Most mid to high level mountain groupsets (eg SLX and X7) have shifter options without any display as to what gear is currently active. How do riders avoid cross-chaining and other unpleasantnesses, especially when riding in the dark or on rough terrain (i.e. when they can't readily take a look at the rear cogs)?

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  • I know it's a problem for me with my brifters. On my old 15-speed I could fairly easily look down between my right leg and the frame, but with my "new" bike the sight angle is wrong unless I lean way out, and then it's hard to "read" the gear because the angle is wrong. One of many reasons I stay out of the mountains. Oct 3, 2015 at 17:54
  • If you gently try to up-shift or down-shift and can't, doesn't that tell you that you're already in top or bottom gear?
    – ChrisW
    Oct 3, 2015 at 20:06
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    On "the road" one generally picks a chainring to select a "range", and then operates within that range. One needs to be "vaguely aware" of when they are bumping up against the edges of the "range", so that, if one is not sure, tentative shifts can be tried in advance of, say, absolutely positively needing to downshift to avoid dying an ugly death. Of course, in an off-road situation this gets a lot uglier. Oct 3, 2015 at 22:02
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    I find the off road riding I do, indicators are a useless gimmick. Have you ever tried to read indicators in rough terrain? In the unlikely event they are stable enough to be readable, by the time you look down, focus to read them and look back at the trial, you might, if your lucky, have time to see where you will land after the crash.....
    – mattnz
    Oct 4, 2015 at 3:11
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    There's always an optical indicator, it's called looking down.
    – Superbest
    Oct 4, 2015 at 18:14

10 Answers 10


All the elite riders I have encountered just know. I think its part of the attention to detail necessary at that level. You almost never see them looking down to check (that would be showing a weakness and giving oponents an opportunity).

But if you mean can the rider say which cog they are using at the front and rear? then the answer is that often we can't say.

Usually we know by memory which front cog we are using. And as I change the rear gear, I know by the different feel of the ratio whether I'm near the top, the middle, or the bottom of the cluster. I very rarely try to change gears past the last one.

The bike knows. That's enough.

  • When in doubt, you can always have a look between your legs where you can clearly see your chainrings, chain, and cassette. Oct 10, 2015 at 1:19

Cadence mostly. The answer to your question is in the title. Experience. Same way motocross riders know what gear they are in. The speed of the engine vs how fast they are moving.

  • 2
    Good first answer! I think there's much more to it than cadence. With a motorized vehicle there are far fewer gears, so the difference is obvious. With bike gears the difference is often around 10%, so small changes in headwind / tailwind, incline or drafting can make maintaining cadence in a given gear easier or harder than it would be in the next gear. With 10 (or more) gears on a cluster, it is easy for mere mortals to loose track.
    – andy256
    Oct 4, 2015 at 1:39
  • While there are far fewer gears on a motorbike, they may not be spaced particularly far apart, particularly on sportsbikes. gears 3-6 on my GSXR have ratios between 2:1 and 1:1.
    – Leliel
    Oct 5, 2015 at 0:25
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    I tend to agree with this. I don't do racing, but I do bike regularly on hilly dirt roads. My cheapy mountain bike doesn't have visual gear indicators, but due to frequent needs to shift (If I hit a patch of loose sand or an uphill), I tend to at least have some idea of where I'm at in the gear range. I can tell by the stiffness of the gear lever how close to top/bottom I am, as well as by how easy/difficult to pedal it is based on the situation. If I'm going down hill, pedaling at the bottom gear is very different then trying to go uphill through loose sand.
    – Sidney
    Oct 5, 2015 at 14:09
  • -1 You don't address the cross-chaining issue.
    – BSO rider
    Oct 8, 2015 at 16:20

One of my bikes has no indicators and I'm less familiar with it than my other bike which has indicators and more years especially at the top. But I don't find it to be a problem. You don't need to know exactly which gear you're in, just enough to know (e.g) that if you want to drop a gear you need to drop a chainring. A combination of feel and a vague recollection of what I've done is normally enough for that.

  • By the way, I don't consider myself to be particularly experienced, just used to having a good-enough feel for what's happening.
    – Chris H
    Oct 5, 2015 at 12:21

I consider myself decently experienced, having ridden for many years, and my answer is that I don't have to know. The numbers aren't important to me; it's all in how it feels. Whatever speed I'm going, if I want to go faster and I'm pedaling without feeling like I'm doing any work, I need to shift into a higher gear. If I feel like I'm expending too much energy (i.e. it's too hard to pedal), then I gear down. There's not a "right" gear to be in; it's relative to my current speed and how much work I feel like doing, or, in some cases, how much torque I need.


For me noise is a good indicator of “bad” gears with cross chaining. I also know from the speed when I have to change chainrings.


A lot of the time I don't…

Most of my riding is on an older touring bike with downtube shifters or a tandem with mountain bike type (the two button/lever kind) shifters. So I know generally what gear the bike is in by effort and like Michael says detect cross-chaining by sound. With the touring bike shifter position tells me a lot about what gear I'm in and I can read it by feel. On the tandem I can tell the extremes by the shifter behavior (it either won't let you pull cable or won't release anymore).

I also have a pretty relaxed attitude towards cross-chaining. I know it is "bad" and try to avoid it, but I also don't worry too much about occasionally picking the "wrong" gear combinations. I usually notice them due to noise or feel and when I do I shift if I can. If I can't a put a bit of money into the bike parts jar when I get home.


With todays 2- and 1-chainring cranksets, chain-crossing isn't a problem and with the cranksets where it may be a problem (which are rather rare in high-end groups) the sound and feel are good signs of it. So you don't really need to know which gear you're in.

And when you spend a lot of time on your bike you just start to recognise the gears by feel and are able to tell which one you're in... well, +/-1 let's say.

I switched from Shimano Deore (with displays) to Sram X9 (without displays) some 5 years ago, and never felt the need to look down and check the gears. So they are not this important, just a matter of changing habbits.


Experienced riders pick the right chainring based on the terrain coming up. Then all they need to know is to go up or down on the cassette as needed.

If you've topped or bottomed-out then that section is over, time to pick a new chainring.


Use bar end shifters; you do not have to look at the paddles to feel the gear position with your hands. The angle difference between index points is distinct enough, even when indexing ten gears, that you can just touch the paddle and know what gear you're in.


It's all cadence related. No need to be a pro for that...

  • Welcome to Bicycles SE. We're looking for answers with more detail. Please consider expanding your answer to explain how experienced cyclists infer their current gear based on cadence. A short, one-line answer like this is likely to get downvoted, flagged for moderator intervention, and possibly deleted.
    – jimchristie
    Oct 13, 2015 at 21:49

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