Thursday, July 24, 2008

Product Review – Shimano Nexus “Red Band” 8-Speed Hub

“Internal gear hubs are more reliable than derailer systems, and require much less maintenance. Unlike derailers, they may be shifted even when the bicycle is stopped, a valuable feature for the cyclist who rides in stop-and-go urban traffic.” – Sheldon Brown, 1944 - 2008

The Shimano Nexus "Red Band" Hub

There were three main reasons why I wanted to try an internally geared hub. First, it fit with the character of “the Plummer,” a bike I have built up as a modern(ish) version of an old English roadster. For those of you who need to know, it is named after a character who rides a beautiful old Raleigh on a children’s TV show. Secondly, I look very dorky when I ride with my pant legs rolled up, and I have a nice chain guard I have been wanting to install on the Plummer, but it would not work with a multi-cog freewheel. Finally, Sheldon Brown said that internally geared hubs are better, and when Sheldon spoke, I generally listened.

I did a bit of research and chose the Shimano Nexus “Red Band” 8-speed internal hub. This is Shimano’s premium product in their Nexus line. It has a good reputation for being sturdy and reliable, which is important to me because I am 250 pounds and I haul lots of extra weight (groceries, supplies and my children) up the very steep hills in my home town of Santa Clarita, California. I tend to “mash” the rubber block pedals on the Plummer. My pedal cadence is generally low and I tend to stand up and push very hard, a pedaling style that can destroy a wimpy geared hub pretty darn quickly. Another nice feature of the Nexus Red Band hub was its wide gear range which could come in quite handy in the hilly terrain around my home.

Another view of the Nexus hub

I chose master wheel-builder Anthony King, of Longleaf Bicycles, to build my wheel for me. King is well known for building strong wheels for use in the real world. He also has good expertise in setting up old bikes with new equipment, and he has lots of experience with internally geared hubs. King described the different 27” rim options I could use, focusing on the excellent selection of 27” rims offered by Velocity. I chose the double-walled Velocity “Synergy” rim to get the most strength possible. King laced the 36-hole wheel up with double butted stainless spokes. Finally, King listed the shifter options from Shimano, which include twist shifters and trigger shifters. I chose the twist shifter without the integrated brake lever. Once King had all my requirements, he gave me a very fair price on the parts and delivered them quickly.

My new drivetrain in all its glory

Setting up the bicycle with the Nexus equipment was simple and easy, for the most part. Shimano’s printed instruction sheets are pretty good. Make sure to keep them and read them as you do the installation. Unfortunately, when Shimano instructs the user to “Install the retaining ring” that holds the cog to the hub, they do not give any further details. That ring is STOUT! I wrestled with it for thirty minutes or so, using flathead screwdrivers, needle nose pliers, and anything else I could get my hands on before I finally got it to snap into place. Of course, I waited until I was finished before I e-mailed King at Longleaf Cycles for advice. He responded promptly and wisely,

“When installing or removing the snap ring, start at one the end of the ring, not the middle, and work your way around. I can usually install the ring with my hands and removal should only take a small flat head screw driver. If you start from the middle of the snap ring you'll have a very difficult time.”

The twist shifter unit is designed for handlebars with an outside tube diameter of 22.2mm at the installation point, so my upside-down Nashbar moustache bars were too big. Luckily, I had a set of very groovy “North Road” handlebars sitting on a shelf. Made from good, old fashioned chromed steel, they fit the character of the bicycle perfectly, and they were the right size as well.

The only other “hitch” in the assembly process was due to the fact that the shifter cable and housing provided by Shimano were a bit too short for my massive 67cm frame with its long top tube, long stem, and upright bars. I could just get the cable and housing installed, and they actually worked, but I thought the bend radius of the housing was too tight in places, and the cable housing kept pushing my wicker basket to one side. Absolutely unacceptable! The cable housing had printing that read “SEALED” on the side, so I was not sure what I should use for a replacement. Once again, King came to the rescue, saying,

“There is nothing special about the derailleur housing or cable. I'm not sure what the ‘sealed’ on the housing is meant to refer to – perhaps the inner liner (which all good housing has) or that the housing is continuous. If you want to run split housing you can. In theory this adds entry points for water, dirt, etc but in practice the shifting will remain extremely low maintenance.”

The Nexus twist shifter, with the "too short" cable housing

Once everything was installed, adjustment was almost trivial. I rotated the barrel adjuster on the shifter until the system shifted properly, and off I rode. Over the first few days of riding, I gave the barrel adjuster very minor tweaks as things settled into place, but I never had a major skip or any other sort of problem. To get the official instructions, I asked King about proper adjustment and routing maintenance. He responded,

“The only routine maintenance is to check if your shifting is adjusted properly – just shift to gear four and make sure the two yellow lines on the hub are aligned. If they aren't, use the barrel adjuster on your shifter to align them. Of course, cleaning your cog and chain periodically will extend the life of both, but they'll last a very long time even if you don't. Most people get an internal gear hub because they don't want any fuss, and these hubs deliver.

