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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sturmey Archer drum brakes

It is almost two years since I got the front hub I am currently using on the DL-1. In that time, it has been built into two different sizes of wheel and used on two different bikes (originally bought for use on the Kona Africa Bike) and probably done around 5,000 km in all weather. In all that time, I never actually got around to exchanging the V-brake lever I had been using it with for the proper type of lever (a cantilever-type one), until now.

I found a pair of Sturmey Archer drum brake levers on eBay for a decent price, so I decided I would indulge myself with some improved braking performance. The new levers improve the modulation of braking, whilst allowing very strong braking to be performed without extremely hard pulling of the lever. The only reason I put up with the wrong type of lever for so long is that I have relatively strong hands, so I was still able to get the braking power I needed just by squeezing extra hard. The new levers male hard braking much easier, whilst giving a slight performance boost over the old ones. They are also fairly aesthetically appealing, and  I would recommend them to anyone with drum, roller, caliper or cantilever brakes.

The only problem with the new levers was that I found the front drum started to lock-on after very hard braking. After first checking that cable-freeze wasn't the cause of the problem, I decided that I should take a look inside the front drum. Sturmey Archer drum brakes are mechanically very simple and easy to work on (although they generally require little in the way of maintenance). Disassembly is straightforward:

Intact wheel

Removed locknut

Removed spacer

Brake mechanism slides out from drum

Brake mechanism (top)

Brake mechanism (underside), showing the brake shoes

After cleaning the brake dust from inside the drum and re-assembling it all, I took the bike out for a test ride. The front brake is as powerful as it ever was after almost two years of heavy use and no-longer locks-on after very hard braking. This is the only maintenance (or real cleaning) I have done to it in that whole time. I feel that it is a real shame that drum brakes are not more popular, especially when I think back to all the time I've spent adjusting and maintaining other types of bicycle brakes during the time I have been using this one, both on my own bikes and those of friends and family.


  1. Great to see hub brakes getting talked about..Shimano do 'hub'brakes too but are very shy about them. more powerful for sure..long live the hub brake....nothing better for cheap long term no fuss city riding. ta for sharing..
    more about shimanos brakes here.

  2. I have worked with roller brakes before, although they (and reliable information about them) can be difficult to find in the UK. The experience I had with the rear one I fitted to my girlfriend's bike was positive, I was impressed with the power and simplicity of installation. I am less sure about putting one on the front though, due to Shimano's insistence on using the "Power modulator" clutch, which (based on what I've read) just seems to make the front brake weak to stop inexperienced riders going over the bars.

  3. A little (really a little) bit of oil on the pivots is worthwhile with the Sturmey Archer brakes. Obviously you have to make sure it doesn't get onto the brake shoes.

    Both Sturmey Archer hub and Shimano roller brakes are wildly popular over here in NL precisely because of their reliability. When the Shimano brakes get dry they squeal or become weak. This can be corrected by removing the cover and squirting a thickish oil through the port. The special grease that Shimano recommends is rarely seen. Because they work on completely different principles, you don't have to worry about keeping oil off anything. I have them on my town bike and they stop me quite promptly.

  4. I've got drum brakes on my Gazelle. They work in all weathers and they're very easy to adjust. Absolutely excellent.

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