12 Nov 2013

Impure thoughts on having far too many gears...


Log commented yesterday about the problems associated with the endless drive to multiple gear systems.


Chain and sprocket wear are only the most obvious pitfalls. It is an obvious fact that many weekend warriors follow the (supposed) equipment choices of the top professionals. While cheerfully ignoring the even more obvious fact that this same equipment may often be supplied free of charge to the wealthy pro teams by the manufacturers. The cost of doing so at factory gate prices would be tiny in the grand scheme of things. Far cheaper than flying the entire PR team to the event with accommodation and transport extras.

The manufacturers act as corrupt sponsors. Knowing that any exposure of their products on TV, online or in the magazines will lead to massive sales to the now global hordes of moneyed, celeb-worshipping amateurs.

Not only are the pro cycling teams handed a lot of the latest gear but they usually have plenty of spending money anyway. The amateur must try to endlessly keep up on a much more limited budget. As retail prices rise to the level of precious jewels for quite ordinary CNC-produced items for stuffing empty shipping containers.

How often does the same piece of equipment actually appear on a top pro's race bike? One race? Or just one stage? A chain or cassette may only see a couple of hundred miles before being discarded as risky to further race success. Or more likely; sitting out the day in the peloton just making up numbers. Or, even more likely; passed down to the endless queues waiting to pick up the latest gear at a suitably large discount for secondhand goods. Always with the added bonus of having a named rider, or team, remotely attached to it along with the bragging rights. The manufacturers get the exposure and subsidised, empty reviews they need for global sales. While supposedly getting feedback from the (name dropping) riders whose continued income depends on performance and reliability. Or do they, in an era of racks of disposable machines on the top of every following car?

Just imagine how the sport would really advance if swapping bikes (or wheels) was illegal under the UCI [Utterly Corrupt Insiders) rules. No more £20K CF race frames designed for one stage before being scrapped. Or sold off as too unsafe. Really puncture proof tyres and unbreakable wheels, anybody? Nah. This is cycling. Run by a bunch of drug-apologist crooks, to push product via trained performers. Despite their poor articulacy beyond auto-cuing heavily rehearsed praise to the TV cameras for their team member's efforts on their behalf that day.

What test of equipment performance and reliability is really involved in normal pro racing practice? It may have survived a close fought stage in dry conditions in front of the motorbike cameras but what about extended use? Who really cares if a 10 or 11 speed chain is only good for a hundred and fifty miles? Certainly not the manufacturers, pros or their sponsored teams. Chains, chainrings, changers and cassettes are all relative chickenfeed in a multi-million racing racket budget with wealthy sponsors. The very high cost of equipment to the amateur means absolutely nothing to the sponsored teams on the tours. The manufacturers can even claim tax discounts for sponsorship, promotion and "R&D" as business expenses. As, no doubt, can the philanthropic, team sponsors. As long as they all keep winning.

The "loser" in all of this is (quite obviously) the zealous amateur who feels they must copycat their heroes or lose face on the weekend club run. The fact that the amateur is carrying several times his own bike's kerb weight in extra padding is forced deep into the subconscious. So long as they can brag that this season's latest equipment release is saving them less than the weight of the cap on their perpetually empty (sugar-encrusted) water bottle.

Where does all of this leave me as I trundle the lanes of unduly corrugated, rural Denmark at a vigorous snail's pace?  Well, I find changing gear on the rear sprockets is completely effortless. I often go up and down a few gears several times per hundred yards to maintain my (knee-protecting) high cadence. That's the advantage of those ridiculously expensive, Ergo levers. Well the right hand one anyway.

Changing gear at the front is not remotely as much fun. The chain is literally scraped across by an eminently unsuitable triple changer. Probably one designed for much larger, race-sized chainwheels. Making my tidily little chainwheels incompatible fodder for swift and sure changes. Changing onto the large (46T!) chainwheel takes literally a matter of several seconds. This has to be planned in advance and executed with great care to avoid the chain derailing onto the crank. Not to mention my trying to stay on the road as I stare fixedly downwards as I inch the chain onto the big chainwheel with micro-metric fastidiousness. This, despite endless attempts at fine adjustment to the front changer stop screws. The same goes for the inside chainwheel. A painted bottom bracket shell and chainstay would both be looking much the worse for wear by now! Stainless steel can be wiped over with a clean rag followed by a quick scrub with Scotch-Brite.

