No. 9/2020 April 8. Derailers, how to shift better than you shift right now, ultra-buff Superman, and Elvis

No. 9/2020 April 8. Derailers, how to shift better than you shift right now, ultra-buff Superman, and Elvis

Will's N95 mask is one of three extras we had on hand, left over from the bad fires we had last year. We're not hogging them.

We lost our bike packer—related to COVID-19, but he doesn't have it, and nobody else here does, either. We are looking for another bike packer. Will knows how, and he's trying to get out a bike a day. Note that all the whale food  in this image is recycled. The bikes and frames have been coming to us protected by cardboard, not foam and bubbly. AND we "like to think" that they'll be reused on land a few more times. ------

It's me at work at Rivendell in early '95 when I was 40, holding Anna when she was about 6 months old and I had no idea what I was doing. This photo, taken with a Yashica T4, has been up on some cabinet at Riv every day since. I was thinking about it last night and didn't remember where I last saw it, but I went right to it when I came in. It was curly, so I magnetted the corners and shot it with my iPhone.




  I took apart a Shimano shifter.

Here's the same view of a SILVER2. Keep in mind, always, it's not a contest:



Here's a partly pulled apart Shimano trigger:

And a part-opened Silver 2:

The ratchet, the pawl, the spring that pushed the pawl against the ratchet, and the plate that holds it all in. I used a Power Tool to grind the rivet off the plate, and then a thick needle followed by a small screwdriver to pry it off. I have thick needles coming out of my ears, thank you. 

And Grand Finale-wise, here's the Trigger:

 And the same for the SILVER:

 It's not a battle to see who can make the shifter with the fewest parts; it's just a few views you don't get to see on an average day elsewhere...with commentary, of course.

The trigger shifter's indexing requires more parts and a more complicated mechanism. It probably shouldn't matter to you what's inside the black shell, because you'll never need to open it. But little by little those "black boxes" are taking over bicycles and making them easier to sell but harder to understand.

I would love to be able to say "all that plastic complexity makes it fragile," but those aren't your grandfather's plastics, my friend, and when it comes to making bike parts, nobody tops Shimano (in the big picture, if not the small one). 

Neither of these shifters is overhaulable or needs to be. The SILVER's plate/cover is fixed in place by a rivet, so it's its own little silver box. It would have been possible to make the silver boxtop removeable, but we'd be taking calls all day long from customers who took the thing apart and lost a part and then want to buy ten in case they do it again and again. We have replaced springs for curious riders who've done this.

But 12 pieces still beats 33 the last time I did the column subtraction, and three of the SILVER's twelve are either strictly unnecessary or easily substitutable with bits you can buy at a hardware store. The wingnut (I think it's actually a wingbolt) can be any old M5 bolt; the silver washer can be any old silver washer, and if you want to out-groovy your peers, you'd replace it with brass or bronze; the new protecto cover prevents strongmen from cracking the blackish plastic thing, but earlier SILVERS didn't come with this, and don't need it. Even if the BPT cracks, it still works. The spacer (round with square hole) is a part common to millions of past shift levers, not proprietary to this one.


One of a handful of Swedish Friends sent this link. You can't read it unless you agree to Welsh cookies; at least I couldn't, but it's a thin silver lining to Covid:


We ARE now officially working on a rear derailer, a RapidRiser style (Shimano's name for a rear derailer that works in reverse). This style is generically called a "Low Normal," which refers to the way the spring is oriented and what that does to the derailer when it's uncabled. A LN derailer automatically is  in the low gear position/on the big cog.. I think it's a better way for a derailer to move, even though one blogger doesn't think so. 

You can spend all kinds of days reading opinions on Rapid Rise, but they fall into two categories: (1) Why did this fantastic mechanism go away?/I want to stock up; and (2) It's stupid and backwards, good riddance.

I'd been feeling funny in a guilty sort of way about working on such a project during Covid times, and I must have said something like that, because I got a nice email with a 1939 essay by C.S. Lewis. It's titled Learning in War-Time.

It's predictably religious, written by C.S. Lewis and all, but that shouldn't make it or break it for you, or at least it didn't for me. 



