Mountain bike drivetrains have evolved over the years, with simplicity taking the reins and leading to better performance. The days of triple front rings, and even doubles, are fading fast. Even though mountain bikes have been taken over by 1x drivetrains, there are still some multi-sprocket dinosaurs out there that we will discuss in this quick guide to shifting better.
It may sound silly, but there are plenty of novice riders who don’t understand which side of the handlebars has which shifter. The right side will always host your rear derailleur shifter, while the left (on bikes that do not use a single-ring drivetrain) will host the front shifter. We know this isn’t rocket science, but it is still one of the most essential parts of shifting.
With dropper and suspension remotes, handlebars have become more valuable real estate than Marin County. Take time to adjust your shift lever into a comfortable position that doesn’t require you to move anything other than your thumb or finger to hit a different gear, especially when descending. Try to keep your brake levers close but your shifter even closer.
It’s tempting to throw on a massive front chainring to impress your friends, but when you’re trying to mash a big gear on a gradual climb, you’re not only less efficient but also probably slower. Take time to find
a comfortable cadence, usually between 70–90 rpm for sustained climbing and descending. Riding at too low of a cadence can put extra tension on the chain and rear derailleur, leading to poor shifting performance when the derailleur can’t pull the chain from cog to cog. A higher cadence puts less stress on your drivetrain, allowing it to hit gears more precisely and effectively.
Timing is everything when it comes to shifting properly. Plan to shift during the upstroke of your pedaling. This is when the load is lightest on your gears. This will allow your chain to glide smoothly to the next cog. Shifting when you are mashing down on the pedals can cause the chain to jump and miss the cog you were hoping to land on. Sometimes you can’t avoid shifting under a load, and, in those cases, back off the pedals just a touch before pushing the shifter lever to give the chain a chance to come off the cog. If you’ve driven a manual transmission in a car, you know what it feels like to use the clutch. Easing off the pedals for a shift is much like using the clutch in your car. You don’t have to stop pedaling altogether; just ease up on the chain tension until the chain lands on the next cog.
Climbing is rough, and poor shifting technique can be part of that. It’s okay to shift in the middle of a steep climb, but, if you can, plan for the grade as much as possible. On long, sustained climbs, find a comfortable gear that allows you to relax and spin. If you see steeper pitches looming, shift into an easier gear just before the steeper grade starts. Planning properly will prevent you from missing gears and will put less stress on your body. There will be times when it gets too steep for the gear you chose, and this is when timing comes into play. Even under load, a well-timed shift can go smoothly.
Just as with climbing, there are sections on descents that will require a different gear than just the tallest one. If you are coming into a turn, shift into a slightly easier gear that will allow you to accelerate out of the corner quickly. When you hit steeper drops or G-outs, find a gear for the exit of the feature and rely on gravity to carry you through. Also, just because you’re coasting downhill doesn’t mean you don’t have to shift. Use the descent to upshift and plan for the proper cadence you will need when the downhill is over. That will prevent you from “chopping wood” with your pedals in a gear that’s too low for your speed.
Whether you just got a new bike, new drivetrain or replaced your cogs, spend some time practicing. Pedal up and down your street to get used to the gears and the shifter feel. Just like driving a new car, it can take a few tries until you know how your new machine feels and functions. A big part of practicing is developing the ability to “feel your gears.” This translates to feeling the engagement through the shifter, sensing when the chain will hit the next gear. If a shop has done work on your drivetrain, be sure to take the bike for a quick spin before leaving to make sure everything is dialed. If you’ve done the work yourself, be sure to ride your bike before heading to the trailhead to take care of any fine-tuning that might need to be done.
If your drivetrain isn’t properly cared for, it will never shift well. Take time to clean your drivetrain and lubricate it at least every few rides. After every couple rides, check the cables and housing to make sure no grit or dirt has built up, restricting the derailleur’s movements. The smallest tweak in cable tension can throw off all the shifting. Replace your chain at regular intervals to keep the wear and tear at a minimum.