Friday, January 15, 2016

Here We Go Again: Freewheeling Cranks

Does anybody out there remember freewheeling cranks? Shimano introduced such a system in the late 1970s that they called Shimano FFS - for "Front Freewheel System." It had a freewheeling device built into the crank-bottom bracket interface. Combined with an extra stiff rear freewheel (Shimano called it a "friction freewheel") the system was designed so that the chainrings and chain would continue to move when coasting, thereby allowing the user to shift gears while coasting. The late great Sheldon Brown referred to it as "a solution in search of a problem."

Show of hands. Who's too dense to figure out shifting? WE ARE!

Apparently some beginning cyclists couldn't get the concept of shifting their new 10-speed derailleur bikes only while pedaling.

I can just picture them bringing their "defective" bikes back to the shop.

Customer: "There's something wrong with my new bike."
Bike Shop Manager: "Tell me about the problem."
Customer: "This thing won't shift when I'm coasting."
BSM: "That's not how it's supposed to work. You have to be pedaling when shifting."
Customer: "But why doesn't it work when I'm coasting?"
BSM: "That's not how it's designed. The chain has to be moving to get from one cog to the other. The chain doesn't move when you're coasting"
Customer: "So what are you saying? You can't fix it? I want a refund!"
BSM: . . . . (grrrrrrrrrr) . . .

Marketed along with Positron, Shimano's early attempt at indexed shifting, it seemed that the company was convinced that beginning cyclists were incapable of learning new skills - and the thing that kept so many American adults from riding bikes was basic incompetance.

By the way, the FF System utilized the "friction freewheel" on the rear hub as a safety measure. The rear freewheel was much stiffer than the front one, so the chain would continue to move when coasting - but the chain could still be stopped if something got caught in it, such as clothing, or a shoe, or someone's hand, etc.

FFS was made available on some models by Schwinn (the Suburban comes to mind, but there were others), and some department-store bicycles. The system was dropped in the early '80s because it was a bust - heavy, complicated, and ultimately unnecessary. And of course, repair/replacement parts were only available for a couple of years afterwards. I knew a guy who had a FFS-equipped Schwinn that totally seized up and I remember how dismayed he was when he was told it couldn't be fixed -- the only repair was to replace the entire crank, bottom bracket, and rear freewheel with "normal" parts.

Big surprise - but freewheeling cranks are BACK!

The French company HxR has just introduced a new product they call Easy Shift.

The Easy Shift crank is made for the latest 1x11 "Enduro" MTB drivetrains. Like the old Shimano FFS, it has a freewheeling mechanism built into the crank, but it is paired up with a true fixed-gear 11-speed rear hub. No "friction freewheel" here - so don't get anything caught in the chain, 'cause you'll lose it. Granted, that's the case with any fixed-gear drivetrain, but just sayin'.

Instead of being marketed for incompetent neophytes, the Easy Shift is claimed to be great for "technical" MTB conditions. But it's unclear just how much abuse the system can take. It's apparently necessary to pair the Easy Shift crank with a combination "bash guard" and "chain guide" -- to protect it from impacts below, and to keep the always-moving chain from derailing off the chainring.

I still question whether such a thing is necessary, but if anyone out there decides they can't live without it, being able to shift when coasting doesn't come cheap. The Easy Shift crank and bottom bracket alone are listed at about 450. Adding a chainring, the fixed-gear 11-speed hub, and the bash-guard/chain-guide takes the price up to 995. Based on current exchange rates, that's probably about $490 - $1090. Phew!

Don't be surprised if Shimano gets the last laugh by re-introducing their own FFS. I can see the ad tagline now:

See? We Told You So!


  1. Learned something new today. Time for beer and wings. Thanks.

  2. Surely, this "new" technology is going to require a new style of BB or rear axle...


  3. Have you read about the Pinion gearboxes? From what I gather, they’re expensive, require a special frame, are a bit heavier than a traditional drivetrain, and can be somewhat noisy. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering if they would be just the ticket for expedition touring, particular the ones equipped with Gates drives. There’s a Swiss company that puts them in titanium frames, but at upwards of seven grand I don’t think there’s much chance I’ll be getting one.

    1. The gearboxes that fit into the bottom bracket are another idea that goes way back and was discarded as heavy and complicated. For internal gearing, the hub is definitely more common and proven.

    2. "For many a Panacea." Priceless!

  4. There is no idea so bad that nobody will try to revive it.

  5. When I was young, my mom's bike had FFS & Positron on it, not that we requested it, it was just stock spec. For her, an occasional recreational cyclist, it worked well, and was still working many years later when we decided to upgrade her to a much nicer bike.

    I think you are being a bit harsh on it. Shimano obviously perceived a problem at the low end of the market, and attempted to solve it, with the goal of making a technical improvement at the entry level. You and your readers are not the intended marketplace, especially not in hindsight.

    OK, so this was a "failed" experiment, in that production was ceased a few years after introduction, but it wasn't recalled; it worked well enough for it's intended audience. If it had been more successful (and success here is not end user driven, but by product managers adopting it on an OEM basis), who knows where it would have led? We do know the Positron aspect was a direct predecessor of SIS.

    An effort to introduce a conceptually similar system at the high end, by a small company is probably misguided, but who knows. They may find enough of a niche audience to be viable. And if so, maybe the big boys will copy it.

    1. Positron/FF was introduced around the time I started working in bike shops. A Shimano rep explained the rationale for it.

      Shimano was looking to make inroads into the European market. The British weren't ready to trade their Sturmey Archer hubs for Shimanos any more than the French or Italians were ready to abandon Campagnolo, Huret or Simplex derailleurs for Shimano's offerings. However, the company's marketing department noted that in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries where nearly all cyclists were still using internally-geared hubs, which allowed riders to shift while they weren't pedaling. Shimano's R and D folks figured that riders in those countries could be enticed to ride bikes with derailleurs if a system were developed that allowed shifting without pedaling. Or something like that.

    2. I still tend to agree with Sheldon's assessment, but that explanation/rationale makes some sense.

  6. Hey, love your blog! Been enjoying you for about a year now.

    I would however, offer a thought about the bash guard being necessary to protect the system.

    That's honestly no different than any bash system for any number of technical "trail" bikes. It protects the ring and chain from damage during rock and log overs, and many will also have the chain keeper up top too. Their type is frame mounted, yet functionally no different that a spider mounted bash ring.

    Constant motion is not even a factor at that point, chains can just pop off in extreme riding conditions, when no front derailleur is in place, as is typical on the newer 1X drivetrains. DH bikes have run chain retention devices for at least 20 years due to the choppy nature of the riding.

    Narrow Wide type, anti drop rings have made this kind of a non starter at this point, so it is indeed, kinda funny to see a forward step in "tech" using a backward looking retention device, so there's your retro grouch angle, gift wrapped for you!

    Keep on grouchin'!