Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Make Mine a Triple

At Le Cirque du Cyclisme, I was inspired by the beautiful bikes. I've always been a sucker for good machinery. I remember my first sight decades ago of high quality bikes in a shop, where I had gone in search of a simple utilitarian transportation bike. Two weeks later I had my first drop bar lightweight. It happens that while I sometimes think the bike enthusiasts go too far in the direction of "jewelry with wheels on," I also succumb to the charms of a pretty bike that also does its job well. For me, that's always tempered with practicality and rideability. Recently I've been interested in getting a recumbent tadpole trike. These are expensive--comparable to a better grade bicycle and indeed less than many of those, but still more than I have ever paid for a bike. I looked at my bike fleet and concluded that I could sell off some of those to help defray the cost. One of those I thought of selling was my 1986 Raleigh USA Grand Prix, which I would not need once my new Surly was complete. It seemed to me that I would only need one conventional bike and one trike. I was all set to sell off the Grand Prix until I made the mistake of riding it again. It's just too nice, with its lugged Reynolds 531 butted frame. In fact, my only complaint about it has been that it doesn't have the low gears I want for hill climbing. It has a perfectly good road crank typical of its vintage, with 130mm bolt spacing so little rings don't fit. In back, it has a six-speed freewheel in a range of 14-24. In what Brian Buffini calls "a blinding flash of the obvious," I thought that a triple crank, such as I used on the Surly, would be the answer. And I am reminded of why I used a triple crank on my tourer in 1974. Back then we had 5 cogs in back--what is now called a road bike was known as a 10 speed. Most bikes came with a 40-52 chainring combination and a fairly wide range rear set--often 14-34 or so. This allowed the bikes to be ridden in any terrain, but the gears were often uncomfortably far apart, especially if you were riding in flat country. In South Florida, where I was then, discerning riders fitted close ratio freewheels, since hills were not an issue and that way we got lots of closely spaced gears suited to the local conditions. Racers tended to ride these kinds of gears anyway, even in hillier places, relying on their strength to climb hills or using different gearing--even different bikes--in steeper places. When I built my tourer, I wanted to be able to have close ratios and still be able to handle grades with a loaded bike. The only way to do this at the time was with a triple crankset, which was then rather uncommon. There were only two brands of crank at the time that would do this--TA and Stronglight--and my bike attracted a lot of comments. Nowadays, we can put 10 cogs on the back wheel (although I limit mine to 8 for practical reasons) and triple cranks are everywhere. When I put a triple on my Surly plus an 8-speed Sheldon Brown touring cassette on the back, I ended up with gears lower than I am likely to need--I could have used a double crank and gotten the range I had with a triple in 1974. Well, the difference in price between a Sugino double and triple is only $10 and I don't have to use the small ring even if it is there. But on the 6-speed freewheel of the Grand Prix, it makes sense. With a triple crank and some fenders to go with the Nitto Noodle bars and Suntour Barcons it got last year, the Grand Prix can change from club racer to randonneur.

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