She's doing all the pedaling.
September 3, 2015 7:56 pm

During the many years I spent working at bicycle shops, I came up with this philosophy about how bicycles work or don’t work. I call this “The Rule of Three.” It’s not exactly the same as the superstitious belief that “bad things come in threes.” The rule simply states that you can have three very minor issues with your drivetrain and it will probably still work. On the fourth issue, it will stop working as it should.

Right Brake/Shift Lever

With “The Rule of Three,” an issue is anything that is not absolutely perfect in adjustment or choice of components. This idea that three minor imperfections were all that could be allowed came about from my experiences extending gear ranges beyond what was recommended and from working on tandems. In “The Rule of Three,” both tandems and these extended gear ranges count as issues. I do not mean this as a recommendation to not ride tandems or equip your bicycle with a super low gear. Remember, you are allowed up to three issues.

4 Strikes and You’re Out

  1. Modern front derailleurs are designed to work with specific gear changes. Their side plates are not a flat surface. Curves in the surface are placed strategically to lift the chain onto the higher gears. If you run a granny gear a little smaller than stock, this does not work as well. You have one strike.
  2. Modern chainrings have ramps and pins on all but the smallest ring. If you change a middle or large ring, and the replacements are not properly ramped and pinned, you can count that as a strike. Most likely you have two strikes at this point, since your reason for changing the rings was to mess with #1.
  3. Is your chain line just slightly off? Strike
  4. If your front crank has been moved outwards to avoid chain line issues, something that is common on tandems, you have another strike. Manufacturers have finally figured out that they need to supply a front derailleur clamp that also moves the front derailleur out the same distance which prevents this being a strike.
  5. If you run a cassette that has a really wide range and less than ideal ramping design because Shimano owns the patent on the really good design, you’ve got one strike for this.
  6. Want to run some fancy new chain that looks cool but doesn’t have the same design as the manufacturer of the rest of your drive train? Strike!
  7. Cool looking titanium derailleur pulley wheels nobody can see while you ride? Yet another strike.
  8. Just the fact that a bike is a tandem which requires silly long derailleur cables and has the power of two people pushing on the pedals counts as a strike.
  9. If your bike is not adjusted absolutely perfectly, you have a strike.
  10. If some components are old and starting to wear out, you have a strike.
  11. If you don’t shift your bike perfectly and I mean an absolutely perfect amount of force applied to the shift lever, held down long enough for the shift to occur, you can count this as a strike as well. I’ll explain why this is important later.

You may have noticed something about this list if you read it carefully. Some things on this list are things you can’t do without while other things just seem like poor choices with no real benefit. What is important is to begin to recognize things on the list that are unnecessary. It’s also important to realize that your bike might not be shifting reliably due to a number of issues that need to be addressed rather than just a single problem.

Front derailleur cage

Front derailleur cage ledges to lift chain up to larger rings.

Whenever I was handed new “special” projects working as a bicycle mechanic, I could pretty accurately predict when the bike was not going to work with the supplied components. I’d find myself often thinking of what to say to convince both the shop owner and the customer to change their expectations a bit to get things working properly, working on compromises, and in some cases engineering fixes for issues that I knew would be just one too many strikes. I would find myself doing this before the issues I knew were going to happen had happened.

“My Friend’s Bike Works Like This”

Rider A has been riding for years. He’s got an ultra low gear for the hills, with modifications not only to the front gears but also the cassette. A quick assessment of his bike would indicate he’s got about three strikes. Rider A , however, keeps his bike tuned up regularly, knows how to do minor derailleur adjustments out on a ride, and shifts perfectly. Rider B is a new rider. He is friends with rider A who has recommended a bike shop so he can get a bike just like his.

Chainring pins

Chainring pins work with ramps to lift chain on to larger ring.

An almost identical bike is built for rider B. The frame might be a different manufacturer, but the components are the same other than that they are newer models. Rider B’s bike does not shift properly and he want to know, “Why doesn’t my bike work? My friends bike works and it’s nearly identical!”

Rider B does not shift perfectly. If you ask rider A, he’s not doing anything special, but he’s been holding the lever in a little longer for so many years now, he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Rider B still hasn’t figured out how to let enough pressure off the drivetrain to make shifting into the granny gear work on a hill. Rider B definitely doesn’t want to be told that it’s his fault his bike doesn’t work. Google search “you’re holding it wrong” and you’ll see what I mean.

Newer parts with modern designs usually shift better, but that’s only if you follow all the manufacturers rules. Manufacturers are constantly working to make shifting better, but they are also working to make parts lighter. They have accomplished this by engineering the components to work better together. Take a close look at all the refinements to improve shifting.

Rider A’s components do not have as many of these refinements to improve shifting, however the components are heavier to make up for this. When he swapped out components that were not exactly what the manufacturer intended, there was less of an impact on performance. You can’t fix rider B’s bike like this because the heavier components are no longer for sale.

Balancing Act

Building the ultimate anything is always a balancing act. This is something that I think consumers have a tough time understanding. They go out to buy a computer, for example and buy the cheapest one with the fastest processor with no consideration for the other components. In the world of bikes, it’s often the weight of the bike that is the prime concern of the purchaser when they should be also considering how the bike handles as well as how well the shifting works.

