Which shifter would the Taoist choose?
(cover picture: the author at one of their favourite pastimes: dishwashing)
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” —E.F. Schumacher
Formulated somewhere in the mists of time(1), The Three Treasures of Tao are life guiding principles a follower of Tao should heed to in order to achieve peace and virtue. They are as follows: 1) Compassion, meaning the respect for our fellow life forms 2) Frugality, meaning not-wasting but saving of energy or material and 3) Humility, or not-being-in-front, meaning not seeking active authority over others. In this essay I will try to relate these ancient ideas, that I see as a means for good life, to the world of bicycles, mainly through the concept of Simplicity, in which I see the Three Treasures coming together.
Simplicity means doing things in the most effortless way. It is about leaving out what is extraneous and unnecessary and making do with what is enough. I feel the world is filled with ever growing complexity and that it is widely considered progress. But I want to offer an alternative view of progress - instead of focusing on adding more to existing ideas, true progress consists of refining traditions by simplifying, shaving off the unneeded, and on the other hand trying for completely new ideas.
I kind of wanted to leave friction shifters(2) out of this article because of their cliché status as “The Simple Bicycle Component”, but it seems that I can't. So I will present a comparison that I recently read on Grant Petersen's advertisement text for Rivendell's(3) new Silver 2 friction shifters: that of the hammer and the nail gun. The friction shifter is the hammer, it gets things done while taking a bit more time and skill than the technically more complex but more efficient nail gun, which in the world of shifters would maybe be an electronic shifting system like Shimano Di2 or Sram eTap. Using the hammer is not necessarily as fast or easy as using the nail gun, but in many cases it is the most graceful and gratifying way. Of course the choice depends on whether you have an artwork to hang or a barn to build, but here we come to the question of how many cyclists need the equivalent of tools for building a barn, meaning semi-professional powerful tooling? Wouldn't a hammer suffice? And to add a layer of (for once called-for) complexity to the issue, that in a philosophical essay I feel is important: if you had to first make the tool yourself, instead of it being made for you by unknown cheap labour using non-renewable fuels somewhere on the other side of the world, which option would you find more simple?(4)
Another comparison that comes to mind is of house cleaning. I often prefer getting down on the floor and wiping the dust and debris off with a damp rag rather than get the noisy vacuum cleaner out, even though it would probably be more efficient. But what kind of living is it to always look for only efficiency? The world will never be ready, so we might as well enjoy work and life as we go along and at least sometimes appreciate the quiet and humble nature of the floor wiping rag.
But there are different types of people, and I have to admit that simpleness doesn't appeal necessarily to everyone. I guess it takes a certain type of person to appreciate the hammer instead of the nail-gun as the best solution to a problem, and many will continue to use their nail-guns, vacuuming robots and electronic shifting and full suspension along with cadence meters, power meters, GPS tracking and 4000 lumen headlights. Whereas some people will ride triple-tall cargo bikes with retrodirect(5) gearing, enjoying their special and in every way difficult contraption wholeheartedly. My bike background being in D.I.Y. and bike kitchen culture certainly affects my views on things -- seeing, using and repairing things after they have been discarded or sold second hand gives you a better idea of the long-term value of a design and it has led me to embrace simplicity as the highest idea. Some examples of simple bicycle technology are presented in the technical commentary section after this essay.
When viewed solely and directly as a working interface, complex technology can be in some ways more user-friendly, and often is. Like building a barn with the nail-gun, of course it is easier to navigate on a GPS device than on a paper map, or change gears and slow down on push-button electric shifters and extremely powerful hydraulic brakes. And sometimes these functions can be very useful and needed, and they can make cycling easier and more approachable. It would be very important to make bicycles and cycling available for as many people as possible, and the ease-of-use is of course an important issue to consider. Not that simplicity and user-friendliness are by any means contradictory! But one should not concentrate only on one while forgetting the other(6). With a scalpel-sharp mind, unaffected by harmful traditions, superstitions or opinions of so-called authorities like professional racers, we should design bicycles to be easy to produce, easy to maintain, and easy to use. We must realize that the same type of bicycle is not the best for everyone, which brings us back to the superiority of flexible small-scale local production. On the same note, one can also consider whether a GPS device is actually easier to use for someone used to paper maps. Economically speaking, a simple map is definitely cheaper and thus more accessible. But for instance say a city youth, who is not used to navigating on maps, using a GPS locating device can be both liberating and empowering. So it is good to remember that different people have different skill sets and needs.
