Do Road Bikes Have Gears? (Easy Guide for Beginners)

Gears help cyclists to control their speed, and to navigate a variety of different terrain, including uphill and downhill rides. And if you’re looking into road bikes, you might find yourself wondering:

Do road bikes have gears?

As a general rule, road bikes have 16-27 gears (or speeds) which make pedaling easier on different terrain and at different speeds. There is one primary exception to this, which are “fixie” bikes that have a single fixed gear. Road bikes also have a range of gear ratios that control the power of each crank. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the gears on road bikes and how they work. We’ll also explain how to shift so you can ride comfortably uphill and faster on the flats with a nice, easy cadence. But first, let’s take a look at how many gears you have on your bike and how that relates to your cadence. 

How Many Gears Does a Road Bike Have?

It’s common for entry-level road bikes at leading bicycle brands like Trek and Cannondale to have 16-27 gears. However, there are exceptions to this. For example, “fixie” bikes are a style of road bike that only has one fixed-gear. 

When you’re choosing your own road bike, you should make sure you have enough gears to keep you pedaling at a comfortable rhythm. This is known as cadence. Cadence is how many times you turn the pedals in one minute. Most people find that a comfortable cadence falls somewhere between 70 and 100 rotations per minute, or RPMs. 

You change the gears on your bike to keep your cadence in this range. A comfortable cadence helps you ride faster and longer without getting as tired. Different bikes will have a different number of gears, depending on its purpose. Let’s dig into this concept in more detail. 

How Bike Gears Work 

Bike gears are made up of cassettes and cranksets. The cassette is the collection of sprockets or cogs found on the back wheel.

Road bike cassette

The crankset is found in the front next to the pedals. A road bike will usually have 1-3 rings on the crankset. And the crankset and cassette are both connected by your bike chain. 

Road bike crankset

The larger chainring in the front is the one you use for speed and flat roads. It gives you lots of power but makes it harder to turn the pedals. The little chainring in the front is easier to pedal, making it well suited for spinning up hills. 

The cassette in the rear is for finetuning your cadence to keep your pedals spinning at the most comfortable speed for you. With the rear cassette, the smaller cog is harder, and the larger cog is easier. 

For example, many standard road bikes come with an 11-28 cassette and a 50/34 crankset. This means that the large chainring in the front has 50 teeth and the smaller has 34. In the back, the smallest cog has 11 teeth, and the largest has 28. This gives you a nice variety of gears to use.

As a specific example, Giant’s Contend 3, an all-around good entry-level road bike, comes standard with an 11-34 cassette and a 50/34 crankset. Diamondback’s similarly priced HAANJO 2 comes standard with an 11-28 cassette but a 46/34 crankset. Canyon’s Endurace, which is a bit pricier, delivers a 50/34 crankset and 11/-34 cassette.

These are all good examples of the gear components that come standard on road bikes. 

How Many Gears Do I Need for My Road Bike?

You need enough gears on your road bike to keep your pedaling cadence at a comfortable rhythm for the terrain that you ride. If you ride a lot of hilly terrain, but it’s a struggle for you, then you’ll probably want to get at least 22 gears on your road bike.

With that said, the number of gears isn’t the only thing that matters. It’s also the range of those gears that affects the difficulty (or ease) of pedaling.

For example, if you’re struggling on the hills, you might want to swap out your 11-28 cassette for an 11-32 to make going uphill that much easier. 

On the other hand, if you mostly ride the flats and have strong legs, you might try an 11-25 to give you more speed. Your local bike shop can help you change the cassette on your bike if needed.

To know the number of gears you have on your current bike, you’ll need to be able to count them.

How to Easily Count the Gears on a Bike

It’s easy to count the gears on your bike. In the past, a bike was simply called a ten-speed or a 12 speed, but bike gearing and how we count the gears have changed a little bit over time. 

To count the number of different gears that are available on a bike, all you have to do is to count the number of “rings” on the crankset attached to your pedal and the number of “rings” on the cassette attached to your rear wheel. Multiply these two numbers, and that’s your total number of gears. 

For example, if you have two “rings” on your crankset and 8 “rings” on your cassette, then your total number of gears is 2 X 8 = 16. 

For reference, it’s pretty common for road bikes to have 1-3 “rings” on the crankset and 8-11 “rings” on the cassette.  

