Random Thoughts on Shifting and Internal Gear Hubs

It dawned on me this morning that a majority of the bikes currently in our possession are outfitted with internal gear hubs. Even though I’m a big fan of “IGHs” as they’re sometimes called, we didn’t set out to rid our household of derailleurs. As a matter of fact, it’s awfully hard to fault the good ol’ derailleur; they’re lightweight, relatively inexpensive, simple to adjust and maintain, and they impart a lovely whiiirrr to the drivetrain of a bicycle. What’s not to like?

I’m decidedly old school when it comes to derailleur shifting; I never quite made the full transition from friction to Rapidfire and STI. I tried indexed thumb shifters on a mountain bike for a while, and I ran indexed bar ends on various road bikes over the years, but I never stuck with it and I always ended up going back to friction. And never, for a moment, did I like brifters — there’s something about levers that move in two planes that gives me the willies (apologies to the 98% of the cycling public who love brifters).

High quality internal gear hubs shift with such precision and speed, and the experience is so different than derailleur shifting, that I’m hardly missing my old friction shifters.

Internal gear hubs require an indexed shifter (Rohloffs are indexed within the hub), and I have to admit, for the first time I’m starting to really enjoy this “other” type of indexed shifting. The difference, I’m sure, is in the hubs; high quality IGHs shift with such precision and speed, and the experience is so different than derailleur shifting, that I’m hardly missing my old friction shifters.

I also like the fact that high quality internal gear hubs can be shifted at will: sitting at a stop light; climbing while pedaling; descending while coasting; basically whenever and wherever you need to shift, you can. It’s pretty cool to roll up to a stop light, make multiple downshifts while you’re waiting for the light to change, and roll away in the proper gear.

Of course, internal gear hubs are nothing new — Sturmey-Archer has been building IGHs for over 100 years. Some of their hubs manufactured decades ago are still in operation today. We’re riding the modern incarnation of the classic Sturmey-Archer on a couple of our personal bikes. While not bad hubs, they’re not in the same league as the latest offerings from Shimano, SRAM, and Rohloff.

Internal gear hubs aren’t perfect; they’re relatively heavy, good ones are expensive, they’re less efficient than derailleur drivetrains, and if something goes wrong they’re difficult to repair. But I like the way they shift; I like that the gears are sealed and essentially maintenance-free; I like that they have next to no dish (resulting in stronger wheels); and I like the way they visually clean up the drivetrain. So while I still love the whiiirrr of a chain snaking through a derailleur, bikes with internal gear hubs will continue to be a part of our stable for the foreseeable future.

35 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Shifting and Internal Gear Hubs”

  • Thom says:

    Having spent the better part of two days futzing (with more-or-less success) with three old Sturmey-Archer hubs (’55, ’62, and ’71), I can say with some authority that nothing quite beats the feeling of getting the cable tension dialed in just right and clicking through all three gears smoothly and easily. Three is all you need!

  • Duncan Watson says:

    My new bike is a Raptobike lowracer that is equipped with a Rohloff Hub. This is my first experience with an internally geared hub and I love it. The shifting is a joy to use and 14 gears with a 500% gear range is very nice. I go from 20 gear inches to 109 gear inches which is all I need. The Rohloff is ruining me for derailleurs.

  • Roland Smith says:

    My first ‘grown-up’ bike had a 3-speed sturmy-acher hub, which seemed ubiquitous in those days. I drove that bike for two decades without trouble or even changing the (completely enclosed) chain.

    My first recumbent had derailer gears. While the larger gear range was nice, the fact that you had to downshift before stopping and the easy with which the chain and sprockets picket up dirt and grime were putting me off.

    So, fast-forward a decade, which finds me picking a new ‘bent. Disenchanted with derailers, I started looking for gear hubs. Sturmey-Archer doesn’t really have a presence here in the Netherlands anymore, and their lowest gear is direct drive, which is backwards in my opinion. SRAM doesn’t even list hubs on their dutch website. Shimano is ubiquitous now, but the word is that their hubs are fragile. So the Rohloff wins with its huge gear range, 11th gear direct drive, and the sensible design for the shifting mechanism.

