Complete Guide to 6-Speed Bike Gears

Bikes can be tricky to get your head around and one of the most confusing aspects of bikes are the gears. Today, we’re going to look at bikes with 6-speed gears, explaining what “6-speed” actually means (why it’s a misnomer) and what the six gears look like on a bike. We’ll also look at how to change gears on a 6-speed bike and which gears are best for climbing uphill or descending downhill.

What do 6-speed gears look like

First up, let’s take a look at where these “6-speeds” are on the bike and what they look like.

If you squat down on the right-hand side of a bike, by the rear wheel, you’ll see that it looks something similar to the image below.

6-speed gears: these are the main components

This shows the three key components of your bike’s gearing system – added to this is the gear shifter (not shown in the picture – this is located on the right side of the handlebars).

The three components are:

Chain – this transfers the power that you generate by turning the pedals to the rear wheel hub.

Derailleur – this guides the chain and is used to shift the chain from one cog to another in the cassette (known as ‘changing gears’).

Cassette – this comprises six sprockets (which are toothed cogs). These are the “6 speeds” on your bike.

Looking down from above your bike, these components look like this:

6-speed gears: top down view

What does “6-speed” mean?

“6-speeds” is actually a bit of an incorrect name. Why? Well, with each of these 6 speeds you would be able to pedal along at the exact same speed if you wanted to.

The 6 gears in the rear cassette are there so that you can pedal more easily up hills, by shifting to a lower gear. Then you can pedal faster downhills by shifting into a higher gear.

How to change gears on a 6-speed bike?

Changing gears on a 6-speed bicycle is incredibly easy to do.

On your bike, you’ll see that there is a gear shifter at the right-hand side of the handlebar. This will be one of two varieties: trigger shift or twist shift.

Trigger shifters – these are a pair of small levers underneath the handlebar. They will be placed so that you can easily reach them with your right thumb. Pressing one lever will move ‘up’ a gear and pressing the other will move ‘down’ a gear.

Twist shifters – this is a gear shifter that is incorporated into the right-hand grip. Close your right hand around the grip and you’ll see the shifter, which looks like a plastic ring with a dial that has the numbers 1 through 6 on it. Turn the twist shifter towards you and you’ll change either up or down a gear, depending on the brand of shifter – use the printed numbers as your guide here.

Remember that you should only attempt to change gears when you are also turning the pedals. Turning the pedals means that the chain will be going round and round – and this allows the derailleur to push the chain to one side or the other onto a different cog. If the pedals aren’t turning and the chain isn’t moving when you try and change gears you’ll likely find that the chain becomes tangled or caught and this can cause major (i.e. expensive) damage to your bike.

Which is the best gear to go up hills on a 6-speed bike?

Gear 1, the lowest gear, is the best gear to use on a 6-speed bike when you’re climbing up a slope.

You’ll be in gear 1 when the chain is on the cog nearest the rear wheel – this is the largest cog and you’ll see that it looks like the image below.

Gear 1 AKA lowest gear, bottom gear – use it to go uphill


When you’re in the lowest gear you’ll find that you’ll be spinning the pedals faster, but won’t have to put so much power into pedaling as you climb uphill.

Which is the best gear on a 6-speed for downhill and flat roads?

In contrast, when you’re cycling on the flat or down hills, you’ll need to shift into a higher gear. For the steepest of downhill slopes, you need to change to your highest gear.

The highest gear, 6th gear, is where the chain is on the smallest cog – this is the one furthest from the rear wheel – see below.

Gear 6 AKA top gear, highest gear – use it on the flat and going downhill

How does gear 6 feel to cycle in? Unlike 1st gear, when you’re in your top gear (6th gear), you’ll find that for every turn of the pedals you’ll go further forwards and at a greater speed.

You may also find that you have a large grin on your face as you whizz along 😊

Pro Tip – make sure to watch the road ahead of you to see how the slope is going to change. If you’re going downhill, but are coming close to an uphill, then get ready to change DOWN to your lowest gear (1st gear). On the other hand, if you’re going uphill, but the slope is either levelling out, or going downhill, then prepare to change UP to your highest gear (6th gear).

What are 6-speed bikes good for?

6-speed bikes have a couple of major advantages that make them an ideal choice for many riders.

Firstly, compared to bikes with more gears, 6-speed bicycles are easier to learn how to operate. Bikes with 21, 24, and 27 gears have an extra set of gear shifters (on the left-hand side of the handlebars) and these can be tricker to get used to. That makes 6-speed gears great for first-time riders (kids or adults) and also for e-bikes (which need fewer gears because the electric motor can do more of the heavy lifting).

Bikes with higher numbers of gears also tend to have more components involved – 24-speed bikes have both a front and rear derailleur, for example. 6-speed bikes are simpler machines, with fewer components, so they’re great if you want to just get out and ride, rather than worry about maintenance hassles. For that reason, you’ll often see 6-speeds on kids bikes, hybrids, comfort and beach cruiser bikes.

6-speed bikes tend to be best for flatter terrain – so, if you find yourself cruising along on flat pavement or rolling backcountry routes most of the time, then a 6-speed might be perfect.

Conclusion

6-speed are a fantastic choice for main types of bike, and many types of bike rider.

They give you the ability to cruise up slopes (think: low gear / 1st gear) and put a smile on your face as you pedal fast down the other side (think: high gear / 6th gear).

They’re simpler to operate than bike with lots of gears, and they can be much more cost-effective to maintain with fewer components to go wrong.

Remember:

  • Pedal whilst you change gear
  • 1st gear to go up hills
  • 6th gear to go down hills
  • Have fun!

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