Thursday, April 02, 2009

Bicycle Gearing: A Rant

There are plenty of good, rational words about bicycle gearing out in the world. Dave Hood's page at:

covers the subject quite well and, as usual with all things related to bicycles, Sheldon Brown generously wrote a wealth of wise words on the subject here:

And, for those of you who love history and like seeing words on paper pages and not just computer screens, Frank Berto and some other very smart folks wrote this book:

While the folks I've mentioned above cover the subject quite thoroughly, the one thing I'd like to add to the discussion is something of a rant. While I'm not as skilled at ranting as some of the pros like Lewis Black or Dennis Miller, my kids will tell you I can still get up a good head of steam now and then, so hang on folks, I'm just getting rolling here.

When I was a kid, we had bikes. You get on it, you turn the pedals, you go. You want to go faster? You pedal faster. That was the story.

Now the fancy bikes had speeds. What we called "English Racers" had three speeds and shifted with a little trigger or a twist grip like a motorcycle throttle. The gearing was built into the rear hub and the wonderfully clock-like mechanism was sealed away from the weather and mostly wasn't something you'd think about. One was the easy gear, Two was harder, Three was hardest. You'd use One when going up a hill, Two when cruising around and Three when you were hauling butt. That was the English Racer story.

But any kid would tell you that the really fancy bikes, the really fast bikes, were ten-speeds. Five gears in the back, two gears up front and you shifted the gears with these things called derailleurs. Since there were ten different ways the derailleurs could connect the chain between the gears (five times two is ten) the bikes had ten gear ratios, but everybody just called these ratios "speeds". In practice some of the ratios might work out to be very similar or identical and it was best to avoid cross-chaining, where the chain has to go at an extreme angle connecting the small ring up front with the smallest cog in back or the big ring up front with the biggest cog in back. Real gear geeks would know all their ratios and serious bike shops would have a board with different cogs for your freewheel. Dick Marr, wrote the standard book at the time, a slim tome called Bicycle Gearing: A Practical Guide.

Around the time I got into bicycle racing (the late 1970s), ten-speeds were being supplanted by twelve-speeds. If five gears in the back were good, six would be better. The folks who made bicycles figured out a way to squeeze an extra cog in the back. Oh and if you're into touring, they put another chain-ring up front. That set-up was called a triple. So you could have 18 gears! (three times six is eighteen). And before Jan and other historians jump in with "oh but the French had X speed in 19XX") I'm talking about the general perception of things as I saw them as a kid growing up in the Midwestern United States. I know now that all kinds of bicycling technology existed many years before, but in terms of a bicycle you'd see in your local shop, it was at the end of the 70s when six cogs in the back became common. And racers rode double rings up front.

Hmm, if six is good, seven must be better. It's around this time that the folks who make bikes decided to increase the width of the rear triangle from 126 mm to 130 mm. That let them squeeze that 7th cog in. Racers got 14 speeds, tourists got 21. Moving the bearings out caused more strain on the rear axle and it was a while later that the cassette hub replaced the old freewheel mechanism. Sheldon explains the difference here:

By the way, the rear spacing standard for Mountain Bikes is now 135 mm. Track hubs and BMX are 120 mm. But in the road bike world, going from 126 to 130 mm gave that extra four mm to let that 7th cog fit in nicely.

Now here's where I kind of start ranting. When I worked in the software business, I learned about what we call feature creep. Microsoft Word is a classic example of a product that has suffered feature creep. Back when Microsoft and Word Perfect were duking it out, product reviews would always point out if one product had a feature the other was lacking. So as users we got a thesaurus and auto-capitalization and annoying animated paperclips that would pop up and say "it looks like you're trying to write a death threat to Bill Gates, would you like to use Helvetica for your font?" and other such dubious features. And now Word is packed with all kinds of things that very few people need, use or even want. But that's the way feature creep works.

Well, I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but I think around the time bicycle and component manufacturers slipped that 8th cog on the back of bikes, we were well into the feature creep side of things. Because if seven is good, eight must be better. Except when they kept packing more cogs into the same space, they started making things thinner. And things didn't stop at eight cogs.

Nine speed cassettes and chains became the norm. And then ten. Yes, now when we talk about ten speed drive-trains, we mean ten cogs in the back. Your bike with a double ring up front would be called a twenty-speed if we still used the old nomenclature. And your triple-equipped bike? It's a thirty-speed.

