In retrospect, I can see that each of the first few bicycles I owned represented yet another step toward the pinnacle of bicycledom, the Motobecane Team Champion.
The very first machine was a dark-blue, solid-tired convertible (removable top tube). The second was a red Sears coaster-brake model with a horn in the fake gas tank. Then, in the 1970s, there was a blue five-speed Schwinn Collegiate, the first derailleur-equipped bike I owned (and the last sporting a steel Huret mechanism), followed by a champagne-colored Motobecane Grand Touring and, of course, the magnificent orange Team.
All gone now, of course. All gone.
You’d think once I had experienced the best that France had to offer, I would have kept buying the latest and greatest racing bikes, and I did buy a couple: an Italian Guerciotti, made even more valuable by the fact that it was painted by people who knew what they were doing, in Florida, of all places; and a second-production-year Trek 2300 that I still have.
But soon after I bought the Team second hand, I realized I liked a lot of different kinds of bicycles, including the heavy American sleds built in the ’50s and ’60s by Schwinn in Chicago, especially those with Bendix two-speed hubs.
I had several two-speed hubs once upon a time. One was cable actuated. You squeezed what looked like a brake lever to shift one way and thumbed the same lever away from the handlebar to shift the other. But the kickback hubs were truly magical.
You shifted gears without a hand control of any kind by pedaling backwards a bit. Low gear, high gear. Pedal backwards a bit more for the brake. There, you’d mastered the intricacies of two-speed hub. It was that simple.
Of course for most of the riding I did back then, a two-speed was entirely too simple a mechanism.
I was riding all day every day. I wanted all the gears I could get to match my pedaling cadence to the speed of the bicycle. I rode with intent and dressed the part: white socks, leather shoes with nailed-on cleats, leather-strap helmet, short-sleeved wool jersey and shorts. This was serious cycling.
It took me several years to understand that I took cycling way too seriously. But even so, I enjoyed my old Schwinns for a quick hop around the block. And when I bought a Blue Sky trailer to haul stuff around town, the two-speeders were my mount of choice. Grab and go. Nothing serious, just doing the laundry, getting the groceries. No doubt about it, two-speed travel meant I was off the clock, with zero expectations of performance.
Those were great days. The kind of days Thoreau wrote about in Early Spring in Massachusetts:
“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin of relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen sit all day? She can lay but one egg; and besides, she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”
They were the kind of days you’d like to get back, to marvel at and revel in, to weigh again what you had and judge the distance traveled since. All of which must account for my very materialistic interest in the Sturmey-Archer S2C hub.
Seems two-speed days are not forgotten.