Slowly but surely over the past few years my stable has evolved to the point where 4 out of 5 of my regular rides are outfitted with internal gear hubs (IGHs). I didn’t purposely set out to replace my derailleur drivetrains with IGHs, but they work so well for the climate and terrain in which I ride that they’re a natural choice for me. Following are a few of the pros and cons of internal gear hubs as I see them:
Simple to operate (indexed, linear)
Can be shifted while at a stop
Aesthetically pleasing (clean chain line)
Can be heavy
Can have limited gear range compared to derailleur drivetrains
Require proprietary shifters
Difficult to repair for the home mechanic
Probably the biggest on-road advantage an internal gear hub provides is the ability to shift while at a stop. Regardless of whether I’m riding my Brompton with its Sturmey Archer 3-speed IGH, or my Civia Bryant with its Shimano Alfine 8-speed IGH, I always appreciate the fact that I can roll up to a stop light, make a shift or three while waiting for the light, then roll away in the appropriate gear. I’ve become so accustomed to doing this that even after 30 years on derailleur drivetrains I now sometimes forget to down-shift my derailleur-bike before coming to a stop.
Other than the Rohloff, most internal gear hubs cover a narrower range than triple derailleur drivetrains. Whether this is a real disadvantage in practice depends mostly upon where a person lives. My wife jokes that her bike is a 3-speed, even though it’s equipped with a 24-speed drivetrain. What she’s getting at is that 99% of the time she only uses the middle three cogs in the rear and the middle ring up front. For much of the riding I do, I find the same thing, though I probably use more like 6 gears instead of her 3 (I shift too much). In fact, I converted my old Surly from 27-speeds down to 18, then finally 9, and even then I rarely used the entire range. Given our riding habits, an 8-, 9-, or 11-speed IGH provides more than enough gearing options. Of course, those who live in hillier terrain may need the broader range and low-low of a touring triple.
According to a poll we conducted back in April, 14% of our readers ride bikes outfitted with internal gear hubs. My guess is that there are a variety of reasons why that number isn’t higher, some of which are listed under the “Cons” above. The first three drawbacks are not necessarily insignificant, but the last one may be the sleeper. Bicyclists—especially those who have been riding for many years—tend to be tinkerers. I’d say a fairly high percentage of our readers perform at least a portion of their maintenance at home. The issue is that working on IGHs is beyond the comfort level of many home mechanics. This puts the burden of repairing our hubs on local bike shops, and from what I’ve experienced, there’s a major shortage of mechanics who have the know-how to wrench on IGHs.
If you’re not already riding an IGH, I’d be curious to know if you’re considering one for the future, and if not, what the obstacles are. If you’re already on an IGH, I’d like to hear why you made the switch and what you both like and dislike about your particular hub(s).