Internal gear hubs are becoming increasingly popular on bicycles these days. Particularly on touring and commuter bikes. After some extensive research and testing on a Rohloff and Shimano hub, I put together this internal gear hub vs derailleur pros and cons list to help me decide if the conversion is worth the money. Hopefully, this list helps you decide as it has helped me.
What is an Internal Gear Hub?
The internal gear hub, also called hub gear or abbreviated IGH is a system used to change a bicycle’s gear ratio. It achieves this using planetary or epicyclic gears that are housed and sealed within the rear hub. The internal gear hub is an alternative to a derailleur.
A Bit of History About the Internal Gear Hub and Derailleur
Surprisingly, the invention of the internal gear hub actually came before the derailleur. The first patent for a hub gear was issued to Seward Thomas Johnson, an American machinist, in 1895. In 1905, Paul de Vivie, a French bicycle tourist, invented the rear derailleur. The first models of both gear shifting systems came equipped with 2 speeds.
Even though the invention of the derailleur came 10 years after the internal gear hub, the technology progressed much faster. The simpler derailleur system allowed for more gears and a wider gear range with the technology available at the time. Internal gear hubs topped out at 3 gears for decades. This is how derailleurs grew to dominate the cycling market originally.
Now, things are changing. In the past couple of decades, internal gear hub technology has progressed significantly. In terms of gear range and performance, they are catching up to the best derailleurs. Internal gear hubs also include a number of other benefits over derailleurs that I outline in this article. These days, the decision is harder than ever to make. Here’s my list of the pros and cons of internal gear hubs vs derailleurs.
Image: “Belt-drive internal-geared multi-speed rear hub”, by AndrewDressel, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Internal Gear Hub Pros
- Less maintenance- This is probably the main reason people make the switch to internal gear hubs. The only maintenance you need to do is to change the oil in the hub every 5000 km or so and keep the chain at the right tension. Derailleurs, on the other hand, require frequent cleaning, adjustments to limits, and more frequent replacements of chains and cassettes.
- Greater reliability- With an internal gear hub, all moving parts are sealed inside the unit. You don’t have to worry about water, sand, dirt, or salt entering the hub and causing damage. You don’t have to worry about a derailleur getting broken or needing adjustment. People routinely get over 100,000 km out of Rohloff Speedhubs. I have heard of Sturmey Archer hubs from the 50s still in use. Even lower cost Shimano Nexus or Alfine hubs can go 15,000 km before they need to be replaced. For the average cyclist, a quality internal gear hub lasts a lifetime if properly maintained.
- Chains last longer- With an internal gear hub, the chainstays on the same gears at all times. It doesn’t move between gears. The chain always runs in a straight line as well. This puts less wear and tear on the chain, making it last much longer. People have been known to get 20,000 km out of a chain. When using a derailleur, the chain flexes each time you change gears. It also runs at an angle much of the time. This puts a lot of strain on the chain, causing wear. You’ll have to replace it much more often.
- You can shift while stopped- This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it’s actually a game-changer. Have you ever stopped your bike while in too high of gear? It’s difficult to get going and you can’t downshift until you’re moving. Starting in too high of gear also puts unnecessary strain on your knees. Internal gear hubs allow you to shift while you’re not pedaling. This comes in handy when riding in stop and go traffic in the city. It’s also makes climbing a lot easier. You can shift anytime.
- You can shift multiple gears at once- If you hit a sudden sandy patch, you can shift down 7 speeds without worry. If you do this on a derailleur bike, you could drop your chain.
- The rear wheel is stronger- This is true for two reasons. First, with an internal gear hub, all of the spokes are spaced symmetrically and all of the spokes are at the same angle on both sides of the wheel. This increases strength. Second, the hub is larger. This means spokes are shorter. This creates a stronger wheel, even if it has fewer spokes. With a stronger wheel, you can carry more weight without having to worry about broken spokes or the wheel going out of true. This is a major benefit for bicycle tourists who often carry most of their gear loaded on a rack over the rear wheel.
