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Shaft driven bike

I've ridden a shaft driven bike once, when biking in deserted mines in Limburg. They used shaft driven bikes because the mines are damp, and a shaft can be enclosed completely, protecting it against the moisture.

I like the clean look of a shaft driven bike, as opposed to a chain driven bike. So I'm interested in getting one. But I found some information (Dutch) that hints at a shaft being a bad choice for a drive train, due to high wear on the gears.

bicycle shaft drive

Does anyone have experience with riding shaft driven bikes? Is the wear on the gears that bad? Are there any other issues I need to be aware of?

‡ An experience I can recommend to everyone. With a dynamo fed headlamp, if you stop, it's pitch black all around you.

I used the term "cardan shaft" in an earlier revision of this question, but I think now that use was incorrect. A cardan shaft seems to be a shaft that transfers rotation at an angle, using two universal joints. Drive shafts in bikes usually use gears.
"Cardan" however, is not a brand name.

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Interestingly that website also advertises their bicycles, but not shaft-driven bicycles. – Móż Mar 7 '14 at 3:40
I does seem that the mechanism would be heavy and expensive, with few advantages in normal use. I can't see them being used except in special situations (or unless they somehow become all the rage, of course). – Daniel R Hicks Mar 7 '14 at 3:51
Some of the vintage ones were no worse than their chain drive competition :) – Móż Mar 7 '14 at 5:06
Perhaps a higher-rep user could create a tag shaft? – SQB Mar 7 '14 at 7:18
Here's a review online - you may have seen it, but the dealer happens to be near me. This model has hub gears and the reviewer goes into some detail. – Chris H Mar 7 '14 at 9:33
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I own & ride an XDS COM10 2014 bike. This is fitted with a Sussex (Taiwan) shaft drive transmission & Shimano Nexus 8 speed hub gear.

I have used it regularly for over a year & travelled about 4000km on it without any issues . It works perfectly, smooth & quiet.I thought it was very reasonably priced at about AUD700 brand new on-line. It is very similar to ride as a Trek S500 2007 Nexus 8 speed chain drive bike I own, only without the chain maintenance. I intend to fit it with Shimano Roller brakes like the Trek S500 which would make it about as maintenance free as one could get with a bike.

Downside would be the proprietary nature of the shaft drive system but it appears to be a high quality product & I think it will be durable But I didn't pay that much for the bike anyway & bought it because of the unique factor.

The front drive is totally sealed, the rear drive well protected & both are well lubricated. It is the same system used for more than 20 years by Dynamic Bicycles USA. Removing/replacing the rear wheel is easy & easier than the chain drive Trek bike.

I note that there is plenty of negative opinion about this type of bike but it seems to come from people who have not actually experienced using them, which is disappointing as I think they have a lot going for them for recreational/commuting use, as do internal hub gear bikes in general.

It works for me !

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My problem is that I haven't found anyone who's ridden one very far. 4000km is about 9 months commuting for me, and my current commuting bike has more than 40,000km on it (built 2007 at 5Mm/year or more). The Rohloff hub in it has at least twice that. So when I talk about longevity I'm talking on those terms, rather than shorter distances or replacing the bike every year or two. I fear you'll find out in 5 years time that everything on the bike is wearing out but you can't service the shaft drive so have to buy a new bike. – Móż Feb 16 at 10:55

I don't think I've ridden that particular brand but I have ridden a couple (one flex, the other rigid). My experience was that on one bike especially I could feel the shaft wind up under power, which made me reluctant to apply full power (breaking someone's expensive shaft drive bike is a bad idea).

The Dutch article covers the main problems. To recap:

  • very high torque meaning heavy parts are required, and shaft wind-up may be detectable to the rider.
  • high torque also means accelerated wear for gears
  • two pairs of gears means extra losses compared to a chain drive (the gear arrangement also increases losses compared to a chain because there's more metal sliding on metal under pressure)
  • usually cannot change the gearing, what's designed in is what you get. Edit: I have seen internally geared hubs fitted so you can get multi-gear shaft drives, but you're still locked into that particular model hub gear (you can't swap the 3 speed hub gear for a 5 or 8 speed hub gear).
  • unusual design makes servicing harder, and replacement parts may not be available.

The slop that the article complains about is not necessarily a problem by itself. But in that case it's an indication of premature wear, which is a problem. Some slop is inevitable, and old shaft drive bikes used to be designed with considerable slop and were quite wear-tolerant as a result. They traded efficiency for that, but it meant you got a bike that worked ok, and kept working ok for 20 years.

Another problem is that the parts that are wearing are not mass market parts, they're short-run precision made out gears using hard to work material (and they're cast then machined, which is expensive by itself). That translates to expensive. By comparison bicycle chain is almost a commodity - it's made by the kilometre by several manufacturers, so it's cheap and there is effective competition.

A common alternative is the full chain guards often seen on European bikes. That gives most of the benefit of the chain drive but using common bike parts in a way that any bike shop can service. It doesn't work as well, IMO, but a service interval of 10000km or so is better than an exposed chain and IMO a good compromise between cost and durability. As this question suggests a major benefit of chain oil is preservation rather than lubrication.

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Although you can't change the gearing from the drive itself, there are internally-geared hubs that are compatible with shaft drives. – R. Chung Mar 7 '14 at 3:29
Edited to make it clearer. – Móż Mar 7 '14 at 3:35
Probably the best alternative, if you want an enclosed drive, is a fully-enclosed belt drive. – Daniel R Hicks Mar 7 '14 at 3:49
Thank you for your answer. There are a few points I'd like to make. First off, "cardan" is not a brand, but rather the name of the mechanism. As noted in my latest revision, not the mechanism actually used. A full chain guard is indeed very common over here, but if not adjusted properly, they get noisy as the chain drags across it. Also, I'd like to have a different look (I'd be lying if I denied that this is a major factor in my interest in shaft driven bikes). Lastly, thanks for adding that image. – SQB Mar 7 '14 at 7:50
@MikeBaranczak exactly. Remember that a car engine and a cyclist generate similar torque. The car driveshaft will be 3-5cm in diameter, with gears significantly larger than that. So the bike will wear faster (it's a square or worse relationship, 1/5th the size means it wears 25x as fast, if you're lucky) – Móż Mar 9 '14 at 0:08

Update...I have now covered about 10,000km on my XDS shaft drive bike in about 2 years with no problems. No evidence of wear was visible when the drive system was recently dismantled & no unusual noise or play in the system. Everything working just fine so I'd say the long term prospects are good.The front bevel gear system is sealed & runs in EP transmission oil, the rear gears are enclosed & coated in EP grease.....the bike is now fitted with sealed Shimano Roller Brakes....the Nexus 8 speed hubgear is also a sealed unit....a low maintenance bike & very easy to live with.

I totally agree that the proprietary components would be close to impossible to source, these are the frame and the shaft drive system. I do have access to a complete spare shaft drive system which is a plus.....but I think that part could be the most durable part of the bike.

All the other bike parts are readily available standard components so not an issue at all. In fact they could be used to construct a conventional chain drive hubgear bike with an appropriate frame.

It seems the opportunity to purchase these bikes has almost gone.....I believe they are no longer in production. Sussex Enterprises Taiwan manufactured the drive systems, moved to China & later disappeared. Dynamic Bicycles USA, a main player in this area no longer manufactures or sells this type of bike. Not sure about XDS, maybe just selling existing stock.

I'm pleased with my wasn't a big investment but it exceeded my expectations for recreational use.

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That's both good (yay, you like the bike and it's lasting) and bad (what do you mean, they don't make them any more?) – Nuі Jul 6 at 5:51

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