Easier Gearing on Older Three Speeds

There’s nothing like the comfort, reliability, and just plain fun of riding vintage three speed bicycles, especially those made by Raleigh and other U.K. manufacturers.  For decades, these bikes were the transportation of choice for the working class.  They are built to last, and their utility has already spanned across two centuries.  Properly cared for, these well built machines may outlast even our children’s children, and are a wonderful treasure to pass on to the future.

However, as built, these bikes are geared high and are difficult to ride uphill.  In practice, walking steep hills was the norm, as these bikes are also pretty heavy.

My 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist, weighing in at 45 lbs., is no exception.  Its gear inch range is 47-84 with its original 19T cog and 46T chainring.  Using the bike in my hilly neighborhood has meant being in the right frame of mind and sufficiently rested to be willing to put forth the physical exertion required.  But, why not gear it lower and get more enjoyment out of the bike given the environment in which I ride?

Well, one reason is that it is a sort of major PITA to remove the rear wheel.  Owning a bike with a full chainguard means a few extra steps to rear wheel removal.  Fortunately I’ve never had a flat in all of the 15 years I’ve had this bike, so I’ve lucked out in that regard but have of course removed the rear wheel on the few times over the years when I’ve given the bike a complete overhaul.  It rarely needs servicing, just a few drops of oil in the hub every now and then, so I’ve had this, one of my oldest bikes, in the shop stand much less often than my other bikes.

But, it’s actually not that bad once you get started.  There are two screws at the back and bottom of the chainguard which when removed allow you to remove a back section of the guard, and then the wheel can be dropped out (after first disconnecting the indicator spindle from the cable of course).

And, to remove the rear wheel I’ve found it easiest to flip the bike upside down rather than hoist it into the work stand.  You can see what you are doing much easier, and there’s less likelihood of “losing” the chain inside the chainguard.  Even so, I like to place something there to keep the chain accessible, such as this wrench pictured above.

At this point, the fairly straightforward process of swapping the old cog for a new one with more teeth would be the next step.  However, you can see from the above photo that my cog is threaded to a threaded driver.  There aren’t 3 little notches which line up to the splines on the driver.  Uh oh!

Sturmey Archer began using splined drivers in their hubs in 1951, making swapping cogs relatively easy.  Because my Raleigh was made earlier, it has a threaded cog/driver, not a splined one.  So, an easy cog swap was out.  After doing some research, I concluded that I had two options if I wanted to lower the gearing:  remove the original cog and screw on a track cog (which is said to have the same threading) or swap out the driver for a newer splined driver.

Thinking that the simplest approach would be to simply unscrew the old cog and screw on a suitable replacement, I needed to find a way to hold the driver in place while using a chain whip (as I had already removed the driver from the hub).  Thanks to a helpful tip from bikesmithdesign.com I took a couple of matching Shimano 600 headset removal tools (I needed two to make the platform wide enough) and lined the handles up in my vice so I could place the slots between the driver’s “legs” over them.  It’s probably better to use aluminum bar stock as recommended, but my hack worked fine. A better approach would have been to leave the driver in the hub so that it’s still attached to the wheel, which provides more leverage. Trying it both ways I still couldn’t get the cog to unscrew, even after soaking it in some penetrating oil. It’s been on there for 72 years and doesn’t want to budge.

So, I switched to Plan B.

I harvested a splined driver from a 1978 hub, shown above, first removing the outer nuts and then the locknut and lock washer.  I had previously removed the cog, circlip, dust cap and spacers.

Then I put the left side axle in the vise and began to unscrew the cone on the right side.  The driver sits right underneath the cone and carries the bearing cup.  Removing the driver helps you to see why you must never do your cone adjustment from the right side:  the driver’s position is controlled by the spring underneath pushing up into the cone above.  It needs to be adjusted exactly as specified by Sturmey Archer so that the correct movement of the driver when the clutch is engaged by the shifter is achieved.

Making sure not to dislodge the plastic washer atop the clutch spring, you can remove the driver, but leave the clutch spring intact along with the washer sitting on top.  The recipient hub is going to get the driver, the dust cap, spacers, and circlip.  I also transferred the cone as well, since it was in better shape the original.

I carefully installed the new replacement driver onto the 1950 hub, and screwed the cone down finger tight, then backed it off 1/2 turn as per the S.A. instructions.  From there, the lock washer and locknut are installed.  I checked the hub for free play and then did a slight cone adjustment on the left side (NEVER ON THE RIGHT!), leaving just a tiny bit of free play, as recommended.

Then the exciting part:  installing the new cog.  Not knowing how much room I would have inside the chainguard I went with a 22T cog.  I didn’t want to risk having the chain rub against the inside of the guard.  So, fingers crossed that this one will work.  After noting the dishing on my original cog:  “bubble side down” I oriented this cog the same way.  I installed the dust cap underneath first, and found I also needed an extra spacer which I fortunately had on hand, pushed on the cog and snapped in the circlip.

