The need for (three) speed

  It’s now a couple of months since I bought my bicycle and fixed it up, and notwithstanding the odd remaining issue (kinky rims) it’s looking like a very good investment. Without a doubt it’s the best bicycle I’ve ever owned, and much of this stems from its classic English Light Roadster design. It’s rugged, comfortable, dignified in a way no mountain bike could be. It just invites you to ride it, and allows you to press on or take it easy as the mood takes you.

The light roadster is a perfect example of a mature technology, developed to a point where there’s simply no point changing anything. I think the Pashley Roadster is probably THE finished roadster, as the hub brakes are arguably an improvement on callipers, which were themselves an improvement on rod brakes. Essentially though my bike is one of many millions built to a virtually identical design from the 1950s through to the late 1980s and beyond. 

  It’s interesting to look at the variety of early bicycle designs and then see them suddenly all coalesce around two equal-sized pneumatic tyred wheels, a diamond frame, bent handlebars steering the front wheel and a chain drive to the rear. With the basic configuration settled there were only the details of braking and gearing left to improve upon.

This wonderful old British Council film How a bicycle is made shows much of the manufacture of the bicycle as it was in the 1940s. This video shows how Sturmey Archer three speed hubs work. Then there’s a video about how Brooks leather saddles are made. Between the three of them you have the sum total of what makes my bicycle work so well. Simple, reliable frame manufacture, traditional sprung leather saddle and the extremely clever working of the three speed hub. 

I’m still in awe of that hub design, and every time I ride my bike I marvel at how each gear has its purpose and fulfils it perfectly. Going downhill or on a smooth flat section I use top gear. When setting off or on a slight upward slope I use second. Anything steep requires first – and it’ll climb some pretty steep inclines if you’ve got the legs for it! No gears are wasted, neither do I find myself wishing there were more. No wonder they’ve been manufactured in their millions over the last century. 

I find the demise of the three speed peculiar. Racing bikes and road bikes and mountain bikes are all very well for the more engaged cyclist but I can’t shake the suspicion most non-cyclists are put off by them. There’s been a mountain bike sat in the garage for a few years now and it’s more expensive, has more gears and is considerably newer than my BSA three speed – it’s gone virtually nowhere in five years. It just looks like too much effort, as if you have to do it justice with some jaunty riding along muddy paths, and it just looks far too uncomfortable.

IMG_0577The BSA, on the other hand, has been in use every weekend for over a month and has taken me to parts of my home town I’ve never seen before. I’m feeling fitter and I’ve already lost a little weight. This difference comes down entirely to a bicycle designed to allow people of average fitness to comfortably ride a handful of miles at a moderate speed.


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