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.
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.