6 May 2017
I have been a cyclist since the age of four (and before that a tricyclist) and several of the machines I have ridden were equipped with internally geared hubs. Some others had derailleurs, while a number had no gears at all, but a simple freewheel.
Of the internally geared hubs, the Sturmey-Archer three-speed proved the most reliable. A Sturmey-Archer four-speed failed on me, likewise a Shimano 8-speed installed on a Kalkhoff Agattu electric bike, of which more anon.
The very principle of a derailleur is a bodge, since the mechanism forces the chain from sprocket to sprocket. Best efficiency in the drivetrain is achieved when the chain-wheel (the big cog connected to the pedals) is perfectly aligned with the rear sprocket. This is seldom achievable with a derailleur. Sideways distortion also increases the wear on chain and sprockets alike. What’s more, derailleurs can be fiddly and tedious to adjust.
Of course, gears are useful and in hilly districts may be necessary. Luckily I no longer live in a hilly district.
This time last year I owned three bicycles: a Giant CRS hybrid with a 24-speed derailleur gearset, the Kalkhoff, and a Norco Heart (pictured), which has a flip-flop rear hub – on one side is a freewheel and on the other a fixed sprocket, so that depending which way round the wheel is fitted you can be riding a fixed-wheel bike (‘fixie’) or a regular single-speed.
The Giant had an aluminium frame and hence an aluminium derailleur-hanger, the thing from which, as the name suggests, a rear derailleur hangs. Coming up one of the few gradients hereabouts, the gears began to make an unwonted clicking. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘more maintenance when I get home.’
A few yards on, the hanger broke off. The springs in the derailleur caused the whole assembly to collide with the spokes of the rear wheel, which instantly buckled and fouled the aluminium rear-carrier and the mudguard stay, both of which buckled too and got dragged into the melange of metal. The right-hand chainstay had also been knackered, I observed, meaning the frame itself. In half a second my pricey hybrid had lost perhaps 90% of its value. Or even 100%, since I really had no need of whatever components could be salvaged from it.
As for the Kalkhoff, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I bought it on the strength of glowing reviews and to begin with was quite pleased with it, despite the inordinate weight. The motor made up for that, and conveyed me, with pedal assistance, at a stately 15 mph wherever I wished to go. Soon, however, a fault developed with the Shimano hub such that I lost the use of 7th gear. Then the other gears started slipping. Then something obnoxious started happening in the impenetrable depths of the motorised drive: whenever I wished abruptly to stop pedalling, the cranks kept moving forward and I had to learn to ease off rather than stop. Next, alarmingly, twelve miles from home, the drive failed to engage at all, with or without battery power. I backpedalled and changed gears, up and down, and the drive engaged again; but not long after that this fault became permanent and the Kalkhoff became another heap of scrap rather like the Giant.
Secretly I was not sorry. I have fond memories of a Raleigh roadster I bought second-hand in 1978 and fitted with a single-speed freewheel. On that simple, worry-free, steel-framed machine I covered over 14,000 miles. The Norco is its replacement.
I love this bike. It is light, as steel bicycles go, and with its 75-inch ratio is rideable up all but the steepest local gradients; I don’t mind sometimes having to stand to pedal. I use the freewheel because a fixie is hard on the knees, and besides I like to coast downhill. The machine is all black, so that when I hide it somewhere among vegetation and go off for a country walk it is there to greet me on my return. It cost an eighth of the price of the Kalkhoff and has no battery, so is recharged automatically by my breakfast. In the time I have been using this bike exclusively, I have grown fitter and find little difference now in effort between the Norco and the Kalkhoff. Best of all, there is almost nothing to go wrong, and I have the tools and knowledge to service absolutely everything on it myself.
The moral of this odd little tale, which you do not need me to belabour, is that what is simple is often good, and when we become ambitious we sometimes let ourselves in for far more trouble and expense than our ambition is worth.