Saturday, January 4, 2014

How Could They?

A little while ago I got the chance to ride a vintage roadster again. It's been a while, and let me tell you - that magical, floaty feeling was just as wonderful as I remembered.

The owner's great uncle rode the bike as a young man. After that, the machine languished in a shed for decades until the nephew discovered it and gave it a new life. "I gave it lower gears," he said, "to make it easier on the knees." And he pointed to his strong-looking, athletic 40-year-old knees. Having done the same to nearly every vintage bike I've owned, I nodded understandingly. Then I took him up on his offer to try the bike out on a longer loop.

About a mile down the flat main road, I turned, unthinkingly, left, onto a lane that winds around the side of the mountain at a steepening grade before coming back down. I've grown used to making this turn, as it's a loop I often do to get to several of my favourite photo locations. Despite the climbing involved, it is easy enough to manage on my own transportation bike with its low, low gears.

Now I'm riding the roadster up this lane. Almost immediately, I get into 1st gear. And almost immediately after that, the 1st gear is not nearly low enough. I pedal harder. I grind. Then I stand up on the pedals and push with all my might. After it feels as if I've been at this forever, I look back over my shoulder and see that I've made little progress. It is safe to say, the magical floaty feeling of the roadster is gone.

Miserable minutes, that feel like years, go by. I am in decent shape and not averse to hard work on the bike. In fact I've recently been introduced to the concept of "strength training," and will now often climb a hill in a harder gear than comfortable deliberately. But the difficulty of pushing this thing up the hill stuns me - in a way that is perversely motivating to keep pushing past the discomfort, to keep going just to confirm that it is humanly possibly to ride this bike up a hill without breaking my legs! After all, I say to myself… Back in the day people used to do this all the time. And they didn't even lower the gears! Imagining riding the bike up the same hill in its original gearing nearly makes me throw up, and as I finally arrive at the top of the slope, drenched in sweat and wild-eyed with effort, the question rings shrill and loud in my mind: How could they?!

Seriously. If we are to believe that ladies on loop frames carrying their shopping in front baskets, and men on roadsters going to and from work, were once a ubiquitous feature of the Irish rural landscape, then we must also believe they could tackle with ease the very hills that today make their grandchildren weep - or at least demand a 1:1 gear. Were the older generations inherently more fit than us? More stubborn? More willing to put up with physical difficulties?

In Boston, I remember trying one loop frame roadster where the 1st gear was so high I had trouble starting the bike on flat ground. I asked the owner, who happened to be a vintage bike collector, how ordinary women could ride these things 40 years ago. And his reply was, that in fact these bikes were not ridden much, and the high gearing must have been one of the reasons for that. And it's true that most of the vintage 3-speeds found in New England are in remarkably good condition, many of them blatantly unridden and suffering only from damage due to age and neglect.

By contrast, vintage roadsters found in Ireland and the UK tend to show signs of heavy use. In fact my theory as to why it is comparatively difficult to find vintage 3-speeds here is that most of them have been ridden into the ground by the original owners. Considering that the terrain here is hiller than what the Boston area has to offer, the argument that the high gears made the bikes as difficult to ride then and they seem now does not fit.

When I returned the borrowed roadster to its owner, by the colour of my face he could tell I had tried to ride it up a mountain lane. "You know," he said, "my great uncle used to live up a hill just like that and I've often wondered to myself how in the world he rode this bike every day!" He shook his head, and I did too, as if we both shuddered at the thought of it. Then he gave me a wave and pedaled the old roadster down the flat main road, as I got on my easy bike and rode in the opposite direction, feeling like an utter weakling with legs like boiled spaghetti.

65 comments:

  1. I think one small part is about a different concept of time: when I use an old sunbeam to commute after weeks on a carbon racer it feels like treacle, and unbearable to acclamitize. But when I do the same journey on a Sunday morning on the sunbeam its beyond serenity.

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  2. Have you ever done this ride on your Moulton? Was it still Mt Misérable?

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    1. Assuming you mean my Brompton (I don't own a Moulton, though have test ridden a couple and featured them here) - yes, that is my usual bike and I do this ride on it all the time. In fairness, it is about half the weight of this roadster and comes with a 1:1 low gear!

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  3. My grandmother in Germany rode her three-speed women's bike to work every day. It was one of the favorite parts of her day. When she came to the hill near her house, she got off and walked.

    I later visited the place, and I was surprised that this slight incline had counted as a "hill." Shifting down one cog on my racing bike got me up there without strain.

    There is a German saying: "Those who love their bike push it." (Wer sein Rad liebt, der schiebt.) I wonder whether this technique was used in Ireland, too.

