How to Use Your Gears to Get You Uphill

Does uphill pedaling have you huffing and puffing? Read these tips by Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine on optimizing your gears for the uphills!

A cyclist pedals up a hill. It is snowy.
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One of the most confusing aspects of cycling is the gears. Some of the many questions you may ask yourself include: How many gears do I need—7 speed? 8 speed? 9 speed? Do I need a triple for the hills? What’s the difference between 1 by and 2 by? Is it better to have more speeds? I live in a hilly area, what gears should I use for steep hills? How about for the Alps? When should I shift the bike when I want to ascend a hill?

In this article, we will dive into gears, answering all your questions about what they are and how to select the right gears for your bike.

What Do Gears Allow You to Do?

Let’s go back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and people only had fixed-gear bikes to begin our journey. If your bike has fixed gears or is a “fixie,” the number of rotations your wheels make is “fixed” to the pedals. So, if I am using a fixed-gear bike, the bike wheel will make one full rotation when I pedal. Therefore, the larger the wheel, the longer distance the bike will travel on a flat surface. The only way to go faster with this type of gear is to pedal faster or increase the diameter of the wheel. Hence, the penny-farthing bike with the huge front wheel was born.

Old man crossing the Augustus bridge in Dresden, Germany on a penny-farthing bicycle. He is wearing a black hat and a brown vest.

Photo by Fjmustak

The problem with a fixie becomes apparent on hilly terrain. When coasting downhill, the wheel will spin faster than your legs can spin and you will “spin out.” When ascending, you’ll have the opposite problem—you want to go faster but gravity makes it harder to do so. Therefore, gears were invented.

Gears allow you to spin at a comfortable cadence (RPM, or the number of revolutions your feet spin per minute) when climbing and increase speed when you are descending on the flat.

Number of Speeds Is Mostly Meaningless

Many customers think that if they have more gears, they can ride faster or climb more easily. This is not the case! A 10-speed bike can have a lower ratio than a 12-speed bike; what matters is the SIZE of the sprockets. So, a 10-speed bike with an 11-32T cassette will be easier to spin than a 12-speed bike with an 11-25T cassette or even a 10-speed bike with an 11-25T cassette.

You measure the size of the cogs with the number of teeth (T) on the chainring, or sprockets on the cassette. The cassette is the cluster of sprockets on the back wheel. The bigger the sprockets in the back are, the easier it is to spin. The smaller the sprockets are, the harder it is to spin. Therefore, in our previous example, the 10-speed bike with a 32T has a lower gear than the 12-speed bike with a 25T. The 32T and 25T are your lower gear if you were going up a mountain, and the 11T is the high gear when you are descending or riding fast.

So, when we see 11-32T, what that means is the other sprockets fall between 11 and 32T, which are 11-12-14-16-18-20-22-25-28-32 teeth for a 10-speed cassette. An 11-32T cassette for an 8-speed bike is 11-13-15-18-21-24-28-32T. This is where the number of sprockets in the back becomes important. Although you have the same top gears with the 8-speed and 10-speed bikes, the jumps between the cassettes are MUCH larger.

This can create the feeling when you are riding along and one gear is too hard and the next lower gear is too easy. For example, if you are riding the 8-speed bike and you are in the 21T sprocket, it may be too hard but the 24T may be too easy. If you have the 10-speed and you are in the 20T, you also have a 22T, which might be the golden gear for you.

Moreover, having more gears improves shifting because there are small jumps between the gears. The chain has to derail off the sprocket and hop up to the next one. If those sprockets are similar in size, like the 11 to 12 in the 10-speed bike, the adjustment will be faster and quicker because the chain only has to move to a sprocket with 1 more tooth.

But, if you look at the jump from 28T to 32T, the chain has to move up four teeth, which isn’t as fast. This is important when you are riding up a steep hill and need to switch from the 28T to the 32T; your cadence will be lower and you will really need that 32T as soon as possible. Also, you lose sprockets in the middle that will be useful on flatter rides for those climbing gears. Therefore, many cyclists who live in flatter areas will gear down by replacing their flat land cassette, like an 11-28T or 11-25T, with a climbing cassette, like an 11-32T.

Death of the Triple Crankset

Rotor 3D SRM Crankset laying on a table. It is black.

Rotor 3D SRM Crankset. Photo courtesy of Glory Cycles

Triples are cranksets with three chainrings in the front. Since the industry killed the triple crankset, it is not uncommon to see some endurance road with an 11-34T cassette as a primary cassette. Many older riders remember using a triple crankset for steep climbs.

