Saturday, March 22, 2014

One Hub, Two Purposes… The Elusive BSA DP Hub in Action

With its aged champagne-green finish and its outburst of shimmering lugwork, the bicycle was lovely enough in its own right - to admire, to ride, and to photograph. The beautifully proportioned English "lightweight" - a BSA Gold Column - was built not long after the Second World War. And, by the look of it, it was well ridden and well appreciated by previous owners.

But it wasn't for its looks or pedigree that I'd been brought to this undisclosed location specifically to see the old machine. And as I stood now before Aaron its keeper asking "Are you sure you want me to ride it?" I knew I was about to try something few even knew existed. I certainly hadn't, until a couple of hours prior.

Earlier, in the basement of the Three Speed Hub, Nick chattily sifts through piles of rare old bike parts with the air of a person accustomed to sights that might make other vintage enthusiasts faint. Casually he pushes aside stacks of NOS Bluemel fenders, boxes of jewel-like quadrant shifters, heaps of full chaincases polished to an obscene sheen. Absentmindedly he toys with springs of Brooks saddles with model names I'd never heard of. But none of these things are what he wants to show me, and his search continues until he retrieves a small gleaming object from a back drawer. "Ever heard of these?…"  It's a BSA hub. A nice, shiny one too. But okay …so what?

Nick flips the hub over to reveal the inscription "DP." He searches my face for traces of recognition, and seems all the more pleased when none is forthcoming. "You've heard of the Sturmey Archer ASC hub yeah?" (English accent, conspiratorial smile...)

"The vintage 3-speed fixed? Sure. And I've tried the modern remake, the S3X."

"Right. Well in the '30s, BSA made a 2-speed fixed hub…"

"Oh?"

"…the Dual Purpose. And you know why it was called that?"

"Why?"

"Because this…" (pulls on the indicator chain on one side) "controls the speeds, and, you see this…" And as he tugs at the chain on the other side, I suddenly know, incredible as it is, the punch line that is coming... "switches from freewheel to fixed and vice versa."

Bang! There it was. Mind blown.

For several long seconds the basement is silent. And then: "These hubs are very rare. But my friend's got another one and it's built into a bike. Do you want to try it?" And soon we're en route to the BSA Gold Column.

Under the still-wintry Belmont sky I shiver with cold and trepidation as I approach this most unusual of machines.

The saddle height fits me with chilling precision, the reach suits me nicely. I have been shown how to operate the hub and sent on my way. The BSA's owner seems dangerously trusting of my good intentions and bike handling skills, and this instills in me a keen sense of responsibility as I eye the busy road on which I am to cycle.

The downtube shifters look so innocently normal. The right one switches from first gear to second. The left one switches the drivetrain from freewheel mode to fixed. I start off in free and push off. The gear is nice and easy, and with a flick of the right lever, I make it higher, than lower again. So far it is an ordinary vintage roadbike experience - with the exception that, as I soon discover, once the bike is in motion I haven't adequate hand strength to activate the front (and only) brake. As unpanickingly as possible, I slow down, then shift into fixed mode and brake with my feet. The smoothness with which I am able to carry out this operation surprises me, and I continue down the road (which, blessedly, has a bike lane) switching from fixed to free to fixed to free again. This is not as disconcerting as I expect. At the slow speed I am going, there is an ever so slight jolt during the free-to-fixed transition and an equally subtle sensation of "being let go of" (not unlike a glider at the moment it disconnects from a tug plane…) when switching from fixed to free. But that is all, and the transitions are very smooth.

Riding the bike in fixed mode, shifting gears feels equally smooth and natural. And in neither first not second gear do I experience the off-putting "dead spot" sensation like I do whenever I try the modern S3X.

The awe-inducing rarity of the DP hub and the lack of a functional front brake make me too nervous to truly enjoy riding this bicycle. But the experience is memorable enough so that the following night I dream of riding the BSA again - this time in the countryside, at great speeds, switching between gears and fixed/free modes with abandon. If these hubs were more common, how great would it be to set up my Mercian with one.

But common they are not. Produced from the mid-1930s through WWII and discontinued shortly after, the BSA Dual Purpose hub is one of the rarest, most holy-grailest hubs out there. Its discontinuation is all the more mysterious and disappointing considering the glowing praise of its performance from riders who have owned it.