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    1. Yes, I think a lot of people used to be perfectly content with hopping off and walking their bikes if they couldn't comfortably pedal up a hill. As a kid with bikes with all the wrong gearing, I would walk a lot too, and think nothing of it.

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    2. I could see how people would get off and push their bikes up short hills, but there are inclines here that go on for miles and the same approach just wouldn't make sense. In fact there are specific routes here that I consider quite challenging that the locals describe their ancestors having happily done on single speed roadsters. I am sure they must have gotten off and walked during the steepest bits, but being able to ride any of it at all is impressive.

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    3. "Happily"? In whose eyes, the raconteur's, the offspring of the raconteur (also a raconteur), you?

      They just did it. Happy is added after the fact. Not much emotion tied to necessity, despite what you might think.

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  4. It's always been my sense that cyclists in the past (pre widespread use of derailers) were a little less concerned about walking with their bike and how it might appear to others than we are today. The bicycle was more tool to get you somewhere than a hobby or means of improving fitness, so when the hill became to steep you simply stepped off the bike and walked along side it.

    There was a great post last year on Modal Mom Blog with a story of some of the early bicycle tourists in Quebec.
    http://modalmom.com/biking-to-montreal-im-doing-it-my-way/

    Quoting from a 1916 tour account:

    "It was impossible to ride up the hills. They walked up, pushing their bicycles beside them.. At times they made no more than two miles an hour. They were plagued by mosquitoes. Even after a week of drying, the roads were still damp clay in spots. The clay came up over their shoes."

    The photo of the sisters from this tour is fantastic: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/scripts/large.php?accessnumber=MP-1976.175.1&Lang=1&imageID=264961

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  5. I love your blog. I have a black Firmstrong beach cruiser with white wall tires that I purchased this past Fall. Complete with a wicker basket and bell. I absolutely adore her. I named her Harley. I read your posts everyday and absolutely love them and your wonderful pictures. Best wishes, Sarah

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  6. Perhaps they walked up the hills...

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  7. I'm assuming people way back knew they could step off a bike and walk up a hill. I think that this technology has been lost in the generations since :)

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  8. Medium gear is 48x18. While epicyclic hub gears have existed for over a century they were just not that common in earlier years. For that matter the main option on early roadsters was fixed or free. How do you ride 48x18 fixed up a hill? You don't. You get off and push.

    As for strength training, if you live in hilly terrain and do not make a study of avoiding the hills you don't need strength training. All it will do is add bulk. Cyclists do not need or want bulk. Anyone who rides up hills regularly is strong enough. Riding uphill at high (efficient) rpm requires training for all but the very gifted. Anything that goes against high rpm climbing is backwards.

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  9. Ahem, there you go again. I introduced the strength training concept to you a few times in the form of:

    You will get stronger if you stand and use a higher gear
    Spinning alone won't get you stronger
    If you intend to race you need to get stronger by pushing higher gears

    You do forget every single thing I say here, it's apparent.

    Obviously people pushed their bikes at times.

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    1. How do you know when you tilt too far towards fitness and too far away from strength and vive versa? In this case it sounds like someone really might be fixin to go off to the Roadbike Wars.

      Somebody we know?

      Spindizzy

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    2. On a bike there's no such thing as too much strength. Too much weight, yes. Speed is the ability to spin a big gear fast.

      But cardiovascular fitness and strength aren't exclusive, that's a myth. It's like keeping your engine at elevated rpm for an extended period vs. torquing up.

      Here's an experiment for young legs. Ride a slight incline, 1%, at a spinny rate. Repeat using a monster gear and a moderate gear. With a modicum of strength, most rec riders will be able to turn the monster gear and be faster, at least over the short term, with the moderate gear.

      Training strength gives the rider the option of falling back on it if a breather is needed, say on a long sustained climb. Not having means you might have to take a break, like our hostess has had to do in the past.

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    3. C'mon Jim. Fausto Coppi did his hour record on a 78" gear. Was he not strong? I would sort of agree that he would have set an even better mark if he'd used a larger gear. I will still count Fausto as a guy who had both strength and speed.

      There are a lot of pit bulls on the club rides these days. Not so many spiders as there used to be. The most common sort of spider used to be a 14 year old kid who looked like he was 12 and had no visible identifiable muscle at all. None you could see. They'd come out on the ride and get dropped and after 4 or 5 weeks they'd settle in and be as fast as anybody. Without putting on an ounce of weight.

      Cycling still has a good number of anorexics. Most sports do. They keep up. They may have a little visible muscle, not much. And they have a medical problem. Most of the time it does not slow them down.

      Most of my good examples would be people I know who I would rather not call out. But look at Franco Chiociolli. Clinically underweight by any standard and wins the Giro d'Italia.