Overhauls aren't routine maintenance but you can overhaul the hub after a break-in period and at regular intervals to extend its life. You'll need some special tools from Shimano (see parts 34-40 here). Consult the hubstripping website for more information. Shimano doesn't have a recommended overhaul schedule, and particular riding conditions will greatly influence how often the hub needs to be serviced."

On the road, the system works just about perfectly. It is far easier to operate than any derailleur setup I have ever used. It shifts flawlessly whether the bike is in motion or at rest (and I have to keep reminding myself that I can shift when I am stopped). I tend to “let off” a bit on pedal pressure when I shift while pedaling. The shifts are smoother and more quiet when I do so, and I have to believe that it is better for the internal mechanics. The Nexus hub came with one 19 and one 21 tooth cog. I set my bicycle up with the 19 tooth cog mated to a 42 tooth chainring. This seems to be a good compromise. Although I do spin out at lower speeds than I am used to, the easy gear on this setup is just adequate for hauling fifty pounds worth of kids and groceries up the hill to my house. If this were a bike set up for high-RPM spinning, I probably would have used the 21 tooth cog. If I lived in a flat area and was not using the bike as a cargo/passenger hauler, I probably would set it up with a 46X19 combination.

"The Plummer," as she is now configured. Fenders and chain guard to be installed sometime between now and the first rain storm in Southern California this fall

In conclusion, I would recommend the Shimano Nexus Red Band hub to people who:

  • Are not weight weenies; the hub is fairly heavy
  • Do not need thirty gears; you will be limited in both overall range and increments between gears versus a derailleur system
  • Don’t want chain gunk on their legs or pants
  • Like things to be simple and functional

Now, if you will excuse me, it is time for me to hook up the cargo trailer, strap my baby boy into the child seat, and head for Trader Joe’s. And I shall enjoy my ride tremendously. I loved my bike before I put the Nexus hub on it, but I love it even more now!


Unknown said...

Hey Forbes.
Nice write up.

I was wondering how the spacing between gears feels? I know the ratios do not increase linearly. I kind of want an excuse to get a wheel with the nexus hub in there to throw on an old beater bike to turn it into a slightly more decent commuter.

Forbes Black said...

Hi sprocketscientist. Hm... If I made any changes, it would be toward bigger jumps between gears 1, 2 and 3, and smaller jumps between gears 4, 5 and 6. But, overall, the gearing increments feel pretty good. - FBB

phil varner said...

Mark Vande Kamp's article on the Jamis Commuter 2.0 in BQ V5#3 states that some of the jumps are 13.8% and some are 22%, and that he often felt like he was "searching" for the right gear.

Parker said...

Forbes: Thanks a lot for the review! This looks like the ticket for my son, who is big, strong, and hard on chains, derailleurs, and wheels. Question: It looks like the dropouts on your frame have enough fore-and-aft adjustment that you were able to get chain tension right. On a frame with more-vertical dropouts, would it be appropriate to use a chain tensioner such as the "Surly Singleator"? Or (per Sheldon Brown) I understand one can tweak chainwheel and cog sizes.

Forbes Black said...

I think you could use a chain tensioner, but I would avoid it if possible. If you can find the right chainring/cog combo to give you good chain tension, that would be a much better solution. And yes, the "Plummer" has long horizontal dropouts, so it has plenty of fore/aft adjustment available for chain tensioning.

david said...

Thanks for the review Forbes

I fitted this hub to my 29"er two years ago and I've been most impressed with it, on everything from road to singletrack to gravel backroad tours.

I used to obsess about numbers of gears and ratio increments, but after getting disillusioned with the sprocket "arms race" and getting of the "upgrade path" after 7-speed freewheels & cassettes, and spending more time fixed and free single-speeding, I found that the percentage increments between multiple gears became largely irrelevant.

I put this down to less concern about my cadence range, since the cadence has a linear correlation to speed, i.e. if I want to go faster, I must increase my cadence.
Also, once you're used to getting about on a single ratio, any extra ratios seem a luxury, so you're not so concerned about inter-ratio increments.

And the subsequent lack of noise from chain slap, etc. (as with all single chainline drives) is something I really appreciate and now take for granted.

"Derailleurs? Oh yeah, they're on my old bikes" ;-)

rgonet said...

Thanks for the review, Forbes. I have a Nexus Red Band and I don't think I want to go back to derailers. I agree with David that if you're obsessed with cadence and equal gearing increments you could be unhappy with the hub. But if you've ridden a single speed or fixie you don't have that mindset and it's a luxury having 8 speeds to choose from. I'm running mine on a Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen with vertical drops and couldn't get the chain tension exactly right for the 48x21 setup I chose, so I installed a Surly Singleator and it works nicely. The chain stays properly tensioned, it interferes with chain travel less than a derailer, and it is less kludgy than a derailer. In my opinion, it does not reduce the efficiency of the drivetrain to a measurable degree, though I admit I have no scientific basis for that assertion.

