Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Because Sometimes the Road Goes Up

Hello Mountains!

"Because sometimes the road goes up" - This was my gut reaction recently when, after posting these photos on facebook, a friend asked about the advantage of the nominal mountain bike derailleur on a road bike. I did think the "Hello Mountains" caption was pretty clear, but it seems it wasn't.

Crisp Shifting

Might as well get that shiny cassette dirty!

Eighteen months ago, when I got my new Seven frame, I transferred most of the parts over from an older bike, which I promptly turned into a dedicated mountain climbing fixie - since it seems that I can never have enough fixed gear bikes, and I might as well have one that is dedicated to climbing Mt Washington. But this post clearly is not about a fixed gear bike.

I've made no secret of the fact that I am hopelessly unable to find shifters unless they are mounted at the end of my handlebars. Apparently you really can't teach an old dog new tricks. Over the years I've tried various different integrated shifters, but my hands just expect the shifters to be at the ends of the bars, and I will move my hands from the brake/shifter lever to grasp thin air in a vain attempt to make it easier to pedal up some hill. I'm also a bit frugal. Now this may seem at odds with the fact that I have a bunch of bikes, including the afore-mentioned Mt Washington fixie. But the reality is that I am a great bargain hunter and I recycle and reuse old parts for as long as they are functional.

I also benefit from the fact that Fear Rothar doesn't throw away old parts. He files them away in meticulously labeled boxes.  We have a box labeled bar-end shifters and within that box, are bags labeled 7-speed, 8 speed and 9 speed. For a long while he was a 7-speed guy, while the rest of the world had moved on to 8 and 9 and 10 speed options. Then one day he woke up and made the leap to 10 speed SRAM, and never looked back!

In the meantime, I stayed with 9 speed Shimano and my bar-end shifters to a point that might border on retro-grouchery, but honestly is just me being cheap and lazy. But a little over a year ago, I began to notice a rattle in my rear shift lever. It was especially noticeable on chip seal, and especially aggravating on long stretches of rough road, but I tried to ignore it for as long as possible. After our tour in Italy last year, it was getting louder and Fear Rothar pointed out that the rattle was because a plastic bit on the shifter had come loose and would eventually break and my indexing would no longer work. I looked for the box of shift levers and found a spare lever in the bag labeled 9 speed. I removed the rattly shifter and got special permission to throw it away, rather than refile! I then installed the new (well let's call it replacement, since it was used and of unknown age and wear state - while he labels them well, he doesn't include details of what it came off of and how many miles were on it) shifter and was again able to enjoy the sound of actual birds chirping instead of the sound of the shifter rattling! This worked well for almost a year, but the rattle started up anew while we were touring in France a few months ago. When we got home, I sought out the meticulously labeled box of used shifters and found one last 9 speed bar-end shifter. While replacing the shifter, I noticed that the derailleur was also showing some age, and the pulleys were rather pointy. I didn't find a box of 9 speed pulleys, but I did find another box with used rear derailleurs and found a matching derailleur. Rather than rob it's good pulleys, I just swapped the derailleur! But maybe I should have taken the pulleys...

I no longer had the annoying rattle, but I didn't have nice precise shifting either. I knew I had let the chain get a bit worn in the past and it could be that I needed a new cassette, but I was also having issues with chain slap when back-pedaling, which I tend to do after I unclip. I began to suspect that maybe that derailleur wasn't so healthy and that maybe I should just get some new pulleys for the original one and swap back. But all these parts were really of an unknown state, having been previously discarded, possibly for a very good reason. They likely had substantial mileage on them, and at the very least, they were rather old, noting that 10 speed has been around for more than a decade.  So I was looking at buying a new cassette, and chain and pulleys, and I'd likely have a rattling shifter again in a year, so... maybe, just maybe it is time to buy some new parts!

Or I could just switch over the fixed for the season and wait until spring!

But I just kept finding reasons to ride with gears, and kept dragging this bike out, until I finally couldn't take it any longer and decided to order some new parts.

Fear Rothar had converted to SRAM a few years ago with great results. When we got the new tandem this past spring, he selected SRAM shifters, rear derailleur and 12-36 cassette, mated with Shimano tandem cranks. The shifting has been great, and the giant cogs on that cassette have meant that we rarely need to use the little chainring! In fact, the only time we've even used the granny so far was racing up Burke Mountain in September.  I realized if I used a 12-36 cassette on my own bike, I could change to a compact double (34-50) and have the same range of gears that I currently have with my triple. Front shifting with a triple can sometimes be finicky, so this would simply things.

The real question was would I be bothered by the larger jumps between gears. I would be adding 6 teeth, but also an extra cog by going from 9 to 10 speed, so I decided the gaps wouldn't be that much of a change. I also started paying attention to my shifting patterns, and realized that likely due to my fixie-riding, I tend to adjust my cadence more and shift less, so I really shouldn't have any issues with the gaps in this wider range cassette.

But I'm still somewhat frugal, so I only replaced the parts that were dependent on each other: the cassette, rear derailleur, shifter and chain. I kept my triple crank and front derailleur, with plans to get that compact double in the spring. What this does mean is that I currently have a stump-pulling low gear on the bike, although I don't think I could keep the bike upright pedaling a 28-36!

So how's it working? I'm not sure I'll be allowed to keep the fixie pixie moniker if I keep using gears and posting photos of them, but it is great. The action on the SRAM bar-ends is firm, but precise, and most importantly, there is no plastic part to come unglued and rattle. I haven't noticed any issue at all with the gaps between gears. When I'm at the bigger end of the cassette, it's likely that the hill has gotten pretty steep and when I shift I want a noticeable change! But maybe it is those fixed gear habits where I'm so used to changing my cadence that I can be efficient at different pedaling speeds.

Fear Rothar often uses the 12-32 cassette on his bike, with a compact double, and nominal road derailleur. The road group can work with the 32 with the appropriate length chain, but if you want the flexibility of using the 36, the longer cages on the offroad derailleurs are designed to work with the larger cassette. I selected the mid-priced X9, feeling it was a good compromise of weight, price and durability.

Of course, I'm behind the curve, as SRAM now has the XX1, an 11 speed group with a 10-42 cassette. It took me over a decade after 10 speed came out to finally make the leap, so don't expect to see 11 speed on my bikes anytime soon!

And yes, I will get back on a fixed gear very soon!


  1. Wow! Thank you, Pamela, for this helpful, informative discussion! I'm looking to reconfigure my Seven and maybe new Seven so very nice to have your insight. Jim Duncan

  2. Compact doubles are indeed the bees knees. You will love them when you get them. I had some initial misgivings with the bigger jump but I only use the small chain ring when I really need it.

    You have permanently earned the Fixie Pixie moniker after climbing Mt Washington multiple times on fixed gear bikes. At least in my opinion.