Friday, July 18, 2008

How to Adjust a Sturmey-Archer Three-Speed Hub

Sometimes I actually post useful information.  Sometimes.

So, I've kept kind of quiet about it, but ever since I put my Columbia Sports III back together last, uh, November, I've been having trouble getting the hub adjustment right.  This is mostly the result of the fact that I experience problems while on a ride, stop to quickly make some stop-gap adjustments, then realizing later that it's still messed up, and just keep repeating the process.  Finally, I got fed up with it, and decided to devote some time to getting everything adjusted exactly right.

As usual, Sheldon Brown has the definitive guidance on the subject, but I wanted to make things a bit more explicit and illustrated for you fellow first-timers.  So, here we go:

Correct hub adjustment is extremely important.  First, it allows you to take full advantage of all three of your gears.  Second, it prevents "freewheeling," which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.  Freewheeling on a 3-speed occurs when the internal gizmos in the hub align so that the pedals can spin forward without engaging the drive.  In other words, the pedals are turning, but you're not moving the bike forward anymore.  This can be extremely dangerous when you think you're solidly in a gear and pedaling along with resistance and suddenly your legs start spinning uncontrollably.  This throws your whole bike/body alignment out of whack and you are certain to at least wobble, and possibly lose total control.  Not good for riding in traffic or crossing an intersection, certainly.

Proper adjustment is actually pretty easy, provided you have an ample dose of patience.  There are basically only two parts to adjust: the indicator spindle, and the cable tensioner.  The indicator spindle is the little rod and chain that emerges from the right side of the three-speed hub.  One end of the rod is threaded with tiny threads, and this end screws into the hub itself (see photo).  This is where you make your first adjustment. 

Disengage the shifter cable from the indicator spindle so that you can unscrew the indicator spindle and take it all the way out of the hub.  Check to make sure it's not bent or damaged.  If everything is okay, reinsert the indicator spindle and tighten with just your fingers until it stops, then back it off a half turn.  This is really important, because if you back it off too much, the indicator spindle doesn't fully engage with the gearing mechanism inside the hub.  This was my problem, and caused me no little amount of frustration before I realized it.  If the indicator spindle isn't seated properly in the hub, no amount of adjustment to the cable will help.

Now, reattach the cable to the indicator spindle.  Tighten the cable tensioner (the barrel on the end of your shifter cable) by screwing it on to the indictor spindle, and use the little locknut on the indicator spindle to hold the tensioner in place.  It should look something like this:  

Now comes the tricky part.  I'll let Sheldon Brown explain it, with particularly important passages highlighted:

For best results, adjust the cable by tension. When the trigger is in high gear position, the cable should be totally slack. Shift down to middle gear, while watching the indicator chain-it should clearly move as you make the shift. Then shift to low gear; again, you should see more chain coming out of the end of the axle. Sometimes the internal parts line up in such a way as to prevent downshifting. If you have trouble getting the hub to downshift, turn the pedals slightly forwards. Once you are sure you are in low gear, take hold of the indicator spindle chain and try to pull more of it out of the axle. If the adjustment is correct, you should be able to get just a tiny bit more movement from the chain. If it is completely taut, the cable is too tight. Make sure to tighten the knurled locknut on the indicator spindle so that the adjustment will stay as you have set it.

Double check the adjustment in all gears. In low gear, you should be able to see that the sprocket moves faster than the wheel, and the hub should not make a ticking sound while being pedaled forward. In middle gear, the sprocket should move at the same speed as the wheel, and you may hear a slow ticking as you pedal. In high gear, the wheel should turn faster than the sprocket. The same slow ticking may be audible in high gear.

If you hold the trigger halfway between middle and high gear, the hub should disengage so that you can spin the pedals forward without going anywhere. If it freewheels forward in high gear, the cable is to tight or has too much friction to release properly. If it freewheels forward in middle gear, the cable is too loose.

