I have ridden fixed-gears and single-speed bicycles, but for my own bikes, I am wedded to multiple gears. Part of that is my love of the mountains with their long and steep climbs, and part of it is my allegiance to Vélocio, who fought tooth and nail to get multi-speed bicycles accepted in the face of the opposition from the big bike companies and the racers sponsored by them.
On a recent ride with my friend Hahn, I had another opportunity to ride with a single gear. As we left Snohomish, a strand of my derailleur cable poked my finger as I shifted gears. I remarked: “I’ll need to replace the derailleur cable in the next three or four months, before the other strands break as well.” Unfortunately, it did not take that long. A few miles down the road, luckily after we had climbed the steep rollers on Dubuque Road, my derailleur cable broke as I shifted gears. The derailleur’s return spring automatically shifted the chain to the smallest freewheel cog.
I stopped and assessed the situation: I didn’t have any tools in my handlebar bag, so I just wrapped the dangling shifter cable around the down tube.
I shifted to the small chainring, and we continued the ride. My gear now was 32-13, or about 66 gear inches. In fact, that is very similar to the 48-19 that I ride most of the time. The chain rubbed slightly on the large chainring at times due to the extreme chainline, but not enough to be a problem.
As we continued our ride, I realized that I don’t shift very often anyhow. There were a few hills where I would have liked a smaller gear, but instead, I powered up them. On steeper hills, I had to rise out of the saddle, which I usually avoid except for short stretches.
Overall, riding my bike as a single-speed was a pleasant experience that did not detract from the ride. Afterward, I was not any more tired than usual, only the insides of my thumbs hurt a bit from riding out of the saddle so much. And during my next ride, my occasional knee problems flared up, so perhaps I should stick with multi-geared bikes. Most of all, I have great admiration for riders who complete hilly long-distance events like PBP on a single speed or even a fixed gear.
When I went to replace the broken cable, I realized that my shift lever – which I had installed half a year ago to replace the worn-out 37 year-old original – had a small ridge from the parting line of the forging die. The cable had been bending over that ridge,which is why it broke after just a few months. I smoothed the groove for the shifter cable with a small file before installing a new cable.
While I was filing, I thought about how breaking a derailleur cable is merely inconvenient, whereas having your brakes malfunction can be dangerous. I inspect the components of my bike’s braking system much more frequently than my derailleurs: levers, cables, housing, brakes, pads and not to forget, the rims. I was inspired to write my next “Mechanical Advantage” column for Adventure Cyclist magazine on inspecting your brake system to ensure that it works reliably.