The Portland Bicycle: Gearing

A few weeks ago we introduced the idea of “The Portland Bicycle”, an entry-level commuter bicycle that would appeal to folks first entering the bicycle commuting realm, designed and manufactured here in our region.

The discussion identified the need for commuting bikes at a variety of price/feature points, but we’d like to focus on the entry-level model. To recap, this is a bike that can be ridden for short trips, or put on a bus for longer trips, and is aimed at someone who is not an experienced cyclist. It should be ridable in street clothes, and the target price point is $300 or under.

So with those parameters in mind, I’d like to have some additional discussion about specific features, starting with the gearing.

How many gears do we need? 3, 4, 7?

What are the pros and cons of an internal hub versus a traditional derailleur?

What style of shifter would be best?

Other considerations?

Share your wisdom!

17 responses to “The Portland Bicycle: Gearing”

  1. Hopefully folks know that Trek is releasing its own “Portland” model. It’s not a city bike-practical focused bike, though — it’s more an upscale model.

    Here it is

    For our own Portland bike, maybe a “PDX” brand, we could use a 7 speed internal hub. Or heck, a traditional three speed.

  2. Yeah, I was a bit surprised that Trek didn’t do more of a commuting bike for the “Portland” model. Oh well…that leaves the door open for us to do it ourselves. I’ve gotten some good input on this topic over on my blog.

    I think we need at least 7 speeds. 3 speeds just doesn’t cut it for carrying a load up hills and for flying downhill when you’re in a hurry.

    I also think the bike should have an option of internal hub or derailleur. You’ll never come to a consensus on this issue.

    And I’ve been learning more about some new electric-assist options on the market. Once you’ve got kids and cargo to carry around, electric-assist starts to make sense. A local guy has an interesting product almost ready for public consumption. I tried it a few days ago and it’s amazing. And I’m currently using an electric-assist product from a Canadian company called BionX. [disclosure: I’m also managing their US PR campaign]

  3. Talk me through the pros and cons of an internal hub. I can understand why it’s less intimidating. How much does it cost, and how much harder does it make it to maintain the bike?

  4. I’m not convinced a bike like this needs any particularly high gear at all. I can’t really picture the starter rider “flying downhill.” I mean, I have been riding in Portland for years, and I almost never use my large chainring, unless I’m on a recreational ride. There’s hardly the chance in the city. I think that on a big downhill, most beginner riders are just happy that gravity is doing the work for them, and they can give their legs a rest.

  5. Concerning gears in general, the number of gears is almost meaningless all by itself. What matters more is the difference between the highest and lowest gear: this is what determines the hill-climbing ability and top speed. This is called the gear range, and it is expressed as a percentage. In derailleur terms, a 200% gear range is what you get when your biggest sprocket on the wheel has twice the teeth of the smallest; e.g., 14-28. With a single front chainring, that might be 7, 8-, or 9 speeds, but it wouldn’t be a whole lot more useful for casual riding than a 3-speed with a similar gear range. It is possible (in an extreme, contrived case) to have a 27-speed drivetrain with less useful gear range than a 2-speed.

    Internal hubs are easier to maintain than derailleur setups, Chris. Other pros relative to derailleurs are:
    – Shifting possible while stopped (excellent urban feature)
    – Fully enclosed chaincase compatible (no exposed chain, lube lasts forever)
    – More abuse/neglect tolerant
    – Wheels tend to be stronger because dishless

    Cons are:
    – a little harder to remove wheel to fix a flat
    – more expensive than low-end derailleur setups
    – less gear range than derailleurs at any given price point
    – somewhat less efficient than well-maintained derailleur
    – somewhat heavier than derailleur setups

    In my opinion, the 178% gear range of a Sturmey Archer 3-speed gear hub (the most venerable design) is adequate for the use cases described, and the other pros make me think it a good choice for this application.

    These hubs retail for $100. I’m still skeptical of a $300 price point for a complete locally-made bike under current economic conditions being value-competitive with sub-$100 big-box bikes (branding aside).

  6. I’m a beginning commuter, fat and not really in shape. I agree with Evan and Jonathan on the 7 speeds – I have a three-speed, and while the ride to work is easy, the ride home is work (and this is the case for most downtown commuters, as downtown’s in a valley). Anything that adds to the ease and joy of riding is necessary for entry-level folks–you want to make the commute a pleasure, not necessarily a workout.

    I have twist shifters (is that what they’re called?)–love ’em. It should be commute ready, with bell, lights, fenders and some type of basket/rack/panniers. My partner has a far cushier bike than mine, but because it doesn’t have some way for me strap my stuff down, I don’t use it to commute.

  7. I think it is a mistake to design a bike solely for a “beginning” rider. We are only beginners for a short time, then we become intermediate riders etc. The gear ratios we may be comfortable with when out of shape will quickly become constraining when we have ridden every day for a couple weeks. So the bike needs to serve the range of users short of a power user who will buy a specialized bike in any case.

    When I think of the different riding conditions in Portland I don’t think 3 gears is going to cut it. A gear low enough to allow a to climb from downtown to the Rose Garden is going to be way too low until you are halfway there.

    The top gears are less important. But for me I pedal even downhill because I feel like I have more control and am more stable. I even pedal while braking sometimes. I think you need a high gear that offers some resistance at a reasonble speed. Not sure what that is.

