All the Little Lies They Tell You
by Richard Risemberg (October 1997)

Mark Twain once said, "There's lies, damned lies, and statistics." That was, of course, before the Age of Advertising and the debasement of rhetoric to a sales tool. Now the sons of Willy Loman have grown up and taken a few psychology courses to flesh out their MBAs, and we're subjected to a new version of an old tactic in persuasion: the high-tech lie. One of its manifestation that affects us as bicyclists is the System Syndrome.

You've heard it from the automakers, you've heard it from Bill Gates, you've heard it from Shimano: The components of our systems are designed to work together; components from other manufacturers will not give optimum performance. Never mind that the genuine Ford parts are made by anonymous subcontractors all over the world, or that Microsoft buys other people's software, even Apple's, and blends it into their "unitary" product. The party line is, "Once you bought it from us, you must always buy it from us; change one part and you'll be throwing away performance." The party line is also wrong. After all, how many of you are happily reading this on Firefox, Opera, or Safari?

Shimano is particularly persistent in its effort to convince people that its products exist in a closed mechanical universe. Even Nashbar now prints a warning against parts-mixing in its catalogues. They don't print it very big, it's true, but they print it. Yet the evolution of my personal commuting bike illustrates perfectly how untrue the system syndrome is.

My bicycle began as a perfectly stock Bridgestone RB-T. That is, until I paid for it. The first thing I did was ask the shop to change the gearing over to a half-step-plus-granny rig, which is much more useful for long distance riding over varied roads (or no roads) than the half-thought-out compromises most bikes come equipped with. The mechanics protested: "Those cogs aren't part of an official Shimano set; they won't work together!" And, indeed, the catalogue stressed the point, as did the Shimano technical adviser when the shop owner called him. Well, I used to be a professional motorcycle mechanic in the bad old days; I know how pieces of metal act in each other's company. "Do it anyway," I told them. "It'll work." And I rode out of the shop on a rainy afternoon and shifted perfectly happily the seven miles home. No problem.

After a while, of course, the chain wore out. Official Hyperglide chains cost twenty dollars; Sedis chains cost eight. Everyone told me that only Hyperglide chains are supposed to be used on Hyperglide cogs, or you won't be able to shift well. Sedis, of course, says no problem. I put the chain on. Twelve bucks saved, no special pins to keep around. No trouble shifting either. And the Sedis chains last longer than the Hyperglide did. When you ride five thousand miles a year, carrying loads most of the time, that means something. I bought a few more Sedis chains to keep around.

It wasn't too much longer, then, before the high-tech plastic derailleur pulleys wore out. I wanted to put metal Bullseyes on instead. "But, they don't float!," cried the mechanics, trembling before the wrath of Shimano. "You won't be able to index correctly without floating pulleys!" Now, being an old mechanic, I suspected that the reason Hyperglide pulleys float is to compensate for maladjustment, and I keep my bikes adjusted. Filthy, but adjusted. I put the pulleys on. No problem. It is true, I must admit, that the bike didn't shift like it used to. No, I must admit, it shifted better. Bridgestone had kindly put adjustment screws on the cable stops (the bike uses indexing bar-end shifters); about twice a year I reach down as I ride and move the right one a quarter-turn or so to keep the derailleur in line with the cogs. No problems with non-floating pulleys. So far, they've lasted three times as long as the originals.

But I did have a problem with the freehubs and the primitive cup-and-cone axle bearings in those Shimano hubs: seems I was needing a rebuild every thousand miles or so. After much frustration, I bought a Hugi hub: expensive, complicated, and a true system in itself, a design unlike any other on the market. Unconditionally guaranteed for two years! After two years and two months, the ratchet slipped during a steep climb. It was worn out. A rebuild requires six special tools and rare parts shipped from Germany. I sold the remains of the wheel and bought a new one spoked around a Phil Wood hub, which can be rebuilt for about twenty dollars using two Allen wrenches and a few minutes of spare time. A freewheel hub! Shimano makes a couple of freewheels still, but I chose a Sachs--the cogs are thicker, with taller, stronger teeth. Naturally, I asked for a non-standard cogset. Of course it should never shift correctly with Shimano derailleurs. I hit the road to try it out. Didn't even readjust the derailleur after changing the wheel. Came back fifty miles later. It had been a beautiful ride.

So what do I have now: Shimano indexing bar-end shifters and derailleur and Bullseye non-floating pulleys, yanking a French Sedis chain across a non-standard cogset on a Sachs seven-speed freewheel. I ride to work, I ride to shop, I ride to visit my father on the other side of the ridge, I ride in rain, through rush-hour traffic, on fire roads, up and down steep hills, and on long Sunday rides, and all this mishmash of supposedly incompatible parts works perfectly every mile of every day.

Likewise, this article was originally written on a 16-bit word processor, edited for the Web on homemade 32-bit software I got from a kid in England, and transmitted through 16-bit Netscape, all operating under Windows 95 on an old 33 MHz 486 notebook I bought well-used for two hundred bucks. The screen on the notebook is black-and-white. I don't even have a CD- ROM. Everything is mismatched and half of it's out-of-date. Yet somehow you're reading this.

I've never yet broken the laws of physics, but I break the rules of servile consumerism all the time. It's a good feeling to know you can beat the system.

(Rev. 2006)

Richard Risemberg