So, really, do you need more than three gears?
Here in the Midwest, we have a lot of rollers. There are some viciously steep climbs too – but as a rule those are also pretty short climbs. When the tallest point in the entire State of Missouri is less than 1800 feet, and the tallest point in the metropolitan community is under 1200 feet, it’s tough to get any sympathy from those cyclists who ride up and down, say, the Rocky Mountains. Not many of us here are doing any serious climbing. Meanwhile, I hear plenty of people say that someday they’re going to tour…but, it’s kind of amazing how few long distance cyclo-tourists are seen on our chip-sealed roads.
And I do get it: if you’re a racer, all of those gears make a lot of sense. But seriously, if you’re one of the legions of non-racers – and I’m calling you out, weekend warriors, lycra-clad/logo-infested posers, aging and overweight Tour de France pretenders, and marketing-hype-impressionable wannabes – how often do you really need more than a couple of strategically chosen gears?
Much as it might seem like I’m doing so, in no way do I want to knock gears. On all of my bikes, I’ve got a well planned out spread of gears to meet my own personal cycling desires.
Well, all of my bikes except one.
I’ve written before about my 1971 Raleigh International three-speed conversion, so I won’t go back into how much I enjoy riding this bike. But like I said, I don’t want to knock gears – just don’t begrudge me my occasional internally geared forays.
A couple of weeks ago I participated in a charity ride. After looking at the route map and seeing that the elevation gains were something like 1800 feet over 62 miles, I made up my mind to ride my three-speed road bike.
Even if I do say so myself, the Raleigh is a striking “creative” restoration and I’m used to getting a lot of remarks from other riders: “Old school – right on!” “How old is your bike? 1971? I wasn’t even born yet!” “Cute bike!”
I’m sure you get the picture.
Sometimes I’ll get the bemused sidelong glance from a rider astride a carbon fibre wonder bike, but they’re usually to self-absorbed trying to look like Cancellera to give me more than a passing thought.
This event was pretty large and cyclists were being released onto the route in waves of one hundred. As I waited patiently for our group to advance to the start, I suddenly felt eyes upon me. I’m surrounded by riders; to my left is a portly fellow with what appeared to be neon colors and logos painted onto his naked body. He was fooling around with his shifters, but as I turned my head I could see that he was studying the International.
“Hey,” he said. “Where did you get that bike?”
“I restored it,” I said. “It’s a 1971 Raleigh.” Usually that gets a nod and seems to answer the question. No one actually wants to know where it came from, they want to know what the heck it is.
Looking at my rear hub, he was matter-of-fact: “Fixie, huh?”
“No, actually it’s a three-speed. I converted it to an internally-geared hub.”
He laughed. Scoffed, actually. Clearly, I was an anachronism.
“How does your bike shift gears?”
I showed him the shifter, and explained how the mechanism worked. I hoped he would appreciate the simple elegance. Instead he scoffed again.
“Whatever, man. This is my newest bike. It shifts electronically.”
I acted duly impressed. It’s the reaction that gadget junkies want and seem to need and thrive on. But in the back of my mind I wondered what was the point of enjoying something as mechanical as a bicycle ride, only to glom things up with electronic shifting.
He had a sudden thought.
“So, is that bike made out of steel?” This was asked with more than a note of incredulity. Oh great, I thought. Here it comes – the boasting of how light his bike is. And indeed, he did tell me, and indeed, it was terribly, terrifically, unbelievably light. Not to brag, but my three-speed is nowhere close to being a boat anchor. It’s the very definition of a lightweight road bike, and I challenge anyone to find another three-speed of comparable weight. And it’s one of the most comfortable riding machines ever. Nevertheless, this guy’s bike was less than half the weight of my machine.
Moments later, our group was ushered out onto the road, the round man in tights clumsily clipped into the pedals, leaned over the bars and with a serious look zoomed off.
“Enjoy the ride,” I called after him. He didn’t hear me.
As I pedaled along, easily keeping pace with the group, I chatted with the other riders. I fielded more than a few questions, as well as many compliments (usually from female riders who said “cute bike!”) Some riders were a bit taken aback that I was able to do so, but that direct drive gearing sure makes for smooth pedaling.
Now I may not be a racer, but I do ride a lot and I am a moderately strong climber. About twenty miles into the ride, who do I see but Mr Electronic Gear Shifter.
Looking like he was about to swallow a lung or two.
Walking up a hill.
I have to admit that I wanted to scoff, to be smug. Instead I chose to be the bigger man.
I did ring my bell as I rode past him, pedaling smoothly up the hill, smiling.
Cute bike, I thought.
Karma, by the way, is a strange and wonderful thing.