Unlike a cassette, the smaller the chainring is, the easier it is to pedal uphill. The triple was invented to give novice riders an extra small gear in the front—for example, the 46/32/28. The 28T would be the easiest gear to pedal uphill for either complete beginners or 20% gradients. The triple was necessary for low gears since bike manufacturers did not produce cassettes larger than a 25T at the time. Now that using tall gears has fallen out of fashion and more road cyclists can be seen with a higher pedaling cadence and more gears, even professional road bikes are coming with a stock 11-28T cassette.

The triple was also phased out to save weight, improve shifting speed and reliability, and for durability reasons. Lugging an extra plate of steel up the hill is no fun, which is why most performance road bikes were not equipped with triples. Moreover, the front-end shifting is more clunky. We will touch more on this in the shifting section of this article, but you don’t want to shift as much on the front-end because you are more likely to drop a chain and because it is not as fast. You generally keep the front chainring in gear and use the rear shifting for small compensations. Also, since the middle chainring had to accept both upshifts and downshifts on both sides of the chainring, rampants and pins had to be drilled out of it, which makes the middle of the chainring wear out quicker.

Rise of 2x and 1x

1x

Since the industry killed off the triple, it was replaced with a 2x, or 1-by (two chainrings in the front), and 1x or 1-by for mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and all road bikes (one chainring). Let’s start with 1-by since it is the easiest to understand. The brand SRAM popularized the 1-by in the mountain-biking scene. It is best when you are on rough surfaces since you are less likely to drop a chain. It is less for the mountain bikers to think about while riding.

Also, mountain bikers don’t need two chainrings since they are normally coasting downhill or sprinting uphill and do not experience as much range in pedaling as road bikers would. After that, the 1-by came to the all-road and gravel bike sector for the same reasons.

2x

The 2x is mainly used on hybrid and road bikes. You can still find 2x mountain bikes, but it isn’t “cool” anymore. For road biking, there are three chainring sizes. The standard or professional/racing size is 53/39T, the semi-compact size is 52/36T, and the compact size is 50/34T.

The standard is for professional cyclists. You will see these cranksets on bikes ridden by cyclists in the Tour de France and other elite sports. Since professionals can produce twice the power of mere mortals, they have taller gears so they don’t spin out when they are riding at 50 kilometers per hour and descending a mountain at 80 to 100 kilometers per hour. These gears are not meant for amateur riders! As you can see, the 39T is much larger than the 36T or 34T on other cranksets, so unless you are a very gifted racer, leave these cranks to the pros.

The compact crankset was designed to help less experienced cyclists have a fun ride. Since the 50/34T is much smaller, riders with less power can ride the same bike as the pros with gearing that won’t destroy their knee caps. Also, when paired with a wide-ranging cassette like an 11-34T, you have a low 1:1 ratio granny gear, which is low enough that even the most junior rider can spin up almost anything. Nowadays, compacts are mostly found on endurance road bikes that would have had a triple with an 11-34T, like the Cannondale Synapse Tiagra.

There’s a Massive Hill! What Should I Do?

A cyclist climbs up a steep hill. There is snow on the side of the road.

Photo by HP Gruesen

Don’t panic! Your strategy for climbing is pacing. You must pace the climb to reach the top. You don’t want to go into the climb and blow a gasket halfway up the hill. If you are completely new to cycling, you should click to the lowest gear you have and spin easily.

There is a saying in cycling: “Don’t look for the effort, let the effort find you.” When you are fresh at the bottom of the climb, it is easy to go too hard because you are excited. However, four to five minutes later, you will pay the consequences for going too hard. Save your effort at the bottom of the hill and hold that pace until the end of the climb.

The best strategy is to ride with a negative split. This means that you ride easy for the first part of the climb and then pick up the pace at the end of the climb. You can use heart rate or a power meter to pace yourself more effectively.

What Cadence Should I Climb at?

A cyclist climbs a steep looking hill on a road bike. There are a lot of trees and grasses in the background and some mountains in the distance.

Writer Jared Fontaine in the French Alps climbing the Col de la Madeleine, a famous mountain that tops out at 2000 meters which is generally featured in the Tour de France. This is a 10% gradient about 12 km into the climb. Very hard! He had a 50/34T chainring and 11-28T cassette in the back. Photo courtesy of Jared Fontaine.

Lance Armstrong was famous for his 100 RPM pedaling cadence. Power is a product of torque and cadence, so you can increase your power by pushing a harder gear or by spinning the same gear at a faster rate. Armstrong’s doctors found out that increasing pedaling cadence will allow you to climb faster than grinding at a lower RPM up the climb.

