Sorta like a long-term test of Jelly Bean three-speed wheel

The only way is up  baby. Or so said Yazz in the…well it had to be the eighties with all that frizzy hair and multi-coloured fun. Their cheerful ditty defined the eighties pop ethos and now defines the quandry for single-speed providers. With only one gear, the only way is up. Baby.

Of course Kriss Kross said “jump jump”, proving that not all pop songs from the eighties were allegorical. (Though I hope they still wear their clothes backwards as adults.)

My point is, if you’ve defined yourself as a single-speed brand (such as Jelly Bean) where do you go go to expand your market? The answer is, the only way is up, baby. Hence Jelly Bean have brought us the three-speed.

At Jelly Bean all these extra gears can be had for a mere $129. My wife and I had been trying in vain to get a three-speeder for her Bianchi and with a best quoted price of $400-odd we weren’t jumping in in any hurry. Thankfully Jelly Bean provided us with one to fit to my wife’s Bianchi.

(Shimano Nexus three-speed hub)

The fitting of the wheel to said wife’s said Bianchi was the kind of job that makes teaching at a kindergarten look appealing, though probably a day of screaming children would dissuade me. There would be photos except I was elbow deep in grease and sprockets before too long. The problem you see is that your average fixie has a narrower wheel than your average geared bike (which the Bianchi used to be). Drop a spacer or two into the geared hub, re-arrange the brakes, swap the chain for a half-link, add a few links from another chain rescued from the bin (because half-link chain was for BMX which have short wheel-bases), re-invent a few other elements and finally the wheel is in place. But won’t shift.

Why not you ask? Why not shift? Because the shifting relies on leverage on a little piston that pushes into the internals of the hub and now the lever is too short by exactly the same length as the spacer I put in to make the wheel fit.

Of course, that didn’t dawn on me straight away. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on test rides, much adjusting of cables and scratching of heads (though all of these heads were mine, just a singular head but scratch multiple times, and mostly metaphorically you understand). Once I got the right idea it was a simple matter of finding something about the diametre of the little piston and about the length of my spacer to make up the space in the hub. Ah ha, I thought, a pin from the chain rescued from the bin. What genius. What progress. This bike might just become roadworthy before nightfall after all. A few minutes later a test ride proved the worth of all my good work. Rode like a dream. And then the whole bike ground to a halt.

Turns out that a chain pin running round loose in the internals of an internally geared hub is not such a bright idea. Who knows what it had done but it had jammed things up good.

Some time later I had removed split pins, circular clips, things that fitted cleverly inside other things and all sorts of other stuff that looked like it should never be dissembled and I had the whole shebang laid out in a multitude of small parts before me. In for a penny in for a pound I say. The offending chain pin shook loose and I contemplated just how the hell I’d ever get everything back together again.

It was about then that my wife arrived back home to find me elbow deep in grease with her new wheel in a multitude of small pieces. Ever sensitive to my moods she kept her enquires into my progress brief. There was frustration on my part but also I’d satisfied an inquisitive desire to see how it works. You know, the thing that made you pull apart mum and dad’s radio when you were a kid. Most boys left a few expensive items of their parents equipment in pieces. I know I did. (The best I heard was a guy who decided to enquire into the workings of his parent’s gramophone. All in the name of science you know. At a certain point he unleashed the wound spring that spins the records and it leap across the room and spun itself into irretrievable knots before his eyes.) The difference here was I was quietly confident I could put it back together.

No wait. The real difference was this, if it was totally stuffed I had no-one to answer to. I could buy a new wheel out of my own pocket and have done with it. Mum and Dad need never know.

With great patience I started re-assembling the hub. After some minutes in which I had just successfully  assembled with two hands what clearly required five, my wife said quietly, “Do you need that bit?” I looked at it and dissembled the hub once again. “Sorry,” she said gently.