- Internal gear hubs are excellent for bicycle touring or commuting- Many expedition bicycle tourists choose to ride with an IGH for more peace of mind. Commuters like them for the same reason. There is simply less to worry about in terms of maintenance and repairs. You get to spend more time riding.
- Internal gear hubs are compatible with belt drives- Belt drives offer many benefits. They are quiet, clean, lightweight, and incredibly durable and long-lasting. Many cyclists get over 30,000 km out of a belt drive before it needs to be replaced. As an added bonus, belts don’t require any lube or degreaser like chains.
- You can ride in wet, muddy, or snowy conditions without worry- Because the hub is completely sealed, you don’t need to worry as much about water or debris getting caught in the gears, derailleur, and chain. You can also get away without washing your drivetrain as frequently. This is great for winter cycling, cycling in the rain, or riding through sand.
- No rear derailleur to worry about- This seems obvious but not having a derailleur has a number of benefits. Derailleurs are a particularly fragile part of the bike because they stick out and sit so close to the ground. It’s easy to catch it on a branch or knock it against a rock and cause damage. Particularly while transporting the bike or riding off-road. At the least, you’ll have to re-adjust it. Worst case, you destroy it and need to find a replacement. Derailleurs can also destroy your rear wheel if you knock them into the spokes. You don’t have to worry about any of this with an internal gear hub because the whole shifting mechanism is housed in the hub. The wheel and spokes protect it.
- You don’t need to know anything about bikes to use an internal gear hub- Because the maintenance interval is so long, you can just ride the bike and have the bike shop take care of everything else. This is perfect for someone who doesn’t want to do any of their own maintenance. You don’t need to learn how to adjust a derailleur or install a new chain. Just ride your bike and enjoy it.
- You can use coaster brakes- Some internal gear hubs integrate coaster brakes into the hub. This can simplify further simplify your bike and further reduces maintenance.
- Internal gear hubs are more technologically advanced- An incredible amount of engineering and precision goes into making an internal gear hub. Some of these things are real works of art. You can feel the quality and precision engineering while pedaling. If you’re the kind of person who likes to have the newest, most technologically advanced gear available, internal gear hubs offer that.
Internal Gear Hub Cons
- More expensive- Quality internal gear hubs cost a lot of money. For example, a Rohloff Speedhub costs as much as an entire mid-range bike at around $1600. A Shimano Nexus or Alfine costs as much as an entire mid-range derailleur groupset at around $200-$400.
- Less efficient- Internal gear hubs are slightly less mechanically efficient than derailleurs. I have read figures ranging from 2% to 10% less efficient depending on the model. This loss of efficiency happens because the power that you produce by pedaling must pass through multiple gears. You lose a bit of energy each time the power transfers from one gear to another. This also happens with derailleurs, but the loss is less. If you factor in efficiency loss from a poorly adjusted derailleur or worn parts, the difference is minimal.
- Fewer gears- The internal gear hub with the most gears is the 14 speed Rohloff Speedhub. Most modern derailleur bikes have 27 or more speeds. This means the internal gear hub will have a larger jump between gears. More basic internal gear hubs have 3, 8, or 11 speeds. With fewer gears, you may not be able to find the ideal speed for the terrain you’re riding, making the bike less efficient.
- Less gear range- Gear range is the difference between the lowest and highest gears. The internal gear hub with the largest amount of gear range is the 14 speed Rohloff Speedhub with a gear range of 526%. This is comparable to modern 27 speed derailleur setups. These have 500%-600% of gear range. Lower end internal gear hubs with 3-8 speeds have a gear range of around 200%-400% depending on brand and quality. With a lower gear range, you may not be able to climb as steep of hills or achieve the same top speed that you are used to with your derailleur setup.