Unless you have the latest drive-train from Campagnolo. Campy goes to eleven. No, I'm not making this up. See:

And if you want all those gear combinations, go for it. I'm not going to stop you. But this "progress" comes at a price. Narrower chains and narrower cogs don't hold up as well. In the damp part of the world where I ride, I see nine and ten speed chains and cassettes wear faster than the older stuff. And that newer stuff costs more, sometimes a lot more. I can replace a seven speed cassette for twenty bucks and a SRAM 830 chain (which will work fine on five, six, seven or eight speed cogs) sells for $13 at my shop. Nine and ten speed stuff is more expensive and wears out faster. And the Campy eleven speed stuff? Well, you can check out the prices here.

Now admittedly, my shop sells refurbished used bikes. We're a non-profit and our stock is all bikes that have been donated to us that we've refurbished. All our proceeds go into our kid's programs. So most of what we sell are bikes from the pre-nine speed era. But as near as I can tell, everything past seven cogs in the back is not a real gain for most folks.

I tell people that you need a low enough gear to climb what you want to climb, a high enough gear to go as fast as you want and enough gears in between that you don't feel that something is really missing. For some people, that's just one gear! Others will be happy with a three speed. Or a bike with seven gears in the back and three up front. And I'm sure there are some folks who really need a bike that goes to eleven. Maybe pro racers or the guys in Spinal Tap.


Linda said...

As I read your post, I realized that by the time I got to the end of it, my head was nodding up and down like a bobble head.

I also, as a kid, had a 3 speed Schwinn with that Sturmey Archer hub and went to a 10 speed "racer", after which I got a real racing bike with sew ups, not clinchers. I then got into racing and saw the advent of the 6 speed hub and watched people spread the rear triangle to accomodate these. Nowadays the configurations are ridiculous. On my mountain bike, there are probably only 5 out of the 21 different configurations that I use regularly.

You nailed it. Rant on!

Emily said...

It's thanks to you and Sheldon Brown that I have a 7 speed IGH bike. I'm not very strong. But the bike is geared nice and low, so I don't have to be very strong. For 90% of my riding, a 3 speed would be enough. 5 would let me handle the hills on my longest errand route. 7 is plain luxury (but an awful nice one with 50lbs of groceries).

It actually works better for me than my previous 24 speed bike... because the gear range where I do best happened to be smack in the middle of that bike's small and medium front chainrings. And on that bike, an emergency stop was flat out *painful*.

Jim Thill said...

Kent, I agree with your general point, of course.

Like the "features" that get bundled into software, nobody really asked for these innovations. Now if you want to go less than 9sp, you'll have to hunt around a bit to find a decent selection of 7sp or 8sp shifters and cassettes. Even 9sp parts seem to be disappearing from the road groups. Now I find customers asking nervously about how many speeds a bike has, as if they understand that 27+ ratios is excessive and potentially troublesome. I think this explains not only the single-speed trend, but also the current backlash against derailleur systems, manifested in the renewed popularity of 7/8/9-sp internal-gear hubs. Of course, these large IGHs aren't without drawbacks. I predict that the next wave of gearing will be of the 1x8/9/10 rear-derailleur-only variety.

Personally, I'm happy that we have so many choices.

Matt said...

I've taught a smattering of bicycling classes and it is remarkable how confusing gearing is to people. Adding more gears doesn't reduce the confusion. The main thing people miss is how much overlap there is in a dereilleur-geared bike, and going from 21 to 24 to 27 speeds mostly increases the number of duplicate gears. I wrote up an essay on 3-speed, 8-speed (both internal hubs), 10-speed and 27-speed (derailleur) gearing. The essay's a bit tedious, but I think the graph on page four makes clear the differences. Take a look at if you have an interest. I am very fond of the Nexus 8-speed hub with its wide range, no duplicates, clean chainline (and ability to add a chainguard) and stationary shifting, but for a lot of people, 8 gears sounds way worse than 24 or 27. It's not, really, and more internally-geared bikes would be sold (and I think there'd be less rider confusion) if this was more widely realized.

You can't have my name said...


Normally reading your posts is like viewing a window into my own head, but in this particular opinion I find myself disagreeing for the first time with the words in front of me.

