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Close-up of a rear-wheel bicycle gear cassette on a red bike

How to Climb Hills Easier With Better Gears

Few things are more frustrating for a cyclist than falling behind on a long climb. You’ve stuck with your friends the whole ride, but now they’re way ahead of you. Not only that, but chances are your legs are worn out by the end of it (and stiff and sore the next day).

There are only two solutions to this problem. You can either work harder to keep up — likely wearing your legs out even more — or you can swap out one or both of your gear sets for better climbing gears.

If you’re already pedaling in your easiest gear setting and still not keeping up, then the latter is likely the better option. To explain why that is, we checked in with Coach Darryl for a lesson on how to climb hills easier with better gears.

How Bike Gearing Works — A Physics Lesson

Bike gearing is based on simple but powerful physics. With a chain running across various sizes of gears on your pedal cranks (the chainring) and your rear wheel (the cassette), the bike transfers power from your legs to the rear wheel of the bike to move you along.

Where things can get confusing is in the gear sizes. They’re measured by the number of teeth, so a larger gear has a larger number of teeth. On your front chainring, the bigger gears are tougher to pedal. On the back cassette, it’s the opposite — the bigger the cog, the easier it is to pedal. 

In the simplest terms, this has to do with how many wheel rotations you get for each pedal stroke. In that sense, you can visualize how the combination of a large front gear and small rear cog would give you the maximum number of rotations for each stroke of the pedal. This is all about simple ratios, and the bigger the front-to-back ratio, the more efficient your pedaling will be. But it’s also much harder because your legs have to work to deliver all that power. 

If you use your smallest chainring in front and the biggest cog in back, though, you’re getting fewer wheel rotations for every stroke, which makes it much easier to pedal and accelerate. You lose a lot of power in exchange for those easier strokes, though.

A Brief History of Bike Gears

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Bikes used to come with only one fixed gear. Eventually, they added a second gear in the back, which required a cyclist to get off the bike, flip the wheel around and put the chain on the other gear manually. (Imagine a peloton of racers doing this today!)

Thanks to the invention of derailleurs and shifters, you can now stay on your bike and change gears at the same time (Ahh, the marvels of technology). But the number and combination of gears have continued to evolve over the years.

Decades ago, front chainrings were bigger and back cassettes were smaller. “They were designed for racers, not weekend warriors,” Darryl says. “This gear combination made hills much more difficult for the rest of us to climb.”

About 15 years ago, this changed in favor of more compact gearing — smaller chainrings up front and bigger cassettes in back. On the back cassette, in particular, the largest cog has gone from a 27- or 28-toothed cog to as many as 36 for a climbing gear today.

“This contributed to a major increase in people cycling, especially when those cyclists were older or heavier, and allowed them to enjoy cycling more,” Coach explains. Why? Those larger cogs in the back (the “climbing gears”) give you more options for pedaling uphill without as much effort.

Climb Easier With a Better Gear Selection

Many cyclists don’t think enough about their gears when they’re shopping for a bike. They make their choice for many other reasons — bike colors, weight and features such as electronic shifting and disc brakes, to name a few — but gear selection isn’t at the top of the list. As a result, Coach Darryl has seen so many cyclists take their new bike out on a ride only to find that it’s exhausting to get it up steep hills.

“People who are in a harder gear to push are going to be hurting their muscles and possibly their knees, and they may not be able to keep the same speed or the distance as the person who has the climbing gears,” says Darryl. 

The good news is, it’s not too difficult to swap out your gears, although this may also require a change in your chain and derailleur. You can do this when you buy the bike or you can modify it later. Choosing the right gears is really all that’s involved in climbing hills easier with better gears. 

Your best bet, especially if you’re a slightly heavier cyclist and you have trouble keeping up on hills, is to install a rear cassette that has a large cog size of 34 or 36. With that option available for climbing, those ascents will be much easier to handle. You’ll keep your heart rate lower for the climb, go easier on your legs, and last much longer for your rides.


You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.