Sunday, March 1, 2009

World's Worst Invention?

No - actually I was thinking of Bicycle Derailleur Gears!

Of course I understand derailleur gears are the lightest & most efficient way yet discovered for transmitting pedal power with a wide range of gear ratios & a fine-grained separation between available ratios.
They are the ideal solution for racing bikes.

But they are totally unsuitable for cycling's man-in-the-street.
Even more so for man-in-the-street's wife & children.

Especially when they are the usual 27-gear sort, with 3 chainwheels & 9 pinions to manoeuvre.
Especially when man-in-the-street has to try to explain about keeping the chain straight & not using the big wheels with the big pinions or the little wheels with the little pinions.
Especially when you need to explain that you can only change gear when pedalling forwards, so you always need to change gear before you need to change gear…
…Especially before you stop.
Especially when they are controlled by 2 push-pull selectors, where you need to pull the right one to change 'up' with the pinions but push the left one to change 'up' with the chainwheels.
Especially when, to get fine-grained progression, if you change up one chainwheel, you need to simultaneously change down 2 pinions.
Especially when you shouldn't do both simultaneously anyway, according to the instructions.
Especially when, every time you back-pedal, the chain comes off.
Especially when, every time your kid's bike falls over (Oh! They do that?) you have to spend an afternoon trying to straighten brackets & readjust selectors, but it never works quite the same again.
Especially when, whenever you try to ride through long grass, your 27-speed gearbox ties itself into an inextricable oily string ball.

If we had grown up with hub gears & somebody had come along with derailleur gears as his latest & greatest idea, we would have treated him with the derision he deserved.
But it didn't happen like that.

Good hub gears have existed at least since Sturmey Archer's 3-speed patent in 1902!
That 1902 hub gear would not cause raised eyebrows if presented today and looks less of an antique, except for the selector, than any contemporary bicycle, car, aeroplane or domestic appliance.

So what happened?
I don't know, but it looks as though the industry, like some sleeping beauty, just went to sleep for a century.
And Prince Charming failed to show up…

Admittedly, by 1938 (…) there was a 4-speed version and the unbeatably ergonomic (for few ratios) finger-flick selector.
Admittedly, rain stopped play for the next 5 or 6 years.
But even so…

My first new bike (Dawes Double Blue) in 1955 had a 4-speed wide ratio (1.90:1 range) hub, which was still "state of the art" half a century after the first patent.
And provided exemplary trouble-free service.
Slick instant shifts any time – from standing still to under load (just click as pedals pass top-dead-center).
Never needed any attention or adjustment (except never-fails, no-tools, 10-second, visual-aided resetting after punctures or chain adjustment).

A 5-speed appeared around 1966 according to Sturmey-Archer History site, but I don't think this was ever very successful. (?)
A 7-speed figured just before the turn of the century & just before production was transferred to Taiwan, but has anybody ever seen one?

Meanwhile, on the 'far' side of the channel, unbeknown to me but detailed on SRAM's website - Ernst Sachs produced a 2-speed 'Torpedo' hub in 1904 & a 4-speed in 1913 & (under SRAM brand) a 7-speed in 1992.

Out of the blue, in 1996, Rohloff produced their astonishing 14-speed Speedhub, with 5.26:1 range (equivalent to usual 27-speed derailleurs) which is still available today in several versions & would be the answer to any cyclist's prayer but for a slight weight penalty & an insurmountable cost penalty of around 1000£/$/€.
If you can afford one – don't hesitate!
Presumably you need to employ an armed thug to stand by your bike whenever you park it…
Nevertheless, this hub has a deservedly strong following amongst serious trekkers.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it was left to the Japanese, as usual, to specify, develop & sell a viable more-than-4-speed hub for normal customers.
Shimano, of n-speed derailleur fame, risked shooting themselves in the foot in about 1995 by introducing the Nexus 7-speed hub aimed mainly at town bikes.
I saw them appear gradually in Germany, mainly on old ladies' 30kg shopping bikes.
I vaguely wondered about trying to build one into a light cross-country bike but never got round to it.

Then in 2003, in France (pinch me!) Decathlon offered the visually-challenged "Triban Road 5" bike, which despite its name had the Nexus 7-speed hub in a stripped-down 13 kg bike with solid forks, disc brake, cyclo-cross tyre sizes, no guards & nothing else – just what I was looking for, for my dry-weather, back-roads & not-too-rough-tracks usage.
I promptly bought one for 499.99€ which seemed fair enough & I haven't regretted it.

Except if I had waited another year, they were already on "special offer" for 199€ and were soon withdrawn, as obviously there is no market for out-of-town hub gears in France.
I have never seen another one (the bike) on the road.

Is the hub any good? – yes, unhesitatingly.
Is it perfect? – no.
The 2.44:1 range is not enough for serious hills or paths.
They have a reputation for fragility in heavy use, though mine is still as good as new.

So what now?
Shimano have introduced an 8-speed with 3.05:1 range & nearer bullet-proof durability, though they still warn against using it for "cross country races".
This seems to be the "best buy" today, if you can't afford Rohloff.

SRAM generated a lot of buzz over their upcoming 9-speed i-Motion hub with 3.40:1 range, which I think would be adequate for my needs, but it seems to be hanging at the buzz stage.
Sure, a long time after originally expected, they did get it into production in 2007, but inexplicably only in a ten-ton version with back-pedal brake!
They publicize a lighter freewheel version, but it is still 2.0 kg vs Shimano at 1.5 kg.
Initial reports suggested some quality/fragility concerns, hopefully just teething troubles…
I don't see any unheavy bikes
with this hub in shops or on websites.

I suppose I have to wait until, inevitably, Shimano brings out a smaller, lighter 9 or 10-speed competitor and actually gets it into bikes in shops.
Hope I am not too old to enjoy it then.

So why am I beefing about derailleur gears?

Because if nobody had invented derailleur gears, the needs of the marketplace would have forced development of better hub gears many decades ago.
The size of the marketplace would have justified development expenditure.
The volume of production would have reduced costs.
Competition would have reduced prices.
We would all be riding around with cheap, light, reliable 12-speed hubs with 5:1 range.
Nobody would remember the last time a chain came off.
The idea of juggling 2 contradictory shift controls would be laughable.

That's why.


While we are waiting, here are some hub gear reference sites to look at, with details of even more hubs that have come &, in many cases, gone:

Parting thot: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so." – Albert Einstein

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