Sturmey Archer XL-FDD & X-RD3 review

Continuing on from my last post about my Raleigh Superbe drum brake conversion, I've now clocked up about 500km on my Sturmey Archer drum brake hubs, I've managed to cycle through some icy roads, get a bit soaked in rainy weather and pedal down some bumpy muddy towpaths. After a few initial niggles I've had no real major problems, well apart from the freewheel rattle that I had before, it's come back.  I suspect through spinning the hub, the grease gets flicked outwards by centrifugal force inside the hub, also I suspect the sub-zero temperatures here in the mornings doesn't help either.
I'll start of with a few things, I suspect that the Tektro FL-750 levers I have are a bit on the small side for drum brakes like these.  The official Sturmey Archer levers are basically big 4-finger levers, much like the type you used to get on MTB's from the 80's and 90's which were meant for traditional cantilever brakes.  I've used the 70mm Sturmey drum brake with that style of big 4 finger lever on a Gazelle town bike and the brakes felt stronger and more powerful.  The Tektro levers are more like a 3-finger lever, so I suspect this is why I can still pull the lever all the way to the bar and not get a complete wheel lockup with the cable adjusted.

My first impression of the drums was that they were a bit underwhelming, after riding them for a while I've found that is definitely not the case, a hard stop from 30km/h+ happens very rapidly and in a very smooth controlled manner.  They have definitely saved my bacon several times, many instances of cabs stopping suddenly or unseen potholes in the road.  I now know the reason why I was a bit underwhelmed by them, mostly because the self-energising action which has a strange feel compared to discs or rim brakes. At a walking pace, a hard pull on the levers won't flip you over the bars instantly like with V-brakes, but at higher speeds when you pull on the levers you feel a slight braking effort then a ramping up in power then you stop.  It's the leading shoe starting to catch and then apply itself to the drum which gives you that strange feel.

I'm still constantly surprised at how quickly a hard squeeze on both levers will bring the bike to a stop, the self-energising action just feels a bit strange.  I'm very happy with the power as it is, I'm thinking of upgrading the levers to the larger 4-finger Sturmey units maybe later to get even more power.  The modulation as I said in my previous post is excellent, the feel is pretty close to disc brakes, you can very easily adjust the amount of braking with more or less lever pressure.

The edge of the braking plate has a lip
which runs in a channel on the hub shell
which creates a labyrinth seal preventing
muck from entering.  There is a slight cutout
at the bottom for drainage, should any
water get in.
I haven't noticed a huge difference in power due to breaking in to be honest, as the rear drum was used, it was probably already broken in, the front was brand new and it had reasonable power to begin with which hasn't really changed much.  The front definitely does most of the braking, just the rear by itself is still a bit underwhelming, by itself it will bring the bike to a stop eventually; I'd say it's about equivalent in power to a good single pivot rear.  The 70mm rear drum I used on my friend's Gazelle with the big 4-finger levers felt a bit stronger however, so I suspect my impressions are limited by my choice of the smaller Tektro levers.

Even in inclement weather, including some decent rain and some ice the brakes have remained faultless, the best thing about hub based brakes is the consistency, you just heave on the levers in any weather and it will stop exactly the same way.   I'm quite used to the rim brake technique of skimming the brakes in the wet occasionally to clear the rims of water, so when I do need to actually brake it will start biting sooner rather than later.  Although in reality, this technique isn't that great in traffic and there is still a delay from when the lever is squeezed to when the brakes start to bite.   The drums just work instantly which means you can really depend on them to get you out of trouble.

The front XL-FDD hub incorporates a 3.0watt dynamo as well as a 90mm drum brake, this is hooked up to a Busch + Muller Lyt headlamp and a Toplight D rear lamp.  From some tests that I have seen, the Sturmey Archer dynamo isn't as low drag as the SON or high-end Shimano units, however from my own riding I can't really tell any difference whether it's turned on or off.  I guess that for the type of riding I'll be doing on the Superbe that drag isn't really an issue with any quality dynamo hub.  The headlight is noticeably brighter than when it was powered by the lower wattage vintage Sturmey Archer AG dynohub that came with it originally.  I've had no problems with the dynamo otherwise, it just works perfectly fine, not much to report.

The X-RD3 hub features a 3 speed epicyclic hub more or less identical to the current crop of Sturmey Archer 3 speed hubs, it has the NIG (no inbetween gear) feature which means there is no neutral position between normal and high gear like the old hubs.  Also when I tore it down initially I noticed that compared to the older design of the AW hubs, the machining and casting of the parts was generally finer and a lot more precise.  Initially I did find a broken main pawl which I replaced, since then there have been no problems.  I have had the occasional slight crunch sound sometimes when changing gears and pedalling but so far this hasn't had any negative effects.

The rattle I discussed earlier is really starting to bug me, the noise is bordering on unbearable, coasting along in high gear emits this great rattling sound.  This would never have been a problem with the oil lubricated hubs of old, as well I appreciate the fact that an occasional top up of the oil in the hub will leak out a bit of oil bringing out any contaminants as well, which avoids a teardown for a very long time.  The current grease lubricated hubs will require a teardown every few years and a replenishment of the grease, I also don't like the thought of all the gears grinding around in dirty grease later in its life.  I'll have to make a decision what to do when I pop the hub open next time.  Other than the rattle which is only a minor problem the hub has been excellent, shifting is more or less the same as the old design.

While the hub got covered in a bit of road
muck,  the drum brake stays completely
sealed from the elements
The Sturmey Archer XL-FDD and X-RD3 combination makes for great update to an old design, they did in the past make the BF front drum hub as well as the AB 3 speed drum hub in the past, however this modern setup incorporates a 3.0w dynamo in the front as well as the improved NIG internals.  The drums offer consistent, reliable and strong braking in all conditions.   Maintenance is more or less non-existent other than cable adjustment until the shoes wear out, which will take a very long time.  My only note is that with larger brake levers with more leverage and cable pull, I should be able to get even more performance out of the brakes.

The dynamo so far has worked without any fault, I can't give any real opinions about drag other than I didn't notice anything excessive.   The gearing in the rear hub is also excellent, very dependable and simple like the old AW design but without the faults.  The grease lubrication is something that I am a little wary about, I much favour the oil lubrication of the old hubs, as well as the fact that I may have to tear down the hub in a year or so to replenish the grease instead of dropping in some oil every now and then.

Overall though, the conversion has gone really well even with the problems that I did experience.  The drums allow me to ride in inclement weather and on wet roads without any fear of non-functioning rod brakes.  At the beginning of Sturmey Archer's history, they were a very innovative and high quality company.  They largely pioneered the Dynohub and the geared hub; their products were well made and innovative.  However, it started its slow progressive decline as a company from about the 70's and reached its low point in the early 2000's when it went bankrupt and was sold to Taiwanese Sunrace.  Much like the stories of many British manufacturers.  However Sunrace has really resurrected the Sturmey Archer name, even though they are no longer made in England, the spirit of the old Sturmey Archer is back for good.  The new hubs are fantastic, and they have the widest array of models, shifter options, mounting options as well as a vast back catalogue.  No other hub gear on the market comes close in this respect.

Thanks for reading.

UPDATE February 2012
Since the snowfall over the weekend in London, I've been out and about riding twice in the snow, the hubs have worked faultlessly.  The ability to very lightly and smoothly feather the brakes has proved invaluable in preventing skiding on loose ice and snow.  Even with the whole hub and wheel covered in snow and muck, there was no effect on braking performance, they performed flawlessly. More pics here

UPDATE March 2012
I've done about 1200km on the hubs now and I've noticed that the braking strength has gotten that extra little bit stronger over the past few hundred k's.  The rear just locks up if I don't have much weight on the back of the bike and the front will bring it to a stop a little bit quicker than before. I have done no maintenance to the brakes whatsoever this whole time.

UPDATE July 2012
The mileage now is about 2700km, I've ridden these hubs through a lot of rain, as the summer here has been extremely wet.  The braking has performed flawlessly and is still powerful and consistent.  I think I know what the slight crunch sound when taking off from a stop is, I suspect the position of the pawls inside the hub in a certain position isn't perfectly aligned with the ratchet in the inside of the hub shell which means it doesn't fully engage, and then slips until the next position when it grips.  It's only really minor so not really a big issue.  The only maintenance I have done this whole time to the hubs is add a few drops of oil in the back and turning the cable adjuster to take up a little bit of slack.

Update January 2013
One year on with Sturmey Archer drum and dynamo hubs

Update January 2014
Since fitting compressionless cable outers which significantly increased braking power on the front, I've managed to bend the forks.  Please be careful if you are installing these on forks not designed for a drum brake.  More information here


  1. I think I've had the same rattling as you with the XRD3. Eventually I had to take the hub apart for another reason and when I reassembled it, the rattle had stopped. It seemed to be caused by the piece which engages with the planet cage in third gear, which was altered in shape slightly in the NIG versions of the hub, when coasting it would push the indicator Rod in and out rapidly causing a rattle. When I tweaked the hub I didn't do anything to this piece directly, I believe that it might have been down to the bearing come adjustment being slightly wrong originally. Since then the hub has been fine for me. Hope this vague comment helps you sort it out.

