So I’ve never really been a fan of hub gears. My earliest encounters were with Sturmey Archer 3 speeds. My mum’s Raleigh Twenty had one which would, when you least expected it, drop out of second into neutral until the pain in my groin eventually prompted me to learn how to adjust it. When I started into the trade the only bikes which featured them were those at the utilitarian end of the shop. They made sense on Bromptons, which were then very few and far between, and other folders, shoppers and roadsters. But I was into Mountain Bikes and Road Bikes and Human Powered Vehicles, and competition and lightness. So the inability to remove and replace a wheel in a few minutes was, and remained, my #1 objection to internal hub gears.
And this is still my main objection. I believe that working on bikes should be as easy and straightforward as possible. Removing the rear wheel from a derailleur bike is a matter of unhooking the brakes, opening up the quick release lever and banging it out. An experienced mechanic can do it in the time than it took to read that last sentence. The removal of a hub-gear equipped wheel on the other hand requires spanners. And a great deal more time. Add in the complexity of the stuff which often accompanies a hub-gear such as hub brakes, a fully enclosed chain case, chain-tugs, skirt guards and a job which might take five minutes on a derallieur bike can stretch to half a morning. Dutch cycle mechanics often replace a rear tube without touching the RH side of the wheel – by bending the frame away far enough to get the old tube out and the new one in. There’s even a tool for it. But it’s not a technique that many UK mechanics are familiar with.
So I’ve always avoided them. But I’ve had my coaster equipped one speed cruiser for a while – which has no quick releases. Then my Africa bike came along with a 1 spd coaster which I swapped out for a 3 spd to save my knees – so step by step I found myself the proud owner of a hub geared bike. It kinda snuck up on me.
My big objection – the time it takes to replace a tube – has been rendered irrelevant by modern technology. I now run puncture ‘proof’ tyres on all my bikes and augment their abilities with a dose of Stan’s No Tubes sealant. So I never get punctures. So I rarely need to remove a wheel. So there. Objection over-ruled.
Her Indoors has a tandem equipped with the awesome and legendary Rohloff 14 spd hub, which is faultless in operation. Pictured here > With all the engineering precision of a Swiss watch, it’s impossible – even for a died-in-the-wool de-railer head like me – not to be impressed.
And then I got to test riding a prototype Nijland Cargo/Kids Box trike with a new Sturmey Archer 5 spd. Get this: it’s a 5 spd in the usual way, controlled by a Grip Shift style rotating shifter. And it has a coaster brake. Oh, and it has reverse. Reverse! There are few applications for such a hub so hats off to SA for making it. What a difference a backwards gear makes when manoeuvring a big rig like the Nijland trike. Three-point turns become second nature. It makes life so much easier. No more jumping off to push it to and fro in a tight spot. Just pedal backwards and backwards it goes. Magic. I think it’ll become the #1 hub for makers of cargo trikes.
So that was awesome.
Then we got our new family vee-hicle, the big blue bakfeits you’ve seen on these pages. Which came fitted with its original Shimano Nexus 4. I mentioned before how much use and abuse this machine has shrugged off, so credit must go to the humble Nexus which hasn’t skipped a beat in all that time. I ran it for a week or so until the NuVinci was ready and, frankly, it made me wonder why I was changing it. Four speeds doesn’t sound like enough for a bike weighing as much as my granny in her nighty. But it worked. It didn’t have a very low low, or a very high high but those four gears did the job.
And so, with the installation of the awesome lump of technology that is the Fallbrook Industries NuVinci CVT I’m kind of surprised to find myself on the other side of the fence as a fully fledged convert to hub gears. My objection – that it takes an age to swap a rear wheel – has been countered by the near total elimination of the need to replace a wheel by advances in tyre puncture resistance technology.
And what a hub it is. OMG as they say. As Rob did rote about in his recent review The NuVinci is a stepless, or continuously variable, transmission. There are no ‘gears’ but a range of ratios with no steps. Imagine the gears on your current bike as a flight of stairs – 3/7/21/30 – however many, and you change from one gear, or step, to the other in a jump. The NuVinci is a slope. Where your top and bottom gears are separated by a number of steps the NuVinci has no increments. It has infinity number of gears.
The manufacturers of regular bicycle transmissions work very hard to provide as many gears as they can and to make the shifting between those gears as smooth as possible, but there are always steps. Which means that an awful lot of the time you are in a gear which is less than optimal. Such a feeling is most noticable when pedaling a bike with three gears, when you’ve pedalled the bike up to speed and now find yourself riding just a bit too fast for second to be comfortable and not quite fast enough to want to shift into third. I’ve had this article in mind for a couple of weeks now and so i’ve been concentrating pretty hard on how the NV hub works in the real world, how it feels through the pedals. What I’ve discovered is that I change ‘gear’ almost constantly. A change of tack into the wind, a slight rise or drop in the road and I shift to compensate. On a second by second basis I can be in the optimal ratio for the conditions. Really amazing. I sometimes shift between one leg stroke and the next!
It’s not until you ride one of these hubs for a bit that you really get your head around the thing. I’m sure that this is the path down which we will find an effective automatic transmission. I also think it will work extremely well when combined with electric assist, and probably on Down Hill bikes too. In fact it’s so easy to use I think it would be perfect for ‘everyday’ bikes, for the kind of people who don’t want to think about gears at all.
I don’t think the industry has embraced this hub as well as it might. This is a system which is efficient, easy to use and bombproof. I suspect that they are deeply suspicious of it. Perhaps because it’s not made by SRAM or Sturmey or Shimano it’s out of the industries’ comfort zone. Who knows?
But my god, this is the future.
My only grumbles are that it weighs half a ton (though, to be fair, modern versions are lighter) and occasionally, after a second or two of free-wheeling it has a funny habit of dropping into ‘neutral’.
Oh well. Some things never change!
I am very grateful to Warlands Cycles of Oxford for the supply of the hub
and to Cycle heaven of York for building it into a wheel.