Monday, May 20, 2013

Paul Carson Step-Through Bicycle

Paul Carson Step-Through
As I stood composing this shot, a woman passing by with grocery bags stopped beside me. Looking at the bicycle, she tilted her head to the side and smiled. "That bike!" she said, "It looks like... happiness." It was a funny outburst, no doubt inspired more by the sunny day and the quaint tree-lined street, than by the bicycle itself. But I knew what she meant. Because this particular bike fit into the idyllic backdrop perfectly. Simple, friendly and inviting, it looked like no more and no less than what it was - a yellow bicycle on a beautiful summer morning. Maybe Paul is onto something here, I thought.

Paul Carson, Artisan's Asylum
Even though Paul Carson makes bikes and teaches others how to, I do not really think of him as a framebuilder. He is more of an engineer, an experimenter, a problem-solver. Paul doesn't see what he does as a craft, but as production that he loves to simplify and optimise. You might not find him polishing frame joints for hours on end. But you will find him making ridable prototypes with speed and ingenuity ...as well as the tools, fixtures and parts to facilitate doing so. In a sense, Paul is like a magic genie who can turn wishful thinking into reality, and fast. On one occasion, I watched him make a rear rack in under 20 minutes, so that he could try out a pannier on his roadbike. Another time, I wondered how difficult it would be to make a double-plated fork crown from scratch. He asked me to elaborate. I explained and showed pictures. He thought about it, then ducked into a corner. Hack-hack-hack. File-file-file. Flames! Flames! "Like this?" 

Paul Carson Step-Through
And there it was - double-plated fork crown for oval blades, spaced for a wide tire, just as I described. "Glad you like it," he shrugged. "I'll get a batch of these machined." That's Paul Carson, in a nutshell.

Paul Carson Step-Through
Unlike most other local builders, Paul is not part of the racing scene. He isn't even really part of the local bike scene so much; he is just his own entity. Perhaps that is why he gravitates toward making city bikes. City bikes have an immediate and obvious utility. And it is fun to see them cruising around the neighbourhood, ridden by ordinary people, carrying milk and potted plants. Over the past months, we've been discussing some ideas for step-through designs. We both like the feel of old English 3-speeds and we also like low trail. Wouldn't it be great to combine these? While our ideas diverge when it comes to wheel size and exact geometry specs, overall Paul's idea of a great step-through is not dissimilar to mine. When he asked me to try his prototype, I was eager to give it a go. 

Paul Carson Step-Through
Made of touring grade cro-moly tubing, the Paul Carson Step-Through is designed around 700C wheels with up to 35mm tires and fenders. It has a gently curved top tube, and is proportioned so that the handlebars can sit at or just above saddle height. 72° head tube angle and 73° seat tube angle. Trail in the mid-40s.

These framesets will be made to order in a range of sizes and with a menu of options, with prices starting at $650 for a TIG-welded frameset with standard (lugged) fork crown, made for caliper brakes. The price includes powdercoat in a range of standard colours and a headset. Extras include the option of fillet-brazed construction, handmade double-plated fork crown, handmade stem, and cantilever/ v-brake bosses. Turn around is 4 weeks.

Paul Carson Step-Through
Paul designed this frame with versatility of build in mind. Semi-horizontal dropouts make it possible to use either derailleur or hub gearing. The bottom bracket height (300mm with 28mm tires) is sufficient to set up the bike as a fixed gear. Braze-ons include eyelets for racks and fenders. 440mm chainstays are long enough to carry panniers without heel strike. And the front-end geometry will handle a front load.

Paul Carson Step-Through
The demo bike I tried was built in size 55cm and with all the extra options. Fillet-brazed joints, smoothly finished, but not fussed over. 

Paul Carson Step-Through
Canti-lever bosses and cable hanger. Twin plate fork crown.

Paul Carson Step-Through
And fillet-brazed stem (threadless).

Paul Carson Step-Through
Paul set this bike up with 28mm tires and fenders, a single speed drivetrain,

Paul Carson Step-Through
swept-back handlebars with cork grips,

Paul Carson Step-Through
and a Brooks Flyer saddle.

