking often believe that they need to shift gears when they encounter situations that strain the gears, such as ascending or descending steep slopes.

It is not recommended to change gears while the chain is in the process of threading onto the cog, as this would cause the chain to lose tension and fail to perform its duties. Pedaling is necessary for maintaining chain tension and allowing the chain to move onto the next cog.

Which it does. 

To overcome this issue, you can utilize a power stroke which involves a couple of forceful pushes followed by some gentle ones while promptly changing your gear. Despite its intimidating name, a power stroke is not as complicated as it may seem.

10 Tips for Your First Bike Commute

After the chain has successfully moved and connected to the next cog, and you have changed gears, you can resume either pedaling with force or applying brakes based on your current situation.

Tips To Remember When Using A Mountain Bike

When it comes to bike riding, mountain bikes are a completely different type of bicycle.

Even though I had been cycling for a long time, and I was confident in my ability to ride on difficult terrain, during winter and after dark, I thought I didn’t need any instruction. How wrong I was!

Although bike riding is an exhilarating experience, it was necessary for me to receive additional instruction on how to use the gears of a mountain bike before attempting to ride one.

Alright, now it’s time to dive in. What fundamental principles must you adhere to?

Improving your mountain biking gear skills requires practice, which is crucial in distinguishing a beginner from an expert.

Experience riding on various surfaces to gain a genuine understanding of their characteristics. This will enable you to determine the appropriate type of riding and gear shifts required for each surface, as well as your level of comfort with executing those gear shifts spontaneously.

On my initial mountain biking experience, I entered with an overconfident attitude, pretending to be a skilled expert.

When I began cycling uphill, I became anxious and alarmed as I was unsure about the appropriate gears to shift to, and was perplexed by the loud and frightening sounds emanating from my bike, as well as the recurring issue of chainring detachment.

It is crucial to remember that the front brakes on your mountain bike should be used wisely and sufficiently. The smoothness and pleasure of your ride depend on how you apply the brakes, whether it’s hard or slow, so it’s essential to practice using them on every slope and descent.

Before buying, it is essential to conduct extensive research.

When shopping for a mountain bike, the salesperson may push you to buy the priciest gear available and make you believe that it’s the only one necessary to achieve your desired outcome. However, it’s important to stand firm and have a clear understanding of your requirements, the type of bike that suits you best, and its intended purpose.

It is advisable to avoid installing unnecessary items on your mountain bike. Instead, opt for the essential gear that you need, rather than focusing on accessories that may enhance the appearance of you or your bike. Prioritizing safety over aesthetics will ensure that you do not overlook important equipment such as high-quality bike lights.

Remain composed while riding a mountain bike as it requires navigating through rough tracks and terrains, which can be thrilling. However, if the ride becomes excessively bumpy and you feel isolated on a mountain trail during nighttime with no rescue in sight until morning, take a break.

Remind yourself that you are capable, even if you don’t have professional training.

Choose lightweight and comfortable clothing when riding a mountain bike. Avoid wearing heavy gear during cold or rainy weather as it can make riding more challenging and increase the risk of accidents. It’s better to wait for better weather conditions.

Which Gears You Should Use

The answer to whether or not you should use high gears on a mountain bike depends on your personal preferences, the type of bike you have, and the terrain you’ll be riding on. If you’re heading to a mountain with smooth paths, it’s likely that investing in high gears would be unnecessary.

What should beginners know about BMX bikes and brakes?

It’s pretty straightforward: if you have a lot of hills and slopes to tackle, go for low gears. If you’re doing a lot of downhill biking, choose high gears.

While it’s not a complex task, it is feasible to be deceived by a salesperson if you haven’t conducted your research beforehand, but since you are still reading this guide, it seems that you have done so.

Common Gear Terms You Need To Know

As stated in the introduction of this guide, the era of having three chainrings at the front on a mountain bike has passed.

Currently, the majority of mountain bikes are equipped with 1 or 2 front chainrings as having 3 chainrings is deemed superfluous and can actually hinder rather than assist in navigating challenging terrain.

Bikes that have only one chainring are commonly known as 1x or one-by, while those with two chainrings are referred to as 2x or two-by. Although it is not mandatory to know these terms, being familiar with them demonstrates your knowledge and expertise in the field.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the most prevalent gear options, which include 1×10, 1×11, and 1×12, as well as 2×10 and 3×10.

When riding on rough terrains, mountain bikers often require larger gears to handle bigger gear jumps, while those who prefer smoother terrains tend to favor smaller gears as they assist in achieving the appropriate cadence.

Furthermore, the absence or inclusion of chainrings significantly impacts the weight of your mountain bike. If you add more, your bike becomes heavier, while reducing them makes it as light as a feather. It’s evident which option is more desirable.

Taking Care of Your Bike Gears

It is crucial to understand the significance of having well-maintained gears, as it can make a significant difference in terms of safety.

Ensuring the durability of your mountain bike is crucial, especially after dedicating a considerable amount of time, effort, and finances into it.

One must keep in mind that the drivetrain of a mountain bike is prone to getting dirty, and if left uncleaned, the accumulation of dirt and grime can cause the gears to shift less smoothly and increase the likelihood of chainring drops.

Don’t worry! You can clean your mountain bike gears by using warm, soapy water and a brush. In case the dirt has accumulated too much, you may require a degreaser to remove it effectively. However, ensure that you put in enough effort while cleaning to ensure smooth gear shifting and an improved riding experience.

If you are fully dedicated, consider purchasing specialized tools for your mountain bike. You can find brushes that effectively clean the cogs and leave them gleaming, as well as tools with curved tooth sections to reach narrow crevices.


I trust that I have provided all the information you need to utilize gears on your mountain bike proficiently. After all, the gears were designed to make it simpler for you to ascend mountains, so use them judiciously and they will serve both your bike and you for a long period of time.

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