by Our Bicycle Lives

After six years of sharing my life with bicycles, I still can’t get some names right. I point: ‘that thing there’, ‘whatchamacallit’. That’s the transmission for you: a challenge, even when my two bicycles only have eight gears between them, but a good one. I like mechanisms that a lot of thought evidently went into creating. I like the semantic and technical complexity of the parts, chainring, bottom bracket, cassette, sprockets, cogs, jockey wheel. I like the delicate intricacy of it all and the minute adjustments they require, perhaps because, unlike brakes, I don’t even attempt to tackle them! I like that not having yet mastered the definition of high and low gears makes me sound like a newbie. Let’s not leave cycling to the professionals . . .

The transmission brings the whole bicycle together around its centre of gravity, from the gear levers at the front all the way to the rear derailleur. Beautiful name for a beautiful concept. And the sounds! The sharp clicks of a new chain on a well-tuned road bike are music to the ears. They tell you that precision and freedom are not mutually exclusive. And a classic-sounding brand name like Campagnolo adds a touch of class, gives pedigree to a bike as only a well-made piece of craftsmanship can. Chain guards make perfect sense but I couldn’t help finally ripping mine off one day, to get to the core of the bike and let the chain breathe. Less is more, and even the clean, simple lines of a single-speed transmission become an object of desire.

But for the ordinary transmission, day-to-day life is not easy. My bike’s is somewhat approximate but I make do with it. Or without it. For the first two years, I did not once operate the shifters. Instead I plodded on astride my home-made single-speed, a hybrid with the chain perpetually in gear six. Until a kind soul taught me the reason for gears: to keep an even cadence and prevent you from bursting your knee joints when setting off at traffic lights. Then the bike suffered a fall and the derailleur was bent out of line. Years of sluggish gear changes ensued until a young female mechanic miraculously fixed the problem. Cue happy transmission ever after, even if trying to guess what gear I am or should be in remains beyond me. Still, anything is better than fumbling with levers located on the down tube, like on traditional racers: I would say that was part of their charm if I didn’t know any better (hand off handlebars + eyes off road = recipe for disaster).

Amidst the transmission’s sophistication lives the chain which by sheer single-mindedness and brute force gets the job done. A job so tough that little by little, this incredibly resilient piece of metal will stretch, a sure sign of wear. The problem with the chain is that it needs oil, and oil mixed with road dirt becomes gunk and mercilessly stains trouser legs, shoes, hands and anything else that comes too close. I learnt it the hard way when I had to pull a plastic carrier bag out of my chain with my bare hands by the roadside whilst being jeered by a carload of drunk lads. Cleaning a chain caked in grease and mud requires some determination. I sometimes use a chain cleaning tool, but then I need a chain cleaning tool cleaning tool (follow me?). I like the sound of the two chains method, one kept clean in white spirit, the other on the bike and then swap, but I secretly dream of a lubrication-free belt drive.

When all goes smoothly, I am in awe. But when all goes wrong, the bond between us is a heavy one. This ambivalence is the one I experience when faced with raw strength. Or power. Because the transmission, converting vital energy from my leg muscles to the wheels, is power. But while sap flows vertically through a tree, the bike’s lifeblood runs horizontally via the chain: built for speed, it reaches forward. I am fascinated by the harmony found in the circularity, in the continuous rotation of the chain linking all components, each in its rightful place and with its raison d’etre. It’s as if the transmission was the heart of the bicycle, each pedal stroke a heartbeat sending blood flowing through the arteries of a living organism. And bike and rider move as one, transmission on the right and heart on the left, complementing one another and achieving perfect balance.