I'm a big fan of simplicity, don't get me wrong. I have a heap of respect for single-speeds, fixed gears, and parts built to last. By the exact same logic, I cannot imagine living without the simplicity of my 10-speed cassette.

I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that the first time I laid wrench to bike 9-speed was the dominant road technology, but I'm a big fan of as many gears as I can shift.

My cassette is a 10-speed Campagnolo Veloce 12-23. On any given flat, climb, or descent I can make in eight of the ten gears a SINGLE TOOTH change. Such precise fine-tuning is a perfect expression of why bicycles should even have gears in the first place. If you're lugging around extra parts like shifters, front and rear derailleurs, extra cabling and the such, my bike company better damn well find as many ways to squeeze more cogs in as they can. Otherwise I'd just go fixed.

I'm a young buck though, maybe I'd see things differently if I had even existed in the times of five and six speed freewheels...

Oh, and I've built a couple bikes up this year with Campy 11-speed. It's luxurious :)

Jon said...

I totally agree with you Kent. While 1 tooth increments on the rear cluster might make a difference in the pro peleton, foisting that stuff on the public is tantamount to car dealers only stocking Formula 1 race cars at the dealerships.

I'm glad the new stuff is around for guys like Armstrong, and all of his fans who wish to emulate him, but bring back Deore DX 7-speed componenets and 6-speed Superbe for me!

Anonymous said...

Word! Preach it, bro. Val

Lawrence Fieman said...

Thanks again, Kent. You're one well thought out iconocast. But, then I was just called a "luddite" on rec.bicycle for praising the virtues of a 7-speed rear cluster.

Also, kudos for pointing out the virtues of WTB saddles in an earlier post.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Here's the deal:

If you ride for transportation, or to enjoy the rolling countryside, or to get away from it all with a sleeping bag and cook kit, then six or seven cogs on the rear wheel is more than enough. My present "long rides" bike has a five-speed freewheel, lovingly cleaned and re-lubed. When it finally wears out, I have six or seven more -- and a small box of chains -- to keep it going.)

But if you want to race -- if you want to do the lycra dance at speeds in excess of 25 mph and pit yourself against other people doing the same thing -- then you have to ride what they ride. If you don't you'll get left behind.

Racing trickle-down of components (and that's where 8, 9, 10 and 11-speed cassettes came from) does nothing to really serve the utilitarian or recreational bike rider. racing trickle-down exists to serve racing and its sponsors.

I spend a great portion of my time at the shop educating people as to why what they're running is probably more than adequate for most situations, and that more often all their bike needs is some mechanical love. And our customers are hearing us; sales of new components, particularly 9-speed and higher cassettes, have fallen off, while tune-ups and other repairs are going up, up, up.

If you're not racing, you can run what you've got and still enjoy the ride.
Happy pedaling!

Anonymous said...

I have a Surly with 27 gear ratios and find that I use about 3-5 with any consistency. That many 'speeds' is overkill for the general public. But as someone pointed out, it's getting more difficult all the time to find even 9 speed parts.

As I read Ian's post my first thought was "He's young and used to these innovations" and then he confirmed it himself. Someday I imagine he'll look back and lament over the passing of 10 and 11 speed components as he mounts his 60 speed bike (15 rear, 4 front) that senses change in cadence and shifts for him electronically.

It's just the way of things. New replaces old. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Anonymous said...

If the manufacturers had quit building/offering 5, 6 7 and 8 speeds when they went to 9, 10 and 11, you'd have a good rant.

They didn't, and you don't.

Mark Marowitz said...

After indigesting this bombastic thread I immediately rewatched Barry Schwartz video and took a spin on my 27 speed Bianchi. I raced the pregnant lady all the way home. I let her win.

Steve Rice said...

I have to agree, mostly. I remember when bikes were moving to 7 speeds, and I got a cross/tour bike with 21 gears. Once I discovered all the redundancy I went kind of a strange route I've continued on most of my bikes. I understand the appeal of a close ratio cluster. I've been stuck riding into a headwind where one gear is to hard and the other seems to easy. I now you could just spin faster, but when you've got your bonk on... Anyhow I just got rid of the outer ring, got a chain guard, went with a 40ish middle and then added a tiny 24 inner. Then I went with a close ratio cluster on the back. Like a 12-21 or 13-23, something like that. 90% of my riding is done on the big ring giving me nice tight ratio jumps and then I've got a granny gear bail out. If it's to steep to ride my lowest, I can push. I could probably even get rid of the front derailer if I wanted to, but I prefer the symmetry. I think people just obsess over the gear to much. On the tour sites, you have people so concerned about finding replacement parts they consider bringing an extra wheel. It gets a bit absurd. One of these days I'm going to ride my old 3-speed mixte across the country. And I'm not going to worry about a thing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. One kid who had real "ten speed" in our midwestern town. It was a damned exotic thing. I recall the police chasing him down on it once, but that's a whole different story.

