Searching for a smoother and low-maintenance cycling experience?

Internal gear hubs might be your answer.

Internal gear hubs were incredibly popular in years gone by, but for a long time fell to the wayside of mainstream cycling. Now, they’re making a comeback.

From understanding how internal gear hubs work to exploring their benefits and potential drawbacks, we’ll cover everything you need to know whether you’re a city commuter, leisure rider, or a cycling enthusiast seeking a gear system overhaul.

Credit: BikeTips Staff

What Is An Internal Bicycle Gear Hub?

Unlike conventional bike gearing systems, internal gear hubs contain the gears within the rear hub of the bike.

This concealed mechanism offers a host of advantages, including reduced maintenance requirements, protection from the elements, and the ability to shift gears even when stationary.

Popular for city commuting and leisure cycling, internal gear hubs provide a clean, efficient, and reliable alternative to traditional derailleurs.

In modern times, major internal hub gearing systems manufacturers for bicycles include Rohloff, Shimano, and Sturmey Archer. You can even find electronic versions, but most are mechanically driven.

How An Internal Gear Hub Works

Internal Gear Hubs For Bikes Explained: Everything You Need To Know 1
Image credit: Rohfloff

The majority of internal geared hubs work on a planetary system.

The hub contains multiple gears that revolve around a central “sun gear”. When the rider shifts gears, a mechanism alters the position of these “planetary” gears, creating different gear ratios.

Imagine the hub as a compact gearbox. Changing the arrangement of gears inside achieves different gear ratios without the need for external derailleurs. Internal gear hubs provide a clean, efficient, and low-maintenance solution.

Some internal gear hubs are designed to work with a belt drive instead of a chain drive. This means the drive is provided by a strengthened belt made of anything from carbon to kevlar, which can last up to 10,000 miles and doesn’t require oiling.

This is a significant advantage, as it gets around the problem that belt drives are incompatible with conventional derailleur-based gearing and therefore have to be single-speed.

The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Internal Geared Hubs

When it comes to internally geared hubs, they are not for everyone. They come with big advantages and disadvantages. Let’s get straight to it!

The Advantages Of Internal Geared Hubs

Let’s start with the good stuff. Here’s why you will want to consider an internally geared hub on your next bike. 

Reliability 

Internally geared hubs are incredibly reliable.

Everything is hidden away from dirt and anything that might break it unlike a typical gearing drivetrain where the derailleur is hanging off the side and in a fall, anything can break.

This makes them especially popular with bikepackers and long-distance tourers, who put their bikes through a lot of miles and may be a long way from a bike store when a component fails.

Weather Doesn’t Affect Them

When it comes to hub gearing it’s completely sealed inside. Apart from the chain or belt on the outside, it’s fully enclosed. So, no matter how much snow, rain, salt, or mud you ride through, it doesn’t affect the gearing.

Clean Finish

If you want your bike to have a clean-looking finish, consider an internal hub. Everything is hidden away inside the hub, and some even come with brakes internally, which, when you backpedal, kick in.

You Can Shift When Still

Something I really liked about internal hub gearing is that you can shift it when you’re still. So when you get to the traffic light, unlