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Everything old is Nuvinci again

According to the Nuvinci wiki page, the general idea for this continually variable transmission has been around since the 1800s. The concept therefore is mature even if (some would argue) the technology is not. It’s a technology that has intrigued me since it arrived and won a design award some years back. Watching this video left me none the wiser.

 

I generally like the idea of hub based gears. For many people they’re the answer they’ve been looking for. Single speeds can be daunting for new riders and derailleur based gears can be a pain in the arse for old and new alike. Even high end stuff needs a fair bit of fiddling to keep operating smoothly. And cleaning. As in, more than the once yearly my SS gets. We’re starting to see 1 x 10 and 1 x 11 set-ups (at least in mountain bike circles; I ride a 1 x 9 and have for years) but most road bikes still have a complex arrangement of front and back derailleurs. This is intimidating for new riders.

I personally don’t mind having gears on the right bike. I own a road bike (which I rode twice this year already) and a mountain bike (which I’ve ridden plenty and then some), both with gears. They mostly work okay but there is a fair bit of cleaning and tweaking required to keep them operating in a way that doesn’t shit me. Ghosts shifts and the cantankerous rattle of half-tuned gears plagues my mountain bike unless I continuously feed it with my labour, expensive lubes and fresh parts. My other bikes are all single speeds and they’re happy with the bi-annual maintenance schedule I lavish on them. But if you need gear then what are your choices?

I’ve ridden the 3-speed Nexus. It’s a good cheap hub. The gear range irks me though. There is a gear that’s too high and one that’s too low. If you set the middle gear to be at your sweet point then both other gears are too far apart to be used much. The lower gear is for climbing only. And the higher gear is when you want to overtake trucks and cars on the freeway.

I’ve ridden Sturmey-Archer 5 speed and it was pretty good. The gap between the ratios still annoyed me a bit. Mostly I think I just wanted my sweet-spot gear and only had one above and below it. No doubt I could fiddle with this by changing cogs.

But what if you had an internal geared hub with no actual gears? What if you had a continuously variable transmission? Well I love that concept straight away. But how does it ride?

I was given the opportunity to give the Nuvinci hub an extensive test ride. By extensive I mean all the up the street and back. And it’s pretty cool. It’s weird but cool. There are no gears but you can change gears. You see what I mean? Obviously not. You twist the throttle and your return for effort changes but there is no change of gears. There are no degrees between one ratio and the next. You can be anywhere on the spectrum.

Which is a little disconcerting in a way. How do you know if you’re in the right gear if there is no gear? It’s a bit like that question about music or food or coffee that hasn’t been reviewed yet? How do you know you like it if no-one else has told you? You just have to make up your own mind. Which is weird in a way you don’t expect it to be.

I reckon you adjust quick enough. I owned a Honda with CVT and it was weird to drive but you got used to it. The Nuvinci is a lot better to ride than the CVT in the Honda was. If you planted your foot in the Honda for a quick getaway the CVT would respond by winding itself out in the opposite direction. Nothing would happen for a while. It was like a rubber band being wound up. You got used to the notion that you couldn’t jump out into traffic. But the Nuvinci is in whatever gear ration you tell it to be in. It’s not going to wind itself out in response to your effort. It’s continuously variable but it’s not automatic.  I image you have to get used to interpreting the the diagram of the little man on the hill but other than that, just set and forget. A more simple system is yet to exist.

nuvinci gear indicator

That little guy above, he’s the one who shows you what gear (I know there are no gears but I don’t have a better word for it) you’re in. When he’s pointing uphill, so are you. When you’re on the flat he’s like this:

nuvinci gear indicator on flat

It’s a cute idea and a simple way of showing you what gear you’re in but it’s probably redundant. You’re in whatever gear (ratio) you’re in and it’s the right gear (ratio) because you’re in it. If it was the wrong one then you’d probably pick another spot on the spectrum.

The hub is so perfect in so many ways that I start to wonder where its flaws are. One that occurs to me straight away is efficiency. Within the confines of my extensive testing I can’t really say I noticed whether there was any resistance or not. The feeling of riding it is too strange to give you much feedback on efficiency. The other issue is maintenance. It’s a beautifully simple piece of engineering (check the video above) so you would hope that reflected in reliability. You’ll have to trawl the internet for answers on that one though because all I can say is, in the time I rode it (hmmm…1 minute…) I had no mechanical issues. (Insert smiley face here to indicate some level of irony, if you wish.)

nuvinci hub

In terms of questions about efficiency I think you need to look at the market this is aimed at. You’re not keeping up with your mates in the hills on this bike. You’re commuting to cafes and workplaces or going for Sunday rides. You’ve probably got yourself some decent fat tyres and some flappy clothes on already, so the hub’s efficiency isn’t going to be a question you’re need to ask yourself. If you are, then you’re probably not the right market for the Nuvinci hub.

The other hurdle is the price tag. The Chappelli with Nuvinci hub that I rode was a smidgen over a grand. What I can tell you is they tend to sell themselves once people have ridden then. So if you’re in the market for something other than an SS, get yourself down to a Chappelli store and do what I did. Take it for a ride up the street and back. It’s a unique experience and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I know I did.

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