How To Use MTB Gear Selection to Save Energy and Go Faster

There is a lot of miss information on gear selection and cadence for mountain biking and I would like to clear some things up for you.

As for cadence we are mountain biking, not road riding! This means we have a lot more variables to deal with (than road riders), roots, rocks, loose conditions, etc often requiring us to use a slow cadence to maintain traction and balance. While Lance Armstrong popularized the idea of spinning an easy gear I have never seen a study that proves this is the most economical way to climb for all body types and it can be every hard to maintain control on trail why spinning a high rpm. Many of the best mountain bikers (Tinker Juarez comes to mind) and even some road racers (Jan Ullrich) push really hard gears. So use a cadence that is comfortable for you, taking into account your fitness, power to weight ratio, traction and balance demands.

Always while riding adjust your gearing to the speed you are going!

When going from a downhill to uphill do not shift into an easier gear before necessary as you will lose precious momentum while coasting (unable to pedal) uphill and often lose your balance (by pedaling with no resistance throwing your weight forward).  This means if you are in your hardest gear at the bottom of a hill stay in that gear as you start climbing to keep your momentum up! Then, shift as needed (do not shift under power, do a “soft pedal” (a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel) when shifting on a climb) maintaining your momentum!  By only shifting when needed you can often maintain a much higher pace while using less energy on a climb (see previous article on going faster with less energy).

To accelerate a bike we need to be an an easy gear, not a gear we are straining to push. As you are slowing to enter a corner (where you will be coasting through) shift into a gear to match your speed on the exit of the corner (this takes some practice to learn what gear feels good at what speed).

Power modulation is also important! Sudden surges in power can cause wheel spin (wasting energy and possibly loosing balance/control) while climbing as can just plain applying too much power for the conditions. I often see super powerful riders crank uphills at speeds I am envious of but I can hear their rear slipping, if they backed off on power just a little bit they would climb just as fast or faster using less energy! Have you ever spun out on slippery root while climbing? Next time trying slowly increasing your power for a pedal stroke or three before the root then doing a “soft pedal” over the root and getting back on the power once passed the root. In short, producing a lot of power is great but relying on power instead of finesse wastes energy and often causes you to stall or crash.

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8 replies
  1. ILOJ says:

    I really like the idea of increasing pedal power for a few strokes prior to ‘soft pedaling’ over a root in order to maintain traction. I generally like to ride the ‘fastest’ tire that I can for the given conditions, often times, a tire like the Small Block Eight or Slant Six, which have very low rolling resistance, and good dry traction, but suffer a bit on damp, moist roots. Many times, like this past weekend for instance, I have switched from one of these ‘fast’ tires to one of my ‘slower’ more aggressive tread, gripiper tires, soleyl to get over the few uphill damp roots on one of my favorite trails – by doing so, I am giving up speed and efficiency on 99% of the rest of the trail, just so I don’t spin out on a few uphill wet roots. Trying your technique should allow me to not only maintain traction in these spots, but also maintain more speed, more efficiently on the rest of the trail. Thanks for the great tip.

    Reply
  2. Mandi says:

    Can you elaborate a bit on the “soft pedal”? I don’t get what you mean with “a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel.”

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Mandi,

      Try this to help you understand: Shift into the easiest to pedal gear on your bike and go down a hill, at some point you will be able to pedal 1-30 revelations as fast as you can yet nothing will happen. You will feel no resistance and all the pedaling will not make you go any faster. This is a “soft pedal” but going downhill. Or imagine going say from zero to 5 miles an hour, you would feel pressure when you pushed down on the pedals and it would take a little effort. Now that you are up to five lets say you are pedaling at 60 revelotions a minute, now imagine shifting into an easier gear and pedaling at 30 rpm, that would be “a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel.”

      Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Mandi,

      Try this to help you understand: Shift into the easiest to pedal gear on your bike and go down a hill, at some point you will be able to pedal 1-30 revelations as fast as you can yet nothing will happen. You will feel no resistance and all the pedaling will not make you go any faster. This is a “soft pedal” but going downhill. Or imagine going say from zero to 5 miles an hour, you would feel pressure when you pushed down on the pedals and it would take a little effort. Now that you are up to five lets say you are pedaling at 60 revolutions a minute, now imagine shifting into an easier gear and pedaling at 30 rpm, that would be “a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel.”

      Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Nicholas,

      We are great coaches and leave bike renting to great shops. We can usually send you to a shop we have worked with in the past for rentals though. Feel free to contact us at info@betterride.net and we answer any questions you have and help you get a bike rented.

      Thanks,

      Gene

      Reply
  3. Gannon says:

    Gene,

    I agree trying to pick a 92 rpm cadence is impossible on a MTB. However, when tired and mid race and terrain allows, I think spinning does have a place in XC racing. I can’t pull it off on the hardest climbs, and like to try to get to about 80s, but is a great way to recover/reasonable push after a climb on rolling terrain. If we are talking about averages (Jan Ulrich being extraordinary not average), what are your thoughts on this?

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Gannon,

      I have never seen a scientific study done on cadence and until I do I will think it is personal preference possibly having to do with either the amount of fast twitch vs. slow twitch fibers in a riders muscles, power to weight, leg length or simply what you have trained your body to do well. I do know that your balance is terrible at high rpms so for loose and/or technical climbing a slower cadence is much better.

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply

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