The Sturmey S3X Internal fixed hub
The Sturmey S3X was launched five years back to great fanfare and mixed reviews. I brought one quite soon after release but did not get it running till this year. Now I have run it on a bike for a month or so, I am ready to share my opinion. This is not a technical article. For that I recommend you read this briefing.
The origin of the modern Sturmey is the an obscure product that had reached legendary status, the Sturmey Archer ASC. This was a product of the immediate post war period and hit the market in 1946, just as the post war cycling boom was getting going in the United Kingdom.
Now I think you have to understand this context to really know what the modern Sturmey incarnation is about. People would still be living with rationing then, and a bike with multi speed gearing (invariably some kind of Sturmey Archer) was very desirable. As most of us are raised in the period where three speed hubs are relegated to shopper bikes it is perhaps difficult to imagine a sturmey hub as a performance product fitted to high end sport machines, but it was back then. For those who couldn’t afford gears, there was always fixed. Fixed remained popular in club cycling activities of the day such as time trialling and club runs. Club rides were regimented affairs (clubmen were often demobbed military after all) and if everybody rode fixed there was less risk of collisions caused by riders suddenly braking.
Finally, with rationing and austerity, a decent bike was a big outlay and the same machine would be used for time trialling, commuting and touring in the summer. Versatility came as standard.
The Sturmey ASC was a niche product, even back in the day, and the number that survived into the modern age was even fewer. I imagine the company would not have really marketed it outside the United Kingdom, so whilst Sturmey products were widely distributed all over the empire the ASC was probably not. So it was after great anticipation that the modern version launched into the height of the fixie boom at the end of the noughties.
The new fixed three speed is not a descendant of the ASC, both of which are in fact modifications of the mainstream hubs of their respective periods. In this instance SA have elected to rejig the five speed to give the three ratios. These ratios are more broadly spaced than the ASC of lore. The hub body is the modern alloy concave-spindle-shape of SA’s other 3 and 5 speed internal hubs. Gear shifting is effected by the distinctive SA selector chain disappearing into the hollow axle. Most stuff you need is included in the box including the cable kit and and gear lever.
Any review of the hub will need to cover the costs involved so here they are in order of cash, mass and complexity this hub will add to the bike.
As a three speed internal hub there the temptation is to compare its price to other three speed internal hubs. You can walk away from a scrappy with a Sturmey AW (with a whole bike attached!) for a couple of quid which will run like new, after you squirt a little three-in-one through the oiling port. But that is when you realise you have turned into one of those folks who remarks they could “buy a car” for what you paid for your bike.
The S3X is based on SA’s current five speed hub so we might compare it with that, since it has parity with the amount of engineering inside the shell. But the 5 speed is still cheaper.
One forum post has in my opinion taken a more pragmatic view of justifying the price. It is noted that a race grade derailleur setup costs many times more than the S3X, will require new chains frequently, and will be totally unserviceable about the time the sturmey cogs are bedding in. But the whole industry is telling you its okay to spend a few hundred pounds to buy professional racing kit, not the case with the internally geared hub.
Weight is covered elsewhere but is equivalent to other internal geared rear hubs.
Complexity is trickier to quantify. If you have a geared road frame with horizontal dropouts then, lucky you. The shifter cable will just drop in. The cable will attach (less elegantly) to frames without braze-ons by means of cable ties. Can you live with the visual clutter of a shifter cable? Only you can answer that. It is worth noting that for this reason the hub would not suit a brakeless track bike aesthetically, so there is no excuse not to run brakes, mudguards and other things that make your life more pleasant.
Having dealt with aesthetic clutter we can look at the kinaesthetic “clutter” imposed by the complexity of gears which is most noticeable in mechanical play through the pedals. Much has been written in various reviews and forum posts about this, authors sometimes referring to the play or slop as something called “lash”. Whether “lash” is a cycling specific term I do not know, but referring to this play as “lash” seems disingenuous and (to me) gives the erroneous impression that the hub accumulates a pulse of energy which is directed back at the rider whereas in fact you are simply hitting the mechanical limit of the arc of play. As we shall see, this play is more or less noticeable depending on whether you are riding in city traffic or on the open road.
The hub might be three speed but the difference that makes a difference is where direct drive resides. Regular three speeds have one set of sun and planet gears, when in bottom and top gear the drive flows in opposite directions through the cogs to step down and up, respectively. The mechanism is simple but the direct drive (where the gears are not rotating and the hub is most efficient) is in the middle gear.
