Tag Archives: bicycle design

When Less is More

I see in the news where Italian components maker Tiso has come up with prototypes of a 12-speed drivetrain with wireless electronic shifting. I would almost have thought the news release was some kind of gag, but there was no April First dateline and although the accompanying video was rather crude, as was the prototype itself, there nothing else about the press release to suggest that it was anything other than a solemn proclamation of a new form of cycling drivetrain. Okay. But a twelve speed cassette? Honestly? Who out there is demanding this sort of thing? And why? Presumably Tiso see a market for it otherwise they wouldn’t be going to the trouble of designing such a thing, but other than a novelty factor I cannot imagine what perceived gap in shifting  would lead someone to want to buy it.

Surely saturation point on cogs for the rear cassette has been reached by now, if not in theory at least in practice. How  thin (read: fragile) must the cogs be on a twelve speed?  And the chain. It must be like a piece of string. An 11-speed chain is just 5.5mm – too skinny for my liking. I have a ten speed on my Pegoretti road bike, but only because I wanted to put an Italian drive train on it and 10 speed was the simplest and most readily available option at the time. My tourers are both 9-speeds, and frankly if you could still buy high quality 8-speed kit I would have stayed with that.

The fact that a Rohloff, makers of the finest bicycle chains on the market, refused to make 10-speed chains because their engineers didn’t feel the skinnier chain could be built to the company’s standards speaks volumes to me. Let alone 11-speed. And now 12? What would be the lifespan on this sort of thing? I can see the advantage to the component makers – they sell more chainrings, cassettes and chains – but this has to look good to consumers too, and outside of bling and being a conversation starter what advantage is a 12-speed cassette going to give anyone? What gap does this fill?

Just as perplexing to me is the idea of wireless shifting (powered in this case by AAA batteries!) While the notion of being liberated from the drawbacks of dirty, kinked or malfunctioning cables has an appealing allure, my inner skeptic sees all sorts of humorous  possibilities for screw ups and pranks. Sure as X some bright spark is bound to figure out how to hack into a system and then won’t we see some fun on the roads and at the Tour de France. Contador will attack on the Alpe d’Huez only to find himself suddenly and inextricably in 53×11; Cavendish will surge to the front in a mass sprint for the finish line and out of nowhere start pedaling at a cartoonish cadence of about 450 in a comically low gear. The possibilities for fun and games and viewer hilarity are endless. The Tour de France reduced to Wacky Races.

On the bright side perhaps wireless shifting could be the saving of the sport. I mean, who would bother with drugs if some nerdish Gary Larsen character standing by his garage door, or a Dick Dastardly in a opposition team car, could baffle your deepest laid plans by punching in a code on his iPhone? Maybe race organizers could run the Tour like Strictly Come Dancing – having on-going phone-in polls throughout each stage and every hour let the viewers decide the gear ratios of their favorites, or not so favorites. It would sure boost ratings, bring cycling and Le Tour into the garlic-and-onions mainstream.

As for me, I will be sticking to my good old sealed cables and my very pedestrian 9- or 10-speed drivetrains, and longing for the olden days of the more sturdily built 8-speeds, and hoping that one of these days one of the big manufacturers will make fashionable the idea that less is more.


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C’est Un Campeur

My Bicycle and I cycling across the remote Kimberley region in Western Australia on the way to the old pearling port of Broom in 1996 – photo by R. Ian Lloyd

So here is a picture of me pedalling along a lonely ribbon of desert highway in Australia’s remote Kimberley region, way off in the far northwest corner of the continent, all loaded up and heading for even more distant places. The bicycle I’m riding is a Cannondale T700 tourer – seven speed, aluminium frame, 700c wheels with 35mm Avocet tyres – and aside from my good self, it is also carrying all my camping equipment, food for several days, spare parts and tools, camera gear and over 20 litres of water. That’s a lot of water weight, but I needed it. It was high summer and the temperature on that fine day was somewhere in the mid- to upper-40s Celsius.

All up, I probably had 70 or 80 pounds of supplies and gear aboard. And that, friends, is no small burden for a bicycle and yet this doughty but still very mainstream bicycle carried me over 10,000 miles through the Australian outback, solo and unsupported, with few problems, and none that couldn’t be sorted out along the way. Nine months I was on the road and the vast majority of those nights were spent alone, camping in the bush, often many, many miles from anyone else.

Although this trip was a very special one for me, I was hardly breaking new ground, but travelling in the ruts of many others who came before me. Cyclists have been criss-crossing the heart of the Australian bush for well over a century, the first circumnavigation of the continent being (as I recall) way back in 1896 – a full hundred years before I set off on my own.