When you climb at a faster rate, you put more stress on your cardio system and less on your muscles. Your cardio effort can recover faster by increasing the number of red blood cells in your body. For that reason, Armstrong and other riders used drugs to increase the number of red blood cells in their bodies to help them climb faster.

Of course, we can use high cadence climbing to our advantage without taking drugs. By keeping your cadence at around 80 to 90 RPM, you can climb much faster. The best way to do this is to use a power meter to gauge your effort. Power meters quantify your efforts into watts so you can pace yourself more effectively. Therefore, you know that you are putting in a good effort while you are climbing. I don’t want to get too much into power training in this article, but generally, climbing at 100 watts at 90 RPM is probably too slow, but climbing at 200 or 250 watts at 90 RPM is a good workout and 350 to 450 watts is best for professional athletes.

What About Standing?

Some road cyclists are racing up a hill. They all have yellow shoes on and some of them are standing up while pedaling.

Professional cyclist Marco Pantani (left) stands on his bicycle during the Giro D'Italia race of 2014. Photo by Brian Townsley

When you are standing on a climb, you produce more power since you are using your body weight to push the pedals. Smaller riders like Marco Pantani or Alberto Contador generally climbed out of the saddle more than heavier riders. Most mere mortals would be best to climb out of the saddle for a few seconds to relieve their muscles or if they need more power to get over an increase in gradient. When you climb out of the saddle, you increase your heart rate so you should do it sparingly.

When you are about to stand, click down one or two gears since your cadence will be lower when you are standing. Then rise out of the saddle on the downstroke. Pull up on the handlebar on the side where your foot is on the downstroke. You will get more power this way since you are twisting the bike to get more power down.

As an aside, this is why bottom bracket and downtube stiffness is so important because it transfers all the power to the rear wheel. Keep your weight back so that you can use your weight to move the pedals. When you sit back down, click back to the gear you were on before you stood up and you’re good to go.

Don’t Cross Chain!

A diagram explaining what cross chaining is.

Photo courtesy of WickWerks Cycling Components

Cross chaining is when you are riding with the biggest chainring in the front and the biggest in the back, or the smallest gear in the front and the smallest in the back. Cross chaining wears out your drivetrain faster, increasing the likelihood of dropping your chain. The best indicator that you are cross chaining is that you can hear the chain rubbing against the front derailleur.

How do you prevent cross chaining?

Most entry groupsets have indicators to show you which gear you are on; however, high-end components drop the indicators for better aspects, weight savings, and because they are not needed for advanced cyclists.

Advanced users prevent cross chaining by shifting the front derailleur when they are in the middle of the cassette. You shift the front derailleur for very large changes in power output. For example, if I am at the beginning of a hill, I will shift to a lower gear, or if I am riding over the crest of a climb and about to descend. Then, I can use the rear derailleur to finetune my tension. Generally, if you have made four shifts in one direction—whether easier or harder—it is time to shift the front derailleur. Then, you want to make a compensating shift in the rear in the opposite direction of the front derailleur.

Here is an example to illustrate the point: If you are riding with the big chainring in the front and the middle of the cassette and you are grinding at 60 RPM, it is time to shift the front derailleur so you can spin at 80 RPM. However, when you shift the front derailleur, you might be spinning too fast now at 90 or 95 RPM and are not putting out enough power. In that case, you need to finetune the tension by shifting in the back to a harder gear so you can get to around 80 RPM like you initially planned. Advanced riders do this instinctually, but now with electronic drivetrains, you can actually program the shifters to do this for you automatically.

Final Thoughts on Climbing

The best and fastest way to the top of any long climb is to PACE. Pace, don’t race. Many times, I have let riders go up the climb because they were going too fast for me, but I still passed them near the top. Remember to hold something back in order to sprint the finish.

The last mile of the climb is the best! It is where you sprint for the end, and if you pace correctly and use your entire range of the cassette, you can get that rush of a feeling when finishing a climb too.

If you have any other questions that weren't covered in this article, or want some personalized recomendations for the best bike setup for you, hit up one of our Cycling Experts on Curated and they'd be happy to walk you through the process of finding your perfect bike!

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Written By
Hi! I am a lover of professional cycling and training. I have been cycling well over 10 years and I usually go to Europe to see the Tour de France and the Giro. I have ridden most of the France mountains in the Tour like Alp d'Heuz, the Galibier, and others. Moreover, I have ridden in Ireland, Germa...

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