David said...

Terrific review. I've been thinking about going internal myself. My wife has an older Nexus 7-spd hub, and I SB indicated that the 8 is a significant improvement.

I'm interested in comparisons to the SRAM and S-A products. Is there such an article somewhere?

rgonet said...

David: For a very nice overview of the major internal hubs, check out the lead article at Hubstripping also has a link to a very informative article at If you buy the 8 speed, I'd be interested to hear your comparison of it to the 7 speed. According to the second article I cited, the 7 speed isn't such a bad buy.

David said...

Thanks, loop.

Patrick McMahon said...

Good review. I've got one on my Bianchi Milano and like it a lot, with two caveats.

1) with the brake cables on the left triangle most children's trailers don't work with the hub. Some trailers can be attached via a replacement quick release skewer but it doesn't seem like the market has responded to the hubs, although there's probably a lot of overlap between the groups wanting internal hubs and children's trailers.

2) It takes some time getting to learn how to take the rear wheel off by detaching the brake and shifter cables. After my first frustrating try I ended up taking it to my FLBS to have them remove the wheel so I could fix a flat. So it's low maintenance, if you can get it off. I'd recommend all the puncture resistance you can get in that rear tire.

rgonet said...

Patrick: You don't need to take the brake and shifter cables off. There's a little trick to getting the cable off the hub. The cable is attached to the hub at the cassette, where the cable is retained using a clamping nut. You will notice that as you shift, this cassette rotates. There is a little hole in the cassette which accepts a 2 or 2.5 mm (not sure which without looking) allen wrench, or a bicycle spoke. Insert the wrench and rotate the cassette counterclockwise. This will relieve the tension on the cable and you can remove it by wriggling the nut out. Any LBS that works with these hubs knows the trick and can show you how it's done. You'll kick yourself when you find out how easy it is - I did. By the way, your bike is designed for this hub, I believe. On bikes that are not and that have vertical dropouts, it may require a chain tensioner to get proper chain tension. If you use one like the Surly Singleator, it has an arm that tensions the chain like a derailer, and the wheel can be removed like you would remove a wheel in a derailler transmission system by removing the tension, making the chain slack and the wheel removeable.

Cod Peace said...

Nice review. Did you consider the SRAM iMotion 9 hub along with the Shimano?

As I get into commuting the idea of a internally geared hub with a decent spread in gear ratios is sounding better vs. the triple chainring/9-speed cassette I have now.

Unknown said...

Since July 2006, I have been very happy with my Nexus 8-speed, retrofitted to my TREK Multritrack with vertical dropouts. I use a chain tensioner, and the thing is flawless.

When I lived in Japan, I used the Nexus 4 speed, with equal satisfaction.

I am an ex-racer, who is fed up of having to maintain my bike. I just wanna get out there and ride! This thing delivers, and for the last 8 years or so, cycling has been my primary commuting method. The Nexus has enhanced the experience enormously.

I hope to never have to go back to derailleurs. Ever.

johnj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

nice share...keep it up...

Big Ocean Fish

glnc said...

The square edged Shimano snap ring for the sprocket which would go on the Nexus inter 7 ok would not go on the Premium inter 8 without filing a slight bevel on the inside top corner on a section near the start -- the groove for the ring has an upper edge beveled upwards to assist removal but prevents holding the end of the ring down when inserting, so the rest can be worked around. Beveling the ring slightly lets the end stick into the groove better. Done by master mechanics at a shop dealing in the hubs to install one.

Anonymous said...

Hi...I bought a Brodie Ocho which has the Shimano 8-speed setup just over a month ago. I now have about 600 klicks ( !) on it. It has performed flawlessly and I am very impressed with it. I got rid of my last 27 speed "mountain" bike because I (a) only rode in the "mountains" about 5% of the time. (b) I didn't NEED 27 speeds. I've only ever used 5 or 6 for 90% of the time. The ratios are pretty good for everyday riding...I still don't have to shift very often. Even though 27 speeds sounds impressive, a lot of those overlap. The Germans are now marketing a 14 speed. twist shift but my bike store says it retails for about $2500 Canadian...which is still over 2 thou US. I would probably get it for very hilly terrain but that's about it. For anyone interested, I would recommend trying out an 8-speed...they're great.

DennisTheBald said...

Thanks for this post, nicely done.

I recently bought a trike with an eight speed Nexus. The manufacturer specs it with a Strumey Archer 8 speed hub, which has a larger range of gears. I wanted to add a Schlumpf High Speed Drive up front to give the trike 16 rather than 8 speeds. With the HSD 2 speed crank my trike has a wider range of gears than my 27 speed two-wheeled 'bent. All in all I'm quite happy with the Nexus hub.

I'm on my way out to change the cog to something a little smaller. Thanks for tip about working the snap ring from the end rather than the middle.