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).

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I like the older classic 26 in 3 spd bikes, IE,,,. schwinn, fuji, raliegh, ross,
    chrome or painted fenders,
    high pressure clincher tires,

  2. Patrick

    “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.”

    I hold this to be patently untrue. Man can shuffle, mope, stroll, walk, British Walk, jog, run and sprint.

    His bicycle should be able to do the same. As well as carry tents, sleeping bags, stoves, water, food, tools, clothes and stuff up and over mountains. Bit difficult with a one-speed bike.

  3. stugu3

    I have a jelly bean but would like to ip grade to 3spd.Do they sell them as an after market item?

  4. James Pollock

    Hi Stugu. I’m not sure. I think it would be easy enough to supply but you’d have to contact Jelly Bean.I think if they did supply it would cost more to buy post-purchase than it does to get one with a bike. When you buy it with a bike they’re effectively keeping your normal back wheel and can subsidize that cost.

  5. Steven Walker

    Hi; im looking at a Reid Harrier or Jellybean single speed (maybe Jelly Bean 3 speed). As i live in Brisbane i can’t readily ride the Jellybean bike – would you say there is much difference between the two?

  6. James Pollock

    Hi Steven. It’s been yonks since I rode the Jelly Bean so it’d be a bit rude of me to compare it with other bikes. It was a good ride though and the Jelly Bean people were really nice people to deal with. You can’t go wrong either way, Jelly Bean or Reid.

    I’ll be reviewing the new Reid soon too.

  7. timmey

    3 speeds are great , I have a nexus and a sturmy . Both are great , I’ve geared mine down to 42 /22 ….First is good but top does spin out but that’s the pay off . If 3 speeds had closer ratio they would be perfect as they are still a bit of a jump between the gears . I ride mine heaps so it can’t be that bad .

    1. SSGC

      Thanks for your comments on three speeds Timmey. Do you rate one, the Nexys or Sturmy, better than the other? I’ve ridden both but with months between them. It’d be interesting to get a back-to-back comparison.

      I’ve also ridden the 5-speed Sturmy and it was a pretty good hub. That was on the Pappillionaire. I still couldn’t find that perfect gear, the one I’m used to, but I had a good spread of other gears.

      And then there is the Shimano Alfine. Those things are smooth. I’ve got a mate who has banged his around for years. He got it serviced once, when the chain got too old and worn. Apart from that zero maintenance.

  8. Timmey

    My testing of the 2 hubs is very inaccurate , as the nexus is in a 700 c rim / 35 tyres , 2500 km traveled . The sturmy is in a 26 in 30 tyre , hub braked , approx 500 km travelled . …so I’ll try and give an opinion .
    I rode the both bikes , swapped from bike to bike and tried to just focus on the hub . All in all both are so close to each other that there is no big deal diffence .
    The sturmy felt smoother , but had a mini peddle lag if you costed , I felt there was a bigger click between the gears through the feet when changing .
    Nexus , felt lighter , softer click through the peddles when changing but not as ( well built ) smooth as the stumy
    Both are well made and good so if you don’t force your peddle stroke when changing gears , both should last The life of the bike .
    I would like to try a Alfine and a rohloff and do a compare .

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