The idea for this project started two years ago when I acquired a "Family Tandem" made by Oregon-based Bike Friday (see my subsequent post about this). The model I bought had a SRAM Dual Drive shifting system. It simplifies the setup of a tandem a bit by combining a typical rear derailleur system with an internally geared 3-speed hub instead of a front derailleur. I enjoyed the fact that the 3 speed shifter could shift while stopped, and that there was no chain rub on the front derailleur when the rear derailleur was in the highest and lowest gears, something that frequently annoys me on my regular road bike. Some research into alternative shifting systems led me to the Shimano Alfine system. Originally intended for commuter-style bikes, it is a component group based on an 8-speed internally geared hub, and a shifter designed for flat handlebars. Last year, Shimano also introduced a 11-speed version of the hub, but it's quite a bit more expensive than the 8-speed hub. With this many gears, it becomes possible to duplicate the gearing range of many double chainring bikes without any of the redundant gear ratios.
The idea of a bike with a completely internal shifting system is very appealing to me, but I tend to prefer drop handlebars to flat handlebars, and Shimano doesn't sell a shifter compatible with drop handlebars for its Alfine hubs. Fortunately, an obscure Taiwanese company makes one of their own: the Versa road shifter. It turns out I'm not the first one to think of putting an internally geared hub on a road bike, as there are some companies out there who are already selling road bikes based on the Alfine/Versa combination, most notably the Civia Bryant. The Civia Bryant adds disc brakes and belt drive to the setup, both of which I find particularly intriguing on a road bike, but its MSRP of $1850 is a bit pricey for me. Another option is the Dynamic Synergy, which has a more typical road bike setup, but still retails for $1000. So, I wanted to see if I could build a similar bike for less money using an old road bike.
The bike I used for this is a 1986 Raleigh Olympian, which I found on Craigslist last year, shown in its original form after I bought it. It's a pretty standard 1980s lugged steel frame, sturdy and reliable, probably a bit heavier than the high end frames of the time, but totally functional for how I plan to use it. The second reason for my interest in this particular bike is nostalgia: I bought one of these brand new as a teenager, and it was the bike that really got me into cycling. Unfortunately, I didn't have it very long because it was stolen, but I always liked the look of the bike, which was a very classic traditional look even at the time. It was amazing to find a bike exactly like the one I once had, nearly pristine, probably having sat in a garage for the last 25 years without more than 100 miles of riding.
New components for the drivetrain upgrade
I acquired all of the parts for converting the bike to internal gearing over the last several months. These are the parts I needed:
- Versa Shift/Brake levers. These are frequently sold for over $200 by online retailers, but I bought a used pair on eBay for under $100. Note that it is designed to look very similar to recent Shimano shifters, but that unlike the Shimano shifters, the brake lever itself does not rotate to the side to actuate a shift, but instead there are two shift levers behind the brake lever.
- A rear wheel based on the Alfine rear hub, made with the Velocity Dyad rim, which is about 25 mm wide. This wheel is made by Handspun, and is sold as the "Pavement Series 2" by a variety of retailers. I've had pretty good luck buying this and a number of other fairly obscure bike parts from Niagara Cycle Works on Amazon, though they tend to take a few days to ship things sometimes (they don't advertise any shipping time they can't meet, though).
- Shimano Alfine/Nexus 16 tooth cog. The original bike came with 52 and 42 tooth chainrings on the front. After reading the documentation on the hub and creating a spreadsheet with gear ratios, I concluded that I could duplicate the original gear range using the 42 with a 16, or the 52 with a 20, and I chose the 16. From what I've been able to find online, it appears these cogs are available in sizes of 16, 18, 19, 20, and 22 teeth.
- The Shimano Nexus/Alfine "small parts kit". This is Shimano part number SG-S501. It contains the nuts that go on the ends of the axle, a lock ring that holds the cog in place, and some other small parts needed for the rear shifting system to work. This is generally sold separately from the hub, or at least it was for most of the rear wheels I saw for sale.
