Thursday, June 04, 2015

Derailleur Wars

"Dad, my bike shifter won't work right," my daughter reported to me recently. I'm no novice to bicycle gear shifters. I had one of these babies when I was young:


Yup, a lemon yellow Schwinn Stingray 5-speed bike. My older brother had a red one. My younger brother had a green one. The kid across the street had a black one with "ram horn" handle bars. So these kinds of bikes were plentiful. I eventually added a shock absorber enhanced seat that came standard on the more expensive Lemon Peeler model. Of course, I didn't get the reinforced frame, wide rear tire, or fancy spring loaded front forks with disc brakes. Way too expensive.

During the warmer months we lived on our bikes. Our dads weren't always around to work on the bikes when they needed repair, so we learned to do many repairs on our own. That including adjusting the rear derailleur, which was always a tricky thing to get right. I never did learn all of its secrets.

Speaking of the derailleur, why is it that we use the French spelling? Is this just an attempt to raise the status of that nasty piece of equipment, kind of like trying to make people think that eating snails is a good thing by calling the dish escargot?

My daughter held onto her little girl sized bike until this spring, when we could no longer adjust it to fit her stature. She got a hand-me-down 24-inch 21-speed model that an older brother no longer used. It was in good shape. I cleaned it up and she soon found that she enjoyed riding it quite a bit.

That is, she did enjoy it until she took it to a bike clinic at a local junior high school. A few days later she came in reporting that the rear shifter wouldn't move off 7th gear. Despite my busy schedule that day, I spent about 10 minutes trying to repair the problem. Unable to get it to work any better, I told her we'd have to take it to a family member that used to work in a bike shop.

A couple of days later when I went to pull the lawn mower out of the garage, I saw that my daughter had scrawled "BROKEN" on the garage floor using pinkish-purplish chalk. There was an arrow pointing to her bike.

Suffice it to say, I got the message. After mowing the lawn, I again pulled the bike from the garage and inverted it on the driveway. After trying a few things and getting my hands very greasy, I realized I was hopelessly lost. So I searched YouTube and clicked on one of the many videos about rear derailleur repair.

The instructions were simple enough for me to understand.
  • Adjust the H (high) screw so that the chain rides smoothly around 7th gear without falling off.
  • Shift to 6th gear and adjust the tension on the shifter cable until the chain rides smoothly around the 6th sprocket. In theory, if you can get it to shift properly between 6th and 7th gear, all of the other gears work right.
  • Shift to 1st gear and adjust the L (low) screw so that the chain rides smoothly around the 1st sprocket without falling off.
One problem was that the junior high kids had left the cable very loose, with more than an inch of play. I had to undo the cable screw and try to get it tightened just right, a process that would have been much easier if I had sported a third hand.


After tightening the cable, tweaking a lot of things, and a lot of grousing on my part, the rear mechanism started to work. But then everything went haywire on the front derailleur. I assumed that adjusting it would pretty much follow the pattern used for the rear derailleur. I was wrong. So I went back to YouTube.

"The best front derailleur" said the bike mechanic, "is no derailleur at all." He said that it was probably the most fickle and problematic part of a bicycle. Nice. I wish someone would have told me that when I was acquiring bikes for my boys. But would I have even believed them? I probably would simply have accepted the marketing hype that says more gears is better.


I tried following the mechanic's instructions, but nothing worked right for me. He said that I should get 1st gear working right first, but that was disastrous. I again found myself dealing with cable length, which was so messed up that adjusting the little ferrules was futile. At first I had it so tight that the shifter wouldn't move. Then I had it too loose. Finally I gave up on 1st gear and worked on getting the tension right on 2nd gear.

Just when I was about to give up hope, the thing started working right. After adjusting the H and L screws, everything seemed to work fine. I took the bike for a quick spin up and down the street and around the cul-de-sac (arrgh, another French word), shifting through all of the gears, and they all seemed to work.

Success! I had won a skirmish in the derailleur wars. It took more than an hour of hot, greasy work. But me, YouTube, and my tools, along with some help from my wife, had carried the day. Of course, I may be called upon anytime to re-engage. Those derailleurs are temperamental enough that battle may soon be required again. At least they are working for now.

I parked the bike in the garage, put away my tools, and scrubbed the grease off my hands. Then I reported to my daughter that her bike — which she had been so anxious to ride — was now fixed. She and a friend were busy doing something, so she barely acknowledged me. Over the next couple of days I kept dropping hints that the bike was fixed and that I'd like to see how it works for her. I think it's still sitting where I parked it on Saturday.

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