Paul Carson Step-Through
Leaving my own bike at the Asylum, I rode the Step-Through around town in the course of the morning, simulating some of my regular routes. When I struggle for something to say about a bike's handling, that generally strikes me as a good thing - as it means nothing is "wrong" with it. Paul's bike felt familiar, natural, normal. It also felt casual and accessible, more like a cool, repainted vintage bike than a new handmade bike. And it really did look oddly at home in our neighbourhood.

The fit worked well for me, with a more aggressive posture than a fully upright bike. There was no toe overlap with the size 55cm frame and 28mm tires with fenders, though it was close. The steering felt responsive and intuitive. My own city bikes are low trail (under 30mm) and this bike handled like a more neutral version of them.

Paul Carson Step-Through
As far as nit-picks, the step-over height could be a bit lower for my taste. And in my view, a practical city bike (especially for a pothole-ridden neighbourhood like ours) would ideally be specced with 35mm wide tires minimum, not maximum. This is where a smaller wheel size might be worth considering, especially if toe clearance is a priority. Personally, I also prefer lower bottom brackets. But I know that some riders like to feel as if they are "sitting high in traffic" on their bike, which the higher bottom bracket accomplishes. Otherwise, not much else to criticise; I liked the bike.

Paul Carson Step-Through
Paul Carson is an exciting person to know. He has ideas about streamlining the framebuilding process to make handmade bikes more accessible, and I will be following his work with interest. Made in this vein, the Carson Step-Through is not meant to be an artisanal show-stopper. It is a cute, friendly, ridable bike, with a friendly price, handmade in Somerville MA. 

61 comments:

  1. Very enjoyable description of someone's personality and how it translates into the things he makes.

    I like this bike because it doesn't try too hard to be perfect.

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    1. And yet, without seeming to try at all, the bike has a lot of perfection. Not least of which is an almost-Soma or VO price for a handmade quietly gorgeous frame. Thanks so much for posting this great story and great bike!

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  2. Funny you can nearly predict, like clockwork, a girly reaction to this/any bike here to a dude reaction. With the black stencil font and hi-viz yellow taxi color it screams utilitarian cab, with notes of sunflowers, the harbinger of summer.

    Ok, you go on and on about tco but your chainstay length comment brings up a problem to those of us with >size 7 women's shoes: heel strike. It happens. All the time. That cs isn't long enough for me. Put a mere size 11 running shoe on the pedal and watch the frustration. Slide the bag back? Great, the weight is now behind the axle; try standing and sprinting. All city bike chain stays are too short for me: a longer set would allow for larger bags, if needed, more centered carrying. Beef up the stays if you want it to remain snappy. GP hints at a possible move in this direction - about time someone besides Kinn and Yuba steps up with another mid-tail.

    Of course this will ride like you expect - it's bog standard geo but in no way, shape or form will this ride anywhere close to a Raleigh. Pretty much any modern bike won't, built by one guy.

    Since you're never going to review your own city proto or compare A to B in ride quality, instead focusing on components, I'll hazard a wild guess and say yours rides more smoothly due to a very dropped twin tt and threaded stem, among other factors.

    You should have me virtually review the bikes you present here, make a guide.

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    1. Shoot, I really do need to write about mine.

      Have you tried the Kinn?

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    2. Have not, not dealer-repped here afaik.

      Here's my review tho: much faster than a Boda Boda, seems just as sturdy, easy to carry a whole bunch including one child, small enough for a bus rack. Maybe 81% of an LT capacity. Zippy for extended commutes, more so than an LT.

      Bonuses include a high level of craftsmanship, including hand-built wheels: strong enough 700c for the speed win.

      Faster than the Rivendell vaporware.

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    3. It's coming to a local shop here, should be interesting to compare.

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    4. Oh BTW they're semi-vertical drop outs, not horizontal.

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    5. That should have read "semi-horizontal"

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    6. Actually mine should have read semi-horizontal too.

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  3. $650 per frameset? I would like to know what methods or tooling Paul uses to make this venture profitable.

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  4. Lovely bike!

    Frankly, I find something like this more appealing than the more ostentatious alternatives. Lugs are not for me, but I would love something simple and hand made for tooling around town.

    Any idea of the cost for a complete bike? I would prefer 3 speeds to single speed.

    Kudos to Paul Carson!

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    1. If you're okay with budget components, you can get a 3-speed build at under $1500 for sure, even with the more expensive frameset options. I see 3-speed wheelsets now for under $150, North Road handlebars for $25, etc.

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  5. How sweet, I so love step through bikes and hard to find better quality ones. I'm looking for a roadier one, and would like to see one with 650b. I just tested out my low trail vintage audax frame, and I love the handling. My raleigh sport is amazing, just so heavy, would love a modern replication with lightweight but stong, load ready tubing.

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  6. Great bike, great story. Carson's approach to building is one that I believe will help make "buy local" a widespread reality--non-boutique-y, down-to-earth objects made without too much fuss at a cost fair to both buyer and (one hopes) maker.

    I tend to agree with several of your points about city bikes. The problem with mixtes and some step through designs is that, because the top bar is not quite low enough, I'm rarely tempted to "step through." Gotta lower the bar on step-throughs, so to speak. And 650B makes a lot of sense for this type of machine, no doubt. I won't take this opportunity to show off my 1940s 650B Bianchi city bike yet again. Okay, maybe I will. I'm now officially inspired to get it a bit more operational. Maybe I'll paint it sunshine orange...just kidding.

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  7. It seems to make more sense to include component packages with the frame. I don't know many who have the knowledge or interest to piece together a bike and then hire someone to assemble it....Maybe it's just right for the individual who is like Paul, one that enjoys making things. I would have guessed around $1,500 as well for a completely built up bike with nothing too fancy. A friendly price? I guess that's up to the buyer.

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    1. Yes and no. Unless you have the funds to buy a boatload of components in advance, packages are tricky (as I learned in researching the marketability of my own project). The issue is that components for these types of builds don't come in "gruppos," you have to put the groups together yourself. And the individual components often go out of stock. So let's say you put together a quote for "Budget Build A." It is very possible that at the moment your customer orders a bike with this option, some of the components will be unavailable. You will then either have to wait or make substitutions, neither of which is good news. It gets more complicated than that, but just to give you an idea.

      $1,500 for a bike with a well thought-through frame handbuilt in MA is a friendly price, in the context of what quality city bikes cost today.

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    2. I'm aware of the difficulty, it just seems that burden should go to the person building the bike as opposed to the customer who, as you say is not likely to have a boatload of components sitting around and will find it difficult and confusing to do the research of selecting something appropriate for this frameset. Other frame builders do this and I'm sure they have to deal with the issues you just mentioned but it's all in one transaction and I'd prefer to talk with the frame builder as opposed to multiple sources in order to find the right parts for the intended build. This is, of course, not an issue for those who love to tinker on their bikes and have access to that boatload! As for the price, I'm not thinking of 'new' bikes but rather finding a bike for city use which is lightweight, responsive, comfortable and fun to ride. Complete ones for under $500, rebuilt by local bike shops are certainly available in my neck of the woods....Anyway, I'm just thinking of women I know who might put down that kind of money for a hand built frame but have absolutely no interest or clue about components, so would instead move towards the A-Line or something similar even if for a bit more money.

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    3. Oh I agree 100% that it is a good idea. It ain't easy is all, particularly for a small concern.

      And Paul does offer complete builds by the way, just not bundled packages with fixed pricing. At least not yet.

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  8. Fenderline! The bike would look so much better - probably perfect- if the fenders were on a constant radius from the axle...

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    1. Ah but "imperfection is perfection."

      Kidding. I agree re fender lines. And racks for that matter. I see surprisingly sloppy installs coming out of even experienced builders' workshops. It takes a lot of time and care to get it perfect though.

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    2. Also, not a fan of the cable routing and clamps for the rear brake and the down sloping stem, since we're talking about lines and aesthetics.

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    3. You know, I like those clamps. I know I "shouldn't," but I do. Brake routing hard to say.

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    4. Ah, as one who's worked with them and those tiny screws, had them rust and fall off, etc, etc, I'm thinking of the practical frustrations. They do leave a nice patina on the frame after a couple years, however....very retro :)

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    5. My step-through Winter Bike, which is coming together veeerrrryy slooowly in Paul's workshop as I write this, shall have those clamps. And it will live outdoors. I am curious to see how fast they rust, though it's possible that the bike itself will fall apart before that happens (fillet brazing is, like, way harder than lugs!!)

