Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hi-Lo Hubs

I've written before about Campagnolo's excellent Record hubsets from the '60s through the '80s. Made with only the smallest (and primarily cosmetic) changes from 1958 through approximately 1985, the Record hubs were so well made that it's not unusual to find examples that have seen decades of use and still spin like new. They were fully user-serviceable, and replacement parts such as axles or bearing cones were so plentiful that they can still be found today, so it isn't difficult to keep the old hubs going and going.

One very cool variation on the old Record hubs was the HiLo rear hub, which featured a low-flange on the left side, with a high-flange on the drive side. The point was to equalize spoke tension on the left and right sides of a dished rear wheel, thereby making the wheel stronger, though in reality, it actually makes little or no difference. No matter. The HiLo hubs were never very common, but they had such a cool "trick" factor that some people find them extra desirable. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I guess I'm one of those people.

I'm not positive if this is new-old-stock or what, but it sure
gleams like new. Inside and out, it is perfect. Functional jewelry.
I have a set of wheels built with a HiLo hub on my green Mercian, and those get pretty regular use. And just recently I managed to acquire another that I'll eventually get around to building into a super special set of wheels for a very special bike.

A bit of history: The HiLo hub was originally made for the West German cycling team for the '72 Olympics. They were a special request item, and while they attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, I'm not sure they were made available to the general public - or if they were, I don't know how many might have been made. I've read that another limited run of the hubs may have been made later in the '70s. The thing is, they were the kind of product that people would hear about - like "rumor has it" of their existence, but to actually find them may have taken a bit of doing, and they didn't appear in any of the catalogs in that decade. The scarcity and the whispers probably helped to create a mythical aura around them, making them seem even more special. A white whale, if you will.

1982 Olympic catalog scan from VeloBase.com
The HiLo hubs didn't become "official" until 1982 when they appeared in a single catalog, the "Olympic Catalog" which was released in preparation for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. One catalog - then they disappeared again forever.

I've done some searching to get an idea of how many of these hubs might have been made, but that information doesn't seem to be available. I did find one article that suggested that the early runs of the hubs, around the '72 Olympics, and a run in the later '70s, might have been around 500 each. How many more might have been made in '82? A thousand? More? Less? Who knows. Regardless, however uncommon they might have seemed back in their day, they do come up fairly regularly on eBay these days. In fact, I'd venture to say that eBay has made them easier to find today than they were when they were new.

So, back to the claim that the high/low flange design made for stronger wheels. People still debate it, and there are some who are convinced they are effective, but Jobst Brandt devoted a section in his authoritative book The Bicycle Wheel to the HiLo hub design. His basic conclusion is that it really makes no difference in spoke tension or wheel strength. He wrote:

"Hubs with a high flange on the right and a low flange on the left have been made in an attempt to counteract rim offset (dish) in multispeed rear wheels. This arrangement has no effect except with radial spoking. Offset, the principal problem with rear wheels, can be reduced only by moving the freewheel farther away from the centerline, or by narrowing the flange spacing. Bringing the left flange closer to the center improves the balance of spoke tension, but only at the expense of reducing lateral strength on both sides of the wheel."

"In a high-low hub the larger diameter of the right flange can help balance tension by about five percent, but only if the spokes are radial. With tangential spoking, no improvement is achieved by the high flange because its spokes have the same length and leave the hub from the same lateral position as the ones from the small flange. . . High-lows cannot reduce vertical loads, the principal cause of spoke failures. Torque loads have so little effect that high low hubs offer no improvement over conventional hubs."

There's no difference in spoke length?
Looking at the different flange diameters, it seems to defy logic, but Brandt was essentially correct. I ran some numbers through a spoke length calculator and found that the right side spokes would indeed be shorter than the left side spokes -- but with a dished rear wheel, that's nearly always the case. But comparing the length of right side spokes for a low-flange hub vs. right side on a high flange hub, I only came up with 1 mm difference on a 3-cross wheel, which is negligible.

Notice that Brandt points out that there can be an effect on spoke tension if one uses radial spoking - so should a person use radial spoking on the rear wheel with a HiLo hub? Well, probably not - as radial spoked wheels cannot transmit torque as well -- the torque applied to the rear wheel under pedaling load "winds up" the spokes a small amount (so they are not technically "radial" anymore) but this movement, however slight, induces wear in the hub's flange, and increases fatigue to the spokes, thereby increasing the likelihood of breakage. So ultimately, they are just a cool item that makes for interesting conversation and produces bike-lust, drooling, or envy among other bike geeks. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Clockwise from top left: Hi-E circa 1970s, Phil Wood circa 1970s,
Velo Orange (current), and White Industries (current).
The HiLo hub design was picked up by some other makers, like Hi-E and Phil Wood in the '70s. There are some versions still available today, like from White Industries, and Velo Orange, though the difference in flange diameters on these current models is not as pronounced as on the earlier designs. One company (I can't recall which) has offered HiLo hubs that are the reverse of most other designs -- that is, the larger flange is on the left instead of the right. So there must still be an argument out there that the HiLo design has an advantage, or it could just be a cool old gimmick that refuses to die off.

If I can track down the vintage rims I'd like to build with, I'll have some more posted about my next wheel building project. Cheers.