I would also argue that for most people, including beginners in cycling, it would be more important that the bike is comfortable, robust and easy to understand and to maintain, than that it has seemingly “fool-proof” features like suspension shocks and automatic gearing, that someone might say make cycling easier.
But one who is not yet convinced might ask: Why do we need things to be simple when modern technology has made all the complexity easily available? In my opinion, simplicity is foremost a moral and political choice. Simple technology promotes small-scale, low-tech, decentralized production whereas complex technology usually demands large, centralized, high-tech facilities. A functioning derailleur in its simplest form could be made rather easily in a garage using hardware store supplies and a hack-saw and a file, while making a wireless electronic groupset would be an enormous effort, using up much more of our valuable resources, only to make gear shifting “easier”, which I think has never been an issue for most cyclists. I do not mean that one should necessarily make their own derailleurs, but this is just an example of extremes. For a more “realistic” example (but nonetheless a dream) : a worker-owned, small-ish co-operative machining shop in the outskirts of Helsinki could very well manufacture a functioning shifting system that would serve most cyclists well. Then we would not need it to be made in Malaysia by a multinational giant corporation, transported across the oceans with the help of fossil fuels. Which I think almost inevitably leads to, or at least is made possible by, inequality, alienation and ecological destruction.
Simple products should also be cheaper, making them available for more people and not just the privileged and wealthy. But unfortunately the economy of scale(7) has gotten completely out of hand and put ever more power into the hands of big industry players. And thus the simplicity of the design does not affect the price much at all anymore, and the determining factor for price is not necessarily real expenses(8) but has become the amount of products manufactured. In my limited understanding of things, a high-quality steel frame should be much cheaper than one made of carbon fiber because the latter material is much more complex and uneconomical to work with.(9) But nowadays it is not so anymore because of the massive investments into carbon fiber manufacturing. For "economical production" material cost is no longer the defining factor, but most important is avoiding the need for skilled labour and decent working conditions. So it seems to have become cheaper, at least for big companies like Canyon, to buy a carbon fiber frame instead of a high-quality steel one.
So the technologically simple solutions have largely turned into niche choices. And at the same time skilled labour has largely been forgotten and replaced by low-skilled operators and their machines, and therefore has become expensive. This is a cultural shift which I see as harmful, as it undermines traditional handcrafts while normalizing high-technology with low-quality production. The traditional way of making things locally by skilled labour would also cater better to special needs by being more flexible. The mass-produced items fit the average person well, but for example physically marginalized people, like someone with a bodily disability, would surely benefit from being able to get a bicycle designed especially for them. Of course it is still possible to get a special bicycle made, but the widespread culture of mass production has made it much more expensive.
All in all, to holistically consider the manufacturing process and its implications while choosing your bicycle is a form of Compassion, the first, and widely considered the most important of the Three Treasures.
In addition to the aforementioned manufacturing and user-interface concerns, complexity also comes with complex problems, whereas simple tech only has simple problems. If your nail-gun malfunctions or breaks down, the barn-building will come to a complete halt! Simple things are usually more durable, and can oftener be repaired at home or at least by any mechanic. Whereas complex products need to be completely replaced or sent to the manufacturer for repair, making people more dependent on the corporations that manufacture them. So if one wants bicycles to be durable, easy and cheap to repair, one should consider simplicity as one of the key elements.
But as the industry is centered around production and not upkeep, the attributes of bikes emphasized in marketing are the seemingly user-experience-improving complex features like 12 rear sprockets, dropper seatposts, suspension forks/stems/frames/saddles, internal cable routing et cetera - which nearly always are detrimental to ease of maintenance. I don't know why, but somehow the feature-laden-but-cheap design ethic has managed to break into the mainstream. Here in Finland at least many people seem to be so easily mesmerized by new, seemingly superior products that actually do not offer anything really new, and will not necessarily last like the old ones.