I think I began to like gears when we moved to California and my 5 speed sting-ray just couldn't deal with the hills. It got traded in on a Varsity, as real a 10 speed as I could afford at the time.

Bikes, riding, time...

At about 8 speeds, I became a little unhitched from the progression. Though I still would wander the path of cogs to the 9's, I was noticing that under the onslaught of El Nino wetness, my chains and cogs and sprockets and rings melted like butter.

Yet, my singlespeed kept plugging along, no matter how times I rode it hard and put it away wet.

The light slowly went on, and I began to once again to put trust simple systems.

Yeah, I got some shifty bikes, but they seem to behave OK.

Thanks Kent - a fine rant!

- Jim

Unknown said...

Years ago (like early 60's) I was on my first summer job, a major DND project in Northern Ontario. There was a bit of a union hassle going on, and, like the raw, green fool I was, I went along, listened, and finally was moved to speak up, saying that, although I was young and inexperienced, it looked as if, under the circumstances, a strike would be simply cutting off our noses to spite our silly faces. A couple of cree elders came up afterward, and asked to meet me: "You say what we think."

This is a round-about way of saying the same thing - in now-speak: "Right on, brother!"
Like you, I progressed from single-speed (a 28"-wheeled TANK!)through an "English Racer" to a ten-speed, by the late 60's. I've used one ever since, though I've upgraded to 3×7 since, to let "maturing" legs get up hills with less discomfort. Actually, I went to a triple crank, first, for help with the hills. The reason I went for the 7-speed cassette was that I was already, with a 5-speed cluster, having difficulty with axles. What I'd found was that, because I wished to take off quickly from traffic lights, I was pre-selecting my take-off gear - somewhere down around 40". The stress this put on a standard 5-speed hub and cluster was snapping hollow axles. My first solution was to go to solids. This was several years before I got my triple crank. It was only after I'd bent my second solid axle that the light went on - I was over-loading this design of hub. Consulting with the owner of one of several LBS's I patronise (and we are Oh! so fortunate to have a couple of dozen in the greater Victoria area) I accepted his recommendation that we swap up to a cassette & free-hub unit. This has proven excellent - I've used it for a decade, now, without axle failure - I've taco'd a wheel, but the axle was fine.
Like you, I've no desire to be involved in further "creep" on gearing. I really use mainly the middle ring, across the range of the cassette, with the 32-ring reserved for getting me up uncomfortable grades, and the 54 for chasing tail-winds along the highway. For most other purposes, gearing of 40.5 to 92.6 is quite sufficient for range and flexibility.
So - is there somewhere that I think would BENEFIT from feature creep? Yes - assuredly. Lighting - in particular those things that would make us cyclists more closely resemble the rest of the traffic we play in so happily: marker-lights, turn-siganls, and an effective BRAKE light. There are lots of adequate lights out there to make ourselves visible, fore and aft (if the darn fools on the bikes would ship and use them!!), but nothing along the lines I speak of, unless I am into hand-building a suite. Ideally, it should come with a place, also, to plug in a trailer, so that those of us who haul luggage, shopping, tools (there's a local gardener who runs a B-train - a Burley trailer followed by a BOB-trailer), or children, could plug in and be lit and highly visible from behind.

GeekGuyAndy said...

I'm all for having fewer gears, as long as I can still have the same high and low ratios. I commute up an 18% grade each day, so I need my 40x25, but I also ride fast with a few groups and need my 52x12. Between those two, I don't really care what they are, I just need a few options so I don't have to spin at 120rpm or lug along at 30rpm.

Bob M said...

Nice rant. Like 90+% of the folks who ride bikes, I am relatively ignorant when it comes to the nitty-gritty of technical specifications. I upshift when I start spinning too fast and I downshift when I can't spin fast enough. Sometimes I just up/down the front chainring because I'm too lazy to work both shifters. I have NO idea what gear (number) I'm in and I'm probably in the "wrong" gear most of the time. If you give a guy like me more gears you only increase the chance that I will choose the wrong gear - that's the way chance works.