It didn't work as well as Japanese derailers, but it's a good look, for sure. I mean, not bad, right? Come on. Why have we moved past this look? I know looks aren't everything, but Jiminy Christmas, can't we get some of this in modern derailers? Are we past this kind of industrial-metal beauty.? This is exactly what computer design programs eliminate when you push the button to get ride of everything that's not strictly necessary. Form follows function gone bad. The expression "form follows function" sounds cool but is usually a warning that what you're looking at dudn't look so good. Function can follow function, btu it should be on on a short leash.

The surface texture etc is cast into it.

 Visible limit screws, and a magnificent pinch bolt two-arm holder thing-brace.

Derailers back then and up through at least the early 2000s typically had ten-tooth pulleys. Eleven's normal now, but more is better, because bigger ones turn more easily and bend the chain less. Shimano puts bigger pulleys on its cheap derailers than on its expensive ones. Let this be your next bumper sticker, tattoo, or mantra:

You can never have too many teeth on your pulleys


It's French, a Huret (brand) Jubilee (model). "Jubilee" is like a 50th anniversary, and Huret must have made this to congratulate itself, and good job. I loved this derailleur -- I'll use the French/Francophile spelling when referring to French derailleurs, and the Sheldon Brown spelling otherwise. Huret didn't believe in toothed tension pulleys, and if you THINK about it, about the chain's turning forces on a pulley, it makes sense. If the force required to make a pulley turn "by the tooth" is more than the sliding force of the chain on a smoothie, then why the teeth? The teeth might, actually, impede the chain. Let the physicists figure that one out.

BIG TOOTHLESS PULLEYS might be the way. Bigger pulleys straighten the chain path. Do I, personally, care? No, I just like how they look.

A Campy Nuovo Record rear derailer weighed/still weighs 200g. This one was listed at 140g, but most beat that by 5g. Weight isn't the point. All the bits to this derailer were, or seem to be--I think they are--forged, a process that allowed carving away not needed to be a derailleur, and the effect put it in a league of its own, but it

There's a long-cage version too, for wide-range gearing. 


A fellow picking up his bike a few weeks ago left us a tub-o'-comix. We did the social distancing thing, but the point of this is the tub of comics. Dell classics mostly, from the '80s and '90s, and here are two pages from the first one I opened, and tell me what about them signals that they're not your grandfather's Superman. It's more obvious on the second page, but as Will pointed out, Superman's plush trainers didn't exist in the '60s.

 Superman is a little too buff. He always was the Man of Steel, but this is too much, isn't it? I see the artist is Dennis Janke. I went to school with some Jankes, and they'd have kids old enough to be doing this, and one of them, Craig Janke, was a smart artist who, in the eighth grade yearbook, did a huge cartoon comic story, which called Great Expectorations, which I think about every time I spit (not a lot, but on pre-Corona bike rides, you know...). The Jankes were of a faith that liked lots of kids, and there were four Jankes, all boys, so I'm thinking maybe one of those Janke brothers or sons is the artist. If so, I withdraw my concern for the muscles, the anatomically false triple deltoid and all.

and what's with the what's up?  


 In the Early Morning Rain is a song written by Gordon Lightfoot, which sounds like a modern Native American's  name, but he's Canadian and most of you have heard of him. Naturally, Bob Dylan's cover is the best one in the world, but here's one by The King, and I'm showing it here because it wins the award for Most Unlikely Sound : Costume ratio.


This guy is good, but they reversed the fim, so his hat is backwards. Still, don't harp on the hat, harp on the main deal. Trump alert: 


How shifting works

If you understand the next 350 words, you’ll know more about how shifting works than ninety percent of bike riders and bike industry pros.


A slack line is hard to walk across because it moves too much, and the slacker it is, the more it moves and the harder it is to show off in the park or picnic area. Bike chains act the same. When you pedal an easy gear the chain tension is low (slack). To shift to a harder gear, you just unwind the derailer cable, and the spring in the derailer pulls the pulleys and chain down toward a smaller and harder cog, and gravity plops the slack chain onto it.