      When lean or downright skinny riders decide to get some strength some think they will end up looking like gazelles and some think they will look like Mario Cipollini. Rarely happens that way. They end up looking like pit bulls. And don't get much faster if at all. Gains in power are offset 1:1 by increases in clumsy.

      Most everyone who rides could benefit by some strength work on the abs and erector spinae and women mostly benefit by a little work on arms and shoulder. Been riding too long to be impressed by big legs or wattage numbers. Too many low power cyclists win to believe in that stuff.

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    4. I'm talking the addition of strength w/o bulk or additional weight. In fact less weight in a lot of cases is what's needed. The guys who look like pit bulls are either doing upper body work as well or naturally put on muscle there, but that has nothing to do with what I'm talking about.

      That said strength is limited by desire and natural selection, cardio the same. You can only go so fast.

      Back on topic our hostess can't turn a huge gear uphill because of both.

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    5. Power output is directly proportional to speed. Doesn't matter which gear you're in. Thirty mph can be done in 42x16 or in 53x11. Should be clear what the effects of the two different workouts would be. Low gear gives you strength without bulk. The absurd high gear gives slabs of muscle while destroying pedal style. Other than myself I haven't seen anyone do 30mph in 42x16 for decades. Can remember pacelines of 20 guys doing just that. Fashions change, not always for the better.

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    6. You can't do both?

      Watch the skinny guys rocket up Ventoux in the summer.

      You train leg speed AND strength if you want to go fast, that much is undeniable.

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    7. btw the hillclimb record for a 4k mtn. close by was set at 15.4mph.

      Now tell me that guy isn't strong or he was pedaling at too low a cadence. I dare you.

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    8. Jim. One horsepower is one horsepower. Thirty mph is 30mph. Putting out one horsepower in a big gear does not make you stronger than the guy who puts out one horsepower in a little gear. Doing the training differently will create different sorts of riders but there is no logic in saying one guy is stronger than the other.

      Racing stories? - sure. Mike Neel told me the story of his first pro world champs. Also his first pro race of any type. Didn't know the players or the game. Big flat 290km sprinter's delight course in Italy. Mike started the race in 42x15. He shifted exactly once. Moved the chain to the 52 ring 500 meters from the finish. Took tenth place. Read the same story later but really can't remember if it was L'Equipe or Cycle or Velonews. It's on record. You want to think Mike was weak because he was sitting in on 42x15? You think he might've won if he had an 11?

      I'm 62 years old. Normally I don't do 30mph w/o a hill or a draft. Last summer I recall making 30mph solo just twice on the flat, no wind assist. Once was 42x16. Once was 50x16. My top gear is 50x14. Or 48x14 on the other bike. I wouldn't mount a bike with an 11 or 12 cog. So no, I can't do both.

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    9. You seem to focus on an either/or proposition: small gear good, big gear bad, and missed my point, which I shan't repeat.

      I read this as your opportunity to tell stories, which are appreciated.

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  10. I've recently been going through a collection of cycling photos from the 1930's and 40's, and many of them show people walking their bikes up hills. Maybe it's as simple as that.

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  11. When I was a boy living on the outskirts of Nairobi, flocks of local cyclists would commute 5, 10, 15 miles into town on Indian roadsters on the hilly and winding road that passed our house, this at 5 to 6K+ feet. Some would pedal in an attempt to get as far up the further slope as they could, but most simply coasted up the further slope until they came to a near standstill, and then got off and pushed. So, you'd have flocks coasting down the hills (bent over the bars, taking the center of the lane to avoid the potholes), and then flocks walking up the opposite slops.

    Me, I've never figured out the reason behind the typical AW gearing on those roadsters with hub gears, given that all the roadsters so equipped that I saw all kept the standard 70" direct ratio (IIRC, about 44/18 with 635 bsd wheels).

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  12. Pushing. It's what you do when you can't ride. The Vietnamese cyclists I met in the hills northeast of Hanoi pushed their single-speed French-style town bikes a lot. Many of the roads were bad. The motor bike riders pushed, too.

    Our forebears were stronger in many cases, but also often had worse health and declined earlier.
    (Though the Irish seemed to be fairly long lived. Anecdata: almost all of my Scots Irish forebears broke past 90, both men and women.)

    I think the thing that made early races so exciting and the racers so exotic was that they could *ride* up those slopes. Hommes D'Fer!

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    1. Our hostess should do some research on the Vietnamese War. Ho Chi Minh trail anybody? Makes roadster pushes on paved ground seem like a tea party.