    I’m pretty sure that when I go looking for my next bike, it will get a Rohloff as well.

    @Duncan

    Your Raptobike is a lovely bike! After Alan’s article about adopting bikes, I’m severely tempted to get one as well, but equipped for commuting. How is the ride quality, given that it is a non-suspension design?

    The only thing putting me off aesthetically is the mismatched wheel sizes. I wonder if he could do a double 559? (a bit like this bike from English cycles).

  • Karl OnSea says:

    I picked up the replacement wheel for our tandem yesterday – built on the 5-speed Sturmey Archer Brake Hub. This is replacing a 5-speed derailleur setup (it’s an OLD tandem!), and I went for hub brakes too for wet-weather stopping. For weight, some people say that hub-systems suck . . . but then again, how many of us really notice the extra few ounces?

  • Stephen S says:

    IGH’s all the way! I sure hope Roland is mistaken about Shimano fragility though, now that I have them on 2 bikes! (one of which I built the wheel around the Shimano hub myself! :)

  • 2whls3spds says:

    A few things come to mind. I don’t think the overall weight difference is as great as most people think. When you go IGH you are stripping off a couple of derailleurs, extra shifter, extra chain ring(s), extra chain length and a huge pile of cogs. However it does change the balance of the bike giving the illusion of much added weight.

    The lower efficiency claim is also suspect, if you have a spotlessly clean, perfectly tuned with no wear derailleur system it might be a percentage point or two better than IGH, but let it get dirty, a bit of wear or out of adjustment, then that slight advantage goes away very quickly. And I have yet to see a derailleur system have the sheer longevity of the IGH equipped drive train, with such low maintenance. Not to mention not having to worry about soiling clothes on a oiled or greasy chain ;-)

    I have a couple of bikes with derailleurs on them, but my favorite bikes for 90% of my riding are the IGH.

    Aaron

  • Bob Baxter says:

    I have two recumbents with derailleurs and two uprights with IGHs. I wish it were the other way around.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    @Roland

    The Raptobike is a pretty smooth ride. The longish wheelbase for an SWB, the 1.1 inch tires, and the body position seems to be responsible for that. I feel bumps less on the Raptobike than on my Bacchetta Corsa. Regarding a dual 559 version, Arnold@Raptobike hasn’t made an announcement yet but he has prototypes built of a new “midracer” that is dual 559 with an S Frame to keep the seat low and FWD – http://www.flickr.com/photos/24583030@N08/3413569733/

    As far as IGH’s go, now that I have a bike with a Rohloff, I find that all my new bike purchases will strongly consider use of an IGH. It is an option that can’t be ignored once you have tried it. I am sold on the idea. A friend of mine does his own maintenance and his wife’s bike (w/deraileur) “ghost shifts”, partly due to frame flex, partly due to miss-adjustment. He keeps fighting the adjustments trying to get rid of the issue. I am tempted to send him a Shimano Alfine for the bike.

  • Doug says:

    “— there’s something about levers that move in two planes that gives me the willies (apologies to the 98% of the cycling public who love brifters).”

    When I got back into cycling 8 years ago and discovered Shimano Brifters, this was my first thought. It didn’t make any sense to me. Plus, I think the Shimano Brifters are the ugliest brake levers ever designed.

    I’ve been enjoying my Nexus 8-speed IGH on my commuter, a Surly Cross Check. It’s perfect for my year round commute in the frozen northland.

  • Roland Smith says:

    @Duncan

    Neat, thanks for the link to the pictures. That midracer looks like it’s going to be an interesting bike. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

    With regard to shifting problems, part of the problem is that derailer gears (and most hubs, for that matter) rely in a spring to move in one direction. This movement will be influenced by resistance in the cable. The Rohloff’s double cable bypasses that. I’m surprised that a frame could flex enough to cause ghost switching. My own experience is that I had to re-adjust the cables on my indexed shifters regularly, especially with new cables.

    @Stephen S

    The problems I heard about were only related to older Shimano 7-speed hubs. There is a blog dedicated to gear hubs: hubstripping.wordpress.com. You might find more info there.