 Shifting to an easier gear is harder for three reasons. First, because you usually don’t shift until pedaling is already hard, chain tension is high so the chain doesn’t want to move to another cog. That’s why, when you’re heading up a steep hill, you’re told to shift “before you need to” when your pedal rpms are high and chain tension is still low. It’s textbook advice that ignores human nature. We all pedal too hard for too long and shift too late, because deep inside, we want to muscle up the hill, and shifting feels like cheating.

 Second, because you’re shifting to a physically taller cog, gravity is against you. The chain can’t plop UP like it can plop down; it has to be forced up to an easier cog.

 Third, the spring in the derailer is always pulling the derailer away from the easier cogs, always to the right. To shift to the easier gears you have to fight the spring’s force—stretch the spring. The easier the cog, the more you have to stretch it and the more it fights back. This is what happens every time you shift to an easier gear with a normal rear derailer.

Normal derailers make it easier to shift to harder gears and harder to shift to easier ones. Gravity does the same—helps you get harder gears, but makes it harder to get easier ones.

 Shimano knew all that and tried and failed twice to fix it—once in the mid-1990s, followed by about a nine-year give-up gap, and then again the early 2000s, followed by the quarter century give up phase we’re still in. Shimano’s solution both times were oppositely sprung “RapidRise” rear derailers, which pulled the chain to the low gears. The non-trademarked term for the derailers with opposite springs is “low normal,” because when the spring is relaxed or the derailer is uncabled, the pulley cage shifts to the left, under what would be the big cogs.

Here's an early (1990-ish?) Shimano prototype rapidriser:

 and here's the opposite-working spring:

Both times Shimano tried to push RapidRise, flashy riders who were used to normal shifters didn’t want to give them a chance, and bike dealers didn’t want to take risks with a new kind of derailer. 

Shimano has the best derailer engineers in the world, but ultimately it is a company driven by sales, and both times they’ve offered these derailers they've flopped. It was another benefit, coming right up, that conservatives hated them for:

With RapidRise derailers you move the front and rear shift levers in the same direction to get the same effect. If you were designing shifter levers and derailers from scratch and logically, this is exactly how you’d do it. Otherwise, it would be like building a house with some doors opening to the inside and others to the outside.

 The thing is, even though the right shift lever moved in the direction they weren’t used to, it was a more logical direction, and easy to learn. You have that much neuroplasticity, and if you don’t exercise it, your brain will get worse as you age. Yes, RapidRise derailers theoretically help your brain immeasurably.


Friction shifting for the rest of us

Index shifting came about because new riders weren’t told how to de-tension the chain. Pros use it because at this point, they’ve never used anything else, so probably don’t know how to shift in friction. Indexing allows mid-sprint shifts without easing up on the pedals, so, ironically, eliminates the need for skillful shifting in pro races.

Friction shifting isn’t overly challenging at all, but it has rarely been “taught” the right way. Here’s an attempt to do that: (It’s all about de-tensioning the chain and timing, and this applies to any rear derailer, not just low-normals)

Imagine the circular pedal path as the face of a clock, and shift at 4:30. That’s half of your success.

When your shifting foot is at 6:00, stop muscling the pedal entirely. Let it drift to 12:00. Call this “floating,” and it’s the other half of success.

As you float that pedal to 12:00, you also have to float the other side pedal to 6:00. The point is to eliminate power for half of a pedal revolution to de-tension the chain and give the shift time to take. When you honest-to-goodness float the pedal after the shift for, it takes just half a stroke. If you apply power even though you're not supposed to, the shift goes to hell, you lose your momentum, you fail.

 The car-driving equivalent is shifting a manual transmission. You put in the clutch to stop the whirling gears; shift, and when after the gears re-engage, you can apply power. You can’t shift without clutching, and timing counts. Friction shifts on bikes are way easier.

 In car or on bike, YOU SHIFT WITH YOUR FEET

If you mess up a shift on your bike, blame the owner of your feet, not the maker of the shifter. You'd naturally do that in a car. You aren't going to cuss out Pontiac clutches. Bike riders are likely to blame our darling SILVER shifters, when it's their own faulty footwork. 