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    2. anyway...
      https://www.google.com/search?q=bicycles+vietnam+war&safe=off&espv=210&es_sm=93&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=ibTIUtXEL9GY2gWlsIHYBA&ved=0CAkQ_AUoAQ&biw=1092&bih=560

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    3. great photos.
      good lord we're a delusional people
      Miami '72 - like yesterday

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  13. One true but unscientific observation. In the past people were smaller in stature and particularly during the 30s, 40s and 50s weighed less than they do now all throughout Britain. The depression combined with World War II and more than a decade of rationing along with other factors had a profound influence on weight and height during this era. Just a guess. I have no idea how that translates into riding up a hill, but my guess is that another 20 or 30 pounds might make a difference.

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  14. When I think of the word vintage, as it relates to bicycles, I think of the word useless. Maybe back in the day these machines were the cat's meow and served a valuable and practical purpose, as in 'it beats walking.' Those who used them probably adapted and, indeed, may have been a lot tougher than the typical bicycle commuter of today. It's interesting to think about bicycles in different times or different cultures, especially as utilitarian objects. One does the best they can with what they've got.

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  15. As a lot of posters have pointed out, in the past if the hill was too steep they got off and walked. I can remember seing this a lot here in Ireland when I was younger and these bicycles were still in common use.

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  16. You know, I've been riding my road bike as my transportation bike for a few months now while my Pashley was out of order. Recently I got the Pash back on the road and took it to work earlier this week. While I was trying to ride that beast back up the hill I live on, I was having lot of the same thoughts, along with how on earth did *I* ride up this hill everyday! With ease at that! Sheesh. Maybe it's time to leave the road bike at home and go back to the Pashley Leg Master.

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  17. Regarding the high gearing of old 3-speed bikes, I have also noticed that they are improved by lowering the ratios about about 30% (or 1 gear lower). But this is because I pedal at about 80 to 90 rpm. Looking at videos from the Netherlands and other countries were bikes are used as every-day transportation, it looks like the average person pedals at closer to 60 rpm. At that rate, the 44/18 gearing with 28 x 1 1/2 inch wheels works out well: top speed is 16.5 mph, middle is 12.4 mph, and low is 9.3 mph. If you hit a hill, you walk.

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  18. This discussion reminds me somewhat of the recent ride up Mount Ventoux by an Englishman on a London Bike Share bike.

    http://cyclingtips.com.au/2013/12/boris-bike-vs-mont-ventoux/

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  19. My son just started working at a coffee shop and now he brings home samples of coffee and asks for a response, an opinion, a description of the experience. ... 'a magical, floaty feeling' is indeed apt when on most bikes, until one has to pedal uphill. i'll take my coffee black.

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  20. Hilly country? Change the gearing for the hills. These bikes were not racers so gearing for speed isn't required. My three speed is set for the hills around La Crosse Wisconsin. At a 80 cadence can still maintain ~ 14 mph

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  21. Let me make a couple of comments and then I'll explain my perspective so maybe I won't look like such an ass.

    First, to Anon 4:39, I assume you're getting good use out of your current future(useless) vintage bike. Won't you and the rest of us look silly in a generation or two.

    Second, to everyone taking the approach that at least pushing a bike up a hill is better than walking, maybe pushing a bike up a hill is OK because it makes for better walking. Maybe for some the bike was a way to help them WALK much farther much faster. You're still expecting to walk but now you're not expecting to walk nearly as much.

    Were not talking here about bikes that were ever intended to be racers. Weren't they used by people who got around primarily by foot? Even if you were walking to catch a train to the next town and you only had to walk 10% of your whole journey you still spent most of it walking. With a reality like that, a bike that would get you there and back over all but the steep stuff, comparatively quickly while providing a basket or rack that kept that "effing" bag off your shoulder or that wretched basket out of your sore hands while you pushed it up... probably felt like a miracle and didn't seem like something so inefficient that it needed to be improved.

    I recently built a replica Retro-Directe, partly because I need another freak bike cluttering up my basement and partly because I wanted to see how much more country an ancient wide range two speed bicycle like that would open up compared to a single speed ancient bike. In my opinion, where I live, it doesn't add 25% or 50% or even double the range, it increases it by something greater. It quickly gets you over some hills you had to walk up before, it gets you a lot farther up the ones you do have to bail on but more importantly, it gives you the opportunity to walk up a bunch of new hills that were just too dang far away when you had to ride a bike that had to make do with one medium-low gear that was ideal about 7 1/2% of the time. I'm far from useless on a bike but even on my fast modern bikes that I play around at racing with, I walk up a couple of the big ones around here because it's easier than grunting it up and sometimes that's the best way to make haste when you have to do it for 6 or 7 hours. I wouldn't want to ride that Retro as my only bike but if I were to start doing my 4 mile work commute on it, it wouldn't take me 13 1/5 times longer than on my 3x9.

