What Gear To Use On Flat or Uphill? A Helpful Guide For Beginners


When cycling there are many things you need to take care of; bike maintenance, finding the best route, watching out for other cars and bikes, and the dreaded finding the correct gear. We’re going to explore some tips on how to best select the correct gear at the right time.

Finding the correct gear is tricky because you simply have a very large choice of gears! Most cars and motorbikes have 3 to 6 gears to choose from, while on bikes the numbers of gears range from 3 to 29!

When riding on a flat you need to select a high gear on your bicycle. This will allow you to go fast for how much you pedal. If you cycle against a headwind, select a slightly lower gear so pedaling doesn’t become too tiring. When riding uphill, you need to select a low gear. You only need the lowest gear on the steepest climbs.

General advice about which exact gear you need to use is tricky, as there are many different bicycle gear types and many different fitness levels of cyclists. So here we are going to explore the best tips for different gear change interfaces. One thing to note is that different people like to pedal at different speeds. So, try to adjust the gears up or down to find the pedal speed that best suits you.

Gear types

First, you need to determine if your bike has a single shifter or dual shifters. The principles you need to keep in mind are very similar, but a dual shifter bike has more gear combinations. This means you find the right gear for you with a greater precision, but it also adds some complexity to shifting.

Single shifter interfaces (can be a gearbox or a derailleur)

This system has a single shifter typically mounted on the right of handlebars. It can be a twist or lever type. There is no shifter on the left side of the handlebars.

If you have a shifter on the left side too, move on to the next heading!

Twist shifter with 7 gears

Dual shifter interfaces with front shifter

You have a right-side shifter as above, but also one on the left side. The left side shifter has the numbers 1 and 2 on it, or like the below picture which has 1, 2, and 3.

Shifter with 8 gears.
Left side lever with 3 gears

How many gears does your bike have?

Take a look at the numbers on your shifters.

If you only have a single shifter on the right side, it indicates the exact amount of gears you have. If you have a second shifter on the left side too, it multiplies the gears you have on the right.

For example, you can see on the pictures above that my bike with the twist shifter has 7 gears on the right and no gears on the left, which gives me 7 gears. My other bike has 8 gears on the right and 3 gears on the left, giving me a total of 24 possible gear combinations.

What is the easiest gear?

The easiest gear on the bicycle is always the first gear, which is the lowest available gear on your bike.

If you have a single shifter system, you only need to pay attention to the one number on the only shifter. If you have a dual shifter, the easiest gear is when you select 1 on both the left and right-side shifters.

The lower the number, the lower the gear and the easier it is to pedal. If you find that you are pedaling too fast with the lowest gear, gear 1, then adjust the gears upwards until you are comfortable.

As a rule of thumb, shifting one gear on the left side is the equivalent of shifting three gears on the right side.

On a bike that has three gears on the front, the first gear is used for hills, the second or the third gear is used for flats, and the third gear is for going down a hill.

Which gear can you go the fastest with?

The fastest gear is always the highest gear. This varies from bike to bike depending on how many gears it has.

If you only have one shifter, the highest number of gear will yield the fastest speeds. If you have two shifters, the highest gear on both at the same time gives you the fastest speeds.

The higher the number, the higher the gear, and the faster you can go. But it will also take more force to pedal! The highest gear is not always the most practical one to select, especially if you’re going against a headwind or pedaling on an incline.

As we saw, different gear systems have different amounts of gears, so you have to see how many gears your bike has specifically, and it’s good to remember this.

Is gear 1 high or low?

1 is your lowest gear, which means that you need to pedal fast and you get the least amount of speed in return. On a dual shifter bicycle, put both shifters in 1st gear to get the easiest gear.

First gear is meant to help you climb hills, but it’s not meant to be used on flat roads or on descents.

What is the best gear for climbing a hill?

The best gear for climbing a hill is one of your lowest gears. The steepness of the hill, your fitness level and the number of gears on your bike will determine which one you should choose.

If you are going slowly, normally gear numbers from 1 to 3 are suitable uphill. If you feel you are pedaling too fast and not going fast enough, change to a higher gear number, but if you’re feeling that pedaling is too difficult, change to a smaller gear if available.

What is the best gear for riding on the flat?

Generally, you will use the middle range of gears on the flat to pedal at a comfortable pace and decent speed. So, if you have a 7 speed, gears from 3 to 6 would be suitable for use on the flat. If you are riding with the wind, you can change to your highest gear and go really fast.

If you have two shifters, use the second gear on the left-hand side, and one of the highest gears (6 or 7) on the right side. If you feel that you could exert more power, you can shift to the third gear on the left to go even faster.

How do you use gears on an 18/21/24 speed bike?

A bike with gears in the range of 18/21/24+ means it has 3 gears on the left-side shifter and 6/7/8 on the right-side shifter. A general way to think of using such gears is to first focus on the left side shifter and the type of riding conditions. 

Uphill

When riding uphill select gear 1 on the left side shifter, then adjust right side gears as suits you. 

Flat

When riding on the flat select gear 2 on the left side shifter, then adjust the right-side gears to suit you.

Downhill – fast 

Then when riding downhill, you guessed it, select gear 3.

But watch out; when you slow down it is hard to change the left side shifter. To prevent this, you should pedal slowly when braking and down-shift on the left shifter.

For example, if you are going fast downhill, and you need to stop, such as at a red-light, downshift on the left shifter, and pedal slowly before you stop, otherwise you’ll be stuck in a high gear which will be tough to start pedaling with when you want to start moving.

How can I ride uphill without getting tired?

If you select a low enough gear and don’t concentrate on going fast, but instead, on pedaling at a constant pace, you will make riding uphill easier. Since you’re fighting against gravity, climbing hills is harder than riding on a flat. If riding up a hill is too difficult, and you have a lower gear available, choose it.

The first tip is: Practice makes perfect. The more you cycle uphill, the easier it will become.

Second tip: Some inclines are actually not too steep, and you can try to choose either Left side gear 2, and or a higher left-side gear. Sometimes people choose a low gear when riding uphill, but you still use a lot of energy. If you select a slightly higher gear, you might use a similar amount of energy, but go slightly faster and will be riding for less time, so be overall less tired.

Third tip: Find a less steep route, even if it is longer. I live in Switzerland, and there are some steep hills here! So sometimes if I don’t want to be too sweaty, I take a zig-zagging route uphill. This ends up taking around the same time as I can cycle faster on the less steep route, plus I’m less tired and sweaty at the end.

How to shift without ruining your bike

Finding the right gear and gear combination is not too difficult once you get the hang of it. There is another article, which goes into some practical details on what you need to pay attention to when shifting, especially if you are unsure, and want to avoid ruining your bicycle. You can find it here on Bike Commuter Hero.

Happy pedaling!

Simon Faneco

Simon is a bicycle engineer and entrepreneur from Australia currently living in Switzerland. He's the inventor of the first true center mounted CVT for bicycles. Follow his invention at ratiox.ch.

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