Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

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Carlton green
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Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Carlton green » 24 May 2020, 11:02am

Whilst out for my early morning jaunt (two hour) around the local lanes and tracks my thoughts turned to how well suited the humble - and often over looked - three speed AW is for that type of cycling. Over the ‘lock down’ my AW has been in use almost every day and it has been a joy to use ... but before the joy there were some mechanical and mental adjustments to be made. The later sections of this thread describe some of those adjustments: viewtopic.php?f=16&t=134797&p=1478612#p1478612

I don’t want to get into the hub gear versus derailleur gear debate and recognise that each have their pros and cons. In the case of the AW I’ve learnt to embrace both its pros and cons and to just work with what I have, get on with using it and then enjoy. That said I’ve thought long and hard about how to get the best out of the hub and then implemented my ideas for the results that I wanted.

Saying what’s good about the AW is easy, but what could possibly be bad about the AW? Well just three speeds sees you both limited in gear range and often not in the ‘perfect’ gear ratio at any particular point on your ride. However, when all is said and done, in practice it isn’t difficult to live with those limitations and you can still make more than adequate progress on your journey. I accept going slower and walking up some hills as a price well worth paying for the other things that the AW offers me over a derailleur gear, to get the benefits one has to embrace the limitations.

Benefits from embracing the AW and accepting its limitations? Yes, there are plenty of benefits and their form is also diverse. One benefit that is a less obvious than others is strengthening of the rider, it might be a little bit more work using an AW but as I’ve found that’s also preparation and exercise ready for doing other things more easily. I’d be glad to hear how other people have got on with their AW’s, how they have got the best out of them and how they have adjusted how they cycle to accommodate the limitations of the simple three speed.

John Holiday
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby John Holiday » 24 May 2020, 2:41pm

Have always thought that the humble three speed hub had a lot of merits. I have several on veteran bikes, a hundred years old and still working well.
Often think when doing Bikeability that childrens' bikes would be better with hub gears, to withstand neglect & abuse. Often spend time trying to straighten bent hangers before a session.
Also have a couple of Rholoffs, but that's another discussion!

Mike Sales
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Mike Sales » 24 May 2020, 2:50pm

John Holiday wrote:Have always thought that the humble three speed hub had a lot of merits. I have several on veteran bikes, a hundred years old and still working well.
Often think when doing Bikeability that childrens' bikes would be better with hub gears, to withstand neglect & abuse. Often spend time trying to straighten bent hangers before a session.
Also have a couple of Rholoffs, but that's another discussion!


I suspect that you are right, but the cable/hub connection is vulnerable on SA hubs, and on others I expect. Adjustment often gives problems too, like groin to top tube impacts. Neglect and abuse are always a problem. I see many childrens' bikes with faulty brakes. Perhaps a fixed is the most child proof?

Sid Aluminium
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Sid Aluminium » 24 May 2020, 4:11pm

In 1936, the bachelor Edward VIII was on the throne of England, they raced single-speed bicycles in the Tour de France, Howard Hughes set a new North American transcontinental airspeed record of 9 hours and 27 minutes, the Olympics were held in Berlin and the last known Tasmanian tiger died. Oh, and Sturmey-Archer introduced the AW three-speed hub.

The AW is easily the most complicated bit of cycling kit still available over such a long time period. Contemporary derailleurs were the Super Champion and Cyclo three- and four-speeds. Imagine: the Huret Allvit derailleur was still twenty years into the future. Reynolds had only introduced 531 the year before.

The AW entered the world unheralded. The K 3-speed remained in production through 1938, when the revolutionary FW and FM four speeds were introduced. Sturmey’s big news during the era was their sporting hubs: the close-ratio three speeds and TC fixed gear used in time trialing and setting point to point records. The AW was for the low-cost utility bike market of the depressed economic times of the mid-1930s, and S-A didn’t waste advertising dollars on it.

The classic AW has been criticized for being a decontented, low-cost K. This was, unsurprisingly, exactly what it was supposed to be. It was always just supposed to be ‘good enough’ and was considered so unremarkable by its manufacturer that to this day its introduction is not listed in the company’s milestones. Sturmey-Archer did not mention much less celebrate the AW’s diamond jubilee.