    I wonder, maybe all the old 3sp. Roadsters over there were ridden and WALKED into the ground.

    Just sayin...

    Spindizzy

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  22. That's why it's called a push-bike

    -Fixie Pixie

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  23. Yes, people must have been in incredible shape back then, as they also did much more manual work, less modern conveniences. I know they would have walked the hills, but even that requires a great deal of strength and endurance. I have a vintage raleigh sports, put a 5 speed internal hub on to give myself a bit more range as sort of an experiment. I got a hernia. I had the hernia for ages me thinks, but it definitely got worse trying to get around on this bike in my hilly terrain. I was refusing to get off and walk and trying to prove how strong I was. silly. It's also very heavy so if I couldn't bike up a steep hill, I had to push it. I have conditioned myself to ride the bike to the nearest town with only one small hill to run errands. I avoid taking it somewhere with steep hills. However, I got a new job in a direction that involves very steep hills, so the bike gets a bus ride home.
    I so want a road bike again.

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  24. If the hill isn't too steep, traffic is light,and the path/road is wide enough, doing switchbacks works well even on a heavy single speed.

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  25. When I was a child in Ireland in the 1960s, in hilly Ulster Drumlin country there were still lots of these bikes in daily use and as many posters suggested, people got off and walked up the hills. I don't recall ever seeing anyone cycling up hills.

    I talked to older people in my youth, who told me about cycling to the All Ireland Gaelic Football final in the 1940s and 50s. A 130 mile round trip, leave very early on Sunday morning, cycle to Dublin, attend the match, cycle home and be up for work the next morning.

    Old timers also told me they would cycle up to 30 miles to a dance. Work all day, get home, get ready, 30 mile cycle, lots of dancing, 30 miles home and be up for work the next morning.

    As a young man I had the pleasure of spending many days doing hard manual labour with old timers. In particular I remember two men, one in his 70s and one in his 80s, who were able to work along side me and do as much work in a day as I could. And I was a very fit, strong and tough young man. Both smoked a lot and liked to drink whisky. So people were generally a lot tougher back then than modern people.

    There are some good references to long distance cycling in Dan Breen’s biographical book “My Fight For Irish Freedom”. He has several reference to trips he done from South Tipperary to Dublin and back during the Anglo Irish War.

    Also regarding a three versus single speed. The real issue was cost, a bike was an expensive machine back then. Old timers told me they would save hard for many, many months to get a bike. The three speed, often with a dynamo hub was considerably more expensive and was the preserve of the more affluent.

    When I was a child no once called this kind of bike a high nelly or a roadster. It was simply called a bike because there was no other kind.

    My first bike in the late 1960s was a child sized version of an adult one, a heavy, single speed, steel framed bike, even had the rod brakes.

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    1. Wonderful post, Mr. IrishWildEye. I suppose it was still true to say of the working class Irish of that period what someone once said of traditional nomadic people: that they were either healthy or dead.

      Segway (tm) about 3 speeds versus the cheap single speed: back in my boyhood Nairobi days (my father was stationed there 1968 to 1974 with the US gummint, me 13 to 19), in a fit of tinkering – I was already a dedicated bike tinkerer by 1970 -- I had installed on our askari's Indian rod braked roadster a used AW hub.

      Our askari, John Odiambo, was a sleepy man who spent his nights protecting our house from the very common armed robbers by dozing in the little outside room in front of the wood stove that heated, oddly enough, the water for the newer and fancier portion of the large house the government rented for us, and he would, on Sunday afternoons, put his wife Zapporah on the rear carrier and lazily ride the 8-10 miles into town for a beer or two; return. I figured 3 speeds would help and so had the bike overhauled and 3-speeded. My motives were less altruistic than a “this would be neat” sort of interferingness. John was wholly non-nonplussed, and took the exercise in stride as something these weird mzungus do – no sweat as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.

      Six months later, the bike was stuck in 3d gear and the two extra gears had apparently made no difference at all to John, who still rode at the same 10 mph pace until he got to a hill, at which point he and his wife would walk. I took the bike to a local shop and had a single speed hub re-installed.

      Many times I rode that same bike, single gear, out amongst the Nairobi environs, often doing 30-40 round trip rides to the town of Limuru, 8,000 feet, and beyond, managing to surmount every hill en route (our house, starting point, must have been about 6K feet, a bit higher than downtown Nairobi).

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    2. The part I have trouble with, irishwildeye, is reconciling the walking uphill scenario with the accounts of 130 mile daytrips to Dublin and of cycling 30 miles each way to country dances after work. Judging by the terrain in the counties I've cycled in - which are Derry, Tyrone, Antrim and Donegal - it seems to me that such journeys would be impossible to accomplish within any reasonable time frame if walking the bike up every hill is a given?..

