Tuesday, February 1, 2011

One Person's Practicality...

Just as those at the extreme of the "Roadie" spectrum fetishise the reduction of weight, and addition of crabon to the bicycle and its components, to the point that it makes less and less sense[1], so the extreme utility cyclist values "practicality" above all other considerations.

This is, however, a very specific brand of practicality.

I was musing on this following a recent discussion on internally geared hubs (hereafter, IGH) which are valued variously for their minimal maintenance requirements, ease of shifting (the chain does not have to be in motion to change gear[2]), the fact that "roadies" don't use them (a somewhat spurious contention, given the reception given to the Shimano Alfine equipped Cotic Roadrat and On-One Pompetamine among certain sections of the lycra wearing fraternity) and their presence on the archetypal "Roadster" type bike (although some argue that this is a single speed, with a coaster brake).

As Bike Snob NYC once pointed out, there can be a tendency to define a quality in terms of its opposite.  Don't like the stripped down, narrow tyred, mudguardless road bike? Then ignore the in-between options and ride a heavy, Dutch style city bike! (BSNYC actually uses the word "Tank", as I recall - unfairly, as there's a real pleasure in this type of bike, in the right situation). 

To me, "practicality" is more than the opposite of what the "sport cyclist" is up to.  Grant from Rivendell wrote an interesting piece on hub gears last year, when answering some reader questions - you can read the whole thing here.

As he points out, if you genuinely have no time for, or no interest in, maintaining a bicycle, or ride in really appalling conditions, a hub gear can make sense.  The latter is, I think, why an IGH is great for a Brompton - the drivetrain is so low, thanks to those 16" wheels, that is gets really filthy, really quick - on a 700c, or 26" bike in normal conditions, I don't think that applies.  With IGH, you can also do nifty things like adding a chain case, which means you no longer have to tuck your trousers into your socks, a huge sartorial gain, so long as you wipe any muck off your chaincase, I guess.

Of course, there is a trade off - you add a piece of complex machinery to the bike that, should it go wrong, needs specialist, probably expensive, attention from someone who knows what they're doing.  You also complicate one of the most simple repairs anyone can do on a bike, namely that of fixing a puncture.

The trade off for the derailleur geared bike is an increased level of care (wiping the chain with a rag & re-oiling after riding in the wet - although I have to do this on my IGH equipped Brompton too, as the chain is exposed) and some attrition of components.  I think the latter is overstated - the older systems (6 - 8 gear) last a good many miles and are cheap (Mrs Monkey's 7 speed transmission seems to have lasted forever, so my experience of buying 7 speed components is limited) 9 speed is durable enough, with chains costing, say £5 more, depending on what you buy - I'd balk at 10 speed, personally, for reasons of durability and cost (reduced, and increased respectively, not the right way round, surely!)  Maintaining the derailleurs themselves amounts to giving them a squirt of GT85 now and then around the pivot points, and maybe a yearly change of cables.

As I've said before, bikes are mechanically simple, and this is part of the joy of them. That one can generally see anything that goes wrong, and fix it is surely a contributing factor to the independence that a bicycle gives the commuter (or shopper, or well, insert other use here).  We don't have to worry about the black box somewhere inside our vehicle freezing up and stranding us on the way to work or to see Auntie Doris, waiting impotently by the road for the AA (or your favoured motoring organisation) to turn up.  Or leaving us stuck in the top gear of the hub, honking away like we're on a mountain time trial when just trying to move away from the lights. (Long story).  At least with a broken bike, you can push it to the destination, or use it like a Dandy Horse I guess, rather than waiting for a lone cyclist to offer to help push your stranded SUV out of the junction (another long story).

Which brings us back to practicality - it's a word that can, perhaps should, have a different meaning for all of us.  For me, it means things I can understand, maintain easily in minimal time, and repair or bodge easily in order to continue riding - in these straitened times, it also means things I don't need to employ a specialist to work on.   I trade off some other attributes to get that, in the same way that the rucksack using commuter favours a sweaty back over having to attach and detach luggage from his or her bike (not a trade off that makes sense to me, but there you go).  Similarly, I have a colleague who trades off a reduced likelihood of getting punctures, for the inability to remove his tyres without 30 minutes of swearing and 2 or 3 broken tyre levers.  On the Brompton, I trade some of the attributes of my full size commuter for the ability to get any train (even the ones where the bike spaces are full of luggage, of which there are a great many lately), take a bike where I can't be sure there'll be decent bike parking, and so on.

Practicality and utility aren't, I'd argue, one size fits all definitions - think about what makes your cycling life easier, and define them yourself.

[1] Some savings being equivalent to emptying your bladder before a ride- a measure that should also be far cheaper, and make the ride more comfortable into the bargain.

[2] A mixed blessing - grand if you're in the right gear before starting a hill, but if you choose wrongly, leaving you with a significant loss of momentum half way up, as you struggle to unweight the pedals enough to allow the change of gear, without losing too much forward/upward motion, on a Brompton at least.

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1 comment:

Mr Colostomy said...

The gear changing under load with IGHs is easier of certain hubs, just as it is with certain dérailleur systems (hyperglide etc). The Nexus 3-speed IGHs are a bit better at shifting under load than the Sturmey Archer ones for example.

I agree with the sentiment regarding practicality as something which is really quite subjective, I am happy to have a slightly harder tyre removal experience when I do get a puncture in exchange for very rarely getting them, or in having a very rare problem I can't fix with hub gears rather than much more frequent problems I can fix with dérailleur gears (plus the stationary shifting, ability to enclose the chain and the extended chain life and sprocket life vs cassette). However if I lived in a much more remote location, I might place more value on being able to repair the entire transmission myself and choose dérailleur gears.

Having said that practicality is subjective, there are an awful lot of people who make bad choices for their own needs, such as a workmate of mine who rides a racer with lightweight tyres to work and complains about his weekly punctures. The tyre might come off easily for repair, but he is wasting a lot of time dealing with punctures unnecessarily. I don't think he is a particularly practical minded person