Why then, has the AW lasted 85 years and been produced in the tens of millions of units? The AW retains a distillation of the important points of the bicycle drivetrain: a reasonable compromise of gear steps and total range, low maintenance, ease of use and robust operation. The AW is not the ultimate gear hub, but rather ultimately the good-enough gear hub. It’s one of those things every classic bike fan should have an example of. Old ones are inexpensive and new ones are still available from the manufacturer.

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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Sid Aluminium » 24 May 2020, 4:35pm

1937 will be remembered by gear-head cycle historians as the summer the derailleur made a belated return to the Tour de France after a 25-year absence. While derailleurs ruled in France, across the Channel there was a completely different type of multi-gearing system that had been in use for over 40 years. These two approaches to multi-gearing had a unique meeting in the same competitions under the same rules just before WWII, with results that will surprise modern riders.

Unlike France, in the UK there was little massed start racing in those days. Cycle sport was by-and-large time trialing and point-to-point records, and because of its length and variation of terrain and weather, the Land’s End to John O’Groats record was the ne plus ultra event. Cyclists began tackling the big ride in the 1880s, and the Road Record Association was formed in 1888 to lay down rules for comparison and to document results. The RRA’s rules contained little in the way of equipment limitations.

Fast-forward to the 1930s and a dynamic time in UK cycling. Time/distance and point-to-point records, long the domain of athletic competition, proved to be an excellent vehicle for commercial promotion. The derailleur had been re-introduced after spending some 30 years exiled in France and was challenging the ubiquitous Sturmey-Archer internal-gear hub for the enthusiasts’ market. Derailleur importers, utilizing the services of some of the best Commonwealth riders, began to have records set using their equipment. When world-famous Australian Hubert “Oppy” Opperman took the End-to-End record using a four-speed Cyclo derailleur in 1935 it was the final straw for the men in Nottingham.

Jared Diamond has written about having just the right amount of competition for progress. Sturmey-Archer experienced less-than-optimum competition since the Great War, and these imported derailleurs prompted them to begin to innovate for the first time in over a decade. It also prompted parent company Raleigh to assemble a team of top British cyclists to test, prove – and market - these innovations on the road.

In 1936 Raleigh retained Charlie Holland, who had ridden on the U.K. Olympic team in Los Angeles and Berlin, to ride for them. They were rewarded when he won the inaugural massed start Isle of Man International Road Race on a Raleigh bike with Sturmey-Archer gears. In 1937 Holland moved on to the continent and was the first British rider in the Tour de France (using that year’s famous derailleurs, and with a result of DNF-mechanical). Back home, the torch was passed to Sid Ferris. While some of Raleigh’s other long-distance men had used a medium-range or even a wide range hub, Sid rode across the hills, moors and highlands using S-A’s new ultra-narrow range (+7.2%, -6.8%) AR three-speed. During the long summer days of 1937 he toppled all the RRA’s premier records recently set on derailleur machines: Edinburgh-London, 24hrs, 1000 miles. That July he rode the 870 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 54 ½ hours*, besting Oppy’s mark by two and a half hours and setting a record that would stand for a remarkable 21 more years.

While other riders would continue to race time trials and set time/distance records using internal-gear hubs into the 1960s, Ferris’ ride would be the last time a rider using Sturmey-Archer gears would lower the End-to-End record. With WWII, the curtain came down on Sturmey-Archer’s most impressive period of innovation, and their failure afterward to keep pace with the ever-evolving derailleur would result in history being rewritten and the remarkable competition of the 1930s to be forgotten. Of all the records set using that company’s hub gears in the 1930s only Tommy Godwin’s year mileage total (75,056 miles on a Raleigh bicycle with S-A AF hub, 1939, besting Ossie Nicholson’s 62,657 miles on a Cyclo derailleur equipped Malvern Star, 1937) seems to be remembered these days.

*16.0mph average. For reference, Hubert Opperman won the 726 mile 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris at a 14.7mph average.