Cost-effective simple solutions save your resources and can enable you to invest in more useful functions on your bicycle. Having, say, a simple gear shifting setup and a bit of an out-dated drivetrain for example, can save you money to use on a dynamo-powered lighting system. And buying simple but high-quality parts instead of the more complex, but lower build quality ones will make your bike work smoother for longer periods of time. And even if you could afford to buy whatever whimsical, crazy, advanced and expensive bicycle tech, you shouldn't! Affording should not be thought of as a personal matter only, but in relation to the ecology of the world. How I see it, we should strive for a way of life that the world can afford. This I believe is the true idea of Frugality, the second of the Three Treasures.
As a funny comparison one can think of PC games like NetHack and Dwarf Fortress. They both employ an extremely, even ridiculously low-tech approach compared to "normal" games whilst presenting some of the most amazingly complex worlds and gameplays in existence. They have a harder-than-normal interface (or in the case of Dwarf Fortress, extremely difficult) and one needs to actually learn how to play the game at first, but once you are familiar with it they deliver very engaging and deep gaming experiences. They are also fantastically "lightweight", something a cyclist will almost certainly appreciate. A typical NetHack installation takes 1380 kilobytes of hard drive space compared to the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with a similar gameplay, taking up 6,000,000 kb! But again, these games seem to attract only certain types of people and don't enjoy huge popularity...
The author, (@) in lower right corner, as a level 3 Monk. The situation seems messy because the player is hallucinating, as can be seen on the lower right corner of the status bar. The "brown pudding", displayed as a white @ (a humanoid) next to the player is actually the players pet dog Slinky who just bit and killed a monster (the orc mummy/The Luggage). The jumble in the left lower corner is a general store.
Just to be sure not to get things mixed up, I want to clarify that simplicity does not mean minimalism. I am personally a fair bit opposed to minimalism as a philosophy and an aesthetic, as it often cuts off not only extravagance but also usefulness. As I see it, in the bicycle world minimalism would mean a bike without such useful things like multiple gears, fenders, lights, luggage racks, etc. Just because a fixed gear bicycle and a backpack is "enough" to take you places it doesn't mean it's the best way. It is simple, but it will not necessarily make things more simple for you.(10) I also feel that minimalism is too much mixed up with middle-class aesthetics of reducing your things to a bare minimum which is often actually more enabled not by one's ascetic lifestyle but by one's wealth and opportunities to always buy what you need, instead of having it stowed away in storage for future need. So for me, a simple bike doesn't mean a stripped down bike, it can still have all the functions that a bike can and should have, but they must be made in an efficient and simple way.
In today's bicycle world, simplicity and older technology often go together. Maybe it's because the bicycle industry used to be more spread out and companies tended to be smaller, whereas the components market today is basically run by a few huge companies.(11) Probably the smaller operations of old could only produce simpler technology (at least if they were the least bit interested in cost-effectiveness). But here one must be careful of falling into the pit of glorifying tradition! Striving towards simpleness by choosing from existing technology can easily lead to using dated designs because of their perceived simpleness. And romanticizing the bygone years can halt the striving for true progress. We shouldn't stop looking for new, simpler solutions, but the trick to this is that one would have to invent something truly original! It takes inspiration, ingenuity, and vision to make a simple and elegant bicycle part, to leave out all the extra and come up with the most "obvious" solution. That is where I feel the golden age of French bicycle design(12) excelled at: in testing, refining, simplifying and integrating, making things fit together in a neat and elegant way. (Which brings us to the point that it is somewhat a different thing to make a simple bicycle part and a simple complete bicycle.)
