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Internal Gear Hub Vs Derailleur: My Pros and Cons List

An internal gear hub is a type of bicycle gear system where the gears and shifting mechanisms are enclosed within the rear hub. These systems have anywhere from 2-14 gears. Internal gear hubs are becoming increasingly popular. Particularly on touring bikes and commuter bikes. After some extensive research and testing on Rohloff and Shimano hubs, I put together this internal gear hub vs derailleur pros and cons list. I’ll compare maintenance, reliability, longevity, cost, efficiency, compatibility, convenience, and much more. I’ll also explain what internal gear hubs are and how they work.

I upgraded my touring bike to a Rohloff internal gear hub about 6 years ago and don’t ever plan on switching back. I do still run derailleurs on my other bikes. In this guide, I’ll share my experience. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not an internal hub is the right choice for your riding style.

A bike with a derailleur shift system
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Key Takeaways

Internal gear hubs are reliable, low maintenance, durable, and long-lasting. They allow you to shift while stopped and shift multiple gears at once. They are sealed to prevent contamination from dirt and debris.

Derailleurs are more efficient, cheaper, lighter, faster, and easier to maintain and repair. They also have more gears and more gear range. It’s also easier to find replacement parts for derailleur drivetrains.

An internal gear hub is the better choice for urban commuters, bicycle tourists, all-weather riders, e-bike riders, and those who value a low-maintenance drivetrain.

Derailleurs are better for mountain bikers, those on a tight budget, performance-oriented cyclists, competitive riders, and weight-conscious riders.

What is an Internal Gear Hub?

The internal gear hub, also called hub gear or IGH, is a system used to change a bicycle’s gear ratio. Most internal gear hubs have between 2 and 14 different gear ratios. The internal gears are housed and sealed inside the rear hub. The internal gear hub is an alternative to a derailleur.

Inside the hub, there is a series of planetary gears or epicyclic gears. When you shift, there are clutches that slide or rotate into new positions. As these components reposition, they engage different gears, changing the gear ratio. All of the gear wheels are always spinning but different gears are engaged.

Most IGH bikes have a single speed drivetrain setup with a single rear sprocket and a single chainring. All of the gearing is in the hub. Hybrid drivetrains are also available with a derailleur and IGH paired together.

Most internal gear hubs use a shifter cable to change gears. Some modern models feature electronic shifting. There are also automatic shifting models.

Internal gear hubs can be paired with pretty much any type of bike including gravel bikes, road bikes, folding bikes, urban bikes, e-bikes, cargo bikes, recumbent bikes, and more.

Most internal gear hub bikes use disc brakes. Some models use a drum brake or a coaster brake. Rim brakes are also an option.

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. This isn’t much work. Derailleurs, on the other hand, require frequent cleaning, adjustments to limit screws, 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. They are weatherproof. The gears inside are continuously engaged so you don’t have to worry about wear and tear from shifting. You don’t have to worry about a derailleur getting knocked out of alignment or broken or just needing adjustment. The gears in an IGH always stay aligned. Only external parts such as the shifter cable, chain, and cogs suffer from corrosion and wear and tear. 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 chain stays 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 also makes climbing steep hills 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. They also last a long time. 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. This allows you to ride in poor weather. 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 can transmit heavy loads- This makes them great for pairing with electric bikes and cargo bikes. They can handle the additional stress.
  • More consistent steps between gears- The difference between gears is about the same throughout the entire range. An internal gear hub may have a consistent change of 12% between gears. A comparable derailleur system could have a 10% change between some gears and a 20% change between some gears. Having consistent steps between gears makes it easier to maintain your cadence.
  • Faster gear changes- Internal gear hubs can shift faster derailleurs. Electronic shifters can also be used. Fully automatic shifting is also possible.
  • Internal gear hubs are more technologically advanced and beautifully engineered- 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.
Sturmey Archer internal gear hub
Sturmey Archer internal gear hub