- Finding replacement parts is difficult in developing countries- If you’re touring somewhere remote like Central Asia or West Africa, finding a new rear sprocket or oil for your internal gear hub will be nearly impossible. Bike shops in developing countries just don’t stock the parts. Some countries don’t even import any internal gear hubs. If you plan to tour someplace remote like this, you have to pack all of the spares that you may need with you. The only other option is to rely on the mail or fly home to buy what you need. The good news is that parts availability should improve as globalization increases.
- Internal gear hubs are heavier- Due to the added gears and complexity, internal gear hubs weigh more than derailleur setups. All of this added weight goes into your wheel which slows down acceleration slightly. If you want the lightest possible bike, stick with derailleurs.
- Internal gear hubs are slower- Because of the loss of efficiency and added weight, you just can’t go as fast with an IGH. Acceleration is slower and maintaining speed takes more energy. That’s probably the reason that professional racers still use derailleurs.
- Rear flat tires are harder to fix- This depends on the brand of internal gear hub that you use. Most IGH make removing the rear wheel a bit tricky. Mostly because you have to re-adjust the tension of the chain when you reinstall the wheel. This can be a bit tedious and time-consuming, especially the first couple of times that you do it. It’s a good idea to use tires with some kind of puncture protection or even go tubeless so you don’t have to deal with repairing flats as often.
- User servicing is pretty much impossible- Most internal gear hubs cannot be repaired by the owner or even a bike shop. If there is a failure in the hub, you must ship it back to the manufacturer to be repaired. Some companies, like Shimano, recommend that you just replace the internals. This can be a problem if you’re touring somewhere remote where you can’t send and receive packages due to the reliability of the postal service or customs charges. If your IGH breaks, you have no hope of repairing it yourself. It’s far too complex. Of course, you can do all of the standard maintenance yourself such as changing the hub oil and replacing the sprocket and chain.
- Internal gear hubs are noisy- This depends on the brand. Some cyclists complain that certain gears are loud and annoying.
- You can’t switch out wheels- Some riders like to have multiple wheelsets to switch between for riding different terrain. For example, maybe you have a 700c wheelset with road tires and a 650b wheelset with off-road tires. In a matter of minutes, you can swap them out and ride all sorts of different terrain. This setup is cheaper and takes up less space than having two bikes. This isn’t really possible with an internal gear hub. First of all, removing the rear wheel is a bit of a job with some hubs. You’ll have to readjust the chain tension. You’d also have to have a separate internal gear hub for each wheel. This would be very expensive and kind of pointless. If money is no object, you could do it but you might as well just buy another bike at that point.
- You can’t shift an internal gear hub under load- To shift, you must reduce power slightly. Shifting under load can cause damage to the gears.
- Internal gear hubs may increase the likelihood of bike theft- I don’t know if this is statistically true or not. What I do know is that installing a nice internal gear hub makes your bike worth a lot more money. Thieves are more likely to steal expensive bikes.
- Some frames aren’t compatible with internal gear hubs- You need the proper hub spacing and braze-ons to mount the chain tensioner. Some frames can be slightly altered to work and some just aren’t compatible.
- Traction and braking can suffer- The added weight of an internal gear hub on the rear wheel is unsprung. This can have an adverse affect on some bikes traction and braking.
- You have to adjust chain tension- This is a problem that is unique to internal gear hubs. You must keep the chain at the proper tension so the hub shifts properly. Depending on the quality of the hub, it may require frequent adjustment. You’ll also have to readjust the tension every time you remove the rear wheel. This can be a hassle but usually isn’t that big of a deal.
- Some people just don’t like internal gear hubs- If you’re used to derailleur drivetrains, switching to an IGH can feel strange at first. Some people never get used to it. In this regard, internal gear hubs are a personal preference.
- Easy to repair- Derailleur drivetrains are simple and easy to fix with basic bicycle tools. Any bike mechanic anywhere in the world knows how to adjust and repair derailleurs. If you’re touring, you can carry all of the required tools to repair or overhaul a derailleur in your toolkit. Knowing you can fix any problem that may arise gives peace of mind. Internal gear hubs are too complicated to repair.