  • Alan says:

    My impression is that Shimano IGHs are evolving pretty rapidly and the newer generations, particularly the Alfine, have addressed most of the problems that cropped up in the older models. Of course, only time will tell. For now, I’m impressed by the silky smoothness of the latest Alfines.

    For more (much more) on this, check out the March 2008 issue of VeloVision (#29). It includes a hub gear comparison of the SRAM i-Motion 9, Shimano Alfine, Rohloff, and NuVinci.

    VeloVision #29

  • Surly John says:

    I have been riding Rohloff equipped bikes for a few years. I don’t have anything against derailleirs but I do think 8+ speed IGH hubs are the next step in the evolution of bicycle drive systems. For a daily bike they are so trouble free and the luxury of shifting at a stand-still is something you have to try to appreciate.

    They do weigt the bike to the rear but compared to panniers it is a small factor. There are trade offs but I don’t think I’d build up a new bike without an IGH. For those on the fence I reccomend giving it a try. Resale value is pretty good on used Rohloffs so even if you decide not to keep it you can recover some of your investment.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I vote IGH. Reliability is more important than speed.

    I went to a presentation of someone who had done a mountain bike tour of Ethiopa. It was a fine show. One slide was very memorable – rock for as far as the eye could see. His derailleur hit one of those rocks and converted his mountain bike to a two-speed for the next 50 miles i.e. until he reached the next town. I remember thinking, “You wouldn’t have had that problem with an IGH.”

  • Bennelong Bicyclist says:

    For the last 9 months I’ve been commuting on a 2007 model Giant CRX City Pro, which has an 8-speed Shimano Nexus Pro (Redline) hub gear (the immediate precursor to the current Alfine hub, and almost as good), originally with a twist shifter, which I swapped to a Rapidfire thumbshifter. Some photos of it can be found at
    http://www.sydneycyclist.info/Home/gallery

    I love the Shimano hub gear to bits – the immediate and completely reliable shifting is a revelation. I went on a group ride a few months ago with about 30 other people, all on typical, fairly recent road and commuting bikes, and the main thing I noticed, having ridden a hub geared bike solo for several months, was the constant chunk-rattle-graunch-clunk-sproing-rattle as the other riders changed gears, or more often than not, failed to change gears cleanly. For commuting purposes, the best thing about the Shimano hub is that it is “bottom normal”, which means that the gear change cable is pulled to change to a higher gear – this makes changing up, when accelerating away from the traffic lights or a stop sign, or when getting out of the saddle to stand on the pedals, a completely sure and instantaneous thing, which is the opposite to most modern rear derailleurs which are top-normal and thus rely in spring tension alone to effect up-changes. However, down-chnages with teh Shimano hub are still as fast or faster than with a well-adjusted deraileur.

    My next commuter will have a nice steel frame, cable discs, a Shimano Afine hub, and maybe a full, fabricated chaincase.

  • Stephen says:

    Can anyone comment on the difficulty of conversion or some sources for good information on this? I have a Heron touring frame that I’d like to convert eventually to an Alfine IGH, but I’m not sure I’m up to doing that myself. It’s going to require rebuilding the back wheel, and figuring out what to do with the front crank. Probably not un-doable, but I don’t like getting into a FUBAR situation.

  • Greg says:

    My folding commuter bike has a Shimano 8-speed IGH. I’ve been thinking that it’s pretty much mandatory for practical commuting, especially if you abide by the law (ha!) and stop at the stop signs. I’m also starting to think that they’re more desirable for recumbents, as well. Actually, I’m leaning towards a general “derailleurs are for racing” philosophy. Except for the weight and cost, IGHs are just more practical and reliable in pretty much every way.

  • brad says:

    @Greg: I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re mandatory for commuting. Maybe because I’ve never owned an automatic-transmission car, I’ve never had any trouble with the habit of “downshifting” as I approach a stop sign or traffic light, so the ability to downshift while stopped doesn’t impress me all that much. But I think the main drawback to the IGH that I keep hearing about is the difficulty of getting the wheel off and changing tires when you get a flat. Not having any direct experience with IGHs myself, I can’t verify that this is true, but if it is I think that would make me think twice. Given the added weight in the rear, plus the weight of panniers, would suggest that you really want to invest in some good strong armored tires for the back and check their inflation before every ride to minimize the possibility of getting a flat back there.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    my two cents:

    There aren’t any hidden surprises in converting a bike to IGH. Go for it! It’s a great idea!