- Shift cable fixing bolt unit. This is a small bolt and nut that go on the end of the cable to attach it to the hub. For some reason, it is not included in the small parts kit, and a lot of the online retailers charge an extra $5 for it. That seems like too much for what it is, but I'm more annoyed at Shimano for not including it in the small parts kit.
- Shifter cable
- Shimano shift boss flat barrel stops. These are adapters for retrofitting older frames set up for downtube shifters to work with handlebar-mounted shifters.
- New tires (necessary due to the change in wheel size). I went with 35 mm Michelin City tires, which are about 3 mm wider than the 1 1/4 inch tires originally on the bike.
There were a few other items that I also bought as part of the project that were not strictly necessary for the switch to internal shifting.
- A new front wheel. I could have kept the front wheel that came with it, but the original bike came with 27" wheels, which are not particularly common any more, and I wanted to switch to 700C wheels front and back, so I could put slightly wider tires on. (27" rims have a diameter of 630mm, 700C wheels are 622mm.) In this case, Handspun offers a front wheel with the same Velocity Dyad rim on a Deore XT hub with disc mounts. It's probably a little nicer hub than I really needed for this bike, in particular because I'm not aware of a way to retrofit a frame and fork like this for disc brakes. However, since the Alfine rear hub is already disc compatible, I like the idea of having a matching front and rear wheel that are disc compatible so they could be used on another frame with disc brakes in the future.
- A few miscellaneous items: luggage rack, toe clips that were not on the original bike, and white saddle and handlebar tape.
By the time I was finished, I had several old parts that I no longer needed (front and rear wheels, front and rear derailleur, shifters, brake levers). I was able to recoup about $100 of the money I sunk into the project by selling off all the old parts on eBay.
There are a few challenges I ran into for the installation. Getting the cog onto the hub requires snapping on a steel lock ring, which turned out to be really hard if you don't know the proper technique, and not too bad if you do. I found a YouTube video that helped quite a lot with that. I'd post a link, but I can't find it at the moment. There following are some other challenges and their solutions.
Non-turn washers and the angle of the axle
The shifting mechanism in the hub shifts when a ring on the outside of the chain cog rotates relative to the fixed part of the axle. This mechanism is spring loaded so that the cable can pull on it to shift it. This requires that the fixed part of the axle not rotate, so the Alfine small parts kit comes with 2 sets of "non-turn washers" that go on the outside of the dropouts before the outer nuts are threaded on (it's the white washer in the picture below). The small parts kit comes with two different sets of these washers, which are meant for different dropout angles, and there are a couple of other ones for different angles that can be bought separately. The Shimano instructions want you to pick the one that allows the cable to come in parallel to the chain stay. Note that if that were the case in the picture below, there would be very little room for cable housing between the housing guide on the chain stay and the arm that comes out of the hub to receive the cable housing. Looking at pictures of bikes built around this hub, like the Civia Bryant, it's obvious that the cable housing guide is much further forward on the chain stay, leaving room for about 4 inches of cable that run parallel to the stay. Since I didn't have that kind of room, I just chose lock washers that would send the cable out the back, and routed the cable much the way you would with a normal rear derailleur. It's less aesthetically appealing than the way Shimano tells you to do it, but it works fine.
Fitting the axle in the frame
The Alfine hub is designed for a rear dropout spacing of 135 mm. As far as I could tell, my frame had a spacing of 125 mm, which was the standard spacing during the 6 and 7 speed era (mine had a 6 speed freewheel), so it needed to be 1 cm wider to fit the Alfine hub. Sheldon Brown's invaluable web site has a page about permanently spreading the stays of an older steel frame to fit a new drivetrain (I am not a materials scientist, but I believe doing this to an aluminum frame is not advisable). For spreading the stays, I came up with an alternative (and I believe simpler) process to what Sheldon Brown described. Basically, I used a car jack between the dropouts with cardboard on either side to protect the frame from scratching. Steel will spring back certain amount, so it was an iterative process of cranking the jack open a few millimeters at a time and backing it off to see how far I had spread the dropouts, until I had the exact spacing I wanted without going too far.
