Bike Gears Explained: How to Use Bicycle Gears (for Dummies)

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Bicycles often have a lot of gears. 7-speed bikes can be confusing enough, but what on earth do you do with 21 or even 28 gears?

In this article, we dive deeper into how bicycle gears work and explain how to use them correctly.

Bikes, though wonderful, can sometimes be a little confusing to use. This is especially true when considering how to use bicycle gears. There are a number of variations with gear components, and things can seem complicated – especially for beginners!

A mechanic adjusting the gears on a bicycle
Mastering bicycle gears improves efficiency and makes cycling easier. (Photo: Canva)

Bicycle Gears (for Dummies)

Let’s look at bike gears in nine easy steps. Click on the title below to jump to the section you’re interested in or simply keep scrolling down.

  1. How Do Bike Gears Work?
  2. How to Use Bike Gears as a Beginner
  3. 7-Speed Bike Gears Explained
  4. 21-Speed Bike Gears Explained
  5. How Many Bike Gears Do I Need?
  6. Pros and Cons of Gears on a Bicycle
  7. What Bike Gear to Use on a Flat Road
  8. What Gear to Use When Going Uphill on a Bike
  9. When Should You Shift Gears on a Bicycle?

1) Bike Gears Explained

Understanding how to use bicycle gears can be tricky, especially when you’re new to cycling, or haven’t ridden in a while. 

However, getting the most out of your gears, and understanding when it’s best to change gear, can be a transformative skill that helps make cycling easier.

Figuring out how to use bicycle gears can also improve your overall efficiency, and most importantly, your enjoyment of cycling.

What Do Bicycle Gears Do?

Gears on a bicycle are there to allow you to maintain a comfortable cadence (the rhythm and tempo of your pedaling) whilst traveling at different speeds.

This allows you to access more varied terrain on your bicycle due to the range in gears. For example, the higher up the cassette the chain is, the easier it’ll be to ride uphill.

Types of Bicycle Gears

In order to correctly use the gears on your bike, you’ll need to figure out which kind of mechanism changes your gears. 

There are many different types of bicycle gear shifting mechanisms. These can include:

  • Twist-grip shifters
  • Downtube shifters
  • Bar-end shifter
  • Trigger shifters 
  • Integrated road gear shifter and brake levers

All of the above gear mechanisms will be operated with your hands. The next step is to figure out how to use bicycle gears at the correct time. 

Typically when climbing, you’d want to put your bike in a lower gear. This will allow you to pedal easier to get over the hill. On the contrary, if you’d like to pedal fast along a flat road, shifting your bike into a high gear would be best
Types of gear shifters

2) How to Use Bike Gears as a Beginner

Firstly, a beginner should familiarise themselves with the gears on their bicycle in order to understand how to use bicycle gears. As you can only change gears while pedalling, this is an important skill to practice.

After this, the focus should shift to how to use bicycle gears when appropriate. We’ve covered an example of this – shifting to an easier gear when cycling uphill, to help make climbing more comfortable.

Beginner riders should try not to worry too much about always being in the correct gear! With time, it will become second nature. 

Which Is the Easiest Bike Gear to Use?

The easiest gear on the bike will usually depend on the type of bicycle that you’re riding. However, a hybrid bike with 7 gears will have its ‘easiest’ gear at the top of the cassette, which is located on the rear wheel.

If the shifting mechanisms for your gears display numbers, the same ‘easiest’ gear on the cassette will be referred to as gear ‘1’. This gear is great for climbing and/or slow speed riding. 

Gear 1 on a Bike Explained

Gear ‘1’ on a bike is a low gear: this is the same for gears in a car. This gear is best for climbing, riding over difficult terrain, and riding slowly.

This gear may also be referred to as the ‘easy’ gear.

3) 7-Speed Bike Gears Explained

A 7-speed bike is one that has a single chain ring (the round component that the chain sits on, and the cranks and pedals attach to) at the front, and 7 cogs at the back. This collection of cogs is referred to as a ‘cassette’. 

Because the cassette is made up of 7 cogs (speeds) it provides 7 different gears. These gears will range from 1, which is the easiest gear, to 7, which may be referred to as a ‘high gear’ and is most suitable for riding fast downhill, or on the flat. 

A 7-speed cassette is often found on city bikes, hybrid bikes, and children’s bikes. It offers a great range of gear options without being too complex to maintain or use. Hence, it’s very popular among commuters. 

How Do You Use a Shimano 7-Speed Shifter

In order to use a standard Shimano 7-speed shifter to change gear, you’ll need to press the main shifter with your finger while riding forwards, every time you’d like to change into a lower gear.

You should press the other shifter (which tends to be a little smaller) with your finger to change into a higher gear. 

With most types of gear shifters, there will be two gear levers/shifters to change the back gears, which will either take you into a higher or lower range.

The 7-speed gear shift system of Himiway
A closer look at the 7-speed gear shift system of Himiway. (Photo by Himiway Bikes on Unsplash)

What Is the Difference between a 1-Speed and 7-Speed Bike?