When I was a kid I was always in the right gear on my 3-speed for the simple reason that it is nearly impossible to move the bike forward in an inappropriate gear. Plus, I always had a 33% chance of being "right".

Joe said...

Sure, close-ratio wide-range gearing is unnecessary for most people. But if you ride a bike for fitness and you know what you're doing, close ratios and a sufficient range allow you to get the most out of the limited time you have available for riding. Why wouldn't you want close-ratio gear changes that are equivalent to the subtle changes in stride length that runners make going up and down hills?

My seven- and eight-speed commuter bikes are fine for what they are, but speaking as a guy who started out racing on a French track bike in 1963, I love my track bikes, and I love my 20-speed bike. Twenty speeds are as satisfying as a fixed gear; but then, I don't find much to whine about in the world of bikes.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous:

As a purchaser for a bike shop, I have discovered that actually, finding five- and [some] six-speed freewheels HAS gotten harder. Shimano has stopped importing them to the US. Falcon freewheels fail if you just look at them funny. SOMEtimes my distros have SunRace in stock, sometimes not; and IRD offer five-speed freewheels but IMHO 50 bucks is a lot to pay for one.

When I called Shimano to ask about bringing five-speed freewheels back, I was scolded -- SCOLDED -- by the Shimano rep on the phone. "Why is your shop supporting outdated technologies?" He asked. "You people really need to live in the current century. NObody's riding that stuff anymore." I politely informed him that the majority of my customers are still riding bikes with 5- to 7-speed freewheels, thanked him for his time and abruptly ended the conversation. He just didn't get it.

I think it's a good rant, and frankly a well-supported one shared by many.

Velomann said...

I agree, but I have to say that as a true rant, on a 1-10 scale (or 1-11 if you're a Campy fan, I guess) this rates about a 6. How's this: Buying/selling/marketing an 11-speed cluster is dumb. Seriously, unless you're duking it out in close-fought road races, what's the point ? (and even then I can't believe an 11 would give you a real advantage) All you'll get with an 11 is a less durable cluster that will cost more, have to be replaced more often, and will probably be more likely to compromise your rear wheel strength. For racers that may be Ok, but for everyone else it's just marketing hype.

That said, I'm with bikelovejones on the different applications argument. I race 'cross and a little road and know if I couldn't make quick small shifts, I'd be out of the race (not that I'm often in the race, but that's another story...) But the rest of the time I ride a 6 or 7-speed freewheel and don't feel the need for anything else. And yes, good inexpensive ones, which used to be a dime-a-dozen, are sadly getting harder to come by.

Dan O said...

Nice post - I agree with most of it.

I'm old enough to have experienced the transition from 5 speed freewheels to the current 10 speed cassette - now up to 11.

I currently own and ride bikes with 7, 8, 9 and 10 speed cassettes - with double and triple chainring set ups.

7 -8 cassettes in the rear is enough. When I jump off the 10 speed back to the 7 speeder - don't even notice the missing gears.

More isn't always better....

DW said...

@Kent: I take it more as an educational piece than a rant. But that's probably just because I agree.

As I said in a comment on your last one, I chose to go down to 8 spds on my Volpe b/c I was going to friction shifters anyway and it just seemed easier.

When I find a decent set of 36H 130mm rear road hubs and build up my own wheelset for the bike, I'll be going to 7 speed or less. I'm considering stealing the hubs out of my '87 Nishiki Colorado...whole bike is in NOS condition, but it's a little small for me...6 spd freewheel on the back.

I've put 200 miles on the Volpe (still miserable weather in Denver), and have yet to use my big or little chainring.


I think the trend you're seeing in shops is going to continue for sure...and I think it's better for the industry. I could be wrong, but with so many internet retailers and shrinking profit margins on retail goods, SERVICE is where it's at. Better to build good relationships and work on bikes that people ride a lot than rely on selling those $4K carbon road bikes to pay rent.

I'd love to see a resurgence of shops for people who ride to ride; who appreciate a handbuilt 7 speed wheel, refinished lug steel frames, durable parts, etc.

