Just discovered this article on Sheldon Brown’s website. It explains a lot about why experienced cyclists pedal a lot differently (not just faster) from newbie cyclists (or normal urban cyclists).
High or Low?
“Higher” gears put more resistance on the pedals. If you select a gear that is too high for the conditions, it will force you into a slower cadence. Pedaling slower than your ideal cadence is wasteful of energy. You also run a higher risk of muscle strains and joint damage, particularly to the knees and hips.
“Lower” gears make the pedals easy to turn, so it becomes easier to spin to a fast cadence. Pedaling faster than your ideal cadence can allow you to generate an extra burst of speed, but you will tire yourself out too soon if you try to maintain an excessively fast cadence.
The Perfect Bicycle
If you had a perfect bicycle, with an infinite number of gears, you would always be pedaling at the same cadence, with the same amount of resistance to the pedals. Of course, the bike would go slower uphill, and faster downhill, but your legs would not know the difference.
Inexperienced cyclists often pedal at a cadence that is too slow, (too high a gear.) They sometimes think that this is better exercise, because they have to push harder on the pedals. This is an illusion.
Read the rest of the article for a complete explanation. So it seems the idea is not to shift gears till you find the right resistance that you are comfortable with. This is the mistake I keep doing. The idea is to move the gears so that I can put in the safe effort to keep the pedals moving at the same speed – a faster speed than what I am doing currently.
Time to fix that broken cadence kit on my bike.