Incremental Upgrade

My cycle ride to work this morning was definitely the wettest I’ve had so far this year (though with 11 months to go, I suspect it won’t retain that crown permanently).

This reminds me that I haven’t so far got round to mentioning that I got another new bike just after Easter last year.

My previous new bike had only come along about 15 months earlier but on that occasion I made what in hindsight was the mistake of going for the cheapest one I could find on eBay. It has a very heavy steel frame, needed some fairly major work (such as truing the wheels) to get it roadworthy in the first place and within just over a year it had got quite rusty and the bottom bracket had worn out, with several other components probably not all that far behind.

I’m fairly confident that I can repair the bottom bracket, and indeed I have by now got the replacement part I need although I haven’t got round to fitting it yet (it’s only been 9 months, after all!). This bike could at least still be useful as a backup, but I decided that since I use a bike on a more or less daily basis for my commute to work, and occasional longer rides, it would be better to bite the bullet and invest a little bit more in a slightly better one.

It turned out that “a little bit more” amounted to only around £100 (the first bike had been around £150, and the new one was valued at £300, about the same price as I’d paid for my bike before last about 16 years ago, but I picked it up cheap in a sale at my local branch of Halfords and even managed to get a pannier rack and mudguards out of my £250). So far I’ve only had to do minor routine maintenance (adjusting brake cables etc.) and repair a handful of punctures, but not had to take it off the road for any extended period or do any major repairs.

The new bike is, I think, technically classed as a hybrid. It’s got a nice sturdy (and lightweight) frame, 27″ wheels with relatively fat but not too knobbly tyres, reasonably low gearing (great for the steep hills round here) and no suspension. This latter was a deliberate choice, as I do the vast majority of my cycling on fairly well-surfaced roads, where suspension is not really necessary and is arguably counter-productive since some of the energy that would get transferred to forward motion instead gets eaten up by the up-down motion of the suspension. In other words, the bike is somewhat optimised for road use but can stand moderately heavy handling and at least occasional forays off-road, which is just what I need.

Apart from the slightly better build quality, this bike has two main features that I was particularly keen to get for the first time: disc brakes and trigger shifters.

Disc brakes have been around for a pretty long time but seem to be becoming a bit more common on relatively low-end bikes these days. They work by friction, just like pretty much any other sort of brake I can think of, but instead of pressing rubber pads against the rim of the wheel to obtain this friction (like rim brakes do — the clue is in the name), they have a separate metal disc (again, hence the name!) attached at the hub and rotating parallel to the wheel itself, and the brake pads are applied to this. The major benefit of this is that you get a lot more stopping power than a rim brake; presumably this due to the much smaller thickness involved, since you’re generating considerably less torque that close to the centre of rotation — essentially, if I’ve understood the physics correctly, you need to clamp the braking surface more firmly but that’s much easier to achieve. Another advantage is that the disc is much further away from the water and mud etc. that tend to reduce stopping power in wet weather. Since we get a lot of wet weather round here (and have quite a few steep hills to cycle down), this is a good thing. Mine are mechanically-actuated disc brakes, which means they are operated by steel cables just like on most rim brakes. Many, probably most, disc brakes are hydraulic, which give more stopping power (though the mechanical ones seem to me to give plenty) but tend to be a bit more fiddly to maintain.

Trigger shifters (for the gears) have also been around for quite a while. I’m fairly sure I remember seeing them in bike magazines back in the early 1990s but I’ve never previously had them on any of my bikes. With the twist-grip shifters on my old bike, I was beginning to find that my thumbs would get quite sore when changing gear, although I wasn’t sure whether the pain was caused by the gear shifting or a symptom of some other cause, such as general wear and tear. In any case, when I came to get the new bike I decided to take the opportunity if possible to try out trigger shifters instead and see if they were more comfortable. After a few days getting used to the system and remembering that I have to use the big lever to shift down and the small lever to shift up on the back gears, but the big lever to shift up and the small one to shift down on the front (which actually amounts to increasing the tension with the big lever and decreasing it with the small one in both cases), I have found them to be much easier on my thumbs. Another thing I like about them is the facility (on the back gears) to change down a couple of gears at once by pressing harder on the lever (you could possibly do the same thing to change up both chain rings at the front, but I rarely go down to the granny gear range anyway, and when I do I nearly always need the intermediate range for a bit before I’m ready to go all the way back up to the large chainring); this is particularly handy if you need to change in a hurry, such as one or two places on my regular commute where the gradient suddenly increases quite sharply.

All told, I’m very pleased with my (not so) new bike and look forward to travelling many more miles with it.

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