Low Is The New Normal

I can’t even with all this, so let’s ignore it all for a few minutes and talk about bike stuff:

More specifically, let’s talk about that low-normal derailleur Grant Petersen sent me:

If you’re unfamiliar with the whole low-normal thing, Grant explains it and why he likes it in this post on his “Blahg.”

Anyway, I fully recognize how privileged I am to receive packages containing vintage exotica from bike industry legends, and I can assure you it’s not something I take lightly. Therefore, I installed the derailleur on the A. Homer Hilsen at my very earliest opportunity, and the job was made considerably easier by the fact that Rivendell had built my bike with a quick-link chain:

Nevertheless, I’m a pretty poor mechanic, and so I still managed to make a number of missteps in the process of undertaking this completely straightforward operation. For example, after installing the new derailleur, I lifted the rear wheel and ran through the gears and wondered why the chain was running so roughly. Eventually I figured out the answer:

Yes, somehow I managed to get the beans above the franks.

Fortunately, correcting that was a simple matter of unbuttoning the chain and buttoning it back up again. The chain was now running smoothly, and on my first around-the-block test ride the bike shifted beautifully. However, when I stopped to take a photo, I realized I’d totally set that whole cable pulley dongle thingy up wrong:

See, the whole point of it is that you don’t have to use a big sweeping loop of cable housing. Here’s how it’s supposed to look:

XTR m951 Derailleur

I was fully aware of this before installing the derailleur, and yet when it came time to actually do it I completely forgot.

Regardless of my error, the bike was shifting perfectly, so I thought about leaving it. However, I knew this would irritate me, and so I trimmed down the housing and put everything back together again:

Not only did it still shift perfectly, but it looked a lot better too. (Also, that gigantic cable housing lasso could easily have snagged on a rock or branch, killing me instantly. This is doubtless a leading cause of death in some Shimano engineer’s imagination.) Now, to my eye at least, the only remaining problem (if you can call it that) is that I no longer have a barrel adjuster. The derailleur doesn’t have one, nor does my shifter:

And I don’t think there’s a straightforward way to put one on the downtube cable stop, though if there is such a gizmo I’m sure someone will alert me:

Of course I could put an inline adjuster in the shifter cable housing (I’m pretty sure I have several), but it hardly seems worth the effort, because with friction shifting I can’t see why you’d even need a barrel adjuster unless the cable somehow developed a huge amount of slack, in which case undoing the pinch bolt on the derailleur and tightening it back up again is only marginally more difficult than fiddling with an adjuster. So I’m inclined to file it under “Who cares?”

Oh, and if you’re picky enough to wonder why I used black housing with plastic ferrules instead of simply trimming the original cable housing and keeping everything matchy-matchy, the answer is that I wanted to save the original housing in case I decide to put the old derailleur on again for whatever reason.

In any case, my immediate impression of the “new” derailleur was that it was a noticeable improvement over the “old” one, especially when downshifting multiple gears for hills, when I could feel the derailleur’s willingness to move the chain onto the larger cogs. (Though I wouldn’t dismiss the derailleur’s shorter cage as a factor in making it feel more crisp overall than the one it replaced.) There’s also a logic to the movement of the bar-end shifters with the low-normal derailleur in that, regardless of whether you’re shifting the front or rear, you pull up in order to upshift and you push down in order to downshift–and the mechanics that doing so make ergonomic sense in that when you need a lower gear in the back it’s nice to just nudge the shifter down with your palm. (By the same token when you crest the hill it’s easy to just pull up on the levers until they stop so you’re in top gear for the descent.)

As far as getting used to the new shifting configuration, I’d put it somewhere between the difference going from Campy to Shimano (or vice versa) and going from left-front braking to right-front braking. While the symmetrical configuration is appealingly simple, I’ve installed enough shifters and derailleurs that when I shift I’m subconsciously aware of the mechanics of pulling and releasing a cable, and that by pulling on a downtube shifter or pushing the longer lever on an integrated shifter or pulling up on a bar-end shifter I’m basically hoisting the chain onto a larger cog, and it’s this awareness that informs what I’m doing. Meanwhile, the low-normal forces me to forget on that and to instead remember that “up=upshift” and “down=downshift” regardless of which shifter I’m using. This dumbed-down approach takes some getting used to, but as of this morning I’m now pretty much doing it without thinking about it.

So overall, I’d say the low-normal derailleur pairs very well with bar-end friction shifters, and I can see why Rivendell wants to go that way with their own derailleur project. (Then again, since taking delivery of the A. Homer Hilsen I’ve succumbed fully to the Cult of Rivendell and admit I may no longer be fully capable of independent thought.) Also, it looks a little better than the black Deore derailleur that was originally on there, and isn’t that what really matters?

Of course it is.

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