A 1-speed, commonly referred to as a single speed, features only one cog at the back, thus only providing one gear. This type of bike is low maintenance, simple, and easy to use.A 7-speed bike is great for riding on varied terrain and is especially useful for commuters who want an easier, less sweaty ride to work.
It’s not an easy bike to ride up steep gradients. However, it is the perfect bike for use in cities or towns. 7-speed bikes aren’t as easy to look after as single speeds. There are more moving parts, which need regular TLC, and in the long run could mean more parts to replace.

4) 21-Speed Bike Gears Explained

Unlike a 7-speed bicycle, a 21-speed bike has 3 chainrings at the front of the drive chain. These three different chainrings allow for three times as many gear ratios to be created using the 7-speed cassette. 

The 7-speed cassette is still present, it’s just now coupled with three different chain rings at the front which create 21 gears. There is also another handlebar shifter for these front gears, on the opposite side of the bars to the back gears.

These new chainrings create a wide range, especially useful for those looking to ride uphill or on varied terrain more often. The two smaller chainrings provide lower gear ratios. 

Interestingly, the 21-speed option has become less popular in recent times. However, it’s still a great option for those looking for a wide gear-range, and is commonly seen on hybrid bicycles. 

What Is the Difference between 7-Speed and 21-Speed Gears?

21-Speed has more range in gears, due to the added chainrings at the front.A 7-speed is easier to use due to only having one chainring, meaning there is only one gear shifting mechanism (21-speeds have two, one for the front and one for the back gears). In addition, it’s lighter. 
A 21-speed will contain more components (triple chainring and front derailleur) and thus is more complicated to use. It can also be costly to maintain and will weigh more than a 7-speed.The main downside to choosing a bicycle with a 7-speed set up is you’ll have a smaller range of gears available.
21-speed versus 7-speed

5) How Many Gears Do I Need on a Bike?

This will depend on your cycling demands. These will include where you ride, how experienced you are, and how fit you are.

Riding in hilly areas will mean that you’ll want more gears coupled with lower gear ratios. In flatter areas you may be able to get away with a single speed bike, or even a fixie.

Stronger, more experienced riders may be more interested in larger gear ratios. These will be best suited to tackling steep climbs and varied terrains.

Commuters who want to regularly cycle to work may want to look at more low maintenance options. A 7-speed bike is a popular choice here. There’s still a good range of gears, and they benefit from being simple and quick to maintain, or fix on the go.

Overall it’s down to individual needs and preferences. I’d always suggest trying a few different speed options on bikes, either through bike shops or renting.

A photo of a man adjusting his bicycle's gears
The amount of gears on your bike depends on your needs as a cyclist. (Photo: Canva)

Does the Number of Gears on a Bike Matter?

The number of gears do matter, as they can determine what your bike can and can’t do. For example if you want to do lots of road riding in a hilly area, but only have a single speed bike, it’s going to cause an issue.

So again, it does depend on where you ride, and the style of riding you do!

Are 3 Gears Enough on a Bike?

Three gears could be more than enough if you’re cruising around a fairly flat area. On the other hand, having only 3 gears may be an issue.

This is because the lack of range having only 3 gears offers limits your riding, and won’t be great for riding in hilly areas. 

Do You Need 21 Gears on a Bike?

You may need 21 gears on your bike if you’re planning to ride up substantial hills, or over varied off-road terrain. You may also prefer having a greater range if you’re just getting back into regular exercise. 

Overall, it does really depend on where you’re planning to ride, and the style of riding you do. But for urban or bike path use, most 7-speed bicycles will be adequately geared.

6) Is It Better to Have More Gears on a Bike (PROS + CONS)

Having more gears may seem like a great solution when it comes to versatility, however there are pros and cons.


  • Wider range of gears
  • Suitable for different terrains
  • Better for riding uphill/slow speed


  • More gears means more parts to maintain/replace
  • Extra shifter to consider with gears on the front
  • Makes the bike heavier as there’s more equipment
A close-up photo of gears on a bicycle
Gears on a bicycle. (Photo by Wayne Bishop on Unsplash)

7) What Bike Gear to Use on a Flat Road

In order to figure out what gears would suit riding on a flat road, starting off with a 7-speed bike would be a great idea. You may find you personally need more range, or less.

In general, either a 7-speed or 3-speed bike would allow for a comfortable cadence and speed to be maintained along a flat road. At the end of the day, it’s down to individual preference. 

8) What Gear to Use When Going Uphill on a Bike

Whilst climbing uphill on a bike, you’ll want to use a lower (easier) gear. This will allow you to travel more slowly, as well as maintain a comfortable cadence.

Riding uphill requires more effort to maintain the same speed. Therefore a lower gear ratio will offer improved comfort, and hopefully make climbing less tiring, and a little easier!

9) When Should You Shift Gears on a Bicycle?

As a general rule, you should try to shift gears just before you’re about to change speed, or when changing the terrain or gradient that you’re riding on. 

A great tip is to change gear in anticipation of a climb. This can really help to carry your momentum into the climb, as you won’t have to ease off of the pedals in order to change gear mid-climb. 

Similarly, changing gear when traveling fast at a higher cadence will help to make the gear change feel smoother, as well as faster.

