Three-speed gears for Cambridge cycling

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

I was fascinated by Michael Cahn’s article, ‘A new face for cycling’, about fixed-gear bicycles in the June newsletter. However, I cannot help feeling that, especially around Cambridge, we should be trying to make a quite different and rather more practical type of cycle fashionable.

In this magazine, often in the more ‘campaigning’ articles, we often talk about making cycling accessible, safer and easier, even for the less confident, by improving road, junction and facility design, and driver behaviour, all of which are clearly vital. But no-one seems to also consider the design of bicycles and whether some are far easier, especially for the less confident, to ride. In a largely flat city, where the biggest desire is possibly being able to easily and smoothly pull off after being stopped at one of the numerous sets of traffic lights, I cannot help feeling that either no gears, or the 18 or 21 that exist on most cycles pushed heavily by the bike shops, are equally impractical for persuading the car driver whom we would like to turn into a regular utility cyclist that it is really easy, comfortable, safe and pleasant to commute and go shopping by bike.

Three-speed hub, bike and shifter
Image as described adjacent

So I would like to speak up for a very under-represented minority, who I feel have actually made the most practical and speedy choice of bike for urban cycling: the owners of a three-speed hub machine. It is a real pity that bike shops do not stock a wider range of these machines, but that is a consequence of the fact that there is little choice on the market generally. It is as if manufacturers feel three-speed hub bikes are a nasty inconvenience, but they had better make one model. It seems they almost try to deny the existence of this sort of machine with their failure to market them and give a decent choice of models. Perhaps they are hoping, if they keep quiet about the advantages of this sort of machine, demand will go down to zero over time and they can quietly stop making them at all? Such a pity, as even now there is a choice between the old Sturmey Archer three-speed hub, and, in my opinion, after many miles using both, the superior Shimano Nexus.

Why choose a three-speed bike?

What are the advantages of a three-speed hub? Firstly, how many gears do you actually need when it is as flat as Cambridge? First gear, to start moving. Second gear, for acceleration, or for getting over the massive hills which are the railway bridges. Third gear, for a good cruising speed. A fourth gear at a higher ratio would be nice, and if someone made one, I would buy it, but I am perfectly happy without and I am not a very slow cyclist. If you get stopped by a sudden red light or being forced to make an evasive manoeuvre, well, with hub gears, it does not matter that you had no time to change down, as you can do that while not pedaling, whereas if you’re in, say, 14th gear on your derailleur when you had to stop abruptly, starting off again must be painful. Secondly, the gears are fully enclosed and thus protected from road dirt, salt, grit and wet. Once properly adjusted, maintenance is easy or non-existent. Not having cogs on the pedal crank also means you can have a decent chain guard to protect the clothes you are wearing on your journey to work, school or some social engagement.

I confess I have ridden such a machine for years, and what amuses me most is how often I burn off people riding far posher bikes when the lights go green. They are often in the wrong gear and standing on their pedals whereas I seem to just whoosh and go!

I cannot help feeling that the natural habitat of the three-speed hub gear bike is Cambridge, preferably with a decent rear basket so you really can go shopping. Perhaps one of our less political campaigning activities should be encouraging shops to stock more of them and bring them properly to the attention of the bike-buying, possibly novice, customer, as an attractive, easy, practical and speedy choice. This would be in contrast to the scorn and derision I got from several bike shops when I bought my first bike in Cambridge nearly twenty years ago. Some had one at the back of the shop but really did not want to sell it to me. Some ‘didn’t touch’ such machines as they sold ‘sport’ machines, not modes of transport. Apparently all those gears, big fat energy-sapping tyres and no mudguards, or all those gears, narrow puncture-prone tyres and no mudguards, were much more practical. I stuck to my guns as I knew what I wanted, and the bikes I have ridden since have had one less thing to worry about. But I would love to have more choice, and would be happy to pay more for a lighter more high-tech frame and wheels when I next go shopping for a bicycle, and to be treated by the shops as a discerning customer, not a cheapskate or idiot.

Heather Coleman