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    3. Unfortunately those old timers are gone so I can't ask them about cycling to the dances, but I suspect they would have walked up the hills as I doubt they would like to arrive at the dance all sweaty from cycling up hills.

      But the trip to Dublin for the football matches was done mostly on the plains of Meath, once you got out of the Cavan Drumlins and into Meath you are on the Great Central Plain of Ireland. My old primary school teacher told me that Ireland is shaped like a saucer, high on the edges and flat in the middle. Ulster has some of the worst cycling county on the island.

      I do a lot of heavily loaded cycle touring every summer, I always go south, it's easy to cover a lot of ground on a heavily loaded bike over the great central plain, heading north into Ulster is a very different proposition.

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  26. The variables are:
    Gearing and other technical factors of the bicycle
    Fitness level of the rider
    Reason for being on a bicycle in the first place
    Current societal milieu (ie, rider mindset)

    All have been mentioned in the comments above. Perhaps the most pertinent and interesting factor in relation to the post is the last. Many riders today, especially those with a heavy recreational riding backround, would be reluctant to hop off and walk a bit (though I recall a post by Mr. Heine where he unabashedly admits to doing just that), even when woefully unequipped for a particular hill, and even when the task is transportation oriented.

    Nevertheless, even with all the factors in favor of climbing while mounted, sometimes gravity wins..

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  27. When bicycles were first created the market for them was aristocrats and gentlemen of leisure. No one else could afford them, no one else had the time or the inclination to play with them. Aristocrats tend to be tall. Thus the DL-1 has a 24" frame, 22" for the ladies. Aristocrats also tend to be bullheaded. They do not like to be told what to do. They have the habit and practice of telling others what to do. Standard gear was 48x18 because that was the lowest gear they were willing to use. Then it was set in stone.

    Why do riders gravitate to high gears? If I recall correctly the original gearing for V's Mercian was 49x16 and the entire rationale for that was because fixie-boy. It was a correct observation that fixie-boy trundles about in massive gears. Why does fixie-boy do that? Why does anyone emulate him?

    How many people own a geared bike but only ride it in top gear? Only ever shift when the grade absolutely stops them? Have you ever been able to talk to those big gear riders?

    One of the old tropes of British time trialling was that the fast lads should break the hour early in the season on the winter bike before switching over to a geared machine. This meant doing a full 25 miles in less than 60 minutes on a fixed gear of 48x18 together with full fenders, clinchers, and, if you had a low start number, lights. When I help out at our local time trials ca. 2013 the standard gear is 50x11. The most common exception to that rule is 53x11. Doesn't matter if the rider is doing 40k in 51 minutes or an hour twenty, the big gear is the gear to use.

    Anyone besides me notice that in the same post asking how the ancients rode such huge gears up hills V is proclaiming she will ride up hills in huge gears and call it strength training? Much of this comes down to people just liking to ride big gears. I think it's silly but people are going to do it.

    About the thousandth time I heard Othon Ochsner say "Get out that high gear" I asked him if he ever told anyone to get out of the low gear. He said "Oh yes. I tell them to ride a big gear if I don't like them. I tell them to ride a big gear if I want them to lose."

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    1. "If I recall correctly the original gearing for V's Mercian was 49x16 and the entire rationale for that was because fixie-boy."

      Oh there was no rationale for it; the used parts I bought for the bike came in that gearing and it took me a couple of weeks to buy a new cog, so I thought I might as well try the crazy high gear in the meantime.

      I prefer to ride low gears. All my bikes have lower-than-typical gearing.

      The aristocratic customer theory is interesting.

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    2. I presumed a bit on the even temper of my bloghost. Thank you for taking it so lightly.

      I've never found a good social history of bicycles. And I am emphatically using aristocrat as shorthand. Early cyclists such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb or Bernard Shaw were not in the peerage. They were not ordinary people either.

      Bikes were high tech. Ball bearings were made one by one, for special jobs only, until bicycles came along. Bikes were very expensive. The big price break happened in America, 1893 and 1894. Some of those bikes did make it to Europe but after shipping and distro they were not so cheap as here. And UK incomes were nothing like American wages. Just enough competition came from America to move prices down to where doctors and barristers and successful small merchants might be able to play. If they were motivated. For the general population bikes might as well have been motorcars. People without means tried to make do with "black widows", the cast-off bikes of the rich. Which didn't work too well because of all the specialized and dated handmade parts. Even from the POV of a collector, the two big problems for early bikes are that there just weren't many of them before the 1930s and all the parts are handmade specials. Surprising amounts of handmade persists all the way until the 60s. It's fun, some of it is very durable, handmade machined parts are never and were never cheap.