John Holiday
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby John Holiday » 24 May 2020, 4:51pm

Thanks for the history lesson S I!

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simonineaston
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby simonineaston » 24 May 2020, 6:14pm

Whilst out for my early morning jaunt (two hour) around the local lanes and tracks my thoughts turned to how well suited the humble - and often over looked - three speed AW is for that type of cycling.
One nibble and you're nobbled... :wink: Now, how 'bout trying an FW? Three gears good, four gears better! The xtra gear is low, too, which is most commonly what one needs. There's a modicum of pain to be got over, regarding the careful adjustment of the right cable, before you can have confidence in gears occuring when you expect them to, but once that's sorted, That's A Bingo!
byyeee,
SiE

Carlton green
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Carlton green » 24 May 2020, 7:04pm

simonineaston wrote:
Whilst out for my early morning jaunt (two hour) around the local lanes and tracks my thoughts turned to how well suited the humble - and often over looked - three speed AW is for that type of cycling.
One nibble and you're nobbled... :wink: Now, how 'bout trying an FW? Three gears good, four gears better! The xtra gear is low, too, which is most commonly what one needs. There's a modicum of pain to be got over, regarding the careful adjustment of the right cable, before you can have confidence in gears occuring when you expect them to, but once that's sorted, That's A Bingo!


Suddenly I feel like I’m being tempted to the dark side. I don’t doubt that the FW is in some ways ‘better’ than the AW and if an FW happened to come my way then I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. However the AW’s are both pretty ‘bullet proof’ and do do the job whilst some other SA hubs have a less positive reputation and parts for them can be either hard to come buy or just no longer available. Think I’ll stick with three speeds, embrace the AW’s limitations and enjoy its simplicity, reliability and easy spare parts supply.
Last edited by Carlton green on 24 May 2020, 8:00pm, edited 1 time in total.

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simonineaston
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby simonineaston » 24 May 2020, 7:57pm

I’m being tempted
No, I'm not tempting you - you're still in control ;-)
I'm used to the FW via my interest in vintage Moultons, which (mostly) came fitted with FWs. Nearly all FWs I've come across are over half a century old and still work (although that indexed cable adjustment I referred to is key...). That is a trick that few "disraeli gears" can pull off. Happy Hub Gearing!
byyeee,
SiE

lbomaak2
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby lbomaak2 » 24 May 2020, 10:26pm

I grew up with Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs. I only learned to cycle at the age of 10, when I was given my first bike, a rather heavy one with a SA 3-speed. But I must have liked it, because when i bought my first new bike (aged 15), it was a Triumph Roadster with a SA 3-speed. I soon started touring on that bike, including many of the hilliest areas of Britain and Ireland, as well as the Jura and Vosges in France. I just accepted that I would need to walk up anything steeper than about 1 in 8.

By the time I decided to buy my first "proper touring bike", my parents had moved to near Southend, where there was a frame builder called Alf Hetchins who was highly recommended (!). Alf was a little surprised when I specified a SA 5-speed hub for my new bike, but that is what I got. But in contrast to the great reliability of the 3-speed, the 5-speed hub gave me endless trouble, and within 3 years had been replaced with a Sachs 5-speed. Both the Hetchins and my newer Longstaff now have SRAM 7-speed hubs.

I am pretty sure that riding everywhere with a 3-speed in the early days did strengthen my legs, especially since in my teenage years I thought that I should go everywhere (including uphill) in the highest gear possible! But my main reason for sticking with hub gears is because of my mechanical incompetence.

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simonineaston
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby simonineaston » 24 May 2020, 10:48pm

my main reason for sticking with hub gears is because of my mechanical incompetence.
Perfect reason - well done, you :D
I've been a dedicated hub gear fan for donks and can be readily tempted into disparaging wot I condesendingly refer to as disraeli gears. Not because they're no good - in the right circumstances, they are brilliant! But... in the main, they're designed down to a price, cleverly mass-marketed, poorly understood, operated and maintained & when they do work, don't last long. In short, as far as the makers are concerned, they are the gift that keeps on giving. For the bulk of utility, commuter and recreational cyclists, hub gears are a far better bet.
byyeee,
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millimole
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby millimole » 25 May 2020, 7:31am

lbomaak2 wrote:By the time I decided to buy my first "proper touring bike", my parents had moved to near Southend, where there was a frame builder called Alf Hetchins who was highly recommended (!). Alf was a little surprised when I specified a SA 5-speed hub for my new bike, but that is what I got.
.

