Sturmey Archer 3-speed hub cutaway

I love my Sturmey-Archer. It’s maybe the single most reliable mechanical thing I own. I am an unabashed proponent of internally-geared hubs. Alongside a dedicated cycling infrastructure, I think internally-geared hubs and chaincases are the two keys to getting more people to cycle regularly. I say that because I know people in this country don’t want to tinker with their transportation. About the only maintenance we do to our cars is fill them with gas. Tire pressure and oil changes are a very distant second, so why would anyone expect that we would want to deal with a misaligned derailleur?

So when Grant Petersen wrote a post about internally-geared hubs, which I have never seen him mention before, I took notice.

(An aside on Petersen, for those who aren’t familiar with him: He was a designer and director at Bridgestone for many years in the ’80s and ’90s, pushing in opposition to every trend in cycling in favor of what was simple, useful and time-tested. Many of the frames they produced during his tenure are still highly regarded; a good friend and neighbor of mine rides his every year. After he left Bridgestone, he started Rivendell, which does a lot of what he did at Bridgestone, only without the corporate interference. They have been around since 1994, which is an incredible feat for a niche bicycle maker and a testament to Petersen’s business skills and vision. He’ll even personally reply to your ill-informed emails about the bikes they make, like he did to mine years ago. Not to mention that rarely a week goes by when they aren’t donating some portion of their profits to charities like the Smile Train and the Fistula Foundation. They are all around good people. I bought my road bike from them. I am getting way off track.)

What did he say? He prefers a derailleur to an internally-geared hub because if it breaks, he can fix it. He doesn’t agree that having exposed mechanicals necessarily means they will get gunked up and fail. He hasn’t had an Amsterdammer show him how to fix a flat without taking off the wheel (he didn’t say that). He doesn’t write the hubs off for what they are, and while it isn’t in their best business interest to do a bike around one of these things, they haven’t ruled it out entirely.

I think that’s a perfectly fine place to be on internally-geared hubs—basically preferring what you know—but what I don’t understand is this fear of catastrophic hub failure. You can see it in the two reader emails he appended as post scripts as well. Is it really true that these things are such delicate flowers?

My experience with my Raleigh says that the reason the woman in Portland isn’t seeing many Sturmey-Archers in her shop is because they so rarely fail. I have left mine in the rain and snow and cold for eight years and I have never brought it in for repair. Who knows what it was doing for the twenty-five years before that. That is a singular experience, of course, but I would also wager that if a bike in the Netherlands isn’t single-speed, it’s got an internally-geared hub, and it isn’t coming in from the weather, ever. I don’t believe the Dutch have ever trended away from hubs and chaincases and they have the world’s most dedicated cycling population, so if it’s working there, it works.

The point I want to get to is if people are going to ride in much bigger numbers here than they do presently, they are not going to care if a derailleur is more straightforward than an internally-geared hub. They’re not going to want to touch either. So get the hub. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Shimanos don’t last. What would you rather do? Wrestle a greasy chain every few weeks or never have to think about your drivetrain for three or four solid years until you have to take your bike to a shop?

2 Responses to “Inside”

  1. Excellent Blog.

    I doubt you will ever find a hub as dependable as the old Sturmey Archer AW 3speed. Yes they have a few issues, but what bicycle drive train doesn’t? I have one hub that has over 15,000 documented miles and probably that many more undocumented. I tore it down recently I replaced the pawl springs…period! The pawls did show a bit of wear, but it has been oiled regularly when it was in my possession, not so much when my brother had it, hence the tear down.

    I really wonder about the newest generation of hubs that don’t have the ability to add oil as needed.


    • 2 Matt

      Thank you! I can’t speak to the newer hubs either, but the Shimanos are out there in increasing numbers these days, so it’s only a matter of time before we all find out whether they hold up as well for the duration. I’ll take my Sturmey Archer to my grave, though.

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