- Derailleurs are more efficient- In optimal conditions, derailleurs have slightly greater mechanical efficiency than internal gear hubs. Depending on the models and conditions, derailleurs are about 2-10% more efficient. This is because the system uses fewer gears to transfer energy from the pedals to the rear wheel. You lose less energy in the power transfer. Having said this, the efficiency advantage can be lost with poorly maintained or adjusted parts. For example, dirt and grime create resistance and prevent the system from working at its peak performance. Worn out cassettes and chains have the same effect.
- Derailleur setups are cheaper- You can buy a whole new mid-range groupset for a couple of hundred dollars. Even low-end internal gear hubs cost significantly more than this. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s best to stick to derailleurs.
- Derailleurs have more gears- Most modern derailleur setups have 27-30 speeds. The benefit of having more gears is the fact that there is less space between each. You can always find the optimal gear for the terrain and speed that you are riding. With an internal gear hub, you may have to choose between a gear that is slightly too high and one that is slightly too low. It’s not optimal and can cost you efficiency.
- Derailleurs have a greater gear range- Most modern derailleurs have a gear range of around 450%-600%. A greater gear range gives you a higher top gear and lower low gear. You can travel faster on the flats and climb steeper hills more easily with more gear range. Most internal gear hubs have a much smaller gear range of 200%-400%. The best IGH, the Rohloff, has a gear range of 526%. This is comparable to any modern derailleur drivetrain.
- Finding replacement parts is easy- Every bike shop carries derailleurs, cassettes, chains, shifters, etc. You can simply buy what you need and get back on the road. You will want to consider the type of derailleur drivetrain you’re using. 9, 10, and 11 speed parts are hard to find in some places. 8 speed gear is common. If your IGH fails, you may have to ship it and wait for the manufacturer to repair it before you get back on the road. Most bike shops won’t even touch them, outside of general maintenance. With this being said, it doesn’t stop many bicycle tourists from riding internal gear hubs through developing countries on expedition tours around the world.
- Derailleurs are lighter- Derailleurs weigh less and keep less weight on the wheels. You’ll be able to accelerate faster and with less effort. If you’re the kind of rider that measures every gram that you put on your bike, stick with a lighter derailleur setup.
- Derailleurs are faster- Because of the added efficiency and lighter weight, you can cover more ground more quickly with a derailleur. They also improve acceleration. This is probably the reason that competitive racers still ride with derailleurs.
- Easier to repair rear flats- Most bikes have a quick release that allows you to remove and reinstall the rear wheel in a matter of seconds so you can easily repair flats. Internal gear hub bikes are a bit trickier. They require that you readjust the chain tension each time you put the rear wheel back on. This takes a bit of time and is kind of a hassle.
- User servicing is easy- Anyone can learn how to maintain and adjust a derailleur setup. With a few tools, you can easily install new chains and cassettes. This saves money on bike shop visits and gives a peace of mind knowing that you can repair and replace your own gear without assistance. Maintaining an internal gear hub is pretty straightforward as well but there is a bit more of a learning curve. Some repairs you just can’t do at home.
- You can switch out wheels- Some riders like to keep two sets of wheels for the same bike. For example, maybe one set is fitted with slick tires for road riding and the other set is fitted with knobbies for riding mountain bike trails. You can easily swap them out in a matter of minutes and have a completely different bike. If you use disk brakes and your frame allows, you can even run two different wheel sizes. For example, you could run 700c on the street and 650b for the trail. This really isn’t possible with an internal gear hub. I suppose you could buy two but at that point, why not just buy another bike?
- Derailleurs are quieter- Some riders complain about the noise that their internal gear hub makes in certain gears. This varies from hub to hub. For the most part, derailleurs are fairly quiet.
