June 1, 2011, started as a sunny day and I cycled to a meeting a few miles away from my home near Boston, Massachusetts, in clear weather. News of violent thunderstorms and tornadoes to the west came to the meeting room. After the meeting, another attendee who had arrived in a pickup truck was kind enough to drive me and my bicycle to the nearest commuter rail station. The train took me to where my wife would pick me up with our car at another station in a well-to-do suburb.
Having a few minutes to stand around and wait, I took to checking out the other bikes in the station’s bike rack, squeezing the brake levers just to see how they worked. None of the owners were there to ask what I was doing. No, I wouldn’t have tried this if the bikes had been Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I found:
- A nice Trek 24-speed hybrid bike with front suspension and linear-pull brakes. The rear brake shoes hardly made contact with the rim before the brake lever bottomed out against the handlebar. I could turn the rear tire by hand without much effort. The front brake had a “modulator” on it, to make it weaker, but it engaged sooner.
- Another commuter bike — the front brake lever went halfway to the rim before the brake shoes engaged. This is what I call a “jiu-jitsu” brake lever, because in an emergency, you grab it and at first nothing happens — you grab harder and then it catches hold, the wheel locks and over the handlebars you go.
- An aging department-store special with steel brake levers and steel rims. Surprisingly, the brakes were stronger on this bike than on the others, though the flimsy calipers probably would make for a bit of a lurch and chatter, and the brakes would barely work in the rain on the steel rims.
So, four bikes stood in that rack, all used for transportation on suburban streets, and only one — mine — had fully functional brakes.
My little checkup didn’t amount to anything like a scientific study, but on the other hand, at least an hour when I teach bicycle skills classes is spent on adjustments: brakes, saddle height, gear shifting. Often, I have to give a student a homework assignment: replace worn brake shoes or a handlebar stem of the wrong length; bent derailleur; poor range of gears; untrue wheel, and so on.
Bicycles aren’t as reliable as other mechanical devices in common use, such as lawnmowers, refrigerators or passenger cars. Bicycles, like racecars and ultralight aircraft, are constructed to minimize weight and maximize performance, at the cost of their requiring frequent adjustment and maintenance. This is true even of lower-cost, heavier bicycles, which also may may perform entirely inadequately right from the start due to cost-cutting in manufacture and distribution. The minor adjustments and repairs which any bicycle needs — brake adjustment, drivetrain cleaning and adjustment, lubrication, fixing flat tires and so on — are frequent enough that taking the bicycle in to a bicycle shop is not a very practical option if the bicycle is in regular use. The owner, or a close friend or family member, really has to be able to do routine maintenance work.
A person who is not cognizant of these issues can easily buy an unsuitable bicycle. It may lack important accessories, or it may be too cheap and shoddy, or else fancy and unnecessarily difficult to maintain. A bicycle can easily deteriorate until it is only safe to ride at low speeds under undemanding conditions, if at all. Riding such a bicycle is a chore, rather than a pleasure. Unfortunately, these comments apply to most people who ride bicycles in the USA, and in other countries as well.
One way to attempt to get around the problem of bicycle maintenance is to make the bicycle simpler. Single-speed and fixed-gear lightweight bicycles achieve this goal in one way — though these are mostly popular with aficionados whose goal is to avoid complications. The old reliable English three-speed is a dying concept; the internal-gear hub has become a boutique item, with ever more speeds, and less and less reliable, though five speeds are plenty for most urban riding.
The preferred bicycle for practical transportation use, to my way of thinking, is one that folds, has good, powerful brakes, fenders, lights a rear rack and a reliable internal-gear hub. Like my old Raleigh Twenty/ Back in 1980, I had to build it up from a bare frame to meet all of my requirements, and also have a bike that is fun to ride. I do have to maintain it, as well.
There are bicycles available for sale now, which meet my requirements. They are still specialty items, though and they still need maintenance.