If you're anything like me, you will have to make many minute adjustments to the cable tension until you get it just right.  The key points again: 1) properly seat indicator spindle in hub; 2) freewheel in high gear means cable is too tight; 3) freewheel in middle gear or low gear means cable is too loose; 4) there should be no ticking sound when pedaled forward in low gear; 5) hub should freewheel between 2nd and 3rd gear.

If you would like to read Sheldon Brown's original article in its entirely, go here.  Sheldon also has lots of other great information about three speed (a.k.a. planetary, or epicyclic) gearing, including diagrams that show what's going on in there.

By the way, my experience related here is based on the Sturmey-Archer AW hub that is original to my Columbia, I have no experience with other S-A models or other hub-geared systems.


  1. Good tutorial

    The adjustment sequence is pretty much the same for all of the older SA hubs, not so sure about the newest generation. Older Shimano 3 speeds are fairly easy to adjust too, they have an indicator on the axle nut, you put the shifter in second gear, and align the mark with the cut out. Once in adjustment it is very unusual for an SA hub to become unadjusted, unless something comes loose.


  2. Hi,

    I'm fixing my greatly neglected old Sears bike with a Sturmey Archer AW three speed hub. The problem that i am having is how to connect the cable to the cable tensioner. I thought all I needed was a little cable cap that would fit inside the tensioner, however when I went to the bike shop the person said, who admittedly didn't know too much about these internal hubs, that there is some PART that I'm missing and that a little cable cap wouldn't be strong enough, is that true?

    Any advice that I've found on the web about installing a new cable explains how it attaches to the shifter, but not how it attaches to the cable tensioner...

    any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Hi Justin, without being able to see exactly what you've got, it's hard to say what's going on. Basically, though, you should only have two parts to worry about: (1) the indicator spindle (see my post for the photo) coming out of the hub and (2) the cable tensioner on the end of the shifter cable. The tensioner screws on to the indicator spindle, and the locknut on the indicator spindle should then be tightened against the tensioner barrel to hold it in place (see the second photo on the post). This is all you need to keep the tension in your cable. I'm not sure what you mean by the "cable cap". Do you mean the little crimp on the end of a cable to keep it from fraying? If so, this has nothing to do with adjusting the tension. If you need a new indicator spindle or tensioner (a.k.a. "anchorage") visit Harris Cyclery's website--they have everything you need to completely rebuild a S-A hub, if you were so inclined. Hope this helps, but feel free to send a photo of your setup if you need more help.


  4. Sorry, Julian--not Justin--not fully awake yet, I guess.

  5. Hi! I'm restoring my mama's Schwinn Hollywood and it has a sturmey archer "grip dial" 3 speed handle and cable. I can't figure out how to remove the old cable from the grip dial to put the new cable on...any thoughts?

  6. Hrm, I'm looking about and can't find anything on dismantling the grip shifter itself. A photo might help, I could post it and ask readers to write in with their thoughts.

  7. what is the little nut and bolt item holding the cable in your photo--some bikes seem to have this others do not? it is present on a new-old stock cable for 3 speeds i got via ebay..
    is it necessary for adjustment of tension? i am following your guide as well as S Brown's and still cannot get mine to work
    Thanks for any input

  8. @MarcosLogoSalado: That is just to attach the adjuster to the shifter cable--it doesn't have anything to do with adjusting the actual tension on the cable. The original cables that I've seen typically have the adjuster built-on to the end of the cable, but this replacement cable and adjuster came in two pieces from Harris Cyclery.

    As for still having problems--I can say from experience that it takes *a lot* of fine tuning to get it right. It is also possible that some of the internal bits are worn out, in which case you can either ask around to local bike shops to see if anyone knows how to work on them, or you can dive in and try to figure it out yourself. I've just posted some links to S-A manuals and how-to guides in the links on the right of the page. I wish I could be of more help in terms of trouble-shooting, but I am only just now getting ready to take a hub apart myself for the first time. Good luck!