Using traditional bicycles and designs is still often a viable and good option, as high-quality vintage parts tend to cost a lot less than new high-quality items. And the newness of a design is usually much less important than its high-quality construction. Thus I and my colleagues largely ride bikes and parts bought second hand, and it is something we fully endorse to customers also. As a bike shop it would probably be much more profitable for us to push new and more complex tech like almost everyone else. We would probably make more money by selling Shimano Ultegra Di2 parts instead of the 8 speed Claris for half the price(or telling customers not to buy anything at all!), but at least personally I see the latter as a much better option for most people. The industry as it is now depends on new and changing products and most bike shops are trying to keep up, as it is much harder to monetize simple, robust and durable gear. And to make people want to buy the newest and "most advanced" gear, the industry has ever since the dawn of bicycles used racing as the ultimate ideal of cycling, and winning races as the best proof of high value and good design. But only in the world of extreme high performance racing does the expensive, short-lived, difficult-to-maintain technology outweigh the benefits of simple and durable solutions. I can understand racing for fun, but I think it should be for fun only and for fun you do not need an expensive or “highly advanced” bike. And if winning ever becomes more important than having fun, to me it is the end of living in harmony and the beginning of selfishness, putting oneself at the front and trying to be better than others. Here we arrive to remind ourselves of the last of the Three Treasures: Humility, telling us to be wary of asserting any kind of authority over others and of equality between everyone and everything.
Bicycles of course are only one amongst the ten thousand things, and possibly not the most important. But as I personally to a large extent live my life and passions through and with them, I naturally chose them as the example for this study of Simplicity. Striving for a simple but full life is an all-encompassing Way towards virtue that one can apply to anything.
- Aki "Simpleton" Viren
PLEASE NOTE: There is a technical commentary after the notes!
Notes on Simplicity:
(click return to go back to corresponding main text)
1. their origin is unknown and in my opinion of not great importance, but like most Taoist wisdom they have been made known to the modern world by the book Tao Te Ching (return)
2. a plain gear shifting lever with no steps or indexing for different gears but one needs to find the correct position by fine-tuning the lever. It was the most common type up to the 1980s. (return)
3. Rivendell Bicycle Works, a famous "alternative" bicycle business (return)
4. In the end of course this leads to the question whether bicycles are too complicated and energy-intensive, and shouldn’t we cease the use of shoes and metal tools in favour of wooden spades and walking barefoot. You should read Lasse Nordlund in case this kind of thinking appeals to you, but for now I will try to remain in somewhat of an industrial reality. (return)
5. on a retrodirect, pedaling forwards produces one gear development while pedaling backwards produces another (usually lower) one. (return)
6. This painfully reminds me of the new anniversary model Rene Hersé bicycles, which in their otherwise smart and practical design employ a 1930s-style lever-operated front derailleur; seemingly very awkward and even dangerous to use. It is an interesting statement, but the wrong type of simplifying in my opinion. (return)
7. meaning more production volume = less cost per item (return)
8. meaning actual material, energy and time used. Of course big factories in the far-East in lot of cases are efficient, but mostly their low-price output is made possible by sweatshop conditions and pollution: avoiding regulations in "developed" countries (return)
10. It is funny to note here that like many others of today's bike scene, my bicycle "craze" started properly with the fixed gear boom in the late 00s and I used to ride a brakeless track bike and a huge backpack for several years. Now I look back in awe and wonder at my younger self living that fast and uncomfortable life. But it is true that it is pleasantly easy to work on a fixed gear machine, the riding experience is of a unique and simple kind, and thus they do have their place in the world. (return)
11. Shimano has an estimated 50% market share in bicycle components, and SRAM has about 20% (return)
12. from about 1910s-1960s, the French were maybe the leading innovators in bicycle design, at least when it comes to lightweight machines intended to be ridden long distances. (return)
The technical commentary for the mechanically inclined:
My view is that the on-road bicycle for the amateur cyclist(1) has not had much significant progress in the last 70 or so years. There are now the indexed gears, ramped cogs and chainrings, clipless pedals, tubeless tires et cetera, but there hasn't been any idea like the derailleur gear or the cantilever brake in decades that would have completely changed bicycles for the better. People did amazingly epic rides back then as they do now. For me personally the only major improvement that (on-road) bicycles have seen in the last few decades is the LED light, which makes cycling in the dark a whole lot easier and more safe. (But it isn't exactly a development of the bicycle industry so it doesn't really count.)(2) In off-road or mountain bikes there definitely has been technical progress in the form of well-working suspension and more consistent braking. But as far as I understand, most of these developments are only copied from motorcycles and adapted to the bicycle world. The point here is that new discoveries that come from outside- the- box of normal bicycle design don't come by that often.