After adding two chain links to accommodate the larger cog I tried mounting the wheel to first make sure that I had the right chain length.  The axle should sit comfortably in the middle of the dropout, which it does.  From there I installed the outer washers and nuts.  At this point, I turned the bike over and put it into the shop stand, as it was time to reinstall the hub spindle and check that the shifting was working and that there were no other issues such as a chain line problem or chain rub on the guard.  Fortunately, all was in order and shifting was perfect once I retuned it.

1951 Raleigh Catalog

My new gearing gives me 41-54-72 gear inches.  My first test ride gave me a glimpse of the fun I’m going to have.  The 54 is a comfortable “cruising gear”, which I define as an easy cadence on flats.  The low 41 gear, although NOT a 30, is still much better than it was, and the high gear of 72 is just fine as I really don’t need to blast down the hills.

The hub on this bike has always seemed almost self propelling.  It spins very well and has little friction, especially as compared to my other Sturmey Archer equipped bikes (older is better?).  I plan to spin my way into the coming seasons and hope that I’ve given this bike a chance to keep on spinning for another 70 years or more.

11 thoughts on “Easier Gearing on Older Three Speeds

  1. Thanks for the new post; I search your blog along with BSNYC and Dave Moulton daily to see if there’s anything new.

    I’ve long wanted another 28″ wheel 3 speed rod brake roadster, even though I’ve ridden the type enough to know that I would ride it only sporadically and for very short distances. But in good tune and once up to speed they have a kind of stately irresistable momentum that no other kind of bike can duplicate. I guess it comes from total weight, wheel weight, wheel circumference, and well-adjusted bearings.

    I suppose this feeling of momentum is why they were geared so high — the standard Indian roadster (boyhood in ex-Brit colonies) copied from Raleigh was geared at 44/18 which would be 72″. This would be about right for Policeman Plod who would proceed along at a stately 60 rpm at about 13 mph.

    I’ve done the same thing as you did with my 3 speeds. My first “mountain bike” i 1989 was a thrift store Schwinn 3 speed with a replacement 36-t Ashtabula chainring to give the same 72″, 54″, 41″ with the 18 t stock cog. This was over 30 years ago when I could climb real hills off road in a 41″ gear.

    I rode fixed and ss exclusively for about 20 years but age requires a lower climbing gears. I’ve discovered old-stock Sturmey Archer closer-ratio hubs; in fact, I just got back from a very pleasant early Fall out and back on my road “errand bike” with a 1956 AM hub giving a 72″ cruising overdrive, 65″ direct for headwinds and long shallow inclines and 56″ for anything else. Part of me wants 1930s AR hub for 72″ direct, 77″ high, and 67″ low, but really the AM is much more practical. I have refurbished 1930s TC and TF fixed hubs for my fixed gear gofast, the TC giving 76″ and 66″ and the TF giving 76″ and 57″. Aaron at Rat City Bikes in Seattle replaced the TC’s long-obsolete 12-spline driver with a modern 3-spline driver, but the TF’s driver is is unique to that hub. Fortunately I was able to track down probably the last 12-spline cogs on the planet in usable sizes.

  2. Sounds like a fun project! The lower gears make sense. Who cares if you “spin out” at 20 mph! don’t have much recent experience with 3 speed hubs but I do have a Japanese 3 speed free hub which is splined for an 8 speed cassette! I’m just waiting for the right project to come along to try it out with. Doing the math in my head I can see getting up to 72 gears with it! Is that too many?

  3. Lovely read and a great resource for anyone wanting to do the same. I’m surprised you managed to last 15 years without doing this! I think I resolved to change the cog after the first ride on my Raleigh Wayfarer – it makes the bike so much more usable. The folks riding these things back in the day must have had thighs like tree trunks, either that, or they walked a lot 🙂

  4. I have several bikes with SA 3 speeds and due to the hills around here in SW England have them very low geared usually with a 36 tooth chainring and 24 tooth rear sprocket, I have never managed to cause any damage with this set up either, they are pretty bullet proof.

    • 36X24 is pretty low even with a 28″ wheel. Well over 30 years ago I made an impromptu and temporary mountain bike out of an ancient Schwinn 3 speed by replacing the 48 t or whatever it was Ashtabula chainring with a 36 that, with the stock 18 t cog gave me very usable 72″, 54″, and 41″ gears that gave me a very pleasant extended hilly jeep track ride in the hills just south of Santa Fe, NM. (I recall water running into and out of the hub on the numerous stream crossings; the hub seemed unaffected.)

      I’ve always been puzzled by the huge gears on the standard AW 28″ wheel roadster. IIRC, the stock SS gear was 44 X 18 for a 91″ high (68″ direct, 51″ low). Why so high? (This leaves aside the other question about the handlebar-grips-brushing-knees riding position; I think that’s simply a holdover from the Ordinary.)

      I just very recently got my 1937 NOS TF and rechromed and refurbished 1937 TC installed and running on my 1999 Rivendell road custom gofast fixed gear; the TF is wonderful: hardly any lash, but a wide gap of direct and 75% (like shifting from a 52 to a 39 t ring), 76″ and 57″. The TC gives direct and 86.54% — 76″ and 66″, good for our present windy springtime weather. The AM hub on my errand road bike gives 75″, 65″ direct, and 56″ low — excellent ratios for flatter paved routes even with sizeable loads.

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