  2. Hey there, I wrote about the problem in a previous post here and the rattling is caused by the planet pinion pins spinning when the clutch is engaged with them in high gear, the ramps on the face of the clutch cause it to bounce up and down. When freewheeling, the clutch and driver are stationary whilst the ball ring is fixed to the hub which is rotating with the wheel.

    Normally the gear ring which has the main pawls should stay stationary and you should hear the main pawls, however because the clearance between the gear ring and the ball ring is very close, if there is too much grease it will get pulled along with the rotating hub and thus spin the planet cage, which spins the pinion pins under the stationary clutch causing the rattling.

    I popped open my hub last weekend and removed most of the grease from the hub and only left a thinnish layer on the internals, this has finally fixed the rattle issue and now it just freewheels beautifully.

  3. Hi All,
    I have a problem with my X-RD3 drum brake. It won't lock the wheel. This is a little bit annoying because I don't feel safe (locking the wheel is too important in critical situations), but also I love whellieing particularly at high speeds. Not-locking rear brake is just taking a big chunk of fun away my daily rides. I have thought about putting back V-brakes, but given that I cannot get rid of the X-DR3 drum brake I thought I might try to fix it.
    It is hard to say what the problem is, when I bought the hub second hand I disassembled it completely, after it was fine – beside the brake issue – and I have been using it for 12 months now. I just cannot do without wheelieing any more.

    1) Could the problem be that I have not assembled the brake properly? Has anyone ever had issues with assembling drum brakes and losing out on performance?

    2) I use London Boris's bikes sometimes, which fit drum brakes, and I have found locking rear wheels on about 15% of cases. Quite poor, but how comes that those 15% lock? What’s the trick?

    3) Do you think that I might need to change the brake unit? Is it worth it to buy a new one -£39- if then I am going get the same issue? (I can get a V brake with good pads for £15).

    Any suggestion, shared issue, etc is appreciated! Thank you!

  4. Hey there,
    Mine generally won't lock the rear wheel either in the dry by itself, however if I brake both front and back the deceleration shifts my weight to the front and the back will just skid as I'm about to stop. When do you feel you need to skid the rear wheel? I've found it's never been a problem for me riding on the road, the only time I like to lock the back is when I want to do some awesome skidz :)

    1) As long as you've referred to the exploded diagrams it should be correct, I imagine it'd be difficult to assemble the drum part of it incorrectly unless you have actually disassembled the backing plate itself, although that is reasonably simple.

    2) The boris bikes use the Nexus band brake which is also used on a lot of utility bikes. I've found them generally to be woeful and inconsistent from bike to bike.

    3) I would just leave it, but if you really want more power either go for the V's or upgrade to the XL-RD3 which has the larger 90mm drum.

  5. I'm going for the V brake! Thanks for your opinion!

  6. Thanks for the exhaustive review - I've been riding with an XFD and an X-RD3 now for almost two years. They are very reliable and I was even thinking of upgrading to a 10mm drum on the front wheel. But reading that it bent your fork makes me wanna keep the smaller 70mm one.
    As for the crunching sound while pedalling forward: I had this noise as well. Turned out to be the thread of my left pedal that was emitting the noise. Greased it and now the crunching is gone.

  7. had V brakes on my Claud butler and was booled over by their power blasting all others i had had, into dust. i greased the pivots for longevity and stopped one side sticking over the other and one block lightly dragging when released and not centralising the blocks don't last very long and the difference between wet and dry performance is massive they are not maintenance free but i loved them cos they were better than anything else and were the latest thing, NEW! i would look at Sturmey Archer hubs and smile "oh how quaint by gum we've come a long way since then", little did i know at the time how superb these quaint old things really are. now travel forward 20 years. I say there are only two braking systems for pedal cycles and indeed ebikes too that are worth "its salts"; disc and drum and though the drum don't have the aggressive snarl of an MT5 the X-FDD ain't no pussy cat no wonder the larger XL-FDD is a fork bender that (takes some force) and is normally reserved for use on tandems and trikes. my X-FDD drum is fantastic No fiddling Low maintenance High modulation loads of feel on the leaver Inspire confidence during use Iv'e never locked my MT5 nor my X-FDD both stop on a sixpence. the 2.4w alternator is abit too puny feeding the front light alone streachest the limit. with work and more investment a handy USB charging point can be installed
    i run the X-RD5(w) rear, again brake wise is flawless and yes like my MT4 i can lock it up adjusted properly the 70mm drum is, really is one hell of a brake. once installed on a bike and you gotit ride ride aND RIDE. Cheap as chips compared to most they even suit ebikes a heavy duty rim laced to a X-RD3 hub costs £200 as of 12/2019 be lucky to find just a hub for that from anyone else