Tandem Gears

Bike has been geared low with mountain parts.

If you want the ultimate in fast shifting, here’s what you need to do. First you ditch your triple crank, maybe even go to a single chain ring. Then you put a nice “corn cob” cassette on. This is a cassette where tooth jumps are never more than one tooth between gears. Your bike will never shift smoother, but good luck with that trying to climb hills. Hell, why not just go with a single speed! I guarantee you no shifting issues EVER with a single speed. As one of the very few to have completed the Climb to Kaiser on a single speed, I have this to say about gears. “Gears Rock! Wide gear ranges, even more so.”

You know what else rocks? Tandem riding. After 8 years of amazing, epic rides done on tandem, I’d have to say it’s definitely worth the extra effort spent in getting things to work properly. I have been blessed with an amazing stoker that was not only experienced but has done an amazing job at picking up on my own strange riding habits. The problem with strike 11 on a tandem is that shifting is not always just dependent on the captains performance. The stoker can mess up shifting by pedaling too hard during a shift as well. Some tandem teams have trouble standing together, I can pull off an upshift with both of us standing on a hill (although Sharon usually doesn’t like me doing this.)

Chainring ramps.

Ramps act as virtual gear to help lift chain on to actual gear.

If you want your bike to function as smooth as possible, you really want to identify everything that is wrong that you can do without. Don’t use parts for their looks or for the brand name on them if they do not work as well as the other brand available. Don’t make any changes that sacrifice performance for little or no benefit at all. Your bike will work with three minor issues, but it’s better to have the fewest possible. The more strikes the more often you need to pay attention to your adjustments and how worn components become. Those spare strikes will keep your bike functioning properly as your components wear and as cables stretch. The fewer strikes you start with, the easier it will be to keep your bike adjusted acceptably. Is it worth all the extra fuss just for a name printed on the side of a component? Not for me. If the name on the part were worthy of display on my bike, it would work better. Saving a few grams? Maybe if you are racing competitively and the performance loss isn’t too great.

Breaking the Rules

Applying this to rider B’s bike as a mechanic, you may find that they aren’t willing to compromise on much or maybe anything. As the mechanic, it’s not your fault that the frame manufacturer moved the derailleur hanger half a millimeter and it’s not their fault either since it’s still within the specification. This is where professional mechanics need to get creative either by finding a different component that satisfies the customer’s needs but works a little better or by “hacking a solution together.” If you find yourself on the customer end of these sorts of complications, you should try to have some understanding of what your mechanic is going through. Good bicycle mechanics are proud of the work they do. They want your bicycle to work as perfectly as possible.

Worst Shifting Technique, Ever

Good bicycle mechanics have absolutely the worst shifting technique possible, not while actually out riding their own bike, but definitely while they are working on your bike. You want to guarantee a bike works when it leaves the shop, shift so bad that your customers can’t outdo your sloppy shifting. Even if you know you are working on a bike that belongs to the most experienced rider, shifting with no technique whatsoever guarantees their shifting will work no matter what.

If you are adjusting your own bike, don’t hold the levers in to complete a shift as you should when actually riding. Cross the chain to make sure that works even though you never intentionally do this while riding. This is one of the secrets to how some mechanics can adjust a bicycle so perfectly. It’s all about simulating the worst rider, ever.

Best Shifting Technique, Ever

You can’t shift electrical shifting poorly. It shifts one way when properly adjusted no matter what the rider does. This is going to be amazing for tandems once all the issues with tandem use are ironed out. Even electronic shifting isn’t good enough to make a triple work all the time and I believe that is why we aren’t seeing triples with electronic shifting. Instead, manufacturers are moving towards offering lower gearing on the cassettes and “compact” chainrings so that triples will no longer be necessary to reach the same low gears.

My first experience adjusting electronic shifters, I automatically switched into bad shifting technique mode and immediately realized that it didn’t matter how I shifted. Some people might argue that you don’t get the same feel with the electronic shifting as you do with actually moving the derailleurs with your own force or that it doesn’t make that much of a difference. They usually abandon this argument with a single ride using electronic shifting. The front derailleur, especially, shifts in ways not possible with mechanical shifters. The chain is eased down onto the small ring when in rear cogs that increase the possibility of throwing the chain to the inside. Then there’s never having to worry about trim points again, ever.

If you have the option of going with electronic shifting, it’s definitely worth considering, however since triples are not available and since new lower rear gears are just becoming available, it still might not be a viable option for you. This is going to change though, just wait and see. The importance of this is that it almost completely eliminates issue 11.

If you feel you are currently experiencing less than ideal shifting, now is a good time to inspect your bike for possible causes. You may have to accept that some issues can not be fixed without losing the gear range you need for the hilly terrain you are riding, but if you can identify all the possible “strikes” your bike has that might cause shifting issues and fix the ones that are fixable, you will end up with a much more reliable and enjoyable to ride bike. ?

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This post was written by Tom

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