Bush prospector heading into the outback on his bicycle – c1896

By 1910 the bicycle had become one of the main modes of transportation in the bush, and was especially popular with prospectors and shearers, who were obliged to travel from station to station during the shearing season. Here was the idea means for getting around. A bicycle cost relatively little, making it far more affordable than a horse to a working man; it needed no food or water, could be repaired by anyone with a modicum of mechanical nous, and it could take you across a hundred miles of rough country, if need be, in a single day. And so a generation of shearers, prospectors, land agents, itinerant preachers – anybody who needed to get about the wide open outback spaces – would load up their bicycles with swags and gear and make their journeys.

The point I am making here, or hoping to, is that bicycles and self-sufficient cycling journeys made through the bush, camping along the way, is not an especially new concept – neither in Australia nor anywhere else the bicycle has played a role in society. Certainly not in England, nor the Continent, nor in America either, where in 1886 the 25th Infantry (African American ‘Buffalo Soldier) formed a U.S. Army Bicycle Corp and rode their bicycles, loaded with gear and rifles, across 1900 miles of newly won frontier, from Fort Missoula, Montana to St Louis Missouri. They averaged 56 miles a day, too, in appalling weather and on roads that hardly deserved the name. In short, expedition cyclo-touring has been around a while, as have bicycles sturdy enough to cope with the demands of difficult country and heavy loads.

25th Infantry Bicycle Corp riding across the Great Plains in 1896

And so I was a bit bemused to read in a prominent Boston-based blog the other day the news that an intriguing form of bicycle had evolved out of the cycling renaissance of the past few years: a thoughtfully designed version which would be sturdy enough, and with all the appropriate braze-ons, so that it could be loaded up with camping gear and allow its owner to take to the bush (or the road) for extended journeys. A ‘camping bike’ it was called, the news hook for the post being the release of a new model of bicycle, called the Campeur, by the Maryland-based (and tres Francophile) components maker Velo Orange. The author of the blog was very excited by this evolutionary concept and posed this airy question to her readers: did they think such a bicycle as this, a camping bicycle, would catch on?

I re-read the post several times to make sure I’d read it correctly and then ventured an opinion that the (admittedly very nice looking and undoubtedly well built) new Campeur was what I had always thought of as a tourer, and that such bicycles had been around quite a while. I was swiftly put back in my box, as were several other, shall-we-say, high-mileage cyclists who had also written in to point this out, the lot of us dismissed by one reader as ‘grumpy old dudes’ who were living in the past.

I enjoyed a far more civil and engaging correspondence with the author herself, whose point of view was that the difference between a ‘camping bicycle’ and an old-style touring bicycle was largely the product of the emotional approach to camping in the mind of the rider. Someone to whom the camping element forms a deeper part of the travelling experience will require a bicycle designed in a slightly difference way. To be sure, she acknowledged that touring bicycles and roadside camping had indeed been around a while but expressed a belief that this latest permutation was something new and relevant and owed itself to the flourishing bicycle-as-transportation zeitgeist. Alas, that is too subtle for my garlic-and-onions mindset. I still don’t get it. And when I try to wrap my brain around it I end up feeling… well… kind of like a grumpy old dude.

I understand – and applaud the fact – that cycling is undergoing a 21st century renaissance, and that many new faces are saddling up and taking to the open road for the first time, and that for many of them the idea of using a bicycle to accomplish a journey will be a novelty, particular a journey that involves camping along the way.

And I know too that the author of Lovely Bicycle and many of her readers have taken up cycling in a serious way only in the past, oh, say, five years or so and are still enjoying the delicious sense of novelty, enthusiasm and discovery that brings. Nothing wrong with that either, although I must say that even in my youngest and most callow days I do not recall ever believing that I or my generation had discovered or re-discovered the touring bicycle. When I was fifteen, back in 1973, I was reading tales of cycling the Alaska Highway in National Geographic, and following the adventures of Ian Hibell as he crossed the Darien Gap. The idea that I might need a certain dandified type of bicycle to embark upon such adventures of my own didn’t even occur to me. The wonder, the beauty, of cycling was that you could just grab your bicycle and go: if you had a bike at all the globe was yours for the trotting.

Let it also be said Velo Orange themselves are not pretending to have re-invented the wheel, or the tourer as it were, at least not according to their site. Their blurb on the Campeur is simply that it is a well-constructed affordable touring frame useful for on-road or off, and by every description I’ve read, it sounds like it would be. Certainly Velo Orange make some lovely touring components, filling niches the big manufacturers have left behind.

Perhaps I am becoming a grumpy old dude. But I love touring bicycles. I always have, the looks, the lines, the sense of limitless freedom they impart. They are the last bastions of truly independent travel left on the planet. I don’t begrudge anyone youth or the joys of discovery, but geez, a little historic perspective wouldn’t go astray. I don’t know about the future of touring – or camping – bicycles, but they sure have had a long and glorious past.

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