I used to ride with the beginners group, and each week I’d spend time with the new riders showing them the hand signals, how to change gears, how to roll, etc.
One thing I noticed with some riders was that it never occurred to them to change gear. The went up hill and slowly ground their way up the hill. They went downhill and pedalled like fury or coasted – they never sped their way, pedalling down with effort. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to change gear – if that had been the case, that part was easy to teach but it was more that they never thought to change gear.
I’d ask them: “Do you have an automatic car?” and almost always they’d say yes. The people who never had to change gears in their car never thought to change gears on their bike.
Worse than the automatic drivers were the people who’d watched the Tour de France when they were just starting riding. They’d ride up a hill in an incredibly hard gear, because they’d seen Jens Voigt go up a 25% grade mountain and show effort, and therefore thought that when they went up the 3% grade hill they should have to really push down on the pedals.
I’d have to tell them, “Pedalling is like stirring cake batter”. When you make a cake, you have to add enough liquid to the batter to make it easy to mix, but not so easy that the batter is thin. Pedalling should be roughly the same – not so easy that your legs spin around going forwards but your bike goes backwards, but not so hard that you look like you’re trying to develop a hernia. You have to change gears to find that sweet spot where the pedals turn with a slight effort, but not strain.
Of course, if you go up a mountainside, there aren’t many gears that will make it easy.
Except perhaps those in a car.