I find a lot of people I’m training at a beginner/recreational/intermediate level or who have started cycling later in life to be using a big gear to ‘muscle’ their way on a bike, what is often referred to as ‘mashing a big gear.’ My philosophy is that if you want to increase your speed, first you must learn to increase the speed of your legs, your cadence or rpm. Consequently or even concurrently it is also important to continue to increase the strength of your legs through strength intervals on the bike and resistance training in the gym. However, when you’re doing the majority of your riding you should be focusing on increasing your cadence towards the most efficient (smallest oxygen cost for a given power output). Studies have shown this to be around 95rpm in ‘trained’ cyclists (>8hrs average weekly training and >2 years of consistent weekly cycle training).
What this means practically for beginner/recreational/intermediate level cyclists, is to assess where your cadence is at the moment. If you’re using your too harder gear, i.e. you’re riding under 90rpm, I suggest you increase your cadence incrementally all the time that you are training. While training on the flat, use a gear 1 or 2 smaller (easier) than what you would be normally riding in. If your speed does not change at all, then you may want to try 2-3 gears smaller. Get use to a higher cadence but not at the expense of your speed – if you are slowing down then go back down the cassette. This type of training should come at a higher neuro-muscular cost (i.e. you’re going to start feeling more tired nerves at the end of each ride).