Best practices for shifting gears

Shifting gears and changing your e-assist level at the right time can ensure for smooth sailing on your next ride. With a little practice and time in the saddle, you should quickly find the groove that feels right for you. 

Before we dive in, the Electric Mountain Bike Network has a great video titled “How And When To Change Gear On Your E Bike – E MTB Shifting & Mode Selection Explained”.  

Shifting gears

It can help to understand what is happening mechanically when you are changing gears. Xtracycle electric bikes have one front chainring and a rear cassette with 11 cogs or gears / speeds. When you use the click shifter on your handlebars to change gears, the cable running from the shifter to the derailleur arm is pulled tight or loosened which moves the chain up or down along the cogs. As the derailleur arm extends away from the frame, it moves the chain to the smaller cogs on the cassette. As the arm retracts and folds up toward the frame, the chain is moved up to the larger cogs. 

For the non-electric Xtracycle Swoop, there are also 3 gears on the crank by the pedals. These gears work similarly to the rear gears but it is the front derailleur that moves the chain between the chainrings. 

The gears on your bike are there to help you convert the energy from your body and legs into movement. There is a sweet spot where you aren’t pedaling too fast or too slow or too hard. The best gear to be in during your ride is one that allows your legs to spin at a comfortable pace.

Because mechanical changes are physically happening when you change gears, you can’t just blast through gear changes in rapid succession. When you change one gear at a time, the derailleur arm needs time to move into position and carry the chain with it. If you are switching gears too quickly for this action to take place it can cause the chain to jump completely off the rear cassette or brake your chain. Best practice is to be patient when switching gears. You can usually hear when it’s ready to shift again.  

There are a few shoulds and shouldn’ts when it comes to shifting to ensure your chain and derailleur arm stay in prime operating condition. 

When you SHOULDN’T shift gears

– When the pedals aren’t moving.
– When you are stopped or cruising while not pedaling.
– When the chain is under a lot of pressure like when you are in the middle of climbing a hill. 

When you SHOULD shift gears

– When you are smoothly pedaling and not applying a ton of pressure to the chain.
Before you go up a hill.
Before coming to a stop
– When going downhill.

Going uphill is the time you are most likely to notice poorly timed shifting. The trick is to shift BEFORE you hit the hill. If you see a hill coming up, you will want to downshift before you start applying pressure to the pedals. Shifting while climbing the hill can stress your chain. Similarly, when you are slowing down to a stop, it is important to downshift so you are in a lower (easier) gear when you start up again. Changing gears while stopped can damage your gears and chain. With a little attention and practice, downshifting when coming to a stop is easy to get the hang of.

Shifting when going downhill is a little more forgiving as long as you are pedaling. When going downhill you will want to shift into a higher or harder gear.  

Using e-assist

When you change the assist level on the e-bike controller on your handlebars, an electrical signal is being sent to the motor (unlike the mechanics of your gear shifter physically pulling on or loosening a cable). The “shifts” that are happening when you change modes are all happening inside the motor. 

When riding your bike, you can switch between assist modes throughout your ride. Unlike with shifting gears, your bike and chain do not need to be moving. You can switch between modes while your bike is completely stopped, while your bike is moving, while going uphill or downhill. This can especially be helpful going up hills when you need a little boost or while at a stop light. You can start off in the highest assist mode and bump down to the lowest once you’ve reached your desired speed. 

Knowing what assist level to use in a given situation can help keep your bike and the battery in good shape. For the Xtracycle Shimano powered bikes, there are 3 modes: 

Eco mode: This is the lowest assist mode. When in eco-mode, the motor will give you the least amount of assist the system can give. Eco-mode is a good option when you are cruising or riding on a flat surface, going down hill, needing to conserver battery power, or looking for the challenge of having less assist helping you pedal. 

Trail mode: This mode is a step up from eco. It will use up more battery power but can give you the boost you need to climb hills or go faster. 

Boost mode: This is the highest level of assist you can get. It’s best for short term use since it drains the battery the most. This mode is best for tackling big hills, when you need to get somewhere fast or for reaching the max speed of the e-assist system (20 mph).

Can you ride your bike with no assist at all? Technically, yes. While your bike can still ride when the system is off, riding without assist will rarely feel comfortable or practical. Plan on riding in Eco mode, at minimum, when on a ride. 

Time to put the rubber on the road

Now that you know the hows of shifting and changing your assist mode, it’s all a matter of getting out there and trying it. Each person, terrain and bike can be different so it will just take some real world trial and error to find the right pace for you.