- You can shift under load- Even though it’s not ideal, it is possible to shift a derailleur under load. This is helpful when you’re climbing a steep hill and need to keep your momentum to make it to the top. With an IGH, you have to apply less power to the pedal when you shift. If you stop, you may not be able to get going again on a steep climb.
- All frames are compatible with derailleurs- These are standard parts that are made to work with pretty much any bike frame.
- Derailleurs are the standard- Even though internal gear hubs have been around for decades, derailleurs are still the most popular option.
- More maintenance- In order to keep the drivetrain running smooth and efficiently, you have to clean, degrease, and lube your chain and gears every couple hundred miles. You also have to adjust shifter cables and derailleurs frequently to keep the bike shifting smoothly. You must replace chains and cassettes when they wear out. Internal gear hubs require much less frequent maintenance. Just clean them once in a while and change the oil every 5000 km and forget about it.
- Less reliable- Derailleurs are a bit finicky. If you bump it against something, you’ll need to readjust it. Because the system is open, dirt, sand, water, and grime can get on the chain and gears and cause wear and a number of other problems. Rear derailleurs are easy to damage because they stick out and sit so close to the ground. You don’t have to worry about these things with an internal gear hub.
- Chains don’t last as long with derailleurs- Every time you shift a gear, your chain flexes to the side. Much of the time, the chain runs at an angle. Chains are constantly jumping around from gear to gear. All of these put additional stress on the chain that makes it wear and eventually fail. Chains last anywhere from 500-5000 miles or more depending on the conditions where you ride and how you maintain them. With internal gear hubs, the chain always runs straight and stays on the same cogs at all times. It wouldn’t be unusual to get over 10,000 miles from a chain.
- You can’t shift while stopped- Imagine you stop at a stoplight while in a high gear. When you want to get going again, you struggle to pedal because you didn’t downshift before you stopped. You can’t downshift until you get moving. This problem is particularly annoying in stop-and-go city traffic you may encounter while commuting. With an internal gear hub, you can downshift while stopped so you’re in an easy gear when you’re ready to get going again.
- You can’t shift through multiple gears at once- If you hit a sudden sandy spot and need to gear way down, you have to shift one at a time with a derailleur. If you try to shift through several gears at one time, you’ll probably drop your chain. With an internal gear hub, you can shift through as many gears as you like.
- The rear wheel is weaker- Spokes are longer and generally spaced unevenly on the rear hub of a derailleur bike. This creates a weaker wheel. This is particularly problematic for bicycle tourists or heavy riders. You could suffer more broken spokes and the wheel can go out of true more easily. There is a solution to this problem. Use a wheel with more spokes. Most bicycle tourists use 36 spoke wheels as opposed to 32 spoke. This adds enough strength to carry heavy loads on the back without too much worry.
- Derailleurs aren’t ideal for riding in wet, sandy, snowy, or dusty environments- You must keep the gears and derailleur clean so they are able to operate efficiently. Sometimes that means daily scrubbing and oiling your gears and chain. Having sand or other debris on your chain and gears causes additional wear that makes the parts age faster. Internal gear hubs are sealed closed. This keeps out any contaminants and helps the drivetrain last longer.
- Derailleurs are not compatible with belt drives- If you want the benefits of a belt drive, you’ll have to switch to an internal gear hub or go single speed. Belt drives are cleaner, quieter, last longer, and best of all, require much less maintenance. No more degreasing and scrubbing chains when you switch to a belt.
- You need to be very careful with the rear derailleur- It’s a fragile part that sticks out near the ground. It’s easy to bash it against a tree stump or rock. When boxing the bike for transport, you must remove it so it doesn’t get damaged. Derailleurs can easily go out of adjustment. They are just a hassle overall. Internal gear hubs are indexed in the hub and don’t really need adjusting after they are set up.
- You need to know a bit about bikes- When riding a bike with a derailleur, it’s nice to at least know how to properly clean, lube, and adjust the drivetrain. This is an easy job that anyone can do but it does take a bit of know-how. If you know absolutely nothing about bikes and don’t have any desire to learn, you’ll need to visit your local bike shop once in a while to have your derailleur serviced.
