Posted by : 12.15.2012 IN Culture

“Things are moving fast.”

Really?  With those words, or even the very thought, we huddle in a concrete fallout shelter and wait for the Understatement Police with their burrowing robot badgers, zip-tie handcuffs and brain erasers to come calling.

Truth is, things are hauling ass.  A tide of digits and bits and bytes with dangerous undercurrent is chewing up the beach.  Red flags are flying.  The lifeguards have gone home to watch “Baywatch” on VHS.  Why not?  At least you can rewind.  That’s a unique feature that doesn’t come with life.

Well, aren’t we all yearning for someone who can turn on a little stopping power?”   Firesign Theater

Do it.  Kick back on the pedals, throw your hips and lay a mean brodie.  Make a mark.  Lay some rubber.  This ain’t graphical user interface.  This ain’t MP3.  It’s ancient mechanical physics from the Dead Era.

You probably have one.  A bicycle.  The first known drawings of such a device are said to date back to the 15th Century.  By the 1800s, these contraptions were rolling in numbers, taken up by early adopters of avant-garde technology – like your “green” neighbors with a Prius and an Apple sticker on the rear window.

The world was rolling, but it wasn’t stopping real well.

There were only a few ways to bring a bicycle to a halt.  On a direct drive bicycle, one could resist forward momentum by slowing the pedals.  Good creepin’ luck on a hill.  On other models, riders could drag their feet, or place a foot between the wheel and the frame of the bicycle – simple, but sometimes fatal.  Later, there were friction brakes — metal plates or rubber rollers that pressed against the tire itself to slow it down.  Simplicity rules, but it can take a lot of time and distance to (maybe) stop.

Then, in the 1890s, some nerd had a brain spark and invented the first Coaster Brake.  In essence, it is a rear hub that allows free coasting – an improvement over direct-drive – and braking by simply pedaling backwards.  Beautiful!

Inform thyself in depth.

For over a century, this has been the most popular method of slowing and stopping a bicycle.  From kiddie bikes to beach cruisers to choppers to single-speed all-terrain bikes, the Coaster Brake Hub has remained central, effective and elegant.

There have been many types, variations and manufacturers.  Primary among them are Bendix, Morrow, Mussleman, New Departure, Sturmey-Archer and others.  Eventually, most went the way of the martini shaker.   Lost to time and “technological improvements.”

In the New Millennium, we are left with a Shimano “copy” of the original Bendix design, (a poor imitation of the original), and the “no name” hubs of Chinese origin, along with a few high-end, limited application variants like the Shimano Nexus.

Oh, and one other: Velosteel.

This unique little gem is based on a Fichtel & Sachs design that dates back to 1903: the Torpedo.  Fichtel & Sachs, a German company, is widely thought to be the first manufacturer of freewheel hubs, beginning in 1897.  Single-speed and multi-speed coasters followed.  Their hubs were well thought of from the beginning and certain models are still coveted by collectors and bike builders around the globe.

In WWII, the United States Air Force bombed the greasy hell out of the city of Schweinfurt, home to Fichtel Sachs and the German bearing industry, an essential part of Hitler’s war machine.  The fog of war clouds historical accounts, but it seems the Fichtel Sachs machinery was relocated to Reichenbach where it was secured after the war by Allied troops.  When they finished drawing the lines, the production machinery and the technology became the property of the Soviet Union (remember them?) and eventually East Germany (remember them?).

One way or the other, this hub has been in near constant production since its invention, surviving two World Wars, the Nazis, the Soviets and the derailleur.

Today: Velosteel, from the Czech Republic. Constructed of a forged steel hub shell with a beefy roller drive clutch, the Velosteel is bad ass.  It may not be the equal of a pre-war Morrow or New Departure – or even the earlier Torpedo hubs with the brass brake shoes – but it’s as wicked as they come, fresh off the shelf, in the last fifty years or so.

There is a catch.  The Velosteel coaster brake hub is not widely available in the United States.  In fact, it’s easier to locate a schematic diagram of a nuclear device. However, there is at least one keeper of the flame: Guy Doss at Elegant Wheels.

Each hub is disassembled, inspected, greased and reassembled to be the best that it can be.  According to Mr. Doss, (clearly a visionary and Renaissance Man), this extra step sets his product apart from similar hubs sourced elsewhere.  A basic Velosteel coaster brake hub from Elegant Wheels is about $45 including shipping.  He is very keen to point out that all bicycles equipped with his hubs, (indeed, all bikes period), should be equipped with front brakes…

Right.  And wear a helmet in the shower.

The rear hubs of two of the author’s dystopic, post-apocalyptic cruisers will soon be replaced with the Velosteel hubs offered by Elegant Wheels.  The aging Shimano-sourced hubs currently in use fall far short of the performance and durability required for survival in the Dead Era.

Technology of the 19th Century can inform our applications in the 21st.

Analog Uber Alles!   Kick back and fight back.  Bring the madness to a skidding stop before we’re a chalk outline on the digital sidewalk.



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