  8. Hiya,
    I enjoyed reading your post and wanted to thank you for all the helpful information in your review!

    I myself am on the look out for a set of Sturmey Archer lights for my Raleigh Sprite 27 to replace my Norco tire dynamo lights. If you know of somewhere I might find them, I’d be really grateful to you if you would let me know, they seem to be out of stock...

    So I’m curious, it comes with the hub(s)? so does that mean the wheel needs to be re-laced and the original hub replaced?

    I’m new to this lighting system and not sure how it all works.


  9. Hi, I run 70mm drums front and back , I had V brakes on my Claude Butler first in 2003/4 was booled over by their strength, but were typical rubber block in the wet and I was always tinkering with them . Maintenance high. Then 2018 I had Mt5 front 203mm disc and Mt4 rear 180 mm disc very powerful 180mm front with double pads was however disappointing in the wet . Up graded to 203 mm and replaced the two double pads with four single ones. Now very good, wet too but my word it squeals like a hundred banshees in he rain. Now 2020 I run the 70mm drums. Initially I thought they were weak and woolly , so I bought the Xl- front and the Xl-rd5 bare hubs for upgrade. Meanwhile I am running a tongsheng conversion with their electric cutout leavers, then one day on lockdown I decided to replace with Sturmey Archer leavers with the parking brake button . Yahoo transformation what a brake . Now do I even need to think about any upgrade. Reading above I intend to get uncompressible outers first. Every bit counts. The Sturmey leavers take longer than standard nipples on cable . Get rid of fancy fashionable short one finger leaver and use ones designed for use with the drum and remember there is more to a drum brakes system than the drum itself. I conclude the drum brakes are the equal of any thing out there maintenance very low if not free. When I first read that Xl- equals bent forks I laughed tee-hee but not now. They really are very very good .

  10. Menial cherub , you are at the beginning of your illuminating project .Good luck. You can either buy a hub and get it built up, or get a wheel ready made with the hub of your choice. That is often cheaper than a ‘build ready made’ can be machine built by robots . The hand built way you can choose hub , rim, and spokes. But to stick with lighting think what do I want from my lighting system. Then design it , assemble, bring together components compatible with each other. I use 6 v 3 w larger types it will do both front and back SoperNova led’s are great Halogen bulbs use more than led but less than filament. Google has loads of info easy to get everything is on e bay . Save for longer and get a good setup then you got virtually maintenance free, free lighting, till death us do part .

  11. In 2019 after putting in a warranty claim on my Raleigh Motus Grand Tour bosch al+ ebike that developed a consistent and very noticeable creaking bracket sound from the motor, a sound I was familiar with on my previous tranzx ebike after so many miles. I was very unimpressed and despite the very undulating pennine terrain ive even lost interest in disc brakes it seems as im clinging to this 531 nigel dean touring frame that originally had 70mm drums and a 7 speed freewheel. I converted from the original 70mm freewheel mounted hub to the 10 speed cassette mounted X-RDC model on the rear and am literally in the process of fitting the XL-FDD to the front. Hopefully will be a bit safer in terms of stopping power on the steeper hills. Ive heard of these brakes snapping/cracking someones fork from the flex.

    I looked at the internal gear models but I wasn't particularly impressed apart from tales of how the old ones just need a bit of oil now and then and are very robust. The opposite seems to be the case with what I've read of the reviews for the modern versions of the internal gear drum hubs. I have noticed mixed reviews of the X-RDC but it's served me perfectly fine, would have definitely preferred a 90mm drum bbably the levers letting me down as you've said. I've definitely noticed stronger leverage with these than the original and older levers. I've managed with a 3x 9 speed sora setup I hope the upgrade will have me content with braking on the hills if not ill have to pay for new rear triangles plus a rohloff disc hub. Which I'd see as giving up a bit but I have faith.

  12. Thank you for this article! I loved the long term results.