- Derailleurs are less technologically advanced- If you’re the kind of person that likes to have the top of the line, most advanced gear, you may prefer internal gear hubs over derailleurs. The engineering is pretty spectacular.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where the Road Forks
- Drop Bars Vs Flat Bars
- Flat Pedals Vs Clipless
- 700c Vs 26 Inch Wheels
- 1X Vs 2X Drivetrain
- Disc Brakes Vs Rim Brakes
- Tube Vs Tubeless Bicycle Tires
- Chain Drive Vs Belt Drive
- Steel Frame Vs Aluminum Frame
- Presta Vs Schrader Valves
- Carbon Fiber Vs Aluminum Wheels
A Third Option: Hybrid Gearing
Some drivetrains combine an internal gear hub with a front or rear derailleur. This unconventional setup is known as hybrid gearing. This system offers some of the benefits of both internal gear hubs and derailleurs. It can also provide a wider gear range and closer gear ratio spacing. Hybrid drives are common on folding bikes and recumbent bikes.
The most common style of hybrid gearing uses a 3-speed internal gear hub with 2 sprockets attached for a total of 6 speeds. A rear derailleur allows you to shift between the sprockets. Usually, the rear sprocket gears fall halfway between the gears in the hub. This allows for half-step gearing so the difference between gears isn’t so great. This setup usually requires a chain tensioner.
This system is useful on bikes that can’t accept a front derailleur, like many folding bikes. For example, the 6 speed Brompton folding bike uses a 3 speed Sturmey Archer IGH with 2 rear sprockets. The SRAM Dual Drive, which is also common on folding bikes, uses a similar setup.
Dual drives are common on some types of recumbent bikes as well because they allow the rider to downshift while stopped. This makes it much easier to get started riding again after making a stop. It is hard to get going in a high gear with a recumbent bike because you can’t use your body weight to begin pedaling.
Internal gear hubs can also be combined with double or triple chainrings and a front derailleur. Sometimes both a front and rear derailleur are used. This widens your gear range but increases the weight and complexity of your drivetrain considerably.
Types of Internal Gear Hubs
Hub gears come in 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14 speed options. Generally, the more gears, the more complex the hub will be and the more critical maintenance becomes. 2 and 3 speed hubs are pretty simple. They keep going with minimal maintenance. For touring, the more gears the better. For commuting, you may be better off with a simpler hub with fewer gears.
You also have the choice of the type of brakes you want to use. You can choose from disc brakes, rim brakes, or hub brakes. Many hubs come in disc and rim brake versions. Hub brakes are less common. You’ll have to decide which type of brakes you’re going to use when buying the hub.
The number of spokes is another consideration. If you’re touring and plan to carry a heavy load, you’ll want more spokes to support the extra weight. Most internal gear hubs use either 32 or 36 spokes.
As far as pricing goes, basic 3-speed hub gears start around $100. Premium hubs that are suitable for touring start around $1600. Mid-range options start around $450.
Popular Internal Gear Hub Options
When shopping for an internal gear hub, you have quite a few options. You’ll want to consider the number of gears you need, the type of brakes you plan to use, the number of spokes, pricing, quality, performance, etc. Below, I’ll outline a few of the more popular internal gear hubs available.
Designed and manufactured in Germany, the Rohloff hub is known for its longevity, solid build, low maintenance, and amazing engineering. This is the king of internal gear hubs. The Speedhub offers an incredible 526% gear range with a uniform 13.6% difference between gears through the range, making it ideal for touring.
To keep this hub going, all you need to do is change the oil once every 5000 km. This is about a 20 minute job. Rohloff hubs commonly last 100,000 km without failing. Rohloff offers a number of variations on their 14-speed hub. It is available in disc and rim brake versions, 32 and 36 spoke versions, as well as touring and cross country style axle versions.