This no doubt served the Sturmey marketers very well, as the gears could be labelled “uphill”, “level ground” and “downhill” respectively. But real life is not like that. When you have only three speeds to play with, Sheldon’s site says you want your top gear to be the level ground (without headwind) gear and then you got two lower gears for getting up the climbs or fighting the headwind. So the S3X should be set up this way.
Regarding the ratios themselves, I feel the wider range relative to the old ASC is appropriate. My first fixed bike ran about 63”, as did that of the very experienced clubman who led the social rides. I now run about 68” on my straight fixed. My S3X by contrast is at around 80” in direct drive with 60” and 50” in the lower ratios and this works well for me in my conditions, so far. I recommend that if you are going from fixed to an S3X equipped rig you too should set your S3X so that your existing ratio would fall somewhere between second and top on your S3X. I must qualify my comments by mentioning I also use the S3X bike for more ambitious leisure riding and trailer lugging, the latter I had not done with my straight fixed.
There are loads of people out there who will rebuild their Sturmey Archer hubs regularly, even before they use them just to be sure they are not riding a Friday afternoon special with no grease! These are the folks who will buy a S3X, so may give the impression that this is de-rigueur. Now it is probably fair to say that the vast majority of Sturmey hubs out there have never been stripped down for a rebuild. Some may have had their bearings regreased, maybe owners have remembered to stick some oil in every year or so. Of course S3X riders are likely to do many more miles than Sturmey AW owners and we should maintain our kit better, but the point is that even neglected hubs generally continue to run. So far the S3X has not been known for reliability issues.
The mechanical play which manifests itself at the pedals is always there if you go looking for it but will not be troubling to the smooth pedaller during normal riding. Exceptions to this are transitions from accelerating to slowing and in the trackstand. And when changing gear. I only find the play becomes intrusive in stop-go environments, for longer trips it faded into the background.
Because the hub is fixed, the gear change requires a bit of sympathy from the rider. The hub is “high-normal” so on the upshifts the cable is being released back into the hub. All you have to do is change gear and the return spring of the gear selector will take care of the change when you ease your pedalling: the slack will ping out the cable and you will feel your cadence reduce. Changing down requires a little more art. For the best results try to pedal within the 5 degree of play whilst you pull the gear selector into the next cog. This can be a lot to think about when you approach a hill and need the lower gear now.
The Sturmey comes with a substantial shifting lever which has mounting hardware to be used as a bar end lever, thumb shifter or on a down-tube boss. The lever is quite meaty and has a nice tactile action, with audible “clicks”, although it is possible to miss the indexing point particularly on the downshift. This can have the unfortunate effect of allowing the hub to find the gap between first and second - even worse it might engage only to drop you into neutral under load. Once subjected to this unpleasant and hazardous experience you will subsequently shift much more carefully!
The need to combine deliberate placement of the chunky shifter with fancy footwork to shift smoothly can be seen as a disadvantages. The silver lining is that this setup encourages you to anticipate the proper gear and stick with it. Like driving an old tractor, you pick the gear you need for the job ahead of you.
One other thing novices to the system will do at least once (just to find out for ourselves that its a bad idea) is to try and decelate quickly by downshifting straight from top to bottom. It is unsettling to spin out like that, and one more reason not to try and ride brakeless with this hub.
I use a cargo trailer to take stuff across town. I have deliberately built my Sturmey equipped bike with towing in mind. Using this hub with the trailer makes a deal of sense: you got the fixed wheel benefit of complete awareness of your speed at all times, which is especially useful when running with the trailer, yet also benefit from gears to get the load moving. The reduced efficiency of the lower ratios are less concerning if you have a draggy trailer to cope with anyway. The above would apply to cargo bikes as well. As more cargo moves around in various types of HPV and bike trailer in cities I envision the S3X becoming a popular gearing choice with the more aggressive delivery rider who can get by with three gears.
I had an opportunity to join a social ride of about 40 miles in rolling Herefordshire countryside. The other participants were generally experienced riders on derailleur equipped road and touring bikes. Conditions were poor and the ride was notable for the amount of loose mud and gravel on the road following recent heavy rains. Combined with the parlous road surface there was need to control speed as riders coped with loose surfaces.
Essentially these were the conditions club runs of the immediate post war period would face. The S3X performed admirably. Hereford is too steep in places for riding any great distance singlespeed so the choice was between this or my derailleur bike. The Sturmey gave confidence in controlling speed and feeling for traction from the loose surfaces underwheel.