Cut to the chase now because yes it did all go back together and all in perfect working order. We still had to gerry-rig things somewhat to make the gears work (this time with some coat-hanger wire to replace the whole piston) and there are yet some zip-ties holding the gear-changer to the hub but it all works just like a proper one.

(Add a few zip-ties and hey presto)

Now of course if you’re getting your three-speed bike direct from Jelly Bean you can ignore everything that went on above. That stuff’s just for amateur tinkerers like me who don’t know enough to leave well enough alone.

The beauty of these geared hubs is they’re very low maintenance. Good news for me is, when the time comes I’m ready for it. I’m certain that apart from re-greasing it there isn’t much if anything else to do.

Now to the ride. I don’t ride it very often course, this being my wife’s bike. There are times though, like when I need a mudguard (until I got this life changing bit of kit…how I lived without it in this weather I’ll never know…) or when one of my five bikes were unavailable. (Which isn’t as hard as it sounds, given one is in pieces, one needs new wheels, one is a mountain bike…that really only leaves just  two bikes, one of which has been in and out of action many times this year due to the many parts that succumbed to the wet weather…and the other bike has clipless pedals so it’s not my top option for a jaunt to the shops.)

Every time I ride the bike I find myself using the gears. I could treat it like just another single speed and I often think I will until I get on and I’ve got gears at my disposal and I use them. The main gear, the middle gear, is geared a bit higher than I would like so it’s good to be able to knock it down into the lower gear and hammer away on the flat. And then when you get to a hill it just seems natural to opt for a more hill-happy gear.

It’s a philosophical conundrum for single-speeder. I can get kinda pious about the zen-like attributes of one gear but apparently I’m easily tempted by the laziness inherent in a choice of gears. If you compared me to a zen monk coming down from the meditation retreat, I’m the one drinking VB and yelling at the TV within the first week.

(The hub isn’t thick. If it wasn’t for the think hanging off the side you’d almost think it was a single-speed.)

The problem is, having gears means it makes sense to use gears. It’s not like I hate gears either. I have them on my mountain bike and I couldn’t get round the mountains without them. Sure, there was that moment during my last ride when I found myself with my bike raised above my head ready to throw it down the hill in a fit of pique because the gears wouldn’t behave themselves for two minutes straight. But that just highlights my relationship with gears. Love hate. They can be a necessary evil.

What makes them a necessary evil in the mountains is, for me, a lack of fitness. I know some uber-dudes go out into the mountains on a single speed but I’m just not that happy walking and I sure as hell can’t peddle a 32×16 up the hills of Nerang State Forest. My level of fitness, basic though it may be, is still somewhat above the average punter. So what makes gears necessary for them may be the undulations in our neighbourhoods. What you and I might do on a single speed might for them require at least a gear or two. And a gear or two is normally enough. And hence the three-speed is just about perfect for around town and suburban duties. And, this is the good bit, it comes without the mechanical woes and skipping gears associated with other gearing systems.

Three gears is all my wife needs. If she had the 8-speed Alfine I’m sure she’d use more gears, but only about four or five in total. And probably only 2-3 on any given ride. It’s not super hilly around here and on the only short steep pinch we have my wife will get off  and walk even if you offer her fifteen million gears. She’s just not that interested in conquering hills, more interested in enjoying the ride in a more sedate way.

The best thing about three-speeders is riding next to them. You don’t get that schizophrenic clack-clack of shifting gears every two minutes as the riders battle their way through a  half-working gearing system looking for the gear that doesn’t exist (the one that makes riding easier). And they always seem to spend about half their time in a gear that’s partially skipping. I hate riding with those dudes. Skipping gears do my head in.

Jelly Bean three-speeder I review last year

If you’re thinking of getting some gears for your missus’s bike or maybe yourself, my advise is buy one off the rack from Jelly Bean. Don’t go screwing round with stuff that’s not meant to fit like I did. Three-speed hubs like those used on the Jelly Bean have many of the advantages of single-speed hubs but with the advantages of having more gears. A good option for many.

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