For as long as I’ve been riding, I’ve been fascinated by the utter simplicity of the bicycle drivetrain. The ability to transform the circular motion of two legs pedaling into a mode of transportation so efficient that it can be up to five times as fast as walking just amazed me.
Fast forward about thirty five years or so, and I’m still pretty fascinated by bicycle drivetrains. But they’ve gone way beyond anything I could have imagined as a child. Sure, we had Sturmey Archer three speeds. But that can’t compare to their new eight speed hub, or the Shimano Nexus and Alfine hubs, or the incredible Rohloff fourteen speed. When the NuVinci CVP came out, I was actually shocked that they could produce such a compact and efficient planetary drive hub. Naturally, I was keen to give one a try.
At the Interbike 2009 outdoor demo, I got to talking with the NuVinci folks, and they just happened to have a bike that I had written about (in the interview with Tony Ellsworth) earlier, the Ellsworth RIDE. For anyone not familiar with the RIDE, it’s a premium beach cruiser-style bike with a ridiculous amount of technology in materials, design, and construction. And it’s got the NuVinci hub, which offers a 400:1 gear range that is completely stepless. No clicks, no changing chainline, just stepless ratios from a low range that makes easy work of hills to a high gear that I didn’t have room to test out.
So here’s my moment of truth. I had just driven almost 450 miles on about 5 hours sleep, it had to be close to 100 degrees, and a hot dog, bratwurst, and Fat Tire ale were settling uneasily in my stomach. If that’s not the perfect conditions for a test ride, I don’t know what is. So I handed them my trusty, dusty DSLR, and threw a tired leg over the saddle.
The first thing you notice is that the shifter is kind of an interesting twist grip, more like a throttle. Push forward for a lower ratio, pull back for a higher one. As I rolled away, I noticed an odd sensation – nothing. No noise, no drivetrain slap, no lag. It wasn’t like a derailleur setup, or a single speed. It was nothing but smooth and quiet. Being an avid motorcycle rider, the “twist to go faster” concept is totally subconscious. I didn’t realize at first that I was able to maintain a steady cadence regardless of the speed I was traveling, until I made a conscious effort to peek at the shifter and note the position of the little reddish rubber band-like indicator. Without any specific chainring/cog combinations to worry about, it was a breeze to just roll on or off the shifter a bit to find the perfect ratio.
While my ride on the RIDE didn’t last more than twenty minutes, I was sold. For a recreational bike, cruiser, or even a non-competitive road or MTB, the simplicity and smoothness of the NuVinci CVP would be hard to beat. As they increase in popularity, and cost comes down, I hope to see them on more and more bikes, particularly one of my own. My inner five year-old looks forward to it.
Here’s a cutaway shot, for the technical bike geeks among us.