Bicycling has been a part of my life since I was a child. But, as is the case with many people, it was primarily recreational when I was young. I would ride with my friends and cousins on trails in the woods behind our homes. Some summer weekends we would ride to a church about a mile and a half away for some event or another. And during the Tree Peony Festival* we would bike ahead of visitor’s cars in order to lead them through the labyrinth of trails to the parking area. But that was about as utilitarian as it got.
My relationship to bikes changed because of an extraordinarily generous gift. Family friend and bicycle enthusiast Ron Richardson had a mid 70s Raleigh Sports that was a bit too tall for him. He offered to give the this lovely old English roadster to me to take back to Toronto, where I had recently begun my university studies.
Initially I thought that I would just use public transit while living in Toronto. But now that I had this city bike at my disposal, I decided to give bicycle commuting a try. I have not parted with the bike since then. I had always liked biking, but having this bike in Toronto is what made me love biking. It fulfilled something that I did not know I was missing. All the cliches about biking apply here. It’s fun. It’s good exercise. It’s a quick way to get around a city. It’s an affordable way to get around a city. It’s an environmentally friendly way of getting around. It feels like flying. The utilitarian aspect of bicycle commuting did not diminish the fun I associated with biking. Rather, I developed even more enjoyment than I had when it was purely a recreational activity.
This bike sparked an appreciation for bicycles on a few levels. I started noticing the aesthetics of different kinds of bikes more. This bike had neat little details in the lugs, fenders, and chainring. I saw how bikes could be beautiful and charming.
I also started learning more about the different mechanical aspects of bicycles because of this bike. It had an internal gear hub instead of derailers for switching gears. I had never even heard of this mechanism before, but I was immediately intrigued.
There is a lot about this bike that makes it excellent for city commuting. The fenders, the riding position, the durability, the wide tires. But I want to spend a little extra time praising the internal gear hub, or IGH.
Most modern bicycles (at least in North America) use a derailer to switch gears. That’s the mechanism that moves the chain from one sprocket to another. An IGH, on the other hand, contains all of its mechanisms inside the hub of the wheel. The chain never has to switch sprockets in order to change gear ratios. Even though IGH technology predates derailers, they are only recently regaining popularity.
IGHs require much less maintenance and care, since all of the mechanical bits are protected from the elements. Since the chain does not have to switch sprockets, it almost never pops off while riding. Also, IGHs are compatible with belt drives, which do not rust or distribute messy grease all over your clothes/bicycle. Unlike a derailer, you can switch gears while at a stop. This is very convenient for stop-and-go city traffic.
While repairing and overhauling an IGH can be more intimidating and time consuming than a derailer, this is offset by the fact that they so rarely require any maintenance in the first place. The old Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs like the one in this Raleigh Sports are famously bomb proof. While modern ones may be somewhat more finicky, they are still remarkably robust and reliable.
Below is the bike as I have it currently equipped. It’s a bit dirty, but it still gets me around town reliably and comfortably!
*For those unfamiliar with this festival, some information can be found here. Linwood Gardens is a place, as well as a not-for-profit that is run and cared for by my extended family. I should really do a full fledged post on it someday. It’s an interesting place, and I had the tremendous privilege to grow up in and around it.