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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. –  Mσᶎ 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 :) –  Mσᶎ 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. velovision.com/showStory.php?storynum=1216 –  Chris H Mar 7 '14 at 9:33

1 Answer 1

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. –  Mσᶎ 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) –  Mσᶎ Mar 9 '14 at 0:08

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