  9. "the hub should disengage so that you can spin the pedals forward without going anywhere" - I don't know how I did it, but in the middle of cleaning my mother-in-law's bike I managed to accomplish this. Unintentional!

    How do I get the pedals to engage the hub again before she notices?


  10. @ Charlotte: Oh dear, and your mother-in-law to boot! Well, this *should* happen only at a specific spot between 2nd and 3rd gear. If it's happening when you should be in gear, or between 1st and 2nd gear, it means you need to adjust the cable tension, as outlined above. Freewheeling in 2nd means you need to tighten the cable slightly; in 3rd means you need to loosen it.

  11. I have a question. I am working on an old Schwinn Breeze, 3-speed internal hub. The gear cable is completely slack. So there is no shifting going on. I can't figure out how to tighten it up on the handlebar end. There's no screws to tighten, and unlike a 10-speed, there is nowhere to simply thread the cable until it fits into place. Any suggestions?

  12. Josh, there should be a cable stop clamped to the top tube up near the head tube, as well as a small wheel either on the seat tube or top tube which serves as a tensioner for the cable. You can buy both at Harris Cyclery, which has a large online stock of Sturmey-Archer bits on the 3-speed page.

  13. Thanks, I figured it out. The cable stop had come undone from the tube, so I tightened it back in and now I will start doing the adjustments you talked about on the top of the post.

    Thanks so much... J

  14. Thanks for posting this procedure! I used it to adjust the shifters on my '72 Schwinn Speedster and my wife's '73 Schwinn Breeze. Everything works as described, and we enjoyed miles of cycling along the San Francisco Bay this afternoon. Cheers, Ian Abbott, Santa Clara CA

  15. i have a Columbia sports III, with sturmey archer hub. can only get it to work in two gears. when i try to shift up to 3, there's not enough tension in the cable to move the indicator. cable is plenty taught in two gears though. maybe cable is stretched and I need to shorten it about an inch. i can turn the adjuster any farther to tighten and there's no slack in the shifter. maybe i'm not in the gear i think i am. i'll have to play with it.

  16. I fiddled with the cable tensioner on my Pashley 5-speed to no avail for a few weeks, when actually the indicator spindle just wasn't screwed in far enough. Thanks to this post, I can now use first gear!

  17. "Make sure to tighten the knurled locknut on the indicator spindle so that the adjustment will stay as you have set it."

    So how is one to tighten the cable when the knurled locknut is for the final adjustment?

    I'm confused?

  18. Great post, thanks for your help! It helped solve the mysterious 'chain drop' feeling on the old Raleigh after I replaced the shifter cable.

    For anyone who needs a cable but can't find or is too cheap to buy the specific Sturmey type, see :

  19. Hi all!
    I ride old bicycle, manufactured in Switzerland, with Sturmey Archer 3 speed AW hub ( I dated the hub to 1989 according to the marks on it)
    According to Sturmey's website, these hubs could be available with 175mm, 163mm, or 148mm axle lengths. How do I find whichone is mine, since I do not want to disassemble rear well just for measurung the axel lenght


  20. My gears seems to moved having adjusted everything correctly after a months of riding. Just to confirm, the little "locknut" should be on the RIGHT when tightened correctly?

    How often will the gears need realigning? I ride everyday for about 3 miles.



  21. thanks for the great info on the page mate

  22. okay so I have a 1973 Raleigh sport bike, I was trying to adjust the gear shifter (first gear won't remain engaged/ is also difficult to engage) and I can't seem to disconnect the the cable from the cable tensioner, it doesn't have a locknut as is described here, it is directly connected to the tensioner, so I was trying to undo the tensioner all the way, but it seems to be stuck, I also have very little mechanical advantage, so I was wondering what the best way to disconnect the cable was

  23. Thank you so much, I've been having problems with my hub for a month and don't have the money to get it serviced. This fixed my problem, now I can get around town again!

  24. I've just bought a second hand bike and need to adjust the gears. A really dumb question, is 1st gear (as marked on the handle) the low gear or the high gear ?