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    6. The memories of jabbing my fingers with the screwdriver are still with me even though I gave them up more than twenty years ago...way worse then knuckle scrapes! There was even a time, pre internet, when they were hard to find so were often stolen off bikes. I had one stolen off my and only assume the thief didn't take all three b/c he/she stabbed themselves with the screwdriver when removing the one and ran away cursing :)

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    7. Are you guys talking about the brake cable hangar in the front and cable stop in the rear?

      Indeed a tight loop for the R brake.

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    8. Bike looks cool, especially the fork. Price looks fantastic. Clamp-on brake cable guides actually make me happy, although rusted ones do cause frustration. But the cable routing to the rear brake? It literally hurts to behold such a dreadful contrivance on a modern, semi-custom bike.

      That bike is screaming for drum brakes. Or,a coaster rear. Anything to eliminate that goofy roller-coaster loop that would make the brakes hard to tune and the bike look less like happiness.

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    9. Yeah or you could spec a Vee and run the cable/yoke from below for real stopping and a more elegant routing but hey.

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    10. Personally I like drum brakes on city bikes. But I've had enough feedback from riders and builders to know this is far from a unanimous preference. Customers object to the weight, and some consider the braking power inadequate.

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    11. I would want V-brakes as well.

      Concerns about cable clamps rusting are not taking manufacturing advances into account. Those old rusty clamps are usually cheap galvanized steel or low grade aluminium.

      Well made stainless steel clamps and screws will hold up to weather as well as any other part of the bike.

      Wiha (my preference), Park and even Craftsman make high quality magenitized hobby screwdriver sets which go along way to assure users will not gouge themselves working in tight areas.

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  9. I like 35 mm for Chicago anyway.

    I would want a big old flat rack up front. Good effort on a prototype.

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    1. He is working on a porteur rack AFAIK.

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    2. Will follow with interest.

      To elaborate on tire width - 700x35 is a lot of tire and air. For most city riding 700x35s are fine expecially if the larger sizes require less than optimal adjustments elsewhere.

      For mainly street riding I would rather have a 650B or 26 frame if I wanted real big tires.

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  10. We bought a bike in this style last year for my wife; a Quebec company, Opus; model, Nuovella. Double down tube step through, 7 speed IGH, hub brakes, etc. Included fenders, rear rack and even a skirt guard, for a little short of $1,000, Canadian. I have a step through of my own, a 48 year old, type I Moulton. I like a step through so much for shopping, I would have been tempted to order a Carson - until I got to that "fixed gear compatible" 300mm bb height. Sorry, that's almost two inches more reach to the ground than I find acceptable in a city/commuter bike. Stopping and starting ease takes a high priority for such use. (If one really insists on fixed gearing, you can always use shorter cranks.) But nice bike at an affordable price. Of course, it would be a "foreign import" to me, but at least covered under NAFTA.

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    1. The BB height is fairly typical of many city bikes, especially English Roadsters and Dutch bikes. It is done not necessarily to make the bike fixed gear compatible, but to place the rider "higher up."

      Me, I like 265mm BB height, and I'd even risk lower. But 300mm is not unusual by any means.

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    2. Remember - height depends on wheel size; not applicable otherwise. Dutch are traditionally 28", some city bikes 26". Apples and oranges, must be factored in. Said it before.

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    3. I know. Some modern Dutch bikes are actually 700C and height is around there. Also Bella Ciao is 700C and I believe similar, though need to double check.

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    4. Dutch city bikes all have had substantial DROP on their gigantic wheels.

      Drop vs. height - very important distinction.

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    5. I understand the distinction. My winter bike frame has similar BB drop as Paul's bike, yet the height on mine will be 265mm due to the 26" wheels and 38mm tires.

      Dutch bikes... I do not have one in the house anymore, but from what I recall the drop is actually not that great (deep?). And on the Pashley Roadster it is definitely pretty shallow.

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    6. I'd say going to 700c is to reduce expense/increase replacement part options.

      If foot on the floor is to be considered it's a height/drop/wheel size equation.

      Frame flop only drop matters. I made that term up, buts it's relevant. Trade-marking it now.