"This hub is so good," says Nick, "someone should really do a kickstarter campaign to get them manufactured again." Nothing is impossible. But it's unlikely. The BSA DP hub is a piece of bike lore so obscure that few will ever hear of it. How improbable and delightful to have experienced one in action.

43 comments:

  1. I had no idea that such a thing existed until reading this. Very interesting bit of kit...

    The BSA and Hercules hubs were often the equals of the Sturmey units, so it isn't too much of a surprise.

    That is a very nice looking bike, too. Stainless lugs, really?

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  2. I've not heard of these either, but how fantastic! I'm just the sort of oddball for which this hub would be perfect. Here's hoping someone will bring these back to the market.

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    1. Why? Why would you ever need something like it? If this was a switch between a coaster brake and a freewheel - maybe (big maybe) I could understand that. I see no point in a 2-speed, switchable hub like this.

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    2. If you've ever found yourself too many miles from home on a fixed gear, out of gas and wore out, than a freewheel makes a huge difference. To be able to coast down the hills at speed without having to spin like a mad person, or even be able to stretch a calf on the bottom of the downstroke for 5 seconds. It's why so many people run flip-flop hubs on their fixed gear bikes, even though the freewheel is the same size as the fixed cog it dramatically reduces the misery when you're blown.

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    3. It's just like why you know the double necked Guitar is so freaking AWESOME! It just IS. Even though I have no idea what the purpose of it is, (two different tunings on one instrument?, redundant strings in case of breakage?, ask Cory K, he'll know) I just know BADASS when I see it.

      Spindizzy

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    4. I can totally understand why this would be useful. I bet it could take a couple hours off my 600k time, at the very least!
      I haven't gotten myself a S3X because of the amount of play it has.. also, if I had my druthers, I'd rather the direct-drive gear to be the middle one. And creature of habit that I am, I'm perfectly happy to keep riding brevets on my regular normal fixed gear.
      But I want a hub like this anyway!!

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  3. First, the bike. Are you sure that BSA has stainless steel lugs and not just nice chrome ones? I would be pretty shocked if they were SS back then(although I spend an embarrassing amount of time being shocked about stuff I thought I knew more about).

    Second, the hub. Whaaa?

    This is pretty swell. I wonder if this is what some guy tried to describe to me years ago, I thought he was talking about a 3 spd. Sturmey Archer that had 2 freewheel gears and a 3rd fixed ratio. It sounded like he was saying that you could select which gear was fixed with a separate lever but it was such a confused conversation(he was an airplane guy, not a cyclist) that I figured he was just mixing memories of two different bikes or something. Maybe it was this?

    Either way this is such a neat thing that I wish Sturmey Archer or someone would make one, I'd probably pay $150 or so. I wonder if an old Sturmey hub could be hacked to function this way? I've done some nasty things to old Sturmeys(fixed conversion/bi-chain etc.) but nothing that required much machining or making completely new types of parts. I think I understand a way it could be done and it seems beyond me, alas. The hipster/fixie scene is now moribund enough that there isn't likely to be enough interest in making new ones. The Hipster is DEAD, Long live the FIXIE!

    If you could get your hands on one though, would you have a bike that is so different in it's pace and manners that you wouldn't be able to ride it in a serious way with other folks on more typical bikes? I'm thinking about my Bi-Chain experiments, my recently built Retro-Directe and what happened when I built a 700c 3spd wheel for my old road bike last year. All those were gloriously successful as functioning bikes, sweet to ride with charm and insight into how things were done by hardcore riders of ages past, but they were too fast to ride hard on normal fixed gear group rides, yet far too difficult for me(YRMV) to ride with my friends on their modern geared bikes. So you either end up with a talented orphan or have to start a club ride just for these mongrels and have to devise and enforce all sorts of rules that start out fun and end up tiresome. Like those Historical Baseball Leagues.

    Bikes can be so dumb. Bikes can be SOOO dumb, but I would love to get my hands on one of these...

    Spindizzy

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    1. nope, could be chromed ones - will reword to avoid controversy

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    2. You might be correct about the stainless steel, V- the Second World War brought about *huge* advances in metallurgy. I just didn't expect to see them on a upper-mid level factory frame.
      The other divisions of BSA were capable of amazing feats, to be sure.

      I too would love to try a modern variant of this hub. Time to call in the engineer friends.

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    3. If there were SS lugs back then it would add a whole new layer of vintage compulsive want, let's hope there weren't.

      Spindizzy

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  4. I'm guessing it was about the late 70's when I saw one of these in our bike shop. An old guy brought his bike in to get cleaned up and road worthy and I'll be darned if it didn't have this hub. We all stared at it an took it out for a ride. Cool! We'd get lot's of odd bikes in as the bike boom was beginning and the older generation would bring in their attic bikes to access whether they should ditch 'em or repair 'em....This one was too cool to ditch...

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  5. That's the hub I want. I've been hesitating over a S3X -- I may eventually get one, but to use with a freewheel, not a fixed cog, because I like the direct drive high gear -- but I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to get a fixed/free hub. IIRC, SA made a fixed/free that had only one speed, but I never heard of a multispeed hub with that sort of clutch.

    Do you know the ratios?

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  6. I'd never heard of the hub until I read this post. Interesting, to say the least. I'd love to try one--or the S3X from the same period--myself.

    From what I've heard, the modern S3X is neither a very positive-shifting mechanism nor very durable.

    Birmingham Small Arms, a.k.a. BSA, started making bicycles in 1869 and continued to do so for nearly a century. Raleigh bought BSA in 1957 and retired the marque some time later.

    Their bicycles were well-respected; however, they attained even more renown for their components, which were the first choice of many early Tour de France and Six Day racers. Interestingly, they made a cassette hub (4 speed) from 1949 to 1953 which was intended for use with their then-innovative 4 Star derailleur gear. However, like the Cinelli Bivalent hub of a decade later, it was not a commercial success because racing teams as well as club riders were reluctant to use something non-standard, lest they should need to swap a wheel. (The other major precursor of the modern cassette hub, the Maillard Helicomatic, simply wasn't rugged enough: Almost everyone I knew who rode one broke at least one axle.)

    OK, enough history for now. I'm glad you had such a good experience.

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  7. Oh, I must mention that whenever I see "BSA", I think not only of the bikes and parts, but also of their motorcycles (My uncle rode one.) and the Boy Scouts of America. (Yes, I was one!)

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  8. My favourite BSA bike is the folding one they made for paratroopers in WWII: http://visualcollector.com/OBLI/BSABike.htm

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  9. "well proportioned"?

    that thing has a 67 degree sta!

    museum piece.

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    1. Last pro to use a 67 sta was Steve Bauer. Not that long ago. If it was useful for Steve in the pro peloton it has possible utility for many of us.

      It is 65 years old. Sure it's a museum piece. That you can ride.

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    2. BTW it doesn't have proper utility b/c it's a road bike, not a Dutch bike. Go ahead and set your road bike up like a Dutchie, see what your back says.

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    3. 67 is the new 76? Or maybe it's the other way around.

      The owner of the BSA actually rides it.

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    4. How long, how far, how fast? Going to the store? I can ride a unicycle to the store, doesn't make it a good road bike.

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    5. I'll have to do this one from memory, Jim. Can't find Velonews archives online. Very sure that's where I read this. Steve Bauer got dumped from the team after '94 season. He wasn't ready to retire. Went home to St. Catherine's and talked to the old 6day riders who had brought him along when he was a kid. They let him ride some of their museum pieces and told him he might extend his career by adopting shallow angles. Eddy Merckx heard the story, thought it was reasonable, and was willing to build the frames. Och' let Steve start the '95 season on probation. And unpaid unless he got results. The first group of frames had 66 degree sta. Steve rode those until Paris-Roubaix. Said he could motor along at 45kph all day but had difficulty finding topend and could not sprint at all. Eddy built a second run of specials with 69 degree sta and Steve finished the season on those.