      Again, no good social history. It is fun to read and find the bicycle passages in Scott Fitzgerald or George Orwell or Virginia Woolf and little gems tucked away everywhere.

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    3. "How many people own a geared bike but only ride it in top gear? Only ever shift when the grade absolutely stops them? Have you ever been able to talk to those big gear riders?"

      I spend a lot of time in 50x12. Why? Because it builds hill attacking strength (and I like attacking hills). On a flat surface I can spin almost indefinitely at 50x12 and only have to go lower on very long rides. Prior to switching to compact my high gear was 53x11 and that was definitely a bit of a mismatch (although fun on shorter descents where gravity does not win).

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  28. I had been riding a vintage Raleigh DL-1 for the last several years, and a Raleigh Sports before that, a 3-speed and 4-speed, respectively. The DL-1 just broke thanks to the defective new Sturmey Archer hub brake locking up completely and bending the fork. So, I've been riding a light, aluminum 'commuter' bike with tons of gears.

    My reaction has not been "wow, it's easy to ride up hills now!" It has been "wow, i can't carry anything easily, and i i need to take anything with me i have to walk, and i have to remember to turn my lights on and off and remove them when i park, and roll my pant leg up when i get on, down when i get off, and i can't park it anywhere long because everything is quick-release."

    So, there are different ideas of convenience, i suppose.

    I know it's possible to outfit a racing bike or a modern 'commuter' to have some carrying capacity and swap out quick-releases for bolts, but just saying, for me, the three-speed roadster wasn't inconvenient at all. I rode it sometimes up to 20 miles in a day all over the city. Sure, i'd get a good workout if i hit a *really* steep hill (or i'd walk it), but there is no way i'd walk 20 miles in a day, it was still faster than the bus, and i could easily carry 50-100 lbs of stuff with me.

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    1. Not that I'm necessarily advocating a "light aluminum bike with tons of gears," but there is no reason one of those can't be combined with dynamo lights, racks, fenders, and other commuter provisions. Interestingly, in the US market they are usually not, which creates a weird dichotomy that does not need to exist. But, for instance, when I was living in Vienna, fully equipped lightweight aluminum commuter bikes were very typical, both hub and derailleur.

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    2. I understand that, which is why I said I know it's possible to outfit the type of bike I'm riding to be able to carry things, etc...

      I'm just saying that the heavy three-speed offered me a convenience that was of higher importance to me than being able to easily ride up hills.

      Going back to the point of how people rode them 50-100 yrs ago, I think it's probably the same thing. The convenience of being able to just hop on, go somewhere comfortably, and take stuff with you was a huge selling point, and they didn't have light, aluminum bikes with 24 speeds available, so they just made do with the 45 lb steel bike with 3 gears, because it was still a big boost in convenience. The thought of "well, it's hard to ride up hills" probably didn't matter, because what was the alternative? To walk. Ok, so walk, then ride again.

      I find the same kind of thoughts coming up with regards to, for instance, a dishwasher. Does a dishwasher make it easier and more convenient to wash dishes? Sure. But I haven't had one for over a decade because the places we've rented haven't had one, so that's not an option for me. Have I really cared? Not really, because doing dishes by hand is not that much of a burden, and a dishwasher is not an option, so I don't really sit around thinking "wow, if only I had a dishwasher" every time I need to do dishes, I just do them by hand.

      I think the comment about a different sense of time is probably part of the equation as well. People 100 years ago were not used to traveling the distances we're often required to now, and even 50-60 yrs ago, I think it's safe to say that was true, certainly on a daily basis. Since distances were shorter, the amount of time it took to do the things you needed to do in a day was potentially less, so if you had to get off the bike and walk a few hundred feet up a hill, it was no big deal. It would also have been easier to plan the exact amount of time your daily travels would need, because they were 1) in more manageable time intervals and 2) you didn't have to bother with traffic, etc. So, you could know that it always takes you X minutes to get somewhere, including the extra 1 minute walking up that hill on the way.

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    3. All of this talk about carrying 50-100 lb loads on 40 lb bikes is very intimidating to new cyclists.

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    4. On flat ground for a large person it's not a big deal. Don't worry about it, work up to it if you want . A bike ride is your personal experience; you don't have to compete.

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  29. Is the higher gearing maybe down to the fact that technology didn't allow for lower gearing to be made practically??

    And we rely on our seat to much now days, we sit spinning away and climb out for short intervals.

    Slowing it all down, standing and building a good rhythm helps.

