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.


18 thoughts on “Cute.

  1. Is it that hard to figure out why some people need more rides? Kind of a pretentious article. People like myself who are relatively new to cycling and are getting stronger easily need easier gears to recover between tough efforts. On long rides, I slip to easier gears for a little bit before I start hammering.

    • Pretentious? Perhaps, a little. But I think this is really more of an advocacy piece for folks – like you – who are new to cycling, or who understand that riding a bicycle doesn’t have to be treated like a race. I absolutely love that I’ve got lots of gears to select from on my other bikes. But the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty flat around here, and the NEED for most of those gears is not an absolute necessity. My point isn’t to knock gearing at all. I took exception with the fellow I describe above treating my choice of bicycle in such a cavalier fashion, and I found it ironic that the combination of skin tight duds, CF frame, logos – and yes, lots of gears (electronic though they might be) – did not propel him up the hill. I very much encourage you to ride, and ride frequently. My hope is that one can do so without subscribing to the hype, and just enjoy the ride. Not every aspect of life needs to be a competition. 🙂

    • The portly poseur is a stereotype of the guy who has just gotten into cycling. He’s done a heap of research, made his purchasing decision, received validation of his decisions (the bike rides wonderfully, after all) and has a year or two of riding under his stretchy shorts. He no longer has to think about unclipping at a light (he only fell over twice, not bad), and he’s ridden as far as 50 miles in a single ride. He is no longer hanging off the back of the pack on every group ride and has even taken the lead position on a few flat sections. Many people he rides with now know his first name, and he`s even starting to look around for another bike.

      The issue is, the guy’s no expert. He’s still a newbie, but this is a role no male wants to be in. He is chafing to be the authority, not the apprentice, and cycling is a tough activity in which to do this. It’s a fully mature sport that has been around so long that it has few peers, and it’s truths are independent of its marketing and monetization. Spandex and modern, wicking fabrics are miracles of technology and make cycling easier and more comfortable. Colorful graphics are fun and add visibility; few cyclists wear team logos as a sign of tribalism, as with most other sports. Modern technology has made the machine marginally more efficient, but nothing like one would expect for the difference in cost. In many ways, this is no different from automobiles. I have not yet driven a $50k car that is twice the vehicle as a $25k car. I think 10% would be a stretch. With bikes , the real difference is even less.

      The ugly, unspoken truth is that there isn’t that much difference in performance between a nice bike made 20 years ago and one made today. There is an improvement, to be sure, and it’s enough to feel, but it’s not enough to get you up a hill faster than another cyclist with stronger legs and more stamina. You can buy a fast car, boat, or motorcycle, but you cannot buy a fast bike–you have to make it that way. It doesn’t seem fair (at least to an American consumer), and it’s certainly not something you’ll hear from a purveyor of new bikes, but effective cycling is much more about condition and experience than it is about hardware. Cycling is fundamentally about powering your feet in circles, and the resistance the machine offers pales in comparison to that of wind and terrain. Having a bike that responds well, handles quickly and stably, fits well, stops quickly, and doesn’t give you problems certainly makes riding more enjoyable, but you can have lots of fun pedaling circles on almost any decent bike, and you can buy a top of the line machine made 20 years ago for $500 that will be a real hoot to ride.

      You cannot tell a newbie this. He won’t hear you. It is something that must be learned, and, sadly, most new cyclists will have moved on from the sport to something else before they will learn it. So be kind to the poseur. You did the right thing in giving a cheery ring on your bell and friendly wave as you rode by. We need to encourage these folks to keep them in the sport long enough to learn its lessons the hard way, as we did. We’ve all been there before–at least we males.

      • You’re correct on so many levels. And to be very clear about it, my intention is not to be critical of other riders. Their choices – like my own – are what makes each of us who we are. I want to encourage everyone to ride, and be understanding and tolerant of the ride choices their fellow cyclists make. I am critical of the hype perpetuated by magazines and manufacturers and advertisers. The message they send is that you cannot possibly be a “serious” cyclist (whatever that is) unless you subscribe to the faster/lighter/more and more gears fallacy. While those characteristics make a real difference to racers, the vast majority of us are not racers (except, perhaps, in our imagination.) I really feel for the inexperienced rider because this is the prevailing message, and they don’t stand much of a chance to make an informed, personal decision: marketers have pretty much made those decisions for them. I like the underlying message that Grant Petersen has: just get on your bike and ride. To me, cycling shouldn’t be about impressing other riders.

  2. I am trying to recall how many times I have talked people out of buying a road bike with dropped bars when their interest is commuting and the occasional weekend ride when the weather is nice. The bicycle industry has also done it’s fair share of pollution, producing road bikes at budget prices that are pure veneer with most of the budget allocated to paint and decals.

    Having said that I have mixed feelings with respect to Cancellera’s many distant cousins or the plethora of Team Sky riders that didn’t make the cut at the final moment. Of course it is ridiculous and the gentlemen that you passed walking up the grade would probably auction his carbon steed the next day had he spent the afternoon on your ’71 Raleigh.

    The other half of my brain that isn’t holding a Campy ‘peanut butter’ wrench tells me that whatever gets people out of their cars, off the sofa and into the saddle is the most important thing, even if they end up loosing a few grand selling their carbon wonder to a young racer that can actually make use of it.

    The Raleigh build is wonderful by the way and although it looks to be one frame size too large, I would love to give it a ride. It’s too bad we can’t post photos here as I just finished restoring a 4-speed 1960 Legnano Sportivo (early Regina freewheel and Campagnolo Sport derailleur). Another favourite ride is my Trek Soho with the Shimano internal 7-speed rear hub and belt drive. The ability to change gears when you are stopped at an intersection is a wonderful thing on a commuter.

    Thanks again for sharing. Keep it coming!

    • >>>The other half of my brain that isn’t holding a Campy ‘peanut butter’ wrench tells me that whatever gets people out of their cars, off the sofa and into the saddle is the most important thing, even if they end up loosing a few grand selling their carbon wonder to a young racer that can actually make use of it.<<>>It’s too bad we can’t post photos here as I just finished restoring a 4-speed 1960 Legnano Sportivo (early Regina freewheel and Campagnolo Sport derailleur).<<< Send me a photograph and a little backstory. I'm happy to share!

  3. MT Cyclist says:

    Love the post. Love the bike. Goes to show you that fitness trumps fancy gear in most cases. I’m in the process of building up my winter commuter, an 82 Stumpjumper with a Sturmey Archer 5-speed hub and drum brakes. It will be shod in studded tires when the snow really starts flying. It will be my first IGH bike so I’m looking forward to see how it rides.

  4. Chris Brown says:

    As an ‘old guy’, with a couple of different bikes, I always fall back on my ’67 Dunelt 3-Speed as the daily ride – had it since I was 12 and it’s still my favorite.

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