Daniel Mrgan

The Time Machine

This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Occasionally I feel like a Morlock among the Eloi.

All the beautiful people are out there playing with their shiny objects — eBikes, plastic fantastics, tubeless double-boingers, and what have you.

And here I come, another sort of creature entirely, crouched over some rim-brake, friction-shifting steel beast that would have looked right at home in the era of three-channel TV, when The Time Machine first hit theaters.

Remember theaters? No? Well, that’s progress for you.

Being of a certain age, I spent my youth devouring apocalyptic fiction with a side of swords and sorcery. Asimov to Zelazny. Boogeymen. Plague. Technology gone sideways.

Based on my studies, and my location (within sight of the North American Air Defense Command’s Combat Operations Center inside Cheyenne Mountain), I assumed the Apocalypse would be quick. Flash, bang — this way to the Egress.

Nope. Turns out the Apocalypse creeps up on you, slowly, the way hair shifts subtly from your scalp to your ears, or brake pads migrate south, toward the hubs.

And then one day you glance around your cell at Rancho Quarantino and exclaim, “Hey! What the hell? Not only do I look more like Gollum than Aragorn, but all the affordable rim-brake touring bikes have disappeared!”

Last year the bell tolled for the venerable Surly Long Haul Trucker. When I reviewed the modern Disc Trucker for Adventure Cyclist in 2020, a product manager told me that the rim-brake LHT wasn’t going anywhere other than everywhere, just as it had since 2004.

“We’re team #savetherimbrake all the way,” she said. “People love to build that frame up and make it their own. There’s nothing quite like touring-tinkering.”

Uh huh. Especially when you start your tinkering by touring used bikes on Craigslist or eBay.

This year, it was the Soma Saga that rolled off into the sunset. Or, more precisely, into the “Retired Frames + Bicycles” corner of the Soma Fabrications website.

With light and fast bikepacking all the rage, the more traditional disc-brake Saga — like the rim-brake version that preceded it — seemed to have written itself out of the adventure cycling story, sales-wise.

Alas, Babylon.

Happily, a quick inspection of the Fleet reminds me that I have 11 bikes with rim brakes. Eleven! I could total one in a crash every month this year and still make it to 2022 before having to submit to the tyranny of disc brakes.

But I won’t. Somehow I still manage to bring myself to a safe stop, time and time again, despite my appalling lack of hydraulics, modulation, and skill. Likewise, I trip the light fantastic from cog to cog without tap-dancing through STI, DoubleTap, Ergopower, or (saints preserve us) electronic shifting.

That’s right — five of my bikes use Shimano indexed bar-cons with the friction option (simply twist the lowercase ring). And four more use Silver friction shifters.

I don’t like negotiating with elaborate, obstreperous machinery as the Road goes ever on and on, down from my door where it began. Sauron can keep his Rings of Power, thanks all the same. Mount Doom is not on my itinerary.

As the complex systems fail, which they do, I and my bikes move backward in time, which makes them simultaneously more reliable and easier to repair, assuming I can still find the parts in a click-shifter, disc-brake world.

“Hello, Rivendell? Grant Petersen, please. Yes, it’s Sméagol again. I need a set of Dia-Compe centerpulls.”

If a brake pad rubs its disc (the rim of a 32-spoke wheel with a tubed tire), I can easily make an adjustment on the fly. Fixing flats is another simple task, even for the Irish, who, according to legend, didn’t learn how to walk upright until the English invented the wheelbarrow.

And what goes wrong with a friction shifter? Occasionally … you miss a shift. Forget that check to Project Rwanda, hon’ — we got a problem right here at home.

Should worse come to worst, I can do what I’ve done many times before — borrow bits from one bike to keep another rolling. With a brand-new rim-brake, friction-shifting, inner-tubed New Albion Privateer in the garage, and 16 potential organ donors hanging alongside it — plus a wife who is a decorated Wizard of eBay — I can keep my low-tech medicine show on the road for another decade at least.

Of course, by then you’ll all be riding Elon Musk’s flying bikes, bikepacking the Red Planet, while I’m retro-grouching it down here on terra firma, grumbling about how in my day we had to get big air the hard way, by hucking off the Lonely Mountain into Lake-town, or getting centerpunched in the bike lane by a Dodge HAL9000.

But at least I’ll be able to wrench on my bikes without plugging them into the Perseverance rover for a diagnosis. And just wait until you see what Amazon charges for shipping Di2001 widgets and laser brakes to the Jezero Crater.  

And with this essay, Patrick O’Grady concludes a decade of scribbling for Adventure Cyclist. He claims to have enjoyed every minute of it, even the trips to Interbike Vegas, but says it’s time he played more and worked less. Gluttons for punishment can find him at maddogmedia.com.

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Comments

Albert England July 2, 2021, 10:02 AM

Thanks for some much needed Luddite perspective. Simpler is truly better when making on-the-road repairs in remote locations. I recently retired my 1980 Miyata 1000 Grand Touring for the Surly Long Haul Trucker. I do miss my downtube friction shifters and five speed freewheel.

Lisa Derrenbacker June 4, 2021, 5:56 AM

Enjoy your time playing more! Have to admit I succumbed this spring, buying an eBike for gravel riding. Now I'm having to learn all the whiz-bangy, technical ins and outs of the bike. But the eBike iis allowing me to return to some harder rides I've given up due to my inability to get up the harder hills (a wordy way of saying - I'm aging). My sister and I are off this weekend on the new gravel eBikes to do a 50 mile ride in the Virginia's country-side with 3500 feet of elevation gain. We've already found we don't need much assistance at all and have dialed down the percentage support level. We are still working but climbing with some help is easier on our aging knees and backs.

Rumpnbumpbutta June 3, 2021, 8:08 AM

I don't trust any mechanics who don't sing the praises of friction shifters. The number of hours I have spent fiddling with indexed shifting or aligning disc brake calipers only to discover they aren't much better off than when I began or sometimes worse, is immeasurable. I anxiously await the used bike marketplace boom for rim brake gems that current owners are embarrassed to be seen on. Soon they shall be ours!

Si Little June 2, 2021, 7:09 PM

My dentist retired, my doctor, my eye doctor, and now this news. Of the lot, I will miss the old guy who gets fat I the winter...Cheers good man

Tom Milani June 2, 2021, 2:27 PM

I was right there with you on simplicity until you mentioned having 11 bikes. I like N+1 and all that, but simple it ain't always. Happy riding.

The Desert Rose Pedals (aka Peppermint P) June 2, 2021, 2:19 PM

Well done, Patrick! Congratulations on your retirement. Love the humorous article! I too am a fan of friction shifters and rim brakes. Simple is better in my world. Enjoy your next chapter of more play, less work.

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