(climbing the Col du Parpaillon in the 1930s: not much has changed! Photo courtesy of bike-cafe.fr)
One of the only major new ideas I came up with, after a good while of pondering, is the threadless- type steerer and stem.(3) I cannot deny the romance and sleek look of quill stems, and for most bikes they work perfectly fine, but I think the threadless system truly is a better, smarter design. It does away with the hassle-y procedure of tightening the headset with two large wrenches, is lighter and stay on straight more tightly if you do a jump or a slight crash. The quill stem and steerer tube interface also seems to be quite prone to developing creaking noises with time.
Unfortunately most bicycle companies don't seem to be primarily looking for new and better solutions. Instead they are mostly making revisions on old designs and adding extra features to things that don't maybe truly benefit from them. We are seeing ever more rear sprockets, more exotic and refined materials, and new experimental and often too extreme frame geometries - all pitched as new discoveries. The recent rise of dropper seatposts is yet another example of the market pushing a new gadget that will transform the way you ride! Of course there is nothing wrong with dropper posts themselves, but in my opinion they are useful mainly on certain types of off-road bicycles, and I'm afraid that they will soon be sold on many bikes that will never venture onto any real off-road routes, just like has happened with suspension forks. Today, 30 years after suspension forks were first widely adopted for mountain bikes, there is now a huge amount of city and hybrid bikes that are carrying their long since jammed and not-at-all bouncy poor- quality suspension forks around as extra dead weight. I don’t want to blame bicycle companies for making poor designs though, as failures are part of learning. But companies often do not admit their mistakes, but still sell them to customers as actually working ideas, which is the greatest problem. The failures should be confined in the prototyping and testing phase, and not be seen in products for sale.
But what does simplicity in bike tech exactly mean?(4) In my opinion, it is solutions to problems that cover them adequately with minimal waste of resources like materials, time or to a lesser extent, money. It means that all the un-needed attributes and functions are left out and the design is based on actual real life needs of the cyclist.
Examples of things that I consider good, simple designs are:
The steel frame. It definitely can be made using simpler tools compared to aluminium, titanium or carbon fiber and repaired more easily while delivering the same performance(5) and durability. It is more ecological and economical than any other material except maybe bamboo, which being very marginal in the industry I will leave out of the question for now.
Loose ball bearings. They are not a big deal really when thinking of the whole bicycle, but still I would argue that for the ease of maintenance of loose ball bearings overversus cartridges. Cartridges have the moving parts hidden inside them and you need to dispose of the unit and replace it with a new one, whereas loose ball bearings can be easily cleaned and re-greased, and the balls are very cheap and easy to replace once worn out. Here I have to give praise to two big bike industry players, Shimano and Campagnolo, for having kept believing in the cup-and-cone style hub bearings! I cannot think of any "boutique" brand that would offer loose-ball hubs, but I don't really know why they do not do so. My guess is it needs more specific tooling to manufacture loose ball hubs, and most component makers are not interested in acquiring those tools. Of course I am intrigued by the anecdotes of Jan Heine about the famous french Maxi-Car hubs, that are claimed to last 50,000 kms without maintenance. But my suspicion is that the bikes that have them are not regularly used in wet, muddy, salty and slushy conditions like those found in Finnish winter. And again, they need special tools and procedures to be serviced.
Larger tires instead of suspension shocks. The latter definitely have their place on some bikes, but for "normal" use I think larger tires make the ride more comfortable with considerably less effort and more simplicity.