I’m the last guy who should tell anybody how to do anything with a car, but here goes. This applies to manual/stick-shift transmissions, the kind they don’t sell anymore. 

Inside a car engine are a bunch of gears that interlock directly—tooth to tooth—as opposed to being linked by a chain, as is in a bicycle. One of those gears is a big main one (in technical terms), which you can think as the car’s single chainring. In a typical 5-speed transmission there are five other gears, each sized according to how fast you’re motoring along, like the cogs in back of your bike.

 The car’s shift lever is like your bike’s shift lever, the gas pedal is like the bike pedal, and the car’s clutch is like coasting on your bike.

To shift gears on a car, you push down the clutch to disengage the gears, which cuts off power. Then slowly let out the clutch, and apply a little gas.  As the gears engage, take your foot off the clutch and just go. The hard part to learn is the timing of letting out the clutch (to re-engage the gears) and applying power. Picture in your head the disengaged gears trying to engage with a drive gear that’s spinning too fast because you applied power too soon. All you get is the tips of the gears grinding on themselves.

Just like on a car, you can’t shift gears while purely coasting, because chain won't move to another cog if it's not moving. But it won't move to another cog smoothly if it's under tension from pedaling. Bike gears are always engaged indirectly by the chain, so you don’t get the same ka-runch-runch-runch you hear and feel in a bad car shift, but the shift won’t take unless you stop applying power.

So you keep the chain moving without power (you "pedal air") when you shift.

If you do it right, you cut power for only half of a pedal revolution, and your momentum will keep you moving, just like your car moves with the clutch in.

Here’s the best way:

When your right foot is at 4:30 (approaching the bottom of the stroke, or 6:00), SHIFT. Then move the pedals without pushing on them until the right foot is at 12:00. If you did it right, the chain will be on the new cog and it will have happened silently.

Above: A computerized model of the right crank (or in British, "chainset"). 

It takes practice, and most people don’t practice--they just give up and index, and that’s fine, but if you do that, you miss out on the fun of manually shifting your bike, and it is fun. It’s only not fun when you shift at the wrong part of the stroke (like, with your right foot at 2:00), and continue to apply power.


Extra sharp-shooting practice to drive home all of these points and make normal shifts seem super simple

Pedal off the saddle up a steep hill in a hardish gear, and try to shift smoothly. Your timing has to be perfect. You have to completely unweight the pedals at 6:00 and keep them unweighted, for half a pedal revolution, even while you’re off the seat. It’s weird to not push down on the down pedal when you’re off the seat, but this is the best way to drive home the importance of unweighting the pedal. It’s a stupid way to ride a bike normally, regularly, but it’s still good practice, and improves your skill for regular-situation shifting.

Electronic shifting

Why give up the super fantastic pleasure of operating your bike’s beautiful analogical mechanisms? Electronics kick you out of the picture and push you away from the bike. Electronics should be used to eliminating mind-numbing tedium and improve accuracy, and neither of those applies to riding a bike. Accurate shifts are the goal, but they’re easy enough to get with good derailers and skill.

We’re sticking with mechanical bikes and shifting. We have Silver shifters, which are as good as mechanical shifters get; and we’re heading toward low normal deerailers, which have the most sensible mechanical movements. You can still muff a shift, because you're the weak link, but muffing a shift is no big deal, you just correct it.

Derailer - Derailleur

The nearly universal word for gear changer is derailleur, a French word for the thing that de-rails your chain to another ring or cog. The great Sheldon Brown, friend and hero preferred derailer, because he said, here where we live, it de-rails the chain. Derailleur seems to name a French object, and a male one at that. The thing we’re talking about derails the chain, so I’m sticking with Sheldon, and why not? He was so smart, funny, interesting, humble but confident, kind, such a bike lover and educator, and as much as he contributed to bicycle knowledge all over the world, he died too soon (2/4/2008) and could’ve done so much more.

Keep him alive, figuratively, with derailer!

No need for de-railer. Enough is enough.


We're ending on a light or a dark note, about the pandemic.


Well. we want the best and healthiest for you and everybody you know, and all the small businesses and people who work in them, and all the pregnant ladies who are now worried, and service people, and everybody.   --Grant




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