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. The hub alone could cost as much as the rest of the bike. Also, you also have to factor in the cost of installation, shifters, a rear cog, etc. There are cheaper options. You can get a 3 speed Sturmey Archer hub for less than $100.
  • 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. Exactly how efficient the system is depends on the gear you’re using. The direct drive gear in the middle is the most efficient because there is no drag from the pulley. Derailleurs also lose energy when power transfers between gears, but the loss is less. If you factor in efficiency loss from a poorly adjusted derailleur or worn parts, the difference is minimal.
  • Internal gear hubs are heavier- Due to the added gears and complexity, internal gear hubs weigh more than derailleur setups. Basic models with 3 gears weigh around 1 kg. More complex models weigh as much as 2 kg. That is significantly heavier than traditional derailleur systems. All of this added weight goes into your wheel. The wheel is the worst place to add weight because it is rotating mass. The extra weight slows down acceleration. It also takes more energy to maintain your speed. If you want the lightest possible bike, stick with derailleurs.
  • 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. The difference isn’t as big as you might expect. Most derailleurs have some duplicate gears so the actual number of unique gears is lower. In IGH hubs, all gears are unique.
  • Less gear range- Gear range is the difference between the lowest and highest gears. The internal gear hub with the widest amount of gear range is the 14 speed Rohloff Speedhub with a gear range of 526%. This is comparable to modern 27 speed derailleur systems. 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 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 IGHs 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. It can be a bit tedious and time-consuming to get the chain tensioner in the correct position, 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. The internal components are complex. 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. There are hundreds of small parts inside. 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 complete 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 system on the rear wheel is unsprung. This can have an adverse effect on some bikes traction and braking.
  • You can’t change the gear range or gear ratios- You’re stuck with the gearing that the hub comes with. It is possible to swap out the rear cog or chainring to make the total range easier or harder. With a derailleur, you can simply install a new cassette to change the gear range and ratios.
  • 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.
Rear derailleur

Derailleur Pros

  • 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. The exposed derailleur is easily accessible. 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 you 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. This greater efficiency allows you to ride longer distances without tiring out. You’ll burn less energy as you ride. 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. The efficiency also depends on which gears you’re using. If you’re cross chaining, the efficiency will drop significantly.
  • 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. Most modern bikes come with a 9-12 speed cassette. The benefit of having more gears is the fact that there is less difference between each gear. In other words, the size of the steps between gears is smaller. 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 wide 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 derailleur gears. 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.

Derailleur Cons

  • 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. There is a single chainring and a single cog. 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. You can’t perform gear changes while stopped. 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 gears 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 all at once.
  • 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 geared 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


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, drum brakes, and coaster brakes.

Many hubs come in disc and rim brake versions. The disc brake version comes with standard mounts for a disc brake rotor. They are compatible with mechanical and hydraulic brakes. 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 to choose from. 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.

There are several different brands to choose from. The three main companies offering internal gear hubs include Rohloff, Shimano, and Sturmey Archer. Below, I’ll outline a few of the more popular internal gear hubs available.

Rohloff

Designed and manufactured in Germany, the Rohloff hub is known for its longevity, solid build, low maintenance requirements, and amazing engineering. This is the king of internal gear hubs. The Speedhub comes with 14 speeds with an incredible 526% gear range with a uniform 13.6% difference between gears through the range.

To keep this hub going, all you need to do is change the oil once every 5000 km or once per year. 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 thru axle and quick release axle versions. Mechanical and electronic shifting options are available. The hubs also come in a range of widths for different types of bikes including fat bikes and boost-spacing for mountain bikes.

Rohloff hubs are compatible with electric bikes. They offer fast shifting in just 180 miliseconds.

The main drawback of these hubs is the cost. They cost around $1500. They are also heavy at around 2kg.

Shimano

Shimano offers three different internal gear hub systems.

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. The 11 speed version offers 409% of gear range. The 8 speed Alfine offers a gear range of 308%. The 11 speed version weighs 1.7 kg.