      Real team frames as opposed to consumer frames almost all had 72 sta through the 1970s. 71 sta was more used than 73sta. Tony Rominger's hour record was on 71 sta. Current practice is just that. Fashion is fashion and little related to physiology. Steve did the shallow angles as an "old guy" expedient and he was about the same age as Velouria. What does not make sense to me is watching guys in their 50s and 60s mimicking what 25 year old pros ride. If Eddy Merckx and Steve Bauer and the old 6day pros concur that 66sta is useful for the pro peloton I take note.

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    6. I remember his bike, but realize anecdata is totally unreliable.

      Modern riders with very long femurs may end up with a 70 or so, but it's usually accomplished via set back. Start a frame at 68-69 for road is silly, guys like Bauer lie very far outside the statistical norm.

      66 is not useful for the current pro peloton, full stop. it's much more competitive now, every efficiency helps, including fits, science. Bauer rode his bike like that to take advantage of different muscles to use his massive strength and for any physical limitation he may have had.

      The game has changed massively. This bike is not well-proportioned or efficient for the mass majority of people, which of course was my point.

      I"ve seen thousands and thousands of positions on a road bike - not a single person runs this setup on modern roads b/c roads are much better.

      Merckx did. not. ride. a 66. Take note of that.

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    7. I'll bet anything Bauer doesn't ride that sta, if at all. right now. How much do you want to bet, anon. Merckx either. Or any old pro for that matter. No matter the terrain, on a road bike. You put that sta on a mtn bike, dutchie it's "well proportioned". Not in 2014 with drops bars. Put some miles in, find out yourself.

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  10. Birmingham Small Arms Dual Purpose Hub: I've found a scottish link: http://www.commonwheel.org.uk/bsa-dp

    L.

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    1. The fellows at The Common Wheel who restore the bicycles fairly know their stuff - there's a fascinating page on the website on how to restore Flying Scots (particularly how they re-align forks and frames), as well as lots of useful info and links to do with bicycle restoration:
      http://www.commonwheel.org.uk/everyday-flying-scots
      I expect Nick and the folks at Three Speed Hub would identify with these lads, and vice versa - bicycle mechanics are kindred spirits the world over.

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  11. "museum piece."

    Like you and me.

    The you should see my seat tube angle these days,

    CK

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    1. And that has what to do with a proper road race position?

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    2. In cyberspace no one can see you don your Groucho glasses.

      I think it might have more to do with a
      proper road race position circa 1946-48.
      The bike is a time traveler.

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    3. Well, that would infer our bloggist would know what proper geo is circa that era, wouldn't it? Do you know what "proper" was? I don't, but certainly it isn't "well proportioned" by modern standards as set up. In fact rather than to continue to have theoretical discussions why don't you set up your slack sta with a drop, ride the thing 50 miles over bad roads and report back to me if it's comfortable. You must ride in the drops for at least 33% of the time.

      These theoretical discussions are always borne from lack of experience. Eroica would've been a good test of theory.

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    4. Serves me right for taking the P, I guess.

      Carry on.

      Still, cool hub.

      Compare to this pic of a bike from a rider who did do the miles, around the same 5-year span:

      http://www.ilquotidiano.it/userdata/immagini/foto/414/bartali_61530.jpg

      and the bike in the pic:

      http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-J_dGE7hH9zo/UkGKUQOswJI/AAAAAAAAHZs/mi6AMhiWGYY/s1600/bartali22.jpg

      Looks to me to be quite close in geometry, allowing for the different camera angles.

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    5. Then you are blind. The second pic shows something more around 69, Anquetil's you can come close to determining set back due to slope and his butt sitting on the seat.

      You didn't read my upstream comments either, did you? Look at Jacques' femurs. They are freakishly long in proportion.

      I'm done talking to you about why modern bikes are what they are. If you haven't figured it out by now.

      You do know setback is a visual checkpoint, right? I don't know what you're "discussing". You don't have any basis to make the case a 67 is a good road position for the majority of people. An argument of "it looks the same, i like old bikes" doesn't cut it b/c you don't understand there's a huge dif btwn a 67 and a 70 on the bike.

      If you want real info don't debate it, study it. That's what I did. This is a total waste of time.

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    6. Okay. Please mind the moderating rules. Basta.

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  12. Vintage brakes have heavy springs. There are ways to deal with this short of anachronistic modern brakes.