Doug said...

my wheel experiences:

My current bike is a mid-range '82 Bianchi that, when I bought it two and a half years ago, came with all of the original parts. Every one of these parts have since broken, unfortunately.

The first thing to give me trouble was the rear wheel, a 6sp freewheel: the axle kept breaking on me. I broke three axles in three months. This was enough to turn me off freewheels forever.

I then purchased a '92 RB-1 which had the original Shimano 600 7sp, which I never had any serious problems with, especially after I replaced the original rims.

Of course, that spindly old racing frame cracked a year and a half later, but the wheels were still good.

Now I'm back to the old Bianchi, except I decided to invest in new handbuilt wheels: ultegra 8spd X velocity deep v. Big fat touring cluster in back for all the hills in seattle. friction shifting with some old Cyclone MK IIs. The old 600 wheels are still going, borrowed to my friend who had her wheels stolen.

So I guess I'm saying I agree with you totally. I am not impressed by any of the modern stuff I've seen, and I'm a 25 year old whipper. Viva le tough old stuff!

Anonymous said...

Coaster Brake guy here. If it is too steep to climb, I walk, and I am content. It is amzing how much stuff you miss whizzing around on a bike. Downhill, well coasting is one of the real joys of a bicycle.


Vincent Muoneke said...

I asked my son once how to explain the paradox that an older generation always complain about the ways of a younger generation but the younger generation will surpass that older generation in achievement. I asked if it meant that the older generation in all their experience was just wrong.
I told him what I felt explained the paradox. It is 1% of 1% of the younger generation that takes it to new heights, the rest are just followers.
What I am trying to say is that a very small fraction of new innovation is truly revolutionary, but continued innovation albeit with some redundancy is necessary to continue to new heights.

Anonymous said...

The 7-speed rear cluster has always seemed ideal to me, and I have one old Miyata with a 6-speed freewheel, and I never find myself thinking, "boy, I wish I had more gears back there." Our Bike Friday triple came with a nine-speed rear cluster, and I often find myself wishing it was a seven.

Of course, I also keep an old 486 computer around so I can use WordPerfect for DOS to get my published writing going. If I try to write on my MacBook, I end up doing things like commenting on this blog rather than working.

Michael said...

Kent, you've got a tringle speed, a retro-direct, and a dahon with an internally geared hub. Do you even have a bike with a derailler drivetrain on it? This is hilarious. It's like me criticizing the state of tennis racket design.

Kent Peterson said...

But Michael, if you repaired other peoples tennis rackets five days a week, I bet you'd have some thoughts on tennis racket design. And if you'd been using all kinds of tennis rackets for over forty years...


Anonymous said...

There was a time when I would have vigorously agreed with this, but now I'm not sure I understand the problem anymore.

I ride a Surly LHT as a commuting/touring/gettin' around tank of a bike. It has three chainrings on the front, and eight cogs in back. For the riding I do with this bike, this is excellent. I rarely shift from the middle ring on this bike.

I also ride a mountain bike every now and then, in the woods and all that. It has three cogs in front and nine in back. Again, works for me. I could live with less, since I'm not racing the thing, but I wouldn't really want fewer than seven cogs back there. Been there, done that - on the road, natch - and I really have to say that, in my opinion, more is better. To a point. But I'll get to that.

I also ride AND race a fancy-pants modern road bike with two rings in front and ten cogs in back. I absolutely love it. And I've lived in the <10 speed world, too - last year I rode and raced on an old steel bike with a seven-speed cassette. For fitness riding or racing, more is DEFINITELY better. More certainly isn't necessary, but it never was; if Shimano came out with its own 11 or 12-speed system, I would not exactly rush out to buy it, but I would not complain too much if I happened to want/need a new bike equipped with that drivetrain.

I actually have a mini-rant about fitness riders, while I'm at it - I think that the disdain with which they are viewed by both racers and retro-fans (and, sadly, more by the latter in my experience than the former) is shameful. It is tremendously unfair and small-hearted to deride recreational and/or fitness road riders as "poseurs" or "racer wannabes" or "weekend warriors." The same equipment used for racing makes it much easier to get the most out of your workout and your riding experience, if going fast is what makes you happy, and it's just not very comfortable if you aren't wearing riding clothes... which, all joking aside, is worn because it makes riding more fun, not because it is somehow fashionable. But I digress.

