"Internal gear hubs are more reliable than derailer systems, and require much less maintenance. Unlike derailers, they may be shifted even when the bicycle is stopped, a valuable feature for the cyclist who rides in stop-and-go urban traffic. " - Sheldon Brown, 1944 - 2008
There were three main reasons why I wanted to try an internally geared hub. First, it fit with the character of “the Plummer, " a bike I have built up as a modern(ish) version of an old English roadster. For those of you who need to know, it is named after a character who rides a beautiful old Raleigh on a children's TV show. Secondly, I look very dorky when I ride with my pant legs rolled up, and I have a nice chain guard I have been wanting to install on the Plummer, but it would not work with a multi-cog freewheel. Finally, Sheldon Brown said that internally geared hubs are better, and when Sheldon spoke, I generally listened.
I did a bit of research and chose the Shimano Nexus “Red Band" 8-speed internal hub. This is Shimano's premium product in their Nexus line. It has a good reputation for being sturdy and reliable, which is important to me because I am 250 pounds and I haul lots of extra weight (groceries, supplies and my children) up the very steep hills in my home town of Santa Clarita, California. I tend to “mash" the rubber block pedals on the Plummer. My pedal cadence is generally low and I tend to stand up and push very hard, a pedaling style that can destroy a wimpy geared hub pretty darn quickly. Another nice feature of the Nexus Red Band hub was its wide gear range which could come in quite handy in the hilly terrain around my home.
I chose master wheel-builder Anthony King, of Longleaf Bicycles, to build my wheel for me. King is well known for building strong wheels for use in the real world. He also has good expertise in setting up old bikes with new equipment, and he has lots of experience with internally geared hubs. King described the different 27" rim options I could use, focusing on the excellent selection of 27" rims offered by Velocity. I chose the double-walled Velocity “Synergy" rim to get the most strength possible. King laced the 36-hole wheel up with 14 gauge DT stainless spokes. Finally, King listed the shifter options from Shimano, which include twist shifters and trigger shifters. I chose the twist shifter without the integrated brake lever. Once King had all my requirements, he gave me a very fair price on the parts and delivered them quickly.
Setting up the bicycle with the Nexus equipment was simple and easy, for the most part. Shimano's printed instruction sheets are pretty good. Make sure to keep them and read them as you do the installation. Unfortunately, when Shimano instructs the user to “Install the retaining ring" that holds the cog to the hub, they do not give any further details. That ring is STOUT! I wrestled with it for thirty minutes or so, using flathead screwdrivers, needle nose pliers, and anything else I could get my hands on before I finally got it to snap into place. Of course, I waited until I was finished before I e-mailed King at Longleaf Cycles for advice. He responded promptly and wisely,
"When installing or removing the snap ring, start at one the end of the ring, not the middle, and work your way around. I can usually install the ring with my hands and removal should only take a small flat head screw driver. If you start from the middle of the snap ring you'll have a very difficult time. "
The twist shifter unit is designed for handlebars with an outside tube diameter of 22.2mm at the installation point, so my upside-down Nashbar mustache bars were too big. Luckily, I had a set of very groovy “North Road" handlebars sitting on a shelf. Made from good, old fashioned chromed steel, they fit the character of the bicycle perfectly, and they were the right size as well.
The only other “hitch" in the assembly process was due to the fact that the shifter cable and housing provided by Shimano were a bit too short for my massive 67cm frame with its long top tube, long stem, and upright bars. I could just get the cable and housing installed, and they actually worked, but I thought the bend radius of the housing was too tight in places, and the cable housing kept pushing my wicker basket to one side. Absolutely unacceptable! The cable housing had printing that read “SEALED" on the side, so I was not sure what I should use for a replacement. Once again, King came to the rescue, saying,
"There is nothing special about the derailer housing or cable. I'm not sure what the ‘sealed’ on the housing is meant to refer to - perhaps the inner liner (which all good housing has) or that the housing is continuous. If you want to run split housing you can. In theory this adds entry points for water, dirt, etc but in practice the shifting will remain extremely low maintenance. "
Once everything was installed, adjustment was almost trivial. I rotated the barrel adjuster on the shifter until the system shifted properly, and off I rode. Over the first few days of riding, I gave the barrel adjuster very minor tweaks as things settled into place, but I never had a major skip or any other sort of problem. To get the official instructions, I asked King about proper adjustment and routing maintenance. He responded,
"The only routine maintenance is to check if your shifting is adjusted properly - just shift to gear four and make sure the two yellow lines on the hub are aligned. If they aren't, use the barrel adjuster on your shifter to align them. Of course, cleaning your cog and chain periodically will extend the life of both, but they'll last a very long time even if you don't. Most people get an internal gear hub because they don't want any fuss, and these hubs deliver. "
On the road, the system works just about perfectly. It is far easier to operate than any derailer setup I have ever used. It shifts flawlessly whether the bike is in motion or at rest (and I have to keep reminding myself that I can shift when I am stopped). I tend to “let off" a bit on pedal pressure when I shift while pedaling. The shifts are smoother and more quiet when I do so, and I have to believe that it is better for the internal mechanics. The Nexus hub came with one 19 and one 21 tooth cog. I set my bicycle up with the 19 tooth cog mated to a 42 tooth chainring. This seems to be a good compromise. Although I do spin out at lower speeds than I am used to, the easy gear on this setup is just adequate for hauling fifty pounds worth of kids and groceries up the hill to my house. If this were a bike set up for high-RPM spinning, I probably would have used the 21 tooth cog. If I lived in a flat area and was not using the bike as a cargo/passenger hauler, I probably would set it up with a 46X19 combination.
In conclusion, I would recommend the Shimano Nexus Red Band hub to people who:
- Are not weight weenies; the hub is fairly heavy
- Don't need thirty gears; you will be limited in both overall range and increments between gears versus a derailer system
- Don't want chain gunk on your legs or your pants
- Like things to be simple and functional
Now, if you will excuse me, it is time for me to hook up the cargo trailer, strap my baby boy into the child seat, and head for Trader Joe's. And I shall enjoy the ride immensely. I loved my bike before I put the Nexus hub on it, but I love it even more now!
Editor, Cycloculture (A Journal for Real-World Cyclists)