You can buy the Rohloff Disc-Speedhub 500/14 DB, Q/R 36h on Amazon.
Alfine is Shimano’s higher-end line of internal gear hubs. They work great for urban commuting and light touring. Alfine hubs come in 8 and 11-speed versions. They are compatible with belt drive as well. These hubs use a bolt-on axle rather than a quick release.
The 8 speed Alfine offers a gear range of 308%. Unfortunately, the gear intervals are pretty uneven.
The 11 speed Alfine offers a gear range of 409%. The jump from first to second gear is 30%. From there, the interval between gears ranges from 13-14%.
For a great budget/value internal gear hub option, consider the Shimano Alfine 8-Speed Internal Geared Disk Break Hub.
Shimano also offers a lower-end line of internal gear hubs called the Nexus. These are available with a coaster brake option.
Sturmey Archer was founded in Nottingham, England in 1902. These guys have been in the internal gear hub business for over 100 years. In 2000, the Sturmey Archer sold to the Taiwanese cycling company Sun Race and production moved to Taiwan. They are famous for their 3-speed hub which is known for its longevity low maintenance. This is a great choice for folding bikes and city bikes.
This Sturmey Archer S30 3-Speed 36h kit includes the hub, shifter, cables, and mounting hardware.
Maintaining Internal Gear Hubs and Derailleurs
One of the main advantages that internal gear hubs have over derailleurs is that they require less frequent maintenance. Once your internal gear hub is set up, you can ride for thousands of miles without touching it.
Derailleurs, on the other hand, require a bit of regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly. The reason is that they’re a bit more exposed to the elements because the system is open.
One job that is the same regardless of which system you choose is cleaning. You’ll have to degrease and lube your chain every 200-500 miles depending on the conditions.
In this section, I’ll outline what you’ll need to do to keep your internal gear hub or derailleur running smoothly.
Internal Gear Hub Maintenance
Generally, the frequency of maintenance depends on the complexity of the hub. The more gears there are, the more critical maintenance becomes. Internal gear hub maintenance involves replacing the lubricant inside of the hub.
There are grease-based and oil-based internal gear hubs. Generally, hubs with 3-8 gears are greased based. Hubs with more than 8 gears are usually oil-based.
Simple grease-based hubs typically need to be cleaned out and re-greased every 12-24 months depending on how frequently they’re used and the conditions they’re used in. In some cases, cheap 3-speed hubs are pretty much considered disposable. You just ride it until it fails then replace it. They often last many years without any maintenance. These basic hubs may last 50,000 Km without any service.
Higher-end oil-based internal gear hubs like the Rohloff and Shimano Alfine require regular oil changes to keep them running smoothly. This involves draining the old oil and replacing it with new. You usually have to do this every 5000 km or once per year.
Another hub maintenance task you’ll need to do is replace the seals once in a while so the oil doesn’t leak. Some internal gear hubs also use chain tensioners. These need to be adjusted when you’re installing your hub. You may need to re-tension the chain when you remove your rear wheel to fix a flat.
As the chain and sprocket wear out, they will need to be replaced as well. Keep in mind that these parts last much longer than they do on bikes with derailleurs. Oftentimes IGH chains and rear sprockets last 2-4 times longer.
Derailleur maintenance is simpler but more frequent. To keep your bike shifting smoothly, you’ll have to periodically readjust your derailleurs as shifter cables and chains wear. If you bump your derailleur, you may need to re-adjust it. This is a simple but somewhat tedious job. Some derailleurs are a bit touchy. All you’ll need is an Allen key or screwdriver to adjust most derailleurs.
In addition, you’ll also need to replace your chain and cassette as they wear out. A derailleur drivetrain requires new chains and cogs more frequently than an internal gear hub due to the extra wear from moving around on the gears. In some conditions you might only get 500-1000 miles out of a chain. Cassettes need to be replaced every 2-3 chains or 3000-5000 miles.