Finding fourth gear
The installation instructions tell you to put the shifter in fourth gear, and adjust the cable tension so that two yellow lines on the hub line up. The flat bar shifter has numbers to tell you which is fourth gear, but the Versa levers don't. I figured it should be easy enough go to first gear and go up three clicks, except first gear wasn't the one I thought it was (due to cable pull doing the opposite of what it does for a rear derailleur). To get to first gear, pull on the end of the shift cable while pressing the smaller shift lever until it doesn't come out any further, and then three clicks of the bigger lever gets you to fourth gear. At this point, getting the alignment correct takes a little trial and error moving the cable fixing bolt on the cable so that when in place, the marks line up, or close enough that they can be lined up using a barrel adjuster. This bike has a barrel adjuster on the shift boss cable stop, but they can be inserted elsewhere, and based on my experience, it's highly recommended.
The finished bike
Here's the finished project. I think it looks great, and it's a lot of fun to ride, although so far I've mostly just taken it on short rides around the neighborhood. One thing I like about the wider tires is that I can run them down as low as 25-30 PSI before I need to put more air in them (the max on these is about 80 PSI).
In its current form, the bike weighs about 30 pounds, probably heavier than it was originally, but not significantly. I had hoped to do this for less than $500, but in writing this I now realize that I didn't quite succeed in that. Most of the cost is in the shifters and new rear wheel. Both items do show up on eBay periodically, so costs can be kept down for someone willing to buy used and wait for a good deal.
Here are a few other observations:
- For riders familiar with modern road bikes and integrated brake/shift levers, the operation of the Versa shift lever will be slightly counterintuitive. The larger lever, which pulls on the cable, shifts to a higher gear, and the smaller lever, which releases the cable, shifts to a lower gear, which is opposite of a typical road shifter for a rear derailleur. It's not really the fault of the shift lever, as this is more a function of the design of the Alfine hub.
- Shifting works great once you get used to which lever to use. On some 3-speed hubs, it's possible to shift to any gear at a complete stop and start in the new gear. The Alfine hub behaves a bit more like a rear derailleur system in that it takes a little forward motion to engage the new gear, but as far as I can tell, it shifts under load pretty well.
- Some have observed that the jumps between gears in the Alfine 8 hub are fairly large. Compared to a modern drive train with lots of single tooth jumps between gears, that's true, but it's all relative. The original freewheel on this bike was a 14-16-18-21-24-30, and the maximum jump between gears with that drive train was actually the same as the Alfine hub. With the gear ratios I've chosen, I've essentially replaced two overlapping 6-speed gear ranges with a single 8-speed gear range that has about the same step sizes and same total range.
- Braking performance is quite poor in the bike's current state. It wasn't great even with the old rims, so I had already replaced the brake shoes with Shimano 105 shoes even before switching the wheels out. I'm still using the original 1986 brake cables, which predate the Teflon coated housings that are common today, so my next step is to install a modern set of brake cables and housings and see if that helps. If that's not enough, the next step will be aftermarket brake pads, and maybe eventually new calipers. One additional contributing factor could be that the rims do not have a machined braking surface. They are available with machined sides, but these models didn't have them because they are on disc brake hubs. I don't know how much a difference that makes: lots of rims used to not have machined sidewalls and many of them worked fine, so I'm hoping the right brake pads and cables will help here.
- Finally, a note about the brake hoods on the Versa levers. The brake levers look very similar in shape to Shimano 6600 and similar models. To go with the white seat and handlebars, I thought it would be nice to add white brake hoods, like those made by Hudz. I wasn't sure whether they would fit, so rather than risking the full price, I bought a used pair on eBay. They don't fit. Actually, they fit perfectly on the base of the lever, but the Shimano 6600 hoods are about a full centimeter longer at the top, reaching way past the tops of the Versa levers. I was able to re-sell the Hudz on eBay for about what I paid for them, so no harm done, but the take away from this is that despite their similar appearances, Shimano-compatible brake hoods won't work on Versa levers.