Mountain Bike Basics: Tips For Shifting

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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With terrain that can be unpredictable and constantly changing, mountain biking has certain challenges you don’t get on the road. For example, learning to perfect your shifting on a mountain bike can be difficult and requires time and practice.

Whether you’re making the switch from the road to the trail or are new to cycling altogether, these basic tips help you develop a comfortable pedaling rhythm and make your shifts as efficient as possible so you can maintain your forward momentum.

Unlike the shift levers on road bikes, most mountain bikes either have grip shifters or thumb triggers. While most new mountain bikes have gone with 1x drivetrains (a single chainring in the front) which negates the need for a shifter on the left side of the handlebar, some older mountain bikes may have double or triple chainrings. If this is the case, there will be also be a shifter on the left side of your handlebar.

For thumb shifters, there will be two levers in most cases. One lever increases the resistance, while the other decreases the resistance. The left shifter moves the chain up and down your front chainrings, while the right shifter moves the chain up and down the rear cassette. Grip shifters work in the same way but work by twisting a grip on the handlebar either forward or backward. Twisting a grip shifter toward you makes pedaling easier, while twisting it away from you makes pedaling more difficult.

Along with the shifters, there may be other remotes on your handlebar, too. Some mountain bikes also have triggers for a dropper seatpost that allows you to quickly raise and lower your saddle, and a suspension remote to adjust stiffness. While these are also important, you won’t need to access these as quickly. When setting up the position of your remotes and controls on your handlebar, make sure your gear shifters are in the most convenient spot allowing you to shift without moving your hand off the handlebar grips.

The terrain of mountain biking requires quick decision making to keep from losing your momentum. While road cycling might not require you to constantly shift while you’re in cruising mode, you always need to be thinking about what gear you need when you’re on the trail.

Below are some tips you can use to maintain your speed and shift more efficiently when you hit the dirt.

1

WATCH YOUR CADENCE

With constant up-and-downs, it can be easy to fall into the trap of sticking to one or two gears so you don’t have to shift so often. The problem is this usually forces you to pedal in lower cadences for at least part of the time. This places more tension on your chain, and when you eventually find the cadence too difficult to maintain, it may not be possible to switch your gears. To keep your shifting precise and efficient, maintain a cadence that’s at least in the 70–95 revolutions per minute (rpm) range. While it requires you to shift more often, your shifting is much easier which prevents your chain from dropping.

2

GET YOUR TIMING RIGHT

Maintaining your momentum on the trails is all about timing your shifts correctly. A good rule for shifting is to shift a few pedal strokes before you need the gear. This keeps you from spinning out when you hit a descent or grinding your gears as you slow to a crawl on a climb.

When you have mistimed a shift, here are a few things you can do to ease the tension on the chain:

  • Try to shift on the upstroke on the drivetrain side. During the upstroke your chain is under less tension than on the downstroke.
  • Soft pedal if possible. Instead of mashing the pedals, try to pedal easy until you get into the gear you want to prevent the chain from slipping or dropping.
  • Give yourself enough time. Instead of shifting down or up several gears, click into each gear before shifting to the next. This allows you to maintain a smooth pedal stroke.

Even if you get into the right gear before a climb begins, you may need to shift to an easier gear on sections of steeper gradients. Keep your eyes up the hill for these sections so you can shift down one or two notches to an easier gear a few pedal strokes beforehand. If possible, ease up on your pedal stroke and shift during the upstroke to lessen the tension on the chain. When the gradient eases, use the same technique to go back to your steady climbing gear.

If you haven’t planned correctly for the descent, you can lose a lot of momentum here, too. Many of the trails you’ll ride have sharp corners you may have to slow down for on descents, but you’ll need to be ready to accelerate once the trail straightens out again. For these situations, shift to a harder gear before you hit the corner. Slow pedal or coast through the turn and accelerate as soon as you exit the corner. On longer downhill sections when you aren’t pedaling, look up the trail to find the next uphill section and get into this gear with plenty of time to spare.

While shifting at the right time is key, if your derailleur or cables are out of whack, your shifting will be off. Keeping your drivetrain cleanchanging your chain frequently and tuning up your bike when needed are good habits to maintain to keep your shifting smooth and efficient.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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