  1. Vintage rims.
    I have some Fiamme Red and Gold label tubulars that you can have for $zero.

    1. Used? or NOS? I've always had reservations about building on used rims. Anyhow - I have a NOS 36 hole Mavic Monthlery Legere rim -- I've always had really good experiences with Mavic rims. I'm trying to find a matching 32 hole rim for the front wheel, as I have a beautiful, perfect 32 hole front hub to go with that 36 hole HiLo hub. 36 rear/32 front is my idea of "perfect" wheels. If I still weighed what I did in college (125 lbs!) and wanted a high-performance set of wheels, I might go with 32/28!

  2. I love stuff like this. Because it's old, and cool looking.

    I detest it because it's one in a series of products and ideas, that fall into the category, of, "it makes sense on paper, so it must be true".

    Hilo, offset spoke bed, asymmetrical builds, paired spoking, all trying to fix a problem that patently doesn't exist.

    Show me where tens of thousands of wheels are failing due to this serious enginerd issue.

    I thought so.....

    It seems like the recumbent crowd would be the most rabid fans of this, alas, upright folks are prone to marketeering as well!

    1. As I mentioned - I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I'm really a fan of these things, even knowing that they are just a cool gimmick. There was never any point in arguing with Jobst Brandt! But dang they are cool-looking! They look their best when used with a "corn-cob" straight block freewheel, though there's no way I can use one of those anymore.

  3. Ha! No need to explain. We like old, steel, bikes, and wool stuff.

    We're weird enough already....

    Much like the airless tires you posted about today, there's forever someone, walking in, who has discovered some iteration of this snake oil, I explain, realize I'm wasting breath trying to educate, and I just hold my nose and build what they're asking for....

  4. I have to admit, the Campagnolo hi-lo looks really cool. The others, not so much. As you and Jobst Brandt say, though, they're all about equally practical.

  5. I've always thought Hi-Lo hubs looked the business as well but have never had any of my own.

    I can add a little more to the origin story of these hubs, in doing some digging about Hugo Rickert, a German framebuilder who built bikes for a crazy number of top-level Pros in the 50s-70s, I read that the Hi-Lo was his idea and that he had to badger Campagnolo pretty relentlessly to get them to make them. They required a pretty hefty initial order to make it worth their trouble but they proved effective for racers who really did stress things enough to gain a useful benefit from them.

    Hugo Rickert was a really gifted builder that only stopped in the early 2000s after a stroke made it impossible for him to continue working, even though he tried to keep going with the help of his wife who would hold the filler rod while he held the torch.

    Any bike with his name on it was built by him and his ratio of bikes built to bikes actually raced and won on has to be about as high as anyone. The Dude was the real thing. I have one of his best quality race-bikes from about 1963 and while it's a little scruffy and has worked hard for a living it's whole life, it's still a fantastic machine. I ought to find a Hi-Lo hub for it to see if it makes the magic stronger...


  6. So I guess I should have said "Racers FELT they gained a useful advantage from them". I suspect Jobst was correct, he typically was. But Hugo was trying to find a solution to a real problem of driveside spoke breakage for top level pro's, but like so many things that seem intuitively "better" they turned out to be sort of a dead end.

    After I posted the comment above I noticed your link to the "Bikeville" article where they do mention Hugo Rickert as the source of the idea. So even though you didn't really need me to call that out I wouldn't have been able to resist an opportunity to tell everyone how awesome old Hugo was.

    Great post, thanks.


    1. I'm glad you mentioned Rickert - I only know a little about him - and it sounds like he knew a thing or two about bikes (to understate it).

      Looking at the hubs, it certainly SEEMS like they should make a difference. But when looking at how tangential spoking works, it becomes clear that intuition can be misleading.

    2. I am a huge Rickert fan (I own multiple road, multiple track and a CX frame he built), and had him make me a made to measure frame that is by far the best riding bike I've ever owned.

      But I might have to partially debunk the myth that HiLo was purely his idea. Yes, according to Ted Ernst, Hugo got Campy to make them (and had to order a minimum quantity for them to do so).

      But it appears that FB (who made 3 piece hubs for Campy) seemingly offered a HiLo hub as seen here: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Rare-Vintage-FB-High-Low-flange-3-piece-rear-track-hub-Campagnolo-/121916625456?hash=item1c62cc1230:g:JysAAOxy6~BR0mx3

      This may be a unicorn, and possibly could have been remade into a HiLo after leaving the factory.

    3. I saw that FB hub on eBay too. Not sure what to make of it. There isn't a lot of info on the listing. It does make a person wonder.

  7. What about the Rolf Prima hubs, which put the high flange on the left side? The explanation from their website: "When you stand on the pedals, the chain pulls on the cogs of the rear wheel. This puts a torque into the rear hub. That torque gets transmitted through the spokes to the rim - that's what makes it turn. Our patented Differential Flange Diameter™ on the rear hub helps spread that torque to the non-drive spokes so it is not absorbed by only the drive side spokes. The larger flange provides a lever arm to provide that mechanical advantage."

    1. That's the one I was trying to remember - as I mentioned, there was one company making Hi-Lo hubs with the large flange on the left instead of the right. I couldn't remember who. Thanks!