10) How Do You Maintain and Service Bicycle Gears to Ensure They Are Functioning Optimally?

Maintaining and servicing bicycle gears to ensure they function optimally involves a series of careful steps and regular attention. Firstly, it’s crucial to keep the gears clean, as dirt and grime can build up and hinder performance. This means regularly wiping down the chain, derailleur, and sprockets with a suitable cleaner and a rag. After cleaning, applying a quality lubricant to the chain and moving parts of the derailleur is essential. This reduces friction and wear, allowing for smoother gear shifts.

Adjusting the derailleur is another vital aspect of maintenance. This ensures that the chain moves correctly between gears without slipping or making noise. It requires checking the alignment of the derailleur, adjusting the tension of the cable using the barrel adjuster, and ensuring the limit screws are correctly set so the chain doesn’t fall off the gears.

Regularly inspecting the chain for wear is also important. A worn chain can damage the gears, leading to poor performance and the need for more significant repairs. If the chain is stretched or has damaged links, it should be replaced.

Servicing bicycle gears might also involve professional help from time to time, especially for more complex issues or when preparing for a comprehensive overhaul. A professional bike mechanic can ensure that all components of the gear system work together seamlessly, providing an optimal cycling experience.

By adhering to these maintenance practices, cyclists can significantly enhance the longevity and performance of their bicycle gears, ensuring a smooth and efficient ride.

11) What Are the Most Common Issues or Mistakes Beginners Make When Shifting Gears, and How Can They Be Avoided?

Beginners often encounter several common issues or mistakes when learning to shift gears on a bicycle, which can affect their riding experience and the mechanical integrity of the bike. Understanding these issues can help in avoiding them and ensuring smoother rides.

One common mistake is cross-chaining, which occurs when the chain is on the largest front gear and the largest rear gear, or the smallest front gear and the smallest rear gear. This extreme angling of the chain can cause excessive wear on the drivetrain and lead to inefficient pedaling. To avoid this, riders should shift gears in a way that keeps the chain as straight as possible, matching front and rear gears appropriately.

Another issue is shifting under load, which happens when a rider tries to change gears while pedaling hard, such as when climbing a hill. This can lead to the chain skipping, jumping, or even falling off, as the derailleur cannot smoothly guide the chain from one gear to another under high tension. To prevent this, cyclists should anticipate the terrain and shift gears before the pressure becomes too great, easing off the pedal pressure momentarily as they shift.

Not using the full range of gears available is also a common oversight. Beginners might stick to a single gear or a narrow range of gears, not fully utilizing the bike’s capability to handle various terrains and inclines efficiently. Learning to shift through gears effectively, based on the terrain and the desired speed or effort level, can make cycling more enjoyable and less physically demanding.

Lastly, neglecting regular maintenance of the gear system can lead to poor shifting performance over time. Keeping the drivetrain clean and lubricated, and ensuring the gears are correctly adjusted, are fundamental practices that can prevent many shifting issues.

By being mindful of these common mistakes and taking proactive steps to avoid them, beginners can improve their cycling skills and enjoy a better riding experience.

12) How Does Gear Usage Vary between Different Types of Cycling (e.g., Road Biking, Mountain Biking, Commuting)?

Gear usage varies significantly between different types of cycling, such as road biking, mountain biking, and commuting, due to the varying demands of each discipline. These differences influence how cyclists choose and use their gears to optimize performance, comfort, and efficiency.

In road biking, the emphasis is often on speed and endurance over long distances on paved surfaces. Cyclists use gears to maintain an efficient cadence (pedal speed), typically aiming for 80 to 100 revolutions per minute (RPM). This requires a fine-tuning of gear selection to match the terrain, whether climbing steep hills, cruising on flat roads, or descending. Road bikes usually have a wide range of gears, allowing riders to make small adjustments to find the perfect gear for maintaining speed without overexerting themselves.

Mountain biking, on the other hand, involves navigating off-road trails with varying terrain, including steep inclines, descents, and technical sections. Gear usage in mountain biking is more about managing the bike’s traction and the rider’s power output than maintaining a specific cadence. Riders frequently shift gears to adapt to rapid changes in terrain, using lower gears for climbing steep hills and higher gears for flat sections or descents. The focus is on selecting a gear that allows for effective power transfer without causing the rear wheel to slip or making the pedals too hard to turn.

Commuting cycling blends aspects of road and mountain biking gear usage, with a focus on comfort and reliability. Commuters prioritize gears that help them navigate urban environments efficiently, which includes stopping and starting at intersections, riding on flat streets, and occasionally dealing with hills or uneven road surfaces. The gear range for commuting bikes may not be as wide as that of road or mountain bikes, but it’s versatile enough to handle the typical urban terrain. Commuters often favor a gear that allows for a moderate cadence, enabling them to accelerate quickly after stops while also being comfortable for longer, steady stretches of riding.

Overall, the variation in gear usage across cycling disciplines reflects the different challenges and priorities of each type of riding. Cyclists adjust their gear selection to manage their effort, maintain control, and maximize efficiency, whether they’re racing on a road, navigating a mountain trail, or commuting through city streets.

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