Mechanical (cable operated) rim brakes. This is not a clear case, and I do admit that having a structural part of the bicycle wear out because of braking sounds foolish at first, but it's also genius to have a part that's already there perform an extra function. So depending on the viewpoint rim brakes can be a beautiful integration of functions, or a stupid and abusive design. Maybe because they are a more mature technology, at least for now rim brakes are easier and cheaper to service and usually suffer from less or at least more simple problems than mechanical or hydraulic disk brakes. I believe in a decade or two disc brakes will have progressed to the point that they could be as refined as rim brakes. The hydraulic actuation also is not a bad idea, but I feel some work still needs to be done developing it before it can be considered better than cable -actuation. Rim brakes are also a good example of appropriate technology: they are good enough for most people and most uses.
Bigger bearings and more robust parts in general. As an example, the infamous Fauber crank and bottom bracket, is actually a quite nice design in some aspects. It has larger bearings than other, more modern bottom brackets and it seems to last very well despite decades of abuse and little maintenance. Someone might not like the fact that the tools that it is worked on with are a hammer and a punch, but the countryside person living far from the nearest bike shop would probably appreciate this feature greatly! Just add some heavy machinery grease on to the bearings every 3 years and it'll run for decades. I'm also for wider and thus stronger chains, cogs and chainrings. It only makes sense to make the wear-out parts bigger instead of making them ever narrower and thus more fragile.
And like said in the beginning, as maybe the most iconic, the friction shifter. It can be considered to be too simple, as the added complexity of indexed gears is quite minimal and in some cases extremely useful. But there is something very fascinating in a design that is almost eternal. Probably a friction shifter will degrade a bit with decades of use, but it will not really stop working ever, whereas the longest lasting indexed shift levers can be expected to work for a maximum of 20 years of active use. (Which admittedly most people would probably consider a good amount of time.). And maybe even more importantly, it does away with most incompatibilities concerning mixing shifters, derailleurs, cassettes and cranksets of different make and model, leading to more freedom of choice for the user and less dependent on the whims of manufacturers.(6)
(exploded diagram of the Simplex retrofriction bar end lever. Note that the “retrofriction” model shown here is not the most simple of friction shifters, and the added spring (3559 in diagram) tends to wear out every 20-30 years or so. But these Simplex models are highly regarded because of their smooth and consistent action)
To continue on this constructive thread, I would like to present some ideas I would personally want to see produced that do not readily exist now:
Easily and cheaply serviceable parts, with the spare parts widely available. For example a rebuildable shift & brake combination lever for drop handlebars.(7) The same could be applied to flat-bar shifters, brakes and derailleurs, with the index rings, clutches, springs, bushings, and the derailleur cages being available as spares. This used to be the reality still back in the 60s&70s and as a memento of those times, in the back of the shop we have interesting little drawers with handwritten labels full of spare parts for old derailleurs, brakes, and hubs.
Low-gearing cassettes. Most cassettes nowadays start from the 11-tooth cog and go up to 28, 32, 36, 42 or even 50 teeth. In my opinion the most sensible cassette would be something like an 8 speed 14-32. As most on-road bikes have large chainrings in the range of 46~52, which paired with a 11 or 12 tooth rear cog is only useful for final sprints in racing, and not for any kind of real life situation. It would make sense that bikes sold to "ordinary" customers would have larger rear cogs and thus lower gain ratios. The cassette cogs should also be available to buy separately and replaceable one by one.(8) It is also general knowledge that sprockets under 14 teeth have considerable efficiency loss because of their too small size, preventing the chain from properly wrapping around the cog, thus even from a performance viewpoint it would make sense to use larger rear cogs. With gravel and all-road bikes recently coming into fashion lately we have seen cranks with smaller chainrings, which is a great development. But in addition I would like to see more sensible cassettes also, to be paired with the millions of already existing cranks that cannot take small chainrings due to limitations of the attachment bolt diameter.
An easily installed and economical aftermarket dynamo for powering battery-free lights. To re-invent the bottle dynamo but in a more functional form, so with less drag and slippage, is what I see as the Holy Grail of bicycle design. With my limited understanding of electricity and mechanics I'm not sure if it is actually possible though or if the laws of physics intervene at a critical point. But in the quantum age I feel we can afford to dream big!
