When to Shift Mountain Bike Gears

Mountain biking is not just about riding your bike, pedaling, and then heading directly to your chosen destination.

You also need to do other things to ensure that you have a smooth and safe ride. One example of this is knowing when to shift your bike’s gears.

You might think that doing this is just very easy because you just push the lever any time you want. Well, that’s how it basically works.

But that’s not all of it. You also need to know the best times to shift your bike, as well as the right timing and momentum so you can improve your riding experience.

In this article, we are going to talk all about this. We’ll be diving more into how your bike’s gearing system works, as well as tell you when are the best times to shift your gears.

How Mountain Bike Shifting Works

How Mountain Bike Shifting Works

Mountain bikes have a drivetrain that serves as their engine. But unlike a regular engine which is powered by gasoline, diesel, or electricity, this drivetrain is powered by your pedaling motion.

The drivetrain is composed of various parts, which include your shifters, cassette, chain, bottom bracket, derailleur, and cranks.

The derailleur is the one that derails the chain and moves it either upward or downward to the next cog. Note that the chain runs through the cog, which then serves as your current gear speed.

This derailing movement is initiated by the shifters. So, you either shift upwards or downwards. You simply push on the upper shifter if you want to shift downward. On the other hand, you push on the lower shifting gears if you shift upward. These are found near the brake levers.

Shifting downward means that you go to a lower gear so you can maintain higher speeds. Meanwhile, shifting upward means that you go to a higher gear. This comes in handy if you’re climbing uphills.

Approaching uphills

One of the best times to shift your gears is if you are approaching uphill. For most modern bikes which have 12-speed drivetrains, you’d normally be running on the third or second-to-the-last cog.

However, you’d have a hard time running on these gears if you’re climbing because it’s hard to pedal on. You can then avoid this problem by simply shifting to a higher or easier gear.

A higher gear means that you shift the chain to the larger cogs, as these cogs will have more power in bringing you up. This means that you don’t have to exert too much effort on your chainring when climbing on easier gear because it’s softer to pedal.

Traversing technical trails

Another best time to shift your mountain bike gears is if you are traversing technical trails. Note that your bike’s drivetrain has a rear derailleur which is responsible for shifting your gears, or more specifically your chain, either upward or downward.

If you shift to a higher gear, the rear derailleur or RD goes down and repositions itself. And note that just hangs from your mountain bike dropout.

This increases the chances of your RD and rear cassette hitting something on the trail because its position is hyperextended on the rear wheel.

Examples of the things it can hit are rocks, roots, or the ground itself. To avoid these problems, it is best to shift bike gears using your left shifter so that the RD in the rear cassette will move upward and not expose itself too much.

Shredding high-speed sections

Riding on high-speed sections requires riders to maintain low gears. This means that the chain runs on the smaller cogs. Or if possible, run through the smallest cog to attain top speed.

However, being on the smallest cog can compromise your maneuverability because you can’t easily tackle technical sections because it’s harder to pedal.

Nonetheless, you will fare well with straight high-speed sections because you just need to gather momentum.

Another nice thing about running on low gears at high-speed sections is that you won’t be thrown out of your bike if you accidentally pedal on it.

Learning soft-pedaling

It is important that you learn how to soft pedal if ever you want to improve your gear shifting. What happens when you soft pedal is that you don’t exert too much effort into the pedal.

This allows the derailleur to not immediately jump up or downward. An abrupt movement brought by a hard pedaling motion can damage your chainrings and cassette in the long run because they will rub hard on each other’s surface.

Through time, the metal surface of the chainrings and cogs will disintegrate. This will then lead to an imperfect fit alongside the chain and rear gears.

However, you don’t have to worry about this if have a soft pedal stroke on mountain bikes because the gentle motion will minimize the rubbing impact from the surfaces of the chainrings and rear gears.

Riding through berms

How Mountain Bike Shifting Works

Riding through berms is a bit tricky because you don’t have to apply your brakes when going through it. Instead, you need to use your current speed to propel you from one corner to another.

And you’re doing this while balancing your weight on a slight incline. This is why you need to gather speed and maintain momentum when you are approaching a berm. Shift your gears according to your comfortable speed.

It doesn’t mean that you need to go as fast as possible when approaching a berm. Instead, you should be at your comfortable speed so you can perfectly ride through the berm at the right position and stance.

Approaching jumps and drops

You need to gather momentum and maintain speed when approaching a jump or a drop. The last thing you want is to get an over-the-bars (OTB) accident.

You can avoid that by simply going fast before you hit a drop or jump. You need that speed to have enough momentum to maintain air time.

Go to the lower gears and pedal as hard as you can so that you can get to the other side of the gap safely and in one piece.


Knowing when to shift gears is not really difficult. You just need to learn the best circumstances to shift so you can improve your mountain biking.

Note that this is where your safety, comfort, and most importantly, fun factor, depends on. So shift your gears at the right timing and blast your way down the trails.

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