But that’s not all there is to it. There’s a little more nuance to keep in mind. More gears isn’t always better because more cogs mean more frequent shifting. The range of gears and the gear ratios also matter. 

What Is a Gear Ratio?

The gear ratio is how many times the back wheel spins for each turn of the pedals. To get the gear ratio of any gear combination on your bike, you divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the rear cog. 

So a combination of the 34 tooth chainring with the 32 tooth cog gives you a gear ratio of 1.06. This means your wheel spins 1.06 times for every turn of the cranks, depending on your wheel size. You can calculate your gear ratios here.

The smaller the number, the easier it is to spin your pedals, but you won’t travel as far. The higher the number, the harder it will be to pedal, but with each pedal stroke, you will go farther. Every bike will have a range of gear ratios and gears to use. 

Do all Bicycles Have Gears?

All bicycles have gears, but single-speed bikes, also known as fixies, only have one gear. Fixies often have a fixed rear wheel, which means that the pedals have to be spinning for the wheel to spin, and therefore, you can’t coast downhill. You can’t change the gears to match your cadence; you have to change your cadence to create the speed you want. 

A typical gear ratio for a fixie is 32/16, meaning the front chainring has 32 teeth and the rear cassette has 16. This 2:1 ratio means that for every turn of the pedals, the rear wheels turn twice. 

Fixies are similar to the bikes we rode as kids since you couldn’t change gears. The bikes are simpler, lighter, and less expensive, but they are also much harder to pedal uphill.

For a fun example of riding a fixie, check out the below video by State Bicycle, Riding Fixed, Up Mountains, With Pros. But if you don’t ride a fixed gear bike, you’ll need to know when to shift gears. 

When to Shift Gears on a Road Bike (Gear Strategy 101)

All this information about gearing may sound complicated, but the basic idea of shifting is pretty simple. You don’t need to know gear ratios or count chainrings to shift effectively. You just need to know how to use them. 

If you have a drop-bar bike, your gears will be activated by levers that sit alongside your brakes. If you have a flat bar, your gears will be activated by a dial built into the grips. 

In the United States, the left shifter controls the front chainring. The front chainring makes big changes in the feel of the gears. The right shifter controls the rear cassette, which makes smaller changes in the feel of the gears. 

Basic shifting can be summed up very easily. We already discussed cadence; that is, how fast your pedals turn in one minute. If pedaling gets difficult enough to slow down your cadence, then shift to an easier gear. If pedaling gets too easy to maintain your cadence, then shift to a harder gear. 

Whenever possible, shift ahead of time to avoid putting too much strain on your drivetrain. 

What Bike Gear Do You Use to Go Uphill?

To go uphill, you want to use an easy gear, sometimes called low gear. Your lowest, easiest gear is a combination of the smallest chainring in the front and the largest cog in the back. This is the easiest gear to pedal in. You won’t go up the hill as fast, but it will be easier to get there. 

For best results, try to anticipate the changes. Don’t wait until you are going uphill to shift down – try to shift right before the hill starts. Most modern bikes can handle the stress of being shifted while going uphill, but the extra tension on the gears could cause you to drop your chain. 

To go downhill, you’ll want to use a hard gear or high gear to avoid spinning the pedals faster than feels comfortable. Your hardest gear is a combination of the big chainring in the front and the smallest cog in the back. This will give you enough resistance to push downhill, increasing your speed. 

What Bike Gear to Use on Flat Road?

To ride on a flat road, you’ll want to find a happy medium. You’ll probably want to use the big chainring in the front and a middle cog in the back. This will give you a balance of speed and power to ride fast on a flat road.

You can use the rear cassette (right lever) to finetune your gearing so that your cadence feels comfortable to you. If it feels too hard, just move to a bigger cog in the back. If it feels too easy, move to a smaller cog in the back. 

Try to avoid using the gear combinations of big-big and small-small. These combinations put too much tension on the chain, making your pedaling less efficient and damaging your drive train over time. 
For a demonstration of how gears work, check out Manon’s video from GCN.


JJ here - I've spent a lot of time on a bike, including completing the 3,000+ mile Southern Tier Route (CA to FL). I started Cycling Beast to "demystify" cycling topics, and to help people overcome roadblocks and level-up their skills.

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