In general, manufacturers should strive to increase durability(9) and ease of maintenance in all wear-out parts that can be worn-out like the drivetrain, chain, bearings and so on. But in the last few decades we have mostly seen degeneration: for example with a less durable bottom bracket standard replacing the previous one in succession.(10)
I will talk more about the so-called progress of bicycle components later in my review of Frank Berto's book "The Dancing Chain". In which Berto covers the history of bicycle gear systems while analyzing interesting historical developments of bicycle technology in a critical way. In the book Berto notes how too often this "progress" is driven by corporate interests and marketing departments instead of the noble idea of perfecting the bicycle for the good of the people. The book also shows how inventing or realizing the simplest solution to a problem is not a simple task, but a very difficult one! Before the industry settled on using derailleurs and internal hub gears as we know them, the early inventors came up with the most fantastically complex ways of changing the gear ratio.
Nowadays, in the 2020s, people’s interest in bicycles seems to be growing at a steady pace, and I am very happy about it. I also feel that there is a greater variety of useful and decently designed bicycles for the non-competitive cyclist available now than there has been for a very long time. We are also slowly seeing new companies emerge in the components market so long dominated by a few giants. And maybe the recent problems in global scale supply chains will create more cracks in the industry for smaller companies with original ideas to flourish in. The beginning of the previous century was a golden age for bicycles, let us see if the new one can exceed it! Here I feel that systematic research and discussion of bicycle technology is the key towards that goal. But we should broaden the scope of the bicycle science from marginal gains in performance to including larger ideas like production ethics, comfort, accessibility and the joy of riding.
Notes on the technical commentary:
1. Someone who cycles for the love of cycling (return)
2. Even the dynamo hub that has now become standard equipment on good quality general purpose bicycles was invented in 1926 by Sturmey Archer, but with the power-hungry lamps before the invention and adopting of LEDs it never enjoyed much success. (return)
3. The basic idea behind it is not new though, it was invented at least as early as 1952, as seen on the Data Book by Terrashima. Though on the old french design the preloading seems to be done with a threaded "cap" on top of the stem and not with the star nut of the modern threadless system. But I'd argue that the stem tightening around the steerer and holding the bearing adjustment, (instead of a threaded cone and locknut) is the main idea of the system. So even the threadless headset is only a recently widely adopted technology instead of a really new design. (return)
4.To be clear, my concern in this article is that of "ordinary" bicycles for everyday use. This might include bicycles used for commuting, just going around town and longer or shorter trips for fun and exercise. Of course if you are going to do a big race or an expedition across the Antarctic you might need some very special solutions to win or survive, but I believe those people will do their own research about their gear, and their needs need not be applied to everyone else's bicycles. (return)
5. Performance here is again not intended as "the very fastest and most impossible bike technology" but as easy running, comfort and sufficiently light weight. (return)
6. The problem could of course be solved by the industry agreeing on standards for things like shifter and derailleur cable-pull ratios, front and rear cog spacing etc. So the friction shifter is more of a crude “hack” response to incompatibility issues caused by ignorant and non-cooperating manufacturers than an actual solution. (return)
7. This kind of shifter did exist for a moment in history, as the Campagnolo Ergopower levers from about 1995 to 2009 were designed to be serviced and the commonly wearing out parts to be replaceable. And the parts cost only some tens of euros. (return)
8. This also used to be common and totally normal with thread-on freewheels, but it died with the advent of the splined cassette Freehubs. There is not really any reason why it couldn't be done with modern cassettes, but the manufacturers have not wanted to do it for one reason or the other. (return)
9. Actually very recently, in the latest Shimano offerings, they have a new drivetrain range called Linkglide, which Shimano claims to have 300% greater durability than the previous Hyperglide drivetrain parts. It is to be seen if the claims hold true. I personally am very skeptical. (return)
10. A medium-quality cartridge bearing square-taper bottom bracket could be expected to last up to 50,000kms, whereas a more modern Hollowtech 2 usually has maybe half of that lifespan, and the press fit-bearings widely used in modern road bikes might only last five to ten thousand kilometres. It is not a problem with the pressfit-interface per se, the problem being that they require very precise manufacturing tolerances which are not applicable to the normal cost-cutting manufacturing methods. (return)