I hated the underlying concept, and still do. Shimano announced Rapidfire in a triumphant video that they sent out to shops before the 1990 season. We watched our copy in horror, anticipating in full detail the hell that it would unleash on mechanics and riders. We could do nothing to stop it, despite my best subversive efforts. It included the admonition that there was nothing we could fix inside these pods, so don't even try. Word in the cycling press was that intrepid mechanics had disassembled brand new units and reassembled them exactly as they had been, and they mysteriously failed to function. Whether this was true or was disinformation planted by Shimano I never found out. It implied that there was some magic Shinto pixie dust inside these units that would fall out if barbarians profaned the interior.
I plastered these cartoons all over Interbike's Philadelphia show for a couple of years:
It was, of course, to no avail. The technofascists won, leading the technolemmings off of cliff after cliff. But I digress.
The 1991 pod clicks solidly into gear as soon as you flush out the pus that they used for grease. It congeals into a substance we call earwax. My colleague Ralph came up with that one. He was an excellent wrench who was smart enough to get out of the business. It's been bad for his waistline, but probably good for his bottom line, to pursue his interest in computers instead of the 19th Century technology of the bicycle, dolled up with 21st Century materials as it is today.
When hackers and their malware finally make the Internet untenable, bicycles will be waiting to receive the refugees of the Digital Age.
Back to the pod from '91: it felt weird to have so few clicks. I've had to clean out many later versions, chasing more gears, so an original six-speed feels very short. But the wider spacing with fewer stops provides more margin for error. Cable tension has to be relatively accurate, but not neurosurgically precise.
Within a couple of years, the Japanese Buggernaut had enclosed the pods more completely and nearly doubled the number of parts inside. This made them less vulnerable to invading grit and mud, and generally more reliable. It also concealed the insidious activities of earwax under a Darth Vader-like black mask.
Honestly, how did any of us survive the 1970s and '80s on the paleolithic crap we had to ride? In his book, Four Against the Arctic, author David Roberts told the story of four Russian hunters in the 18th Century who survived on an island near Svalbard for six years before being rescued. He and other members of his research team observed that people from a later time, less inured to routine hardship, probably would not have survived. Indeed, look how many perished on Arctic exploration trips when their technological cocoon ripped, dumping them into the elements where Inuit survived and thrived.
We're not Arctic explorers, but we are certainly allowing ourselves to be increasingly isolated and softened by accepting more and more technological intermediaries between us and the realities of the tasks we choose to tackle. Some of these can enhance safety and functionality, but an awful lot, particularly in cycling, pander to riders in search of marginal gains at more than marginal increases in cost, and drive perfectly functional older stuff underground.
Would I miss my outlaw bravado if the stuff I use was totally mainstream? Against what would I rebel in Biketopia, with beautiful routes and intermodal interfaces everywhere? Why don't we build it and find out?