Are You A Gearhead?

There seems to be a feverish push for more and ever more gear speeds on a bike these days. The question is why? For professional racers those extremely close ratios definitely make a difference. You can maintain an optimal cadence for a given speed. This means they are less tired for any given distance and terrain. It can make the difference between winning and losing.

But for the normal rider the ratios are so close together that you wind up shifting twice whenever you feel the need to shift. The components such as the rings, cassettes and chains are growing ever thinner and wearing out ever faster. The bottom line is that these increased number of speeds come at a higher price and fill no need for the average rider for whom a 10 rpm difference in cadence makes not the least difference.

With six speeds it was plain that you could use more ratios. With seven it was getting close. Finally the 8-speed arrangement worked almost perfectly. They shifted well, had the same wearing characteristics as the 7-speed units and the ratios were close enough for Joe Blow-by-me.

In the San Francisco bay area with its hills upon hills and mountains, everywhere you turn, you could still climb or roll without a problem. And if you still needed more ratios a triple setup would give you more than you could use. In fact, most triple set-ups show far more wear on the middle ring than the outside rings.

Another problem with the increasing speeds is that spare parts for the older components are becoming more and more difficult to find. You are now lucky to find “new old stock” parts for 9 speeds and there is even talk of going to 12 speeds, which would render 10 speed components antiques.

The problem is that with so many new riders they do not have the experience to know what is too much and what isn’t. To them you are supposed to shift two or three times when you shift up or down. They think that you aren’t supposed to be able to tell the difference if you only shift once. And they believe that the continuous and increasing wear is normal. And besides, newer is better.

Most of my collection of bikes are 9 speed and my grocery store bike is a 7-speed. I lately ran into some very nice 8-speed components and rebuilt my bike with an 8-speed triple and it was a revelation.  It has been so long since I had an 8-speed I had forgotten how pleasant they are. Yes, I can climb anything in a 39-26 but the question would be – why? Is there a reason to wear out my knees to try and keep up with someone 20 years my junior? Personally I’d rather be riding into my 80’s as a couple of friends of mine are doing.

I love cycling. I’ve been riding for over 40 years and intend to do it forever. And I would like to maintain my Masi Gran Corsa without changing out entire group sets every other year in order to obtain repair parts.

And it turns out that there are companies that are beginning to catch on and manufacture 8 speed components again. Microshift makes really nice working 8 speed brifters that work better than the older Shimano parts. They use a slightly different mechanism that uses the middle finger to upshift and the index finger to downshift. Women in particular would like this since  they have smaller hands and this method puts the shift levers closer to the grips.

While they use the older type of Shimano cable routing the truth is that these did have the advantage of less friction and extreme ease of threading inner cables though. I think I can stand the front area of the bike not having all of the cables hidden beneath bar tape for those kinds of advantages. Particularly after being forced to thread the latest Shimano Ultegra 10 speed lever inner cables with the trap door you have to remove in order to complete the threading.

So certainly I will put 8 speed stuff on the touring bike I’m building up. Too bad the frame is a 700c wheel version because I would also like to use 26” wheels. But that’s another story.

I’m  becoming less of a gear head than I was. But then I didn’t like the idea of paper thin 12 speed cassette cogs with chains that cost $150 and would wear out after 5000 miles of use.

Tom Kunich