Final Thoughts on Internal Gear Hubs Vs Derailleurs
As of now, internal gear hubs are incredibly reliable but do lack a bit in the performance department. They are probably the best option for riders with a higher budget and those who don’t race.
As the technology advances, I imagine internal gear hubs will continue to grow in popularity. In the future, I imagine almost all of the drawbacks can be overcome with enough research and development. Gear range will improve. More gears will be added. Efficiency and performance will increase.
Having said this, derailleurs will always have their place in cycling. It’s a much simpler technology that is completely user-serviceable and more efficient. Derailleurs have been the standard for decades.
Cost is also a major factor. Only the most avid cyclists want to spend thousands of dollars on their bikes. Most casual riders are better off sticking with derailleurs at this time.
What are your thoughts on the internal gear hub vs derailleur debate? Share your experience in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
Saturday 20th of May 2023
An excellent article that shows the advantages of hubs in relation to deraillier for the non performance rider. With hubs I would always reccomend gates CDX drive . Do you have any thoughts on the new enviolo in comparison to alfine or rohloff?
Tuesday 23rd of May 2023
I haven't had the chance to try the enviolo. It looks like an interesting design though.
Monday 9th of January 2023
Got fed up with cleaning the winter bike with derailleurs and converted it to 11 speed Shimano Alfine gear hub with Di2 drop bar changers retaining the rim brakes. Delighted with the results, will never go back, true a bit heavy but then again not a racer.
Tuesday 10th of January 2023
Nice! An internal gear hub is perfect for a winter bike.
Wednesday 26th of October 2022
Nice article. Two notes:
1.) Under the cons of derailleurs, you really need to add the fact that the exposed chain will get your pants and shoes dirty. If you wear dress pants and shoes to work, that's a real problem. All my city and cargo bikes have IGHs (including two NuVinci hubs) and either Gates belt drives or fully-enclosed chains (with Hebie Chaingliders).
2) You say that it's impossible to do your own internal repairs/maintenance on IGHs, and that's true of many of them. However, the Sturmey-Archer 3- and 5-speeds (both classic and modern) aren't bad to work on at all. Definitely more complicated than a derailleur, but most home mechanics can strip down an AW hub with no problems. Just be careful of the little pawl springs, which like to launch themselves all over the room!
Friday 28th of October 2022
Good point about IGHs keeping your pants cleaner. That's important for commuters.
Friday 27th of May 2022
I agree, it is an exellent summary. Thanks!
Just boot an Diamant with shimano alfine 11. Want to chance tire, or have to chance because of a puncture, to a more puncture proof one. But after reading you article I began to think who has the knowledge to just take off the wheels and put them rightly on again:)
Anyway, it has to be done and I lives in Berlin, Germany, so ther should be some options in this bicycle city.
All the best
Monday 30th of May 2022
There is a bit of a learning curve. I'm sure you won't have any trouble finding someone in Berlin who can help. Best of luck!
Tuesday 28th of December 2021
You may wish to add the simplified nature of adding a Power Assist using an IGH. A majority of rear hub motors for retrofit Power Assist kits come with a 7 speed cassette & can be a royal pain to switch chains, shifters, derailleurs & fine tuning the end result. Adding a Mid Drive with a torque sensor built in & a IGH is like they were made for each other. Stop pedaling, the motor stops, shift & start pedaling again. Extra cables for motor interrupters are not required. A recent new hub on the market has addressed one of your negatives about IGH's & make their hubs swappable between bikes. - https://kindernay.com/products/ For those interested in hub efficiency & gear spread, I worked out the BEST spreads you can get on several of the most common hubs but please note, these spreads are out of manufacturers recommended ratios & will void your warranty. (scroll down the page) I have used my Alfine 11 set up this way with a Power Assist for the past 6 years & it has never stumbled but abuse your drive train & it could give you problems. - https://mid-islandadventures.weebly.com/ig-hubs.html
Wednesday 5th of January 2022
Good point about adding power assist. That's a major benefit of using an IGH.