We’ve covered what not to buy, and we’ve covered how to size a bike. Now let’s look a little closer at things to look for.
First we’ve determined what type of riding we’re going to do, right? After all if your idea of bicycling is strapping a bike on the back of your rv and peddling around Camplandia of the Desert, then you really don’t need much more than a single speed cruiser. And a single speed cruiser can be one of the most enjoyable cycling experiences you can have. Pure fun–under the right conditions. But if you’re looking for a bit more mileage or if your expected riding poses more of a challenge, there are a number of considerations that should be addressed.
Most bikes have them anymore, whether road or off-road. Even kid’s bikes are made with gears. Cruisers, racing bikes, folders–most every style of bike made can come with gears.
But gears are just for hills, you say, right? No. Gears are for efficiency. Why do cars have gears? It takes power to accelerate and maintain speed. Car engines, especially in smaller lighter cars have limited power. By having a selection of drive ratios it is possible to use the engine in it’s most efficient power range for the job at hand, whether accelerating, maintaining a speed, climbing a hill, or even coasting down a hill. The low gears are great for acceleration but lousy for economical driving, and the gear for economical driving is really lousy for acceleration. And somewhere in between are a couple of gears to make the transition form one extreme to the other smoother.
The bike is like a car, the engine–you–is pretty limited in power and performance. So you want as much performance as you can get along with having the power to accelerate, climb hills, travel farther and faster. A single speed bike will do all this, but it’s engine–you– will work harder and tire faster than one that has different drivetrain ratios–gears–available.
An interesting aside here: until the 1930s, bikes only had one speed, and until the 1940s, even in races such as the Tour d’ France riders rode with only one gear. They had flip-flop hubs on their rear wheel which, when they approached mountainous sections, they could stop and flip their rear wheels, one side with a large sprocket than the other. But they rode the mountains with one gear, one speed. Say what you want about today’s riders–but those old guys were tough. Cyrill Van Hauwaert (b. 1883, d. 1974) pictured here in 1911 could kick your butt.
Do you need 10, 15, 21, 28, or more speeds? No–well, probably not. As a newer rider you’re not likely to encounter any situations where you need that range of gearing, unless you immediately plan to race or tour. For all practical reasons even an older 3 speed, an older 10 or 12 speed, or an 18 to 21 speed atb will provide you all the gear range you need.
Why is that? The ratios found in a broad range of gears overlap, you really don’t have as many gear ratios as you have gears. In a 10 speed, depending on the ring size and back sprocket sizes, you may have 6, 7, or possibly 8 ratios for your 10 gears–a 5th gear combination may be the same ratio (or close) as the 7th gear (small ring to small sprocket and big ring to middle sprocket), and so on. The more gears a bike has, the more ranges that overlap, in reality making fewer gears. So realistically, unless you plan on hilly riding, carrying a large load, or just going full bore all the time, or perhaps addressing another extreme, the number of gears isn’t a critical issue.
So why do all the new bikes have all the gears if they’re really not necessary? Because the average consumer is gullible. More is better, right? Yeah, right.
It’s called marketing. Part of it is that the name “ten speed” conjures up a 30 year old bike with skinny tires, a harsh ride, and saddle so skinny that it was a good idea to have a riding buddy that was a proctologist. Ten speeds became 12 speeds and now they’re up to 30. If you’re riding the Alps it’s possible that you might actually need 15 or 18 gears depending on your ability. (Personally, a bike could have 48 or even 60–I ain’t going to make it through the Alps.) But ultimately there’s a desire to disassociate one’s bikes with “10 speed”.
The other part is that in the early 80′s mountain bikes evolved from cruisers and to get these heavy clunkers up hills you did need a broader gear range. As the bikes became mainstream people found they were more comfortable than 10 speeds, and eventually they were marketed as comfort bikes. As real mountain bikes legitimately gained more gears so did the the comfort versions. No one really needed 21 or 24 or more speeds for the street but the average consumer was told that they did. Forget the fact that most atb’s can’t really be ridden on the level in the low or small ring.
Henry Ford once said about the Model T, you could have it in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. Bike manufacturers today still dictate what they will sell–and what you will buy.