With this being the 21st century my riding buddies were not riding fixed of course, so the tightly bunched riding associated with team pursuit on the velodrome was not practical or safe. The author was very aware of continual noises of pads on rims as other riders made speed adjustments. On the Sturmey this fine degree of speed control was mainly handled by pedal braking, saving your pads for when required.
The Sturney S3X is a good design for those who cover longer distances outside the central business district of their home town. Unfortunately it was pigeonholed and reviewed as a “fixie” component as it is really not compatible with the track racer turned streetfighter that is most people's conception of the modern “fixie”. Those who consider the city streets to be an extension of the skatepark and who measure their rides by the number of near misses are likely to be disappointed. It is more of a touring product really, suited for the mature style of rider with a degree of mechanical sympathy. The original Sturmey ASC fixed three speed was a product of the British riding scene of their time. Club runs were fast and went on for miles and this is the market that gave rise to the concept of multi speed fixed. I was a member of a cycling club, the A5 Rangers, whose roots were in the late 1940’s. Maybe the exposure to this club made it inevitable I would “got it” right away. The mechanical play inevitable in this system detracts from the kinaesthetic purity of a true fixed and may be a deal breaker for some, although I find it only intrusive in stop-go environments.
Sturmey combines their brand heritage and clever engineering in this product. Which makes it representative of what we are are trying to achieve with our new Hubjub “Touring”. It is very much about sourcing modern equipment with a good pedigree, not because we want to milk the “retro” craze but because in previous decades there was a good culture of design and problem solving in cycling. Many of the solutions and designs which worked well in the past but subsequently fell out of fashion can be found to work even better with the application of modern manufacturing and technology.
Introducing Hubjub Extra-Urban
Here at Hubjub we were the first online urban fixed wheel cycling store, hitting the interwebs back in 2003, and for the following ten years fixed wheel was our thing. Back in those days and aside from the bike messenger scene predominantly in the capital, fixed wheel and track frames were mysterious things that changed hands between members of cycling clubs and through cycle jumbles. As such, people who wanted to go fixed needed help converting track frames to run on the road or converting older road frames to fixed.
Skip to 2014 and fixed wheel riding went from a niche through a boom. There are now plenty of new and nearly-new road fixed bikes and frames out there for the taking and Hubjub are pleased to continue supplying this dynamic and active scene with durable parts and accessories. Not to mention finding those hard-to-source bits that solve problems the mainstream retailers don’t address.
Yet many customers who had a lot of fun with their fixies during the urban cycling boom are wanting to go further and ride for longer. Perhaps you are facing a longer commute to the city centre or joining cycle clubs and taking part in club rides and the evening time trials or simply getting a bit older. You remember where you come from and still value resilient design, craftsmanship, and durable materials. But gears and brakes start to make more sense, especially if you now blessed with a garage to store your fleet. The challenge for us as an organisation is whether to stick to our guns and remain strictly singlespeed or to continue serving our original customer base as they explore new aspects of cycling.
When all is said and done, many of the enquiries we receive and special orders we deal are from people who are running geared bikes and one way or another find their way to hubjub. A year back we got hold of some sport road bike frames - All City's Mr Pink. We sold it on Hubjub and half expected howls of protest on account of its geared nature but no such thing occurred. This gave us the kernal of an idea that grew into Hubjub Extra-Urban. Extra-Urban, meaning beyond or outside the urban riding Hubjub has concentrated on in the past (think words like extra-terrestrial, extra-ordianary, etc). This coincided with the opportunity to bring Rawland frames to the UK. Rawland is the personal project of a Sean Rawland of California. He designs frames that reflect his own Scandinavian heritage and the Viking wanderlust spirit. His frames anticipated two current trends: that for “low trail” front end geometry which is that used by French Porteur bikes and the so-called “gravel grinder” bike for hard riding on unsealed roads. Of course the Porteur bike of early 20th Century france had to run fast on gravel roads ‘cos most roads were unsealed at the time, and the geometry optimised for carrying load on the front places your luggage where it is accessible at all times. We suggest you check Rawland out by visiting our new Hubjub Extra-Urban section.
Just a quick note that we have updated our checkout system, its now a super fast one page checkout system. Phil wood goodies should be arriving soon. See you all at bespoke this weekend! we are at bespoked there will be no outgoing orders until our return on Monday!