    If you ride a mountain bike, jam the seat way down and ride it like that for a few weeks, then see if there's a difference in your riding.

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  30. People rode these bikes purely for transport in their everyday clothes. If you walk up hills and pedal a leisurely cadence in a big gear on the flat (remember that a heavy bike carries a lot of momentum and they roll along effortlessly once up to speed) you will arrive at your destination without being too sweaty.

    I remember an old neighbour who was a polio victim and had difficulty walking. He got around on a loop framed roadster, pushing it up hills and sitting side saddle and freewheeling down them again (he couldn't pedal it because of his dodgy leg) so for him the bike just made his walking more convenient and gave him something to hang his groceries on.

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  31. A quick thank you to your reader postings. I enjoy the thoughts in your blog AND the often added information and insights of your readers. It is like having a bike with gears for every occasion. :o)

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  32. If you try to spin too fast on a bike with moulded rubber pedals, wearing leather soled shoes, especially when wet, you will find it difficult to stop your feet slipping off the pedals, often with painful results. Hence the preference for a low gear where you can exert plenty of downward force to minimise the risk. Toe clips were the solution used by 'proper' tourists. The tendency to pedal using the arch of the foot, with the heel of the shoes against the pedal, also helps stop slipping.

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    1. That's a good point, my main transport bike is a steel touring bike with double sided pedals. One side has cleats the other platform. Everything about the bike is different when I'm riding it without spds. The saddle needs to be lowered, I use higher gear and I pedal far closer to the middle of my foot.

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  33. There can be that interesting moment where you end up 'trackstanding' because the gradient forces you to a quivering halt and you have to unclip in time. Then you begin to push the thing the rest of the way up and find it's virtually impossible on foot too...

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  34. Here's how it was done and is still done.

    Up the Gavia Pass on a u-frame single speed

    I have a bike similar to this one in the video link, and frankly, my rod-brake roadster is easier to build & keep momentum. Admittedly, the rider is fit, but he's well past 40.



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  35. 52 GIs are for sure not much of a hill gear. One day this year with my SA 5w I struggled up a short 9% hill with 48 GIs after going down at 45.8 mph. On the other hand, lowering the top GI from 86 is also a poor choice. I used 96 a lot this year, even on flatland.

    Myself , after 38 years on crappy derailler bikes I got SA XL-FDD and XL RD5w hubs and 180 ENO crank, used with 48/18 this year. Having a 43 or 45 GI makes a HUGE difference. 10%+ Hills, weight 50 to 60 lbs, 100 mile all dayers are nothing. It sure puts my hybrid 3x8 to shame. I resemble maxwell's said foot position choice and used the 30/30 very seldom. With equal GIs I'll take my SA anytime, any road, any weather. There IS a reason they all use these for practical everday living needs. Weight only really matters when starting.

    North Americans just don't have a clue about anything but racers or MTBs. Ever seen deraillers on an asian rickshaw ?? ha

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  36. In February 2012, you wrote “Every once in a while I am asked why I do not write about electric bikes, and the answer is simple: because they do not interest me. Maybe in 40 years they will, but at the moment I do not find myself longing for a sweet e-assist ride. Still, I have nothing against electric bikes and their usefulness is readily apparent to me: …upright bikes in truly hilly areas.”

    If you put a mid-mount, crank driving 250w ebike motor on a heavy, 3-speed roadster you will discover a whole new world of hill-biking on roads. We did it on a 1951 Raleigh DL-1 using a Bafang BBS01 motor. Also replaced the front brake and dynamo with a SA-X-FDD and the rear with a NuVinci N360 hub and a Shimano roller brake.

    The comfort of the ride is unmatched by any modern bike; the stately posture is so sociable. But it is the uphill experience that is phenomenal. At 250W, you still have to pedal; about the same effort as no-assist on the flat. It is like the hill was flattened or a stiff wind tamed. It operates transparently, indeed like power-steering on a car, you don’t notice what it is doing until it is shut off. It is only used on the hills; the rest of the time you ride with leg power only.

    While adding a motor appears to be just another component to a bike, it’s not. With the new designs that hit the market in 2013, it is actually creating a new form of transport, especially for urban commutes and local shopping. It extends distance and broadens the pool of people who will move on two-wheels without petrol. It puts more bikes on the road, making it safer, especially in bike-phobic places where drivers can't quite work out how to pass a bicycle.

    Now that you have become a serious bicycle rider, it will probably not be your cup of tea, but if you get the opportunity, it is worth trying out. If anyone in the neighbourhood has one, give it a try on that side of the mountain with the steepening grade. It will be a whole new experience, and I promise you, it will be a full-face grin.

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  37. thanks this has been a fantastic read...and now to bed!

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