As an impoverished teenager I fitted a triple TA Professional chainset to my first racing bike using galvanised nuts and bolts from the DIY shop. For some peculiar reason a triple has always appealed even when the TA crank fell off the spider through piss-poor design and workmanship. I stuck with triples despite the obvious greater ease of using a double chainset with only a small difference in numbers of teeth.

No doubt the sprinters amongst the pros would enjoy a triple when they are dropped by the peloton on yet another tortuous mountain pass. Yet you never see a triple on a race tour bike. At least, not yet. The trend is always towards more and ever larger rear sprockets to cope with the totally inadequate low gearing offered by a typical (ridiculously expensive) race double chainset. Only a race fit pro can turn the lowest gears of a typical race bike on a decent slope. Then only when they are not tired from a long stage and too many previous mountain passes.

Let's not even go into the obvious advantages of maintaining a less tiring, higher cadence to maintain energy reserves for a late bid for the line. Nah, that's strictly against team policy to allow anything not fully rehearsed with the team's token top rider of the day involved. We don't want any independence of thought or action do we? Even if the team's great white hope has fallen off the back of the chasing group behind the peloton.

The amateur, racing bike owner may not train more than the exercise they get on the weekend club run. So cannot push such a high bottom gear to save themselves. The triple offers a tempting escape from misery but since the pros don't use them then nor may the conscientious amateur! It would be tantamount to wearing flares to the annual club dinner!

My excuse is that I carry at least an extra 10 15 kilos of trike rear axle, an extra rear wheel, a very large saddlebag (usually stuffed full to overflowing with shopping) and a hefty U-lock. Since I like multiple rear gears the latest racing equipment fad suits me well. Provided, of course, I can avoid the high end gear's ridiculous expense and annual maintenance costs.

I try to ignore the price of chains and cassettes. The manufacturers are obviously hoping everybody else does too. As they stamp out their cheaply made and dearly sold, readily-disposable, magically coated and electro-plated, mild steel dross. Fastidious cleanliness may offer real rewards to the <cough> obsessive compulsive bike cleaner. Those who prefer to admire their uncomfortable mount in the bedroom rather than ride the bløødy thing every day.

The price of the top end cycling stuff is quite literally obscene for what little is really on offer. I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if the manufacturers spend far more on marketing than they do on R&D, wages and raw materials, put together.

But I digress:  A virtual monopoly by three major cycle equipment manufacturers now exists to bleed the (delusional) amateur white. With constant iterations of utterly meaningless weight saving measures along with free sachets of snake oil. It used to be only one Mafia manufacturer until Campag dropped the ball to Shimano and now Sram. Manufacturers are now followed and endlessly discussed online with the same blind loyalty as born-again, religious fundamentalists studying their holy texts. Though heaven only knows why!

Any savings in weight when climbing are lost on the way back down. Some free-wheeling downhill sports had to ban the dumping of water tanks because it gave an unfair advantage! So don't throw your water bottle into the verge unless you are climbing to a mountain top finish. It is probably saving you several seconds per mile, even on the flat, due to the huge reduction in air resistance with it in place. Or perhaps not. How will you ever know amidst the claims for lower drag for everything from hidden cables to hidden brakes? Magazines don't own wind tunnels and their "reviews" are paid for by the product's advertising. Do you really suppose your speed will be altered by any real change to your bike frame or the mere appearance of its components?  

It was always thus. A (cycling) fool and his money are soon parted. The truth is a top pro could win a race riding a loaded supermarket shopping trolley if pitted against the average amateur on his multi-thousand Pound/Dollar/Euro, sub-10 kilo, "Reduracord" bejewelled  steed. So the amateur compensates for their hideous inadequacy by spending money on things they don't need. There may well be financial benefits to the amateur doing fewer training miles. The equipment doesn't get worn out quite so soon before it hits the wall of deliberately built-in obsolescence. But at least they can claim that the stuff doesn't seem to wear out while their heroes are sitting in the peloton watching Sky team's millionaire riders dominate the race "highlights" before retiring to their 5 star hotels. ;-)


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