I love technology. I work in it every day, spend a lot of time reading about it, and get a big kick out of anybody taking a neat idea and building something cool with it. I use a GPS on a lot of rides, either to keep me on my route or just to look up a road on an online map and make sure it won't take me someplace nasty. I want the new electronic Dura-Ace on the tandem, and not just because shifting under load and cable stretch are such critical issues on the long bikes, but also because it would be cool to hit a button and hear a little "whirrr" sound as I shift. I have a PowerTap on my Bianchi, and use it to religiously follow my exercise prescription of X minutes at Y power, with a cadence of Z and a heart rate of ... well, you get the drift.
So, why is there no derailleur on my commuting bike?
Part of it is that this means fewer moving parts, obviously. I often ride to and from work in the rain, or at least on roads that have a lot of crap on them, so that my commuting bike is typically my dirtiest bike. This is why I have fenders on my commuter, but it's possible the amount of dirt is also because I have fenders on it. Frankly, fenders make it a little harder to rinse and scrub your frame.
Anyway, the commuting bike gets subjected to a lot of crap -- literally and figuratively. By not having derailleurs to get dinged up and put out of whack, much less shifter paddles and the cables that connect it all up, there's less bad stuff that can happen to it.
But that's not the main reason that I commute on a bike that doesn't shift. The main reason is because it's a little harder.
When you're commuting, you're usually going a little slower than you would on a training ride or a brevet. You are almost always by yourself, with nobody to push you (except for cars and the knowledge that you've got to make that 7:30 am conference call). In this setting -- on a slightly heavier bike with 20 pounds of laptop, clothing, and lunch in a pannier -- if you remove the option of down-shifting on a steep climb you can make things ... well, interesting.
And, although my Salsa Casseroll does not have derailleurs, it does have another piece of technology: The Flip-Flop Hub. This marvel allows you to put a cog on each side of your rear wheel and sort of "shift gears" by flipping the wheel over.
In this way, you can put two different sized cogs on the back wheel of a fixed gear bike and have two gear options. This would allow you to have a bigger gear for climbing, and then a smaller gear for descending or on flatter roads. You can do the same thing with freewheel hubs on the back, to give you a big gear for single-speed climbing and a smaller one for more power.
Most flip-flop hubs, however, are set up like mine: A fixed gear on one side and a freewheel gear on the other, both of them the same size (18-teeth, in my case). This is probably because, although it's nice to think we might get to the top of the hill and stop for a few minutes to flip the wheel over for the descent, in truth most people just aren't going to take the time. Sure, they used to do this in the old days racing the Alps -- where you have 15-mile climbs -- but east of the Mississippi there are not many climbs over five miles, and most of the steep stuff is really short. You would wear yourself out getting on and off the bike and flipping your wheel this way and that.
I ride the single-speed side of my flip-flop hub n the summer. Coasting on downhills allows me to take a bit of a break, and keeps me from getting quite as sweaty on my ride in. But we moved the clocks back an hour this past Saturday, so I flipped the hub over to the dark side -- and let the fixed months begin.
Pluses and Minuses of Getting Fixed
Now, if you've ever ridden fixed then you will agree with me that it is just the teeniest bit easier climbing on a fixie than it is on a single-speed. The motion of the wheel kind of drags your foot over in the dead zone of the pedal stroke, which is what fixed-gear hipsters are talking about when they say that you are more "connected" to the road on a fixie. However, besides the part where you spin like crazy going down steep descents, riding fixed versus single-speed is really not that much different.
Until you bonehead out and try to coast. Then things get kind of jerked around, and you may wrench your knee or ankle a bit, or you may crash. But that wrench or crash or torn ligament is just the learning experience you need to keep you aware of the fact that you don't have a free-hub on the back any more.
So, why do it? Why suffer that frantic downhill churn and risk that aborted coasting mishap?
Well, the frantic downhill churn keeps you warmer on descents. Even if your heart doesn't beat faster, the pain of spinning a cadence of 150+ it will distract you from how cold the freezing temperature feels on your face -- particularly given the perceived 30-mph wind. And it really can help purify your pedal stroke, since you quickly notice any imperfections in your leg motion when you spin that 150+ cadence. If you've been pronating your right knee at 1 o'clock all summer, you will either stop it or soon regret it.
First Fixed Ride of Fall
So, I'm riding in Tuesday morning -- the first morning after the time/hub change -- and my neighborhood is still beautiful.
The sun is coming up, painting pink streaks on the bottoms of the cold gray clouds. The trees are holding on to just enough leaves to keep it wild.
Some of my neighbors' trees have lost enough leaves to make sufficient work to ruin their upcoming weekend.
It's times like this that I am glad that I don't have lovely oaks or maples in my front yard.
Another great thing about Daylight Savings Time is that it is light enough to ride at 5:45 am. The bike commuter can use this to his or her advantage, and use a normally crazy route like Holt Road. I haven't biked that way in months, so it was nice.
While I'm on the subject of Holt Road, I've got to rant a bit here. They're starting to pave Holt, and I really hope that they take this opportunity to widen it a bit. A shoulder would make it much nicer for cyclists -- and a bike lane there would shorten my commute by a mile and a half. As it is, you take your life in your hands there ... and the speed limit is 35! Cyclists should not be afraid to ride down a residential street where the posted limit is 35.
Anyway, taking Holt allowed me to then take Old Smyrna, which was freaking gorgeous this week.
The road has gotten more popular with cars lately, much to the chagrin of the rich people that live there, but it was early enough Tuesday that I was only passed by two cars. Next week, traffic at this time of the morning should be even lighter. More people will have changed their body clocks to DST, so they won't be waking up an hour before they have to and just going on in to the office, as they are now. This will be good, because I really have to get in to work before 7 am so that I can leave in time to get home before it's fully dark. Although I still ride with lights, I hate to give cars an excuse to run me over.
I don't know if we will have mornings that look like this next week, though.