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    7. Deep is a term associated with drop, normally applied to h-bars but fits here.

      Forget numbers for a sec- Google omafiets and look at the pictures. Some have huge drop. You can see it's way below horizontal. Paul's bike looks a_lot higher.

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    8. Pash was a ref to my earlier comment (11:03 PM). I didn't mean just Dutch bikes.

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  11. Bottom bracket drop was something mentioned during the build of my 'all around' bike and it's quite low. Sounds like on this bike it's not so low? I think the number 80 was mentioned for mine. Anyway, for constant stopping, being able to momentarily put a toe on the ground is nice.

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    1. I am guesstimating BB drop here is in the 50s given the height.

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  12. Those stems are a good deal. Where else can you get a 160 mm stem in any angle? That must give a real smooth ride.

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  13. I'm curious, was the woman who was passing by with grocery bags walking or on a bike?

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  14. You know what his bikes and approach to craftsmanship remind me of? Classic handmade British Lightweights of the 40s-60s.

    Lots of those old British guys built great bikes. Bikes made with the proper materials, quality craftsmanship and finish appropriate to the intended purpose. If you couldn't afford a lot of flash they still knew how to build a fine bike that you could be proud to own and happy to ride . I appreciate over-the-top fantasy bikes too(Fireflys, Weigles, Bruce Gordons etc.), but for function, bikes made at this level can be equivalent for what practically all of us do with our bikes.

    I strive to match the example of guys like Paul Carson in the stuff I build. People like him set a noble example and the world needs more men and women like him. Let me send you a 20 and you can buy him a beer sometime.

    Spindizzy

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    1. I'll get him beer. You send me a Cirque-du-Cyclisme report, sir.

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  15. It's amazing that Paul can make a frame for under $700 in the Boston area.

    GR Jim - I like the color. I didn't have the sunflower reaction. I also like the lines of the frame. I'm not all that into loop frames but this minimal bend works.

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    1. I'm not girly (today) and I also like the color. In the absence of color we live in a colourless world.

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  16. what is the function of a double plated fork (I've got on eon an old Humber beeston clubman and it was the thing that was supposed to have set it apart)?

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  17. Love the color, colored stem and specs. I do like to sit higher in traffic but have a more aggressive posture than on a roadster. The price is right. I do need more than 3 gears in my area. Too many steep hills. Since we don't have snow, I prefer a derailleur.

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  18. Velouria, Your comment on tire size rings true. This bike screams "650b!" I'm amazed so many builders, to say nothing of mainstream bike companies are averse to this wheel size (except when trying to expand mountain bike variety...get riders to buy yet another version).
    Living in the wet Northwest, the first think I noticed with this very nicely lined bike, is the shortness of the front fender. It really needs to come far closer to the ground to protect both rider and drivetrain from road spray and grit. Typical fenders: far too short in front. Maybe fear of lawsuits related to stuff being picked up by long fenders and jamming into the fork....
    Otherwise, a very sweet-appearing bike.

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    1. I think there are benefits to 700C, 650B, 26" - and even 16" for that matter. On my own bike I'd go for smaller wheels, mostly because I would want wider tires. But it's nice to see variety in designs too.

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  19. Someone please explain why IGH hubs, drum brake hubs and coaster brake hubs aren't obsolete? Nostalgic aesthetic considerations all too often trump function. Cassette hubs are serviceable, the aforementioned really aren't in this day and age.

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    1. A good IG hub is low maintenance and weather-proof, ideal for city bikes that never see hilly terrain and spend a lot of time outdoors.

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    2. A 3 speed hub is one of the most efficient, weather-resistant gearing options, and is easily serviced and long-lasting. Drum brakes, meh.

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  20. The jury is still out on the newer generation, at least for me. But, I like that there's no longer worries about chains falling off while shifting, or constantly adjusting derailleurs and replacing chains, clusters and chainrings. The simple chain line and heavier duty chain mean longer lasting and less maintenance. I also enjoy shifting while stationary. Old 3-speeds were certainly serviceable, so were coaster brakes, don't know much about drum brakes nor what the newer versions are like or if parts are still available for older Strumey Archer or Shimano hubs. I went with Rohloff thinking this thing will see me through to the end :)

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