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The problem with 3-speeds

Obviously a bike with only one gear has had the Essence of Bicycle distilled down to near perfection, Occam’s Razor style. The single speed bicycle represents the simplest form of getting from A to B and is therefore the best.

For many though the only thing missing from this hypothesis is…well…more gears.
The question is, can you add more gears without increasing the complexity of your ride and thereby losing the traits most sought after in a single speed, simplicity and reliability? And the answer is, it would appear, yes.
Yesterday I had the good fortune to ride both the single speed and 3-speed version of Jelly Bean Bikes bikes. First up was a loop around the block on their 3-speed. My loop quickly turned into several loops and a side-alley and a few more excursions round various back-blocks of Richmond to extend the journey. And here I began to identify the problem with 3-speed bikes: riding the 3-speed was a little too much fun for my liking.
Jelly Bean Bikes 3-speed
As a stalwart single speed curmudgeon I’m a little distressed at just how rideable the 3-speed is. In the middle gear the bike is identical to the single speed. There is no noticeable lag or draw from the rear 3-speed hub, no horrible clicking or ratcheting to distract from the pleasures of riding, and really no noticeable weight penalty (though of course it does add some weight but we’re hardly the calorie counting types here). The aesthetic of the bike is very similar, with only one extra cable and a small protrusion from the rear wheel.
This causes me great alarm. I’m worried about the prospect of someone cruising past me on a knee-popping hill climb on a bike that is to all intents and purposes identical to mine and yet hides a climbing gear in its armoury. Or flies past me on a long tail-wind straight with the aid of a top gear.
For me, it’s always a sweet feeling when I destroy some lycra-clad poser on a carbon racer with about a million gears at his/her disposal. But when I’m destroyed by someone from the lycra set, as happens more usually, I take solace in the fact that they have so many more gears than I do. So for me being single speed is a win-win situation. But to get hammered by someone on what is a very similar bike could really bring on proper feelings of inadequacy.
Shimano Nexus 3-speed shifter and the bit that a attaches to the hub
The gears are spread apart more than you would expect if you’re used to 8, 9 or 10 speed systems. You in effect have your main gear, a climbing/headwind (wimp) gear and a downhill/tailwind (hammer) gear. The gears are built into the hub so you have no ability to tinker with the ratios. For me, closer-spaced gears would be ideal. For the majority the current ratios will be perfect. As with a single speeder or fixie you can always tinker with the front and rear cogs to get the perfect gear. In this case you would be looking to optimize the middle gear. Once you get the perfect middle gear your hammer and wimp gears fall where they fall.
Jelly Bean Bikes offer the 3-speed as a $129 upgrade. That represents good value. As someone who is trying to get a similar system retro-fitted to my wife’s Bianchi I know that it’s nearly impossible to get this system for under $350-400. Jelly Bean’s advantage is they buy in bulk.
I’ll be posting a a full review of Jelly Bean Bikes single-speed/fixie very soon. In the meantime I leave you with a simple and disturbing thought: 3-speed is the new single speed (baby).

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