These hubs are compatible with electric bikes and regular bikes. They are compatible with belt drive as well. These hubs use a bolt-on axle rather than a quick release. They have mounts for disc brake rotors. There is also a Di2 electronic shifting version.

Unfortunately, the gear intervals are pretty uneven. 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 internally geared hub called the Nexus. The Shimano Nexus hub is in 3, 7, or 8 speed versions. It is also available with a coaster brake option. 

The 8 speed version has a gear range of 307% and weighs around 1.6kg. It is available in mechanical and Di2 electronic shifting versions.

The 7 speed version weighs around 2kg thanks to its steel case. The 3 speed version weighs around 1kg. It is only available in mechanical shifting.

Shimano also offers a hub gear system for ebikes. This is one of its STEPS ebike drivetrain options. This is a 5 speed IGH that is available in electronic and mechanical shifting versions. It is also available with roller or coaster brakes. The electronic shifting version is capable of automatic shifting

Sturmey Archer

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 and low maintenance. This is a great choice for folding bikes and city bikes. These hubs were used on bikes in the UK for almost 50 years.

These days, Sturmey Archer makes hubs with 3-8 speeds. They also offer hubs with drum brakes. Sturmey Archer hubs weigh around 1kg.

Classified

The Belgian brand Classified recently introduced a unique hybrid drivetrain. This system replaces the front derailleur and chainrings with a 2 speed internal gear hub. The system works with a rear derailleur and Classified’s 11 or 12 speed cassette.

This system is faster than a front derailleur. It eliminates mis-shifts and slipped chains. It also allows you to shift under load. It also has a similar weight to 2×11 and 2×12 groupsets.

This is a wireless electronic shift system. It is also compatible with mechanical groupsets. It is available for road and mountain bikes.

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 gear 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 grease-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 oil change involves draining the old oil and replacing it with new. On most models, it is recommended that you change the oil every 5,000 km or once per year. Many riders change the oil far less frequently.

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.

Internal gear hub

Derailleur Maintenance

Derailleur maintenance is simpler but more frequent. To keep your bike shifting smoothly, you’ll have to periodically readjust your derailleurs as the shift cable and chain 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 rear 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. 

front derailleur
The front derailleur on a vintage bike

Which Types of Bikes Work Best with Internal Gear Hubs?

Internal gear hubs work really well on urban bikes that are used for commuting as well as touring bikes. They are perfect for these types of bikes because weatherproofing, high reliability, and low maintenance are important for the types of riding these bikes are used for.

They also work well on electric bikes and cargo bikes. This is because internal gear hubs can handle the high torque throughput. They also allow you to shift while stopped.

You can find internal gear hubs on all types of bikes including folding bikes, adventure bikes, fat bikes, and more. The only real exception is high-performance road bikes. Internal gear hubs are too heavy and inefficient. Derailleurs are still the best option for competitive road riders.

Can I Convert a Derailleur Bike to Use an Internal Gear Hub?

Yes. In most cases, it is possible to switch from a derailleur to an internal gear hub drivetrain. Gear hubs fit standard hub spacing. Make sure you choose an IGH with the proper spacing for your hub. Standard rear hub spacing is 125-135mm.

To install an internal gear hub, you have to build the hub into a wheel. You could use your existing rim or get a new rim. You will need new spokes because internal gear hubs are usually wider and larger in diameter. Your existing spokes will be too long.

Wheel building is somewhat complicated. For most riders, it’s best to have a professional build and true the wheel. It is possible to do it yourself if you have the proper tools and know-how. It’s also possible to buy a prebuilt wheel with an internal gear hub installed.

When you use an internal gear hub, you need some way of tensioning the chain. On derailleur bikes, the derailleur tensions the chain. You won’t have a derailleur when you install an IGH.

Many bikes that are designed to be used with an IGH have horizontal dropouts that allow you to slide the wheel in and out to adjust the tension.

If your bike was designed for derailleurs, it will most likely have vertical dropouts. In this case, you’ll need to install a chain tensioner.

A chain tensioner is a pulley with a spring that tensions the lower run of the chain. You can attach the chain tensioner to the derailleur hanger.

You will also need new shifters. This is because the cable pull ratios are different for internal gear hubs than they are for derailleurs.

Overall, this conversion is pretty easy. The only complicated part is building a new wheel with an internal gear hub.

My Experience

In the past, I always used derailleurs simply because they were cheaper. That’s also what I grew up using. I know how to adjust and repair them. They’re simple. I was hesitant to try out an internal gear hub.

About 6 years ago, I switched to an internal gear hub on one of my touring bikes. For me, it was a game changer. The biggest advantage for me is having the ability to change gears while stopped. I never have to worry about downshifting before stopping. I can simply brake and then shift. The low maintenance is another major advantage. My IGH is paired with a belt drive. With this setup, I can ride for thousands of miles without having to perform any maintenance on the drivetrain other than washing it off.

I still don’t run internal gear hubs on all of my bikes. In fact, most of my bikes have derailleurs. This is due to cost.

Other Drivetrain Options

Other than derailleurs and internal gear hubs, a couple of other options exist.

CVT Hubs

CVT hubs, or Continuously Variable Transmission hubs, are a type of gearbox that provides a seamless and smooth transition through an infinite range of effective gearing ratios without distinct gear steps. In other words, instead of shifting from one gear to the next, the system seamlessly transitions.

Unlike internal gear hubs, CVT hubs offer cyclists the ability to fine-tune their pedaling effort in real time. You can always ride at the optimal cadence. This enhances ride comfort and efficiency.

This is achieved by using balls to transfer power rather than cogs. The balls’ axis of rotation is changed with a twist shift or electronically. An electronic system can shift automatically.

With an electronic shift system, you tell the system your desired cadence and the hub automatically adjusts so you can maintain that cadence, regardless of the terrain. When you stop, the system automatically shifts down so you can start pedaling more easily. You never have to think about shifting.

These innovative hubs offer many of the same benefits of internal gear hubs including low maintenance, gear changes while stopped, and no gear skipping. They also operate almost silently. They are also very user friendly.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. They are heavier and less efficient than internal gear hubs. The gear range is also pretty small.

CVTs are commonly used for industrial and automotive applications. They only recently became available for bicycles.

The main brand offering CVT hubs is Enviolo.

Gearboxes

A bicycle gearbox is a type of gear shifting system that is situated at the bicycle’s bottom bracket, right where the pedals attach. These use a similar technology to internal-gear hubs.

These gearboxes offer similar advantages to internal-gear hubs. The shifting components protected within the bicycle frame. Gearboxes are low maintenance, durable, and reliable. The positioning in the center of the bike also helps with balance.

However, integrating such a system necessitates a frame specially designed to accommodate the gearbox. Gearboxes are also expensive.

Pinion is the most well-known manufacturer of gearboxes. They offer up to 18 speeds and are made in Germany.

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. 

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 IGH is not a new technology. The first patent for a hub gear was issued to Seward Thomas Johnson, an American machinist, in 1895. In 1905, French bicyclist Paul de Vivie, invented the rear derailleur. The first internal gear hub and derailleur system both 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.

Final Thoughts

As of now, internal gear hubs are incredibly reliable but do lack a bit in the performance department. They are a good 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, standard derailleur systems 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! 

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Duncan Harrop

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?

wheretheroadforks

Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

I haven't had the chance to try the enviolo. It looks like an interesting design though.

Keith

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.

wheretheroadforks

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

Nice! An internal gear hub is perfect for a winter bike.

Kagi

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!

wheretheroadforks

Friday 28th of October 2022

Good point about IGHs keeping your pants cleaner. That's important for commuters.

A. Sundbye

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

wheretheroadforks

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!

Glen Aldridge

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

wheretheroadforks

Wednesday 5th of January 2022

Good point about adding power assist. That's a major benefit of using an IGH.

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