    I think six gears will cover most uses. Steep hill, hill, up slope, level, down slope, downhill. So the bike probably needs at least 7 gears minimum to meet those needs for more than a specific user.

  8. I generally stay in my middle chain ring, and I ride everywhere, so I think we can safely consider just rear gears.

    The ideal 6- or 7-speed bike for me would have a wider range between those gears than I have yet found. For me, I’d want the high end to be similar to my touring bike, and the low end to be similar to my commuter/mountain bike.

  9. RE: “flying downhills”
    My point is that an effective commuter bike should allow us to travel quickly through town. Not all commuters are beginners and I personally like to travel as fast as I (safely can) and that sometimes necessitates bigger gears.

    RE: Sub $300
    This is a nice idea, but not a feasible price point. The largest bike companies in the world can barely make a reliable bike for this price. A more realistic price would be $750-$1000…perhaps partially subsidized by the state?!

  10. I don’t think $750 – $1000 is realistic for the market group we’re talking about. I think you’d be producing a bike aimed at entry-level riders at a price point that works only for the “converted,” and as a result you’d see that group buy a bike from Wal-Mart instead–or at least the cheapest Trek model around (isn’t that around $300? it’s been a while since I looked).

    I regularly struggle with friends who want to get a bike and *maybe* try riding more…they really don’t understand what a good bike costs. They think they should be paying $150-200. It’s hard enough to talk them up to a quality used bike price, and then the accessories are another heart attack…I’ve actually had friends walk away with no bike because they just couldn’t bring themselves to spend $350-$400. It’s true that integrated accessories help with the total cost, but then, I don’t think most novice bike buyers even think about accessories, so they’d be comparing our mythical Portland bike to a bike with no accessories, and not understand why it costs so much more.

    I’m not saying it’s necessarily possible to produce a decent bike at this price point, but my experiences tell me that this audience definitely won’t pay a grand.

    Can we compromise on $450-500? That still feels like a big investment to someone who hasn’t “gotten it” yet, but I think there’s a chance they would bite.

  11. I think you can pretty much assume that purchasers of “entry level” bikes are not going to be doing their own maintenance. Personally I like fussing with bikes but then I have a repair stand and several hundred dollars of Park tools in my garage to keep my family’s various bikes running.

    For that reason, I’d design the most maintenance-free and adjustment-free bike that is reasonably possible to create. Probably that means an internal hub. And with the least number of cables as those are what most frequently get out of adjustment.

    Then I would sell them with a free maintenance contract that is automatically renewable like the extended warrantees that Circuit City pushes on you. So that new riders can just walk their bike into any local shop and get flat fixed or brakes adjusted for free. I would think that if the city wanted to subsidize anything it should be the maintenance contracts which would end up being something of a subsidy for local bike shops. But it would make people less hesitant about buying an unknown piece of gear if they knew it would always be repaired for free.

  12. Kent, your idea is nice, but I can’t help but think about how much work (bureaucracy/cost) it would take to set up that system. But I think attending to that concern is important. What about including coupons for, say, a 1-, 3-, and 6-month tune up with the purchase? Whatever bike shops choose to participate would be listed on the coupons. There’s still a question of who pays for the shop time, but I think something like this would be an easier sell for the shops and for the company, and it still offers real benefits to the purchaser.

  13. I also had a friend walk away from a bike shop without a bike because he was shocked by how much everything was. He was apparently used to the $100-200 bikes he and his brothers had as kids. He didn’t realize how much more quality bikes cost at a bike shop.

    I wonder if any shop would consider “leasing” quality commuter bikes to people for $200-$300 dollars a year (perhaps with an option to purchase the bike for the balence after the year is up). That would hopefully satisfy everyone who 1) is interested in trying a bike and 2) expects to not pay more than $300. If the cost of the lease included some maintenence every year, and the advertising/PR for the bike stressed how much higher quality it was then a $100 department store bike, I think this might be a good way to lure people into buying a $700-$1000 bike. Of course if the person wanted to buy the bike outright without the maintenence and lease, they should get it a bit cheaper than the person leasing it instead.

  14. Good bikes are actually much cheaper today than in the past. I remember paying something like $500 for a new Peugeot PX-10 out of a year’s worth of paper route earnings when I was racing Juniors in Eugene back around 1980. You can get an equivalent entry level road racing bike for not much more than that today. Sure the exotic stuff like Lance Armstrong’s Treks are a LOT LOT more than that. But they are way beyond anything that was available 25 years ago.

    If people can’t get past paying $300-500 for a good entry level bike then there’s really no hope. That’s two weeks worth of gas for the average suburbanite driving around in an SUV.

  15. It’s all well and good to say that people are cheap, but remember that most people think of a bike as a toy. They use their bike a handful of times a year, and they don’t understand that if they have a better bike that fits them and has the accessories they need, they might enjoy riding it and use it enough to easily make up the cost.

    Still, I agree, $300-500 seems reasonable. $750-1000 doesn’t, in this context.

  16. I am a senior citizen and consider doing some biking for recreation. Please tell me what is the complaint about Walmart bikes. They are reasonably priced and have shimano components.$1000 seems excessive for any bicycle. A good used moptorcycle or scooter can be purchased for that price. Motor vehicles are much more complex. Enlighten me. Why such high prices for a pedal vehicle?

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