    The BSA has a fairly long toptube and would be fine with North Roads bars and any period tourist lever. There are lots of period drop and partial drop bars that were routinely set up with tourist levers below the final length of the drop. Old tourist levers or even French guidonnets can be located below the tops of the bars in the same manner as modern cyclocross levers.

    Old levers for drop bars usually have a lot of reach. The lever sits a long way from the bar. A splayed open hand is not as strong as a fist. Short fingers may meet the lever only near the top of the blade where there is not so much leverage. The drop bar solution is a set of Weinmann #157 Junior levers which AFAIK were available from the late 50s so reasonably suitable. I have seen similar levers from CLB and Fratelli Pietra (Universal) and there are probably others. The other way to do it is to take a standard lever blade and bend it so it comes closer to the bar. This means less cable and pad travel so be cautious. Most moderns run the pads much closer to the rim than in the old days so it will not be a novel feeling.

    Myself I have the opposite problem. All modern brake levers seem made for tiny hands. They brake too quick and easy. I much prefer the old parts.

    If you wanted an old bike like the BSA for more than a very brief test ride brakes would be a very small obstacle.

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    1. My hands are small-palmed but with very long fingers, so I doubt it's a size issue. But I generally tend to dislike old style (non-aero) brake levers. Partly it's the springs as you say, which can indeed be adjusted. But partly it's the shape - my hands just can't find a good gripping position. Combine those levers with the rounded "shoulderless" bend of certain vintage handlebars, and the whole setup feels supremely uncomfortable. But to each their own. If I came to own a bike like this BSA and intended to ride it more than occasionally, I would have no problem altering the hbar setup to suit me. The parts on the bike shown are not original anyway. Notice this for example.

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    2. I saw a bunch of non-original in the set of pics at the blog page. With the extra detail it begins to look like what I ride. Anyway, glad that you would be ready to take on one of these. You like them so much.

      The breaking point where a lever is usable/not usable is not easy to know. A year back I got my sweetie a '67 for Christmas. It was all original with Weinmann brakes. She could not stop the bike at all. Couldn't begin to move the levers. I installed a set of first-gen C-Record levers because I had them. At first glance C-Record looks like any other vintage lever. The lever blades however do curve closer to the 'bar. Got a new set of black rubber hoods to match the black tape and black bike and the '67 Falcon has become her favorite bike. No braking problem at all with a very very small modification.


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  13. Cool bike, powered by a rare and historic hub. Just goes to show, you can learn a thing or two by reading Lovely Bicycle! I really enjoyed the post.

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  14. that is a really cool up. i'm just starting to learn about IG hubs since acquiring an early 50's British lightweight and plan to run a SA AW 3speed. but something like this would be really sweet. that BSA is pretty slick too, but i get neurotic when I see things like brake posts not in use.

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  15. This is pretty cool. I have a Torker KB2 with a kickback 2-speed hub and coaster brakes which I totally love. This is a very clean no nonsense bike with no cables or levers to worry about. The lower of the two gears is great for climbing, startups or when riding against the wind. The higher gear is the cruising gear. I highly recommend this bike to anyone who loves keeping it simple and clean.

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  16. I love fixed gear riding, but sometimes steep up hills and fast down hills aren't too much fun. This hub sounds like it would address those issues. Somebody should ask Phil Wood or Chris King to make a limited edition of it. Now that would be great!

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  17. http://hilarystone.com/CCgrearsandsprockets.html

    The lovely NOS hub in the photo is sold, the text says he has another used Sturmey TF. The Sturmey TF 2spd did not have freewheeling. There are not a lot of them. They are reputed as much stronger than the ASC 3spd and sell for a little less. Also they have a nice wide ratio and are comparatively light. I've seen 4 of them in person, about as many as I've seen ASC. Never personally seen or even heard rumours of the BSA DP.

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  18. strange coincidence today. not sure there are many of these BSAs around, but I got to see a track version of one these today. same color, chromed lugs and stays, except it wasn't drilled for brakes and had rear track ends. definitely checked the rear hub, but it looked like a regular BH airlite track hub. it was in an old lawn mower repair shop, mixed in with vintage british motorcycles. unfortunately the owner wasn't very talkative.

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  19. Could 3-d printing be used to re-create one of these?

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