My Tottenham 1946 Hetchins was specified with a three speed hub, albeit a TCW,. It was built for the man I bought it from who only had one hand. I bought it in 1971 and still occasionally ride the machine, it now has an AW hub.
Leicester; Riding my Hetchins since 1971; Audaxing on my Dawes; Riding to work on a Decathlon Hoprider

Stradageek
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Stradageek » 25 May 2020, 8:14am

My shopping and cargo bikes both have SA 3-speed hubs. Compared to my other more svelte machines these two work horses require almost no maintenance.

Enough said :D

Carlton green
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby Carlton green » 25 May 2020, 8:44am

lbomaak2 wrote:I grew up with Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hubs. I only learned to cycle at the age of 10, when I was given my first bike, a rather heavy one with a SA 3-speed. But I must have liked it, because when i bought my first new bike (aged 15), it was a Triumph Roadster with a SA 3-speed. I soon started touring on that bike, including many of the hilliest areas of Britain and Ireland, as well as the Jura and Vosges in France. I just accepted that I would need to walk up anything steeper than about 1 in 8.


I suspect that yours was a fairly common experience of cycling. From what I’ve experienced with the AW you can go pretty much anywhere and particularly so once one gets one’s head around walking up the occasional hill - or even just parts of it. Embracing the pragmatic need to occasionally walk has been both mentally liberating and good for the body too (the short walk uses different muscles and gives your saddle bones a rest).

lbomaak2 wrote:By the time I decided to buy my first "proper touring bike", my parents had moved to near Southend, where there was a frame builder called Alf Hetchins who was highly recommended (!). Alf was a little surprised when I specified a SA 5-speed hub for my new bike, but that is what I got. But in contrast to the great reliability of the 3-speed, the 5-speed hub gave me endless trouble, and within 3 years had been replaced with a Sachs 5-speed. Both the Hetchins and my newer Longstaff now have SRAM 7-speed hubs.


I too had a five speed Sturmey and like many other people mine gave me nothing but bother. The Sach five speed is the gear that SA should have made, I used a Sach P5 until recently and only retired it because of questions over spare parts availability - later I discovered that if you or a good pal speak German then spare parts supply isn’t that much of an issue ...

lbomaak2 wrote:I am pretty sure that riding everywhere with a 3-speed in the early days did strengthen my legs, especially since in my teenage years I thought that I should go everywhere (including uphill) in the highest gear possible! But my main reason for sticking with hub gears is because of my mechanical incompetence.


Ah, the strength of youth and the ignorance of it too. If you’re fit and expect to manage the journey then you will and not be too fussed about how much ‘better’ it could be done by any alternative. I’ve used my spanners a lot and enjoy cycle maintenance but there’s also a joy in the fit and forget nature of the AW. It might take a bit longer to complete a journey on an AW but the later cleaning, adjusting and repairing of the ‘time saving’ alternatives can sometimes end up costing you much more than you ‘saved’. For those that aren’t so happy with using spanners then the robust fit and forget nature of the AW is, I think, ideal.

lbomaak2
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Re: Sturmey Archer, Embracing the Three Speed AW Hub Gear

Postby lbomaak2 » 25 May 2020, 3:24pm

This thread has reminded me of the Tin Can Ten, for which I have just found the website: http://bikejumbles.co.uk/tincanten/index.html . I had to look in the results pages to ascertain that I had participated twice, with a DNF in 1992 and a reasonable time (for me) in 1996. [The only competitive cycling that I have ever done was very occasional appearances at the Loughborough Phoenix Wednesday evening time trials, and these two Tin Can Tens over the same course.]

It appears from the website that the Tin Can Ten was last held in 2017. Does anyone know more about this?