The point is, there are a lot of gearing options available, and in MY experience working at a small, university bike co-op, seven and eight-speed equipment is simply not that hard to come by. Many inexpensive bicycles still come equipped with seven and eight-speed drivetrains, and most of these bikes work GREAT. High-end road and mountain bikes come with more state-of-the-art nine, ten and 11-speed gear, and that's okay. They also work great! And no one is being forced to upgrade. Yeah, a ten-speed drivetrain for an around-town commuting bike is pretty silly, but aside from a certain class of bikes aimed at well-healed fitness enthusiasts who want to combine speed and practicality, most bikes intended for this purpose don't have that kind of drivetrain. I just don't see the problem.

One more point I'd like to make (well, maybe two): racing technology and marketing may be irritating if your goal is just to cruise around slowly and thriftily - and don't get me wrong, I cruise along slowly and thriftily on my LHT - but it has always been a primary driver of innovation in bicycle technology including developments that have greatly improved life for your casual rider, commuters, tourers and the whole big tent of cyclers. I've had the experience of touring on a bike with a six-speed freewheel and half-step gearing, AND the experience of touring with an 8-speed cassette and more appropriately spaced front chainrings. I shouldn't have to tell you which was less stressful. Without racing to drive advances, none of that would exist.

The other point is that I think that our habit of talking about "X-speed" bikes is much more a problem in making gears and shifting intimidating than the number of gears themselves. "21-speed" or "27-speed" are meaningless and confusing terms that fail to describe how bicycle shifting works. I think it's really best to just get people on the bike and get them comfortable with shifting. When a customer asks "how many speeds?" I would stick to the number of cogs in back, then say "and the bike also has three sprockets in front to give you low, medium and high ranges, but don't worry about that yet." It's much more sensible to talk about gearing in terms of the practical differences between different drivetrains, e.g: "this bicycle has lower gears to make hills easier, but on this one the gears are closer together so that shifting is less jolting on flat roads." Something like that.

Anyway, there's room for all of us under this tent, and I think that we could all do well to remember that. I think that ranting about the fact that 20 or 30-speed drivetrains are available to those that want to plunk the money down on them is, to borrow an expression used by an earlier commenter, biting off our noses to spite our faces. New technology is good! -And there's still plenty of room for the old stuff, too.

Michael said...


I would not dispute for an instant that you have the knowledge and experience to criticize the state of drivetrain design. But what does it *matter* to you, when you've opted out of the deraillers? The reason that you don't use deraillers isn't that manufacturers don't make 7-speed stuff anymore (because they do!) It's just a matter of personal preference for you.

Your experienced and informed opinion would undeniably be useful to your clientele at the bike shop, or to the readers of this blog, who might be considering the merits of a new drivetrain. But it is also *funny*, to hear from someone who has decided that deraillers as a concept are not for him, that we who do use them have the wrong number of gears.

I'm not trying to criticize you at all -- I am just terribly amused by this. Maybe the tennis racket analogy wasn't very good, but it would be exactly the same as if you wrote an article lamenting the state of modern recumbent design -- another area that you have experience with, but have opted out of.

BikeBike said...

I am definitely not a retro grouch or the opposite - the "gear hound" who has to have whatever the latest DuraAce or Record shit is - I find myself squarely in the middle.

I recreationally race cyclocross in the fall (cat 4) on a Masi with SRAM Force from 3 years ago (pretty sure its 10-speed) and find it works pretty well for my level. I ride this bike far less than I do all my other bikes which run the gamut from 8-speed frankenXtracycle with Acera to my Salsa Casseroll with Nexus 8-speed.

The only thing I can say is that I enjoy riding my "heavy" and "slow" bikes more than my "light" or "fast" bikes.

I'm not sure why.

Great post!

16incheswestofpeoria said...

As a one-time rider of a 48-inch Kennedy ordinary, I question our modern reliance on chain technology and air-filled tires.

Having years ago rejoined the mass of cyclists pedaling so much closer to the Earth, I contend that all of us deal with too many moving parts and not enough moving moments.

Spend your money on donuts, not derailleurs; on beer, not brakes; on pasta, not patch kits. Debate not the merits of the derailleur and the internal hub: Have the size of the wheel determine the gear and be done with it.

In a world of increasingly grotesque marketing, clear distinction comes only from the sure and steely application of direct drive, of upright posture and wooden grips, of solid tires on solid ground.

All else is hopeless distraction.