How To Use Bike Gears & Cadence Efficiently

by Megan Giglia (MBE)

‘Gears selection is incredibly important – just as important as your legs’ says British Paralympic Champion Megan Giglia. ‘A common mistake people make is underusing them. They cycle in a high gear, expending lots of energy and pedalling at a low speed. Others pedal furiously but don’t get very far because they are in too low a gear.’

‘The right gear = more efficient cycling = faster travel and less energy consumption. You’ll be able to keep a steady revolution rate (or cadence) without feeling like you’re pushing too hard or too gently through the pedals.’


  • Left-hand lever. Controls the front derailleur (guides the chain over the chainrings near the pedals) and facilitates large jumps in gears. The bigger the front chainring, the more resistance.
  • Right-hand lever. Controls the rear derailleur (guides the chain over the back cogs) where you ?ne-tune your gearing. The bigger the cassette cog, the less resistance.

A bike can 'work' in any combination of front and rear gear, but for a steady, well-paced and comfortable ride, smooth gear changes, not to mention a beneficial workout, the right combination is key. 3 good choices are:

1. Low Gear. Low gears use slow twitch muscle fibres and are best for endurance, long-distance rides and climbs. When climbing, switching down to this gear as you approach the ascent will enable you to climb the hill slowly and steadily with less effort.

  • Front gear = Small chainring
  • Back gear = The largest sprockets (e.g. 1-3)
  • Low gears + high cadence = longer riding capability.

2. Middle Gear. Great for everyday terrain, particularly when cruising along flat roads and undulating terrain. You need some resistance, but not much. If the road is up-and-down, you may need to switch between the rear gears to accommodate changes.

  • Front gear = Small chainring on double/compact or middle chainring on triple
  • Back gear = The middle sprockets (e.g. 3-6)

3. High Gear. Great for descending, accelerating and cycling fast on flat roads as you can travel further per pedal rotation. Keep them for short rides and fast sprints as high gears use fast twitch muscle fibres and can cause your muscles to scream. You’ll travel quickly, but will also consume more glycogen and experience greater fatigue.

  • Front gear = Big chainring
  • Back gear = Smallest sprockets (e.g. 4-7)?

Some combinations feel clunky and can cause the chain to slip and wear. For example:

1. Chain Crossing (Large Chainring)
Using the large chainring (most resistance) at the front and the large (least resistance) cog at the back can cause the chain to slip or not shift properly, and will stretch and damage the bike chain.

  • Front gear = Biggest chainring
  • Back gear = Biggest sprocket

Instead… shift into a smaller chainring and add resistance with a smaller cog.


2. Chain Crossing (Small Chainring)
Having the chain in the small chainring (least resistance) and smallest cassette cog (most resistance.)

  • Front gear = Smallest chainring
  • Back gear = Smallest sprocket

Instead… shift into a larger chainring and use the gears around the middle of the cassette.


The best way to understand cadence (the rate at which you pedal) and find the right gear is to practice on a quiet road at different cadences. Count 1 revolution as 1 foot doing a full revolution (record at the bottom of the pedal stroke). For flat or rolling terrain, aim for a cadence of 80-90 pedal revolutions per minute. For climbs, aim for 60-80 revolutions per minute.

Find a quiet hill and ride up it at different cadences. Which one gets you up the hill with minimal energy expansion? Practice climbs at different gradients, looking for the optimum cadence. Which gear will help you to achieve it?

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