a little bicycle story

article #1393, updated 38 days ago

Once upon a time, there was a rather self-confident boy, nine or ten years old, who managed to convince his parents to buy him a ten-speed bicycle for his birthday. The family went to Sears, then a rather good place for such things, and the boy spotted his bicycle, a beautiful red-and-blue model, the latest one. The boy set his heart immediately, and it was good. But the boy also saw, in the corner of his eye, his dad very carefully quietizing a reaction to the sprocket-derailleur gearing which was just in that year starting to be sold to most people, rather than to just mostly esoteric racing folks. The boy enjoyed the bicycle for a long time, and replaced it eventually with another not very different, and then another. But he never forgot.

And he noticed, that that gearing tended to do odd things. After a number of years this became very understandable to him. In this now most common of bicycle gear shifting, the chain is literally yanked off of one sprocket, onto another, in mid-air. Somehow, theoretically, this is supposed to be reliable, and is said to be so by lots of people! But after a lot more years, the boy, now a bit older, noticed that the friends and others who were talking the most about reliability, all not only had very expensive bicycles, but also, had devoted their whole garages to their upkeep, with expensive tools and liquids and whatnot. They washed the chains at least every week and sometimes every day, examined the sprockets for wear very often, et cetera, et cetera, devoting much precious time.

And the boy remembered his dad’s bicycle, and his parents’ tandem bicycle. The first had three speeds, in a sealed hub, and it was working well and steadily, without washing chains, and certainly without sprocket replacements or any other major work, for decades. The second had five speeds, similar hub, similar results.

So he looked into it, as there now was an Internet. He found that those hubs are still made, even well-known in some places, and now in eight-speed and higher…and are very highly recommended by those who know them. The highest were very expensive, but eight-speed was within reach. So he brought this information to local bike shop mechanics…all of whom gently but firmly steered him away from this. They gave lots of reasons. They were clearly not happy with the idea of such a project, so he decided to let it go, at least then.

But the thought would not go away. So, years after that, the boy finally called in a wider radius, and found a really good and creative bicycle mechanic about 50 miles away, named Ron, and his amazing wife Lorena, who run Eclectic Bikes in Emporia, Kansas; they were intrigued with the idea. They set up a Shimano Nexus 8 for me, with a chain tensioner, and now I have a Real Bicycle :-) And it is simply marvelous!!!!

How so?

A good way to see it, is to consider what happens when a bicycle reaches a busy intersection which is at the top of a hill. We’re already pedaling hard to get there, applying force on that chain and sprockets. We have to downshift, in order to do either of two necessary things: first, to be low enough to take off fast into the traffic at the top, and second, to be low enough to get up the hill still rolling as traffic builds towards the intersection. So we downshift with everything under great stress, which is the worst time for this, and one of three things happens. One, it shifts. Two, the chain goes somewhere bad, and you’re not going anywhere until you pull that (dirty and greasy) chain up by your hand and put it where it needs to go. Three, something worse happens, and there is worse out there, including a broken chain.

And one can find hundreds, not unlikely thousands, of web pages out there, which explain why those things happen. They don’t tell you when you buy the things, but you really are expected by the component-manufacturers to clean the chain (any one of a few dirty, stinky, time-consuming, unpleasant procedures) and the sprockets before any very long ride. And of course, if such a hill comes at the end of a very long ride, we can imagine the situation.

The contrast with the internal hub, takes my breath away. The shifts just work. There is none of the pull-and-hope. You change the gears and they change, and you have what you need, for hill or traffic or sharp corner. And not only that, but you can shift perfectly well while standing still. Sprocket-and-derailleur can’t do that, you can only shift while pedaling, because it’s the pedaling which works with the derailleur to yank the chain – but it also means that stress situations, especially at the end of a ride, are the times you’re most likely to wipe yourself out if you need to shift for safety. Hub gearing is marvelous this way; for one example, if I’m at a stop light which is built onto a hill, and I need to change my direction from up to down, sprocket-and-derailleur can be very difficult, both because of the need to pedal to shift and because of the risk. But for this or any other difficult situation, with my gears, I just shift, whether standing still or moving slowly or coasting, and I’m immediately using everything I Ihave to get in there and out of there safely and smoothly!

Thanks, Dad!!!

J.E.B.

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