How To Shift Gears On A Mountain Bike (For Beginners)

It may be difficult for beginners to understand the concept of changing gears on a bicycle, but they shouldn’t feel discouraged if they don’t know how to shift gears yet.

If you don’t use your gears effectively, you won’t be able to ride fast or get very far.

Literally! Different gears allow you to pedal comfortably regardless of the type of road surface.

We’ve put together this handy guide for anyone who wants to learn how to shift gears on a mountain bike.

What are Bike Gears?

Bike Gears

Bike gears are used to help you pedal faster or slower depending on what speed you want to go at. They also make it easier to climb hills and maintain a steady pace when riding uphill.

You can find different types of gear in bicycles ranging from single-speed to racing bikes. Single-speed bikes have one fixed gear that only allows you to pedal forward.

Racing bikes usually have three or five gears that let you pedal faster than normal.

What are The Types Of Gear?

There are two main types of gears: freewheel and cassette. Freewheels are attached directly to the pedals and are not connected to any other bike part.

Cassettes are attached to the chain and move with the chain as it spins around the sprocket. The number of teeth on each sprocket determines which gear is being used.

For example, a 48-tooth sprocket will give you a low gear, while a 52-tooth sprocket will give you a higher gear.

What are the Different Gear Styles on a Mountain Bike?

Depending on which type of gear shift mechanism is used, there are different methods for shifting. Most, if not all, bicycles that you can buy today have shift levers mounted on the handlebar.

Older bikes often have shifters installed either on the bike’s downtubes or at the very end of the handlebar.

There are three major manufacturers of gearshifting components — SRAM (Shimano), Campagnolo, and Shimano.

Here we’ll take a quick look at some common shifter styles.

Thumb Shifter

The thumb shifter is probably the most popular style of shifter on mountain bikes. This design makes it easy to reach the lever without bending over.

Thumb shifters are found on many older bikes and are still widely used on touring bikes.

Twist Shifter

A twist shifter is similar to a thumb shifter, except instead of a lever, it uses a small knob that turns clockwise or counterclockwise to select the desired gear.

Twist shifters are more secure than thumb shifters because they’re harder to activate accidentally.

Combination Shifter

This type of shifter has both a thumb shifter and a twist shifter. Using a combination shifter gives you the best of both worlds.

Combination shifters are typically found on high-end mountain bikes.

Integrated Shifter + Brake Lever

Some mountain bikes come equipped with an integrated shifter and brake lever. These designs eliminate the need to grab the shifter whenever you want to stop or start pedaling.

Which Type Should I Get?

You should stick with a thumb shifter if you plan to ride mostly off-road trails. Thumb shifters work well on dirt roads and gravel paths but don’t perform well on pavement.

If you ride mainly on paved surfaces, then you may want to consider a twist shifter. Twist shifters are great for commuting and road rides.

However, they aren’t ideal for technical trail riding because they require too much effort.

If you like to switch between multiple gears on your mountain bike, you might be interested in a combination shifter.

Combination shifters offer the best of both worlds by combining the convenience of a thumb shifter with the security of a twist shifter.

If you prefer to use your brakes when stopping, then you’ll definitely want to get an integrated shifter. Integrated shifters combine the functionality of a brake lever with a shifter.

They make it easier to control your speed by braking and switching gears simultaneously.

How Do Gear Shifters Work?

How Do Gear Shifters Work

If your bike has gearshifts, then it also has derailleurs. A derailleur controls the shifting of gears by causing the chain to change between different sizes.

There may be a derailleur for the rear gear only or one on both rear and front gear sets. Gear shifter cables connect to the derailleurs via an enclosed steel wire.

The shifter’s main function is to pull in the chain when needed (creating tension) and let go of the chain when not needed (creating slack).

A Quick Look at Shifting Mountain Bike Gears For Dummies

1. If you want to change the front gears, use your left shifters.

2. To change the rear gears, use your right shifter first.

3. To avoid clunking when changing gears, use light pressure when turning the pedals. Don’t pedal backward.

4. Suppose you’re pedaling too fast, and there isn’t enough resistance. In this case, change into harder gear.

You’ll also go further.

5. Suppose you’re pedaling too slowly, and it’s hard to pedal. In such cases, change into an easier gear. It’s preferable to ride at a more orderly cadence anyway.

6. In simple words, “moving the chain closer to the bicycle makes it easier, and pushing the chain further away from the bicycle makes you go faster.”

7. Practice makes perfect. Try riding at different gears, and see how it feels.

Tips on Mountain Bike Gears for Dummies

Here are some tips for using your gear shifter properly:

Know Your Shifters

Typically, the left handlebar shifts the front gear, and the one on your right handles the rear gear. If you’re feeling confused on the fly, remember that “right” means “rear.”

For bikes that only feature one chain ring in the back (also known as ‘1x’ or ‘one by’,) you will only have a left-hand shifter. Unless you’ve designed your frame so that the rear derailleur shifts on the right side.

All different types of shifter function slightly differently, but all shift levers are fairly intuitive.

Consult your local bicycle shop when purchasing your new ride on how your particular type of shifter works or just hop on your bicycle, start pedaling, and push your shifter to see how it feels.

Know When to Shift

You may need to shift gears down when climbing hills or going against the wind. If the wind is coming from behind (a tailwind) or you are riding on flat terrain, use the harder gear.

If you are confused about when to change gears, do it just before the terrain changes, especially on hill climbs.

Don’t wait until the inclines start kicking in before shifting into gear. Shift into gear in advance of the inclines.

Keep pedaling when shifting, but don’t push too hard or stop pedaling entirely. If you do, the chain might skip or fall off.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’ve mastered the art of shifting, you should be able to shift smoothly and effortlessly. But if you struggle with shifting, take a break and return later.

Sometimes, you just need to give your body time to adjust to the new position of the shifter.

If you still struggle after several tries, consult your bike shop. They may be able to help you figure out why you’re having trouble.

Play With the Gears

Play With the Gears

You can play around with the gears to get used to them. Start by trying to shift up and down through each gear.

Then try shifting between two gears. Once you feel comfortable with that, try shifting between three or four gears.

Try shifting while standing up, then sitting down. This way, you won’t accidentally hit the ground with your feet.


Q: How Do I Know What Gear I’m In?

A: The easiest way to tell is to look at the number stamped on the outside of the cassette.

Q: Is it Okay to Shift While I’m Turning?

A: Sure, but make sure you shift before the turn. Otherwise, you risk losing control of your bike.


We hope this blog has helped you learn about mountain biking gear and how to shift gears.

Now that you know the basics, we encourage you to practice shifting gears as often as possible to become familiar with them.

Once you do, you’ll be able to confidently ride any trail no matter what kind of terrain you encounter.

Thomas Kersten

Hi, I am a passionate biker, and I have been riding for more than ten years and share my biking tips and tricks with the world. I've tested more than 300 bikes.

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