20 February 2011

How Much Less Is More?

You all know that Robert Browning wrote "Less is more."  OK, if you studied English Lit instead of architecture, you'd know that.  At least I now know that my degree was good for something.

Anyway, it's become a guiding principle behind changes I made to two of my bikes.  

The irony of that is that when I first started cycling, I--like most people--thought, well, more is more. Young kids rode bikes with 20 inch tires.  In my parents' time, and when I was a young child, bikes for bigger kids and adults (the few who were riding in the US at that time) had 26 inch tires. Ergo, bigger wheel meant better bike.  So those Bike Boom-era ten-speeds with their 27 inch tires had to be le ne plus ultra, or the bee's knees, or whatever you wanted to call it,  of cycling.  

Then we learned that the really high-quality bikes--which included ones with tubular or high-performance clincher tires--had 700C tires.  They were sometimes referred to (quite erroneously) as 28 inch tires.  They were, however, slightly smaller than their 27 inch counterparts.

There was a corollary in gearing.   Most kids' bikes had single-speed coaster brake rear hubs.  Only the more grown-up "English racer" bikes had multiple speeds.  Three, count 'em, three gears!   

Then the bike boom came along, and "ten speed" became synonymous with a higher-performance bike.   Over the years, the bikes designed for the most serious and discerning (or simply status-conscious) riders had more and more gears.    By the turn of the millennium, one of the advantages cited for Campagnolo over Shimano was that the former had ten speeds in the rear, while the latter had "only" nine.  

Ten speeds in the rear.  Whooda dreamed of that back in the days when ten speeds for the whole bike was as exotic as the doors on the de Lorean?

Then, of course, Campagnolo came out with an eleven-speed system a couple of years ago.  So, anybody using it with a double front chainring has 22 speeds.  That's more than what could be had on two bikes forty years ago!

About two years ago, I went back to my roots and gave up on STI/Ergo in favor of friction down tube shifters.  I use them now with 8 speed cassettes in the rear.  

Why?  Well, even if you spend all of your free time scouring e-Bay for screw-on freewheels, you're not likely to find a wide variety of sizes. And they're expensive.  On the other hand, decent quality 8-speed cassettes can still be had at reasonable prices, and a wide range of sizes is available. 

Plus, the cassette system makes installation and removal easier, and is stronger than the old screw-on frewheel system.  And the chains are a bit thicker than those for nine, ten or eleven speeds, and therefore wear longer.

Now, after riding for some time on 8 speeds, I decided to "downsize" some more when I replaced the triple crank on Arielle with a "compact double."  So now I have 16 speeds instead of 24.  Although I'm not a weight weenie, I note that the new setup is a bit lighter.    More important, though, is that shifting is simpler and more reliable.  That has to do with having fewer gears to shift, but it's also a function of the fact that this setup allows me to use short-cage derailleurs, which shift more crisply.

I have the same sort of setup--albeit with lower gears--on Helene.  

It seems, though, no matter how many gears I have, I seem to ride in the same three or four on any given bike for about 90 percent of my riding.  Many other experienced riders say similar things. So, you may be wondering why we don't ride bikes with only our three or four favorite gears.  Well, we like to be prepared, especially if we're far from home or the nearest bike shop.  So we want a couple of lower gears for the hills we may encounter or the wind we run into along the way.  And, of course, we want a couple of higher gears, at least, for more optimal riding conditions.

So, you ask, how much less is more?  Well, that's a question you answer from your own experience.  Robert Browning, after all, wasn't writing about bike gearing!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I did not know to whom "less is more" should be rightfully attributed.

    I find myself using the same 1-2 gears most of the time, unless I am truly far from home with massive hills around. That is why I prefer a single speed roadbike for rides under 40 miles.