    The weight difference is not big enough to be worth talking about.

    It’s not that hard to fix a flat with an IGH. At least, I didn’t think so. If you’re having trouble with flats, go with wider tires. I’m not trying to start anything, but wider tires are faster, more comfortable, and much less likely to get a flat.

  • bentguy in vanvouver says:

    I have a Sram Dual Drive hub so I enjoy the advantage of being able to shift down at a stand-still but the whirr of the drive-train is still evident. I think the point of the dual-drive system is simply to get rid of the more awkward shifting that takes place up front. I ride a bent so it makes my front end a lot cleaner and it’s a fairly small lightweight hub so there is no real weight concern.

    It has made me wonder how much I might enjoy a full hub system. I was wondering as well how they effect chain wear. I have been through two drive trains in just under 10,000 km. Replacing both cassette and chain (on my bent that’s 2.25 regular chains) can get pricey. Certainly there would be no cassette to replace but how does the chain fair?

  • Duncan Watson says:

    re: Flats. I prefer to patch flats in place anyway. I find the bad spot, unseat the tire in place and pull out the tube. I then check the inside of the tire to make sure to remove any stones, wires, or crap, then patch the tube without removing it. Reinsertion is trivial and I am generally on my way in a flash.

    I can then switch out the tube at home if it has multiple patches. With one or two patches I just keep running it. I swap out tubes before big events but make sure to ride them for 6 miles or so before heading out on a 200k ride. I have had new tubes/tire combos do poorly due to mistakes made during installation.

    At this point I have 150 miles on my rohloff and have yet to deal with the flat issue.

  • beth h says:

    @ Doug:

    “— there’s something about levers that move in two planes that gives me the willies…”

    I agree. Never quite learned to love brifters myself. All of my bikes that shift run derailleurs and use pure friction shifters; Thumbies on the uprights and Suntour Power-Ratchet stem shifters on the drop-bar bike.

    (I can’t stand reaching that far over to down-tube shifters…)

    As for flats and IGH’s: anecdotal evidence so far indicates that nearly every customer who runs an IGH prefers to pay us to fix their flats. Easily half the customers who ride bikes with derailleurs are happy to buy the tube, borrow some levers and fix it themselves on the sidewalk. Just thought I’d share.

  • Greg says:

    @brad – I see where you’re going, but it’s not a perfect comparison. A car is actually more like an IGH than a derailleur. If you stopped your car in 5th and then could not shift again until you engaged and started moving, you would probably be pretty frustrated by the manual transmission. This is essentially what a derailleur would do for a car.

    I haven’t had a flat in the back yet so I can’t speak to the difficulty of removing the wheel, but I do check the tire pressure before every ride. Then again, I do that for my bikes with derailleurs as well.

    When I said “pretty much” mandatory, I understand that you can commute with a derailleur just fine – I’ve done it before. I find urban riding is more pleasurable with an IGH; I wouldn’t want a derailleur anymore for those sorts of rides. Pedestrians, dogs, traffic, traffic laws, and terrain all conspire to make situations where you get stuck in an inappropriate gear. And even if you’re an expert at planning gear changes well in advance, it’s nice to be free from the responsibility.

  • Bennelong Bicyclist says:

    Certainly with the Shimano hubs, removing the rear wheel to fix a flat tyre is more difficult and messy than with a derailleur-equiped bike, and you do need to carry a small 15mm spanner for the axle nuts. However, after doing it once or twice for practice, it is not really so hard. Nevertheless, I would strongly recommend fitting a larger, more puncture-proof tyre on the rear of a hub geared bike – something like a Schwalbe Marathon Plus or a “hardcase” tyre – in order to reduce the likelihood that the rear wheel will need to be removed.

