“You know, we really don’t need more than three speeds on a bicycle.” So said my friend as we rode to the riverbanks. This was 21 years ago. I had just dropped $1000 on a bike with 18 gear configurations. His bike was a spanky 12 speed. And he was right: for Winnipeg riding, most healthy young adults will be well served by three gears.
I moved to Toronto shortly after that. It's a city of many hills plus a ravine or two, if you’re up to it. I now resorted to a total of seven gear configurations. The trouble was, these seven configurations required three gears on the chainwheel and four on the freewheel. That’s how we end up owning 12-speed bicycles.
My friend’s observation snickered in the back halls of my memory when I had my conversation with a guy at this shop last summer. The fellow I talked to was in the business of making bicycles for Winnipeg, and he was loathe to install any sort of derailleur system at all. Derailleurs are touchy devices: they require constant readjustment, no matter how many “improvements” are made to the technology. I could see the beauty of his argument, but the style of riding I wanted to do and the locale I was going to be doing it in required some gearing flexibility, so I went with an 18-speed bike.
The hills I face look pretty manageable, don’t they? The guy I bought the Jake from said it was perfect for touring, and showed me a picture of a customer riding one in the Canadian Rockies. She’d apparently taken it from the West Coast to the East.
I can’t quite believe it — at least, not with the gearing my bike has. It’s technically a competition bicycle, so even on these weenie hills, I find myself struggling to make it up the grade on my lowest gear. Granted, I’m a 43-year-old male working on increasing his lung capacity, but I still can’t imagine that young lady grinding up the mountains of British Columbia using the standard-issue gearing. Conversely, I’ve yet to use the Jake’s highest gear. Perhaps it’s the gravel surface (plus the occasionally startled deer or bear) that prevents me from throwing all caution to the wind, but I get alarmed at the speeds I reach as I hurtle down the hills, and I’m usually three gears away from the top. Note to self: should I attempt anything longer than a day’s journey, I’ll probably want lower gearing.
Derailleur adjustment is something I seem to be doing more of with this bicycle than I did with my last. I’m also not too crazy about the shifting system. For one thing, the location is a little inconvenient: you twist the brake levers or thumb the shifter on the inside of the lever hood. This has to be done with your hands on top of the bars, as opposed to inside the drop bars, where you generally want to be as you prepare to zoom downhill. For another, shifters are “indexed” these days: the rider punches and clicks the gear combo he wants, and — ka-chunk! — Bob’s-yer-uncle. Again, this is a very nice shifting system to have if you’re in competition; so long as it’s combined with a finely-tuned derailleur it will save you many precious split-seconds. For my purposes, however, I can’t help but think fondly back to...
...those old friction shifters. *sigh* It took some time to acquire a feel for the gearing combinations, but once you’d adjusted the extreme ends of the shifting spectrum (and let’s face it: if you’re riding hills, that’s where the majority of your gearing resides anyway) your maintenance work was done — usually for months afterward. As for shifter position, just a few inches south on the down tube was darn near perfect no matter how you gripped the handlebars.
Speaking of handlebars, another look at the Jake's reveals an irony I rather enjoy:
See those little silver brake levers? If you’re a cyclist of a certain age, they’ll remind you of this:
Oh, how gauche those levers were — in 1985! Those were kiddy-brakes, a mere half-step removed from training wheels. If you had ‘em on your bike, you were a dilettante and not a serious cyclist — in 1985. My, how times have changed (although it’s worth noting that the old brake levers were not good in emergencies, and that the new brake levers are actually tighter than the ones on the drop bars).
Alright, enough kvetching. The bottom line is, I love riding this baby — love it. It is far and away the lightest, fastest bicycle I have owned. Once I get on it, I don’t want to get off, even after an hour-and-a-half of country hills. The frame geometry is more stable than the Sekine’s, and more comfortable, too. As with my beloved Fisher, the Jake's wheels absorb the bulk of the shock and are built to withstand unbelievable punishment — certainly far more than I take on with these washboard roads. On the other hand, aluminum is noticeably more rigid than chromoly steel, so I’ll be curious to see what shape the frame is in some 15 years from now.
Now all it needs is a gun-rack, for those pesky bears....