I decided to write this blog post a couple weeks ago when I was helping with the Field Institute of Taos after-school mountain bike program. This is an awesome program that has gotten tons of kids (including me, albeit over 10 years ago) into mountain biking. I can't remember how many times I've helped with the program, but it's great to hang out with these kids (some as young as 8) and watch them get into mountain biking. A big focus of the program is skill development and this most recent time I was reminded that one of the most difficult skills in mountain biking is shifting.
Most mountain bikers know how to shift. Those that don't, ride singlespeeds. The problem though isn't how to shift, but when. Wanna know the secret?
"Shift early and often"
Let's start with "early". The main reason you should shift early (before you reach a section of the trail where you need a different gear) is because it's better for your bike. We've all had the experience of hitting a steep climb in too hard of a gear and shifting while pedaling hard. The bike doesn't like it. That's why it makes all those terrible noises and/or refuses to shift and/or breaks. Yeah, this will probably happen every once in a while, but the more often you do this to your bike, the faster your drivetrain will wear out. And considering how expensive chains, cassettes and chainrings are, that's not something you want.
Personally, I'd rather replace cables and housing more often because I've been shifting so much. Now onto the "often" part. After deciding to write this post I started wondering how often I shift. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a good way to count. I've considered attaching my GoPro to my handlebars and aiming it at my shifters, but then I'd have to go home and count every shift afterwards and that sounds really boring. So I can't give you an exact number, or even an approximation, but it's a lot. A lot a lot.
As in I'm almost constantly shifting gears. You see, I can only think of a few situations where you SHOULDN'T be shifting gears. One is if you are climbing something so steep that you're struggling in your granny gear. Since you have no easier gear (you're in your granny) and you're struggling, you probably shouldn't shift.
Another is if you're descending so fast that you don't need to pedal. Unless you have internal shifting it won't make any difference anyway so you might as well focus on not hitting any cows that have wandered onto the trail. Otherwise, since you're mountain biking, the terrain is changing so there's a good chance you should be in a different gear than you one you chose 10 seconds ago. So...shift!