    I gather that rear wheels built with the SRAM i-Motion and Rohloff hubs are easier to remove than the Shimanos. But removing the Shimanos is not a major job – perhaps a few minutes longer than removing a derailleur rear wheel. One thing that is easier is re-adjusting the gear change after replacing the rear wheel. The gears seem to need a lot of adjustment after removing and replacing the rear wheel on my derailleur bikes, whereas with the Shimano hub, you just line up two marks on the hub and it is perfect again.

  • Jordan says:

    I’ve been commuting to work daily since 2005 on an old Fuji with a Shimano 8-speed internal hub. I’m on my second hub, but only because the rear wheel was stolen last year. (Darn NYC thieves.) I have a theory that the thief had no clue what to do with the ungainly wheel that was incompatible with 98% of the bikes (s)he tried to attach it to and ended up throwing it away. I was happy enough with the first to buy a second!

  • Keith Walker says:

    I would like to clear up 4 misconceptions about IGH’s:

    Shifting 1: It is false that you need an indexing shifter to ride with an IGH. My new bike has a Sturmey Archer RX-RD3 (rotary shift 3 speed) and shifting is accomplished with a silver shifter (bar end). Once you know the relative shifting points, it is magical… So with 3 speed hubs, friction shifters are a possibility; caveat emptor when dealing with 5 or 8 speeds.

    Changing tires: I would not state that tire changes are harder than derailluers, just different. You take off the cables for the brake (and torque arm bolt) and shifter. The brake you have to readjust, the shifter you do not – relieve the spring tension (with a spoke or 2mm allen wrench) and the cable can be removed. Re installation should not necessitate readjustment, but if it does, just line up the yellow marks on a Shimano hub using the cable adjusters.

    Shimano Nexus reliability: I spent two years with a Nexus 8 speed hub and the only problem with that hub design is that they seem sensitive to locknut torques; as they are not cartridge bearings, but loose bearings in cages/races. To compound the problem, Shimano is vague on torque specs on reassembly. During the 2nd winter, the locknuts got loose and a ball bearing left it’s race. Luckily the grease retained it and I purchased the Shimano repair tools to disassemble and reassemble the hub. I would hope that the Alfine has cartridge bearings, it would remove the major problem with Shimano hubs IMO.

    Shifting 2: One ride on a Rohlhoff and you will see the logic of the push-pull cable shifting, whereas Shimano is only pull with spring return (with the corresponding ‘cheap’ feel). Further as one reader stated, the Rohlhoff indexing is in the hub – where it belongs. Finally, I believe the Rohlhoff has oil instead of grease lubrication. If the IGH manufacturers want to be serious, they must cut down on the drag of the grease lubrication and design the hubs for oil lubrication. I wish Rohlhoff made a 3 speed hub, not everyone needs a 14 speed monster.

    To put the issue further, I am ‘downgrading’ from an 8 speed IGH to a 3 speed IGH, and don’t expect issues. Perhaps rightsizing is the proper term…

  • Rick says:

    @Brad et al on flats:

    My solution to the flat problem is tire sealant. I started using it 2 years ago and haven’t had a flat since (somewhere between 2500 and 3000 miles ridden), with the exception of the 1 inch gash in the tire and tube from the piece of broken bottle in th shadows of the underpass that I didn’t see. I always check tire pressures before setting out and often note a smallish pressure loss (10-15 psi in 100 psi tires) if the bike has been unridden for 3-4 days. I’m guessing that I’ve encountered yet another thorn and lost a bit of air before the sealant got its job done.

    I know that sealant in the tires makes for a slower ride, but I would rather lose 5 minutes on a 20 mile commute due to sealant than lose 15 minutes due to a flat.

  • brad says:

    @Keith Walker: When you say you’re right-sizing to a three-speed IGH, that makes me wonder about the old three-speed bikes that were common when I was a kid in the 1960s: with those, you could shift down at a stop too, in fact you actually had to stop pedaling in order to shift. I can’t even remember what technology those bikes used, was it some kind of IGH?

    As for flats, I think any good Kevlar or similar lined tire should do the job well – the stock Kevlar-lined Bontrager tires that came with my Trek touring bike have done a great job; I think I’ve had a total of 3 flats in the last four years despite riding an hour every day in spring, summer, and fall through poorly maintained city streets and bike paths with plenty of potholes and broken glass. Still, I think it’s clear that changing a rear flat on an IGH-equipped bike is a more complicated proposition (and a more intimidating one to people who aren’t particularly handy or skilled at adjusting brakes) than changing it on a derailleur-equipped bike.

  • Alan says:

    I think the concerns over the difficulty of removing IGH rear wheels is exaggerated. Just last night I had to remove the Alfine hub from my Civia to tighten the disc brake rotor. It took less than 5 minutes to remove the wheel, tighten the rotor, reinstall the wheel, and hook up the shifter cable. From all reports, the SRAM i-Motion is even easier to remove. The Shimano cable attachment is slightly kludge, but there’s a technique, and once you figure it out, it only takes a few seconds to attach the cable. In my opinion it’s more a matter of a lack of familiarity than it is about any real difficulty.

    Alan

    PS – I’ve never owned a Rohloff, so I can’t speak to the difficulty of removing those…

  • Surly John says:

    @Alan – Removing a Rohloff hub is a piece of cake. Easier to remove and replace than a derallier bike. If you have nutted axles then it would require a wrench which complicates things a little bit. I also have had a dual drive equipped bike and even that is not a big deal.

    I agree completely that this is not a real issue.

    John

  • Keith Walker says:

    Another misconception with IGH’s is that they are not dished. The Shimano Nexus 8 speed I have is slightly dished, and the Sturmey Archer hub more so.

    The S-A hub may have more dish as it is rotary shift, the S-A chain pull hubs may not have a dish, but the shifting is so much better on the rotary shift type.

    As for Brad’s question, downshifting is accomplished at a stop by pedaling backwards about a half inch on the crank with the S-A hub. You hear the click, and then you are in low gear.

    As for upshifts, I think the old and new S-A hubs are similar, but the rotary shift mechanism makes it easier to upshift while pedaling, as opposed to the chain pull type.

    fwiw, another tidbit is 3 speed S-A hubs I believe are direct drive in 2nd gear

  • Roland Smith says:

    The great difficulty with removing a back wheel on a Dutch/European commuter bike is usually not the hub, but usually the complete chain cover. which is usually a PITA to take off.

    So over here it is usual to just take off one axle nut (on the opposite side of the chain) and use a fork spreader (google “vorkuitzetter’ for pics) to force the rear fork apart so you can pull the rear tyre over the axle without taking the rear wheel out. Very handy piece of kit. I’ve only used it on steel frames, though.

    Getting a back wheel with a Rohloff hub off is easy. The cables are designed to be easily disconnected, and the reaction arm slips over a nock on the frame.

    For those worrying about hubs getting stolen, pitlock has special axle nuts that are individually shaped and require a matching tool to open.

  • jamesmallon says:

    Forget Pitlocks. A U-lock through the front wheel and front frame triangle; a cable through the rear wheel, rear triangle and saddle.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I was just wondering…I was sitting in a park watching bikes go by and I was just wondering…how does it affect the efficiency of a derailleur when the bike hits a pot hole and the whole derailleur swings forward and back? Seems like that can’t be good.

  • Matt says:

    Two observations:

    1) an unmentioned advantage of IGHs is the clean chain line and the sudden possibility that opens up for a chainguard, not feasible with a derailleur-equipped bicycle

    2) the Pitlocks may not be suitable for an IGH if it’s in a horizontal dropout. I used Pitlocks on a couple of (derailleur) bikes which have vertical dropouts and the skewer is basically keeping the wheel from, well, dropping out. In a horizontal dropout where the clamp has to be tight enough to resist the pull of the drivetrain, the Pitlocks may not be able to clamp tight enough (they warn against over-tightening).

    3) a bonus! I wrote up a rumination on three speed gearing which drags on for three pages but I think you might enjoy page four, which clearly shows the relative gear ranges of some derailleur and IGH bikes. My Shimano Nexus Redband 8 speed hub has a wider range than my old 1970s 10-speed. A lot of people don’t get this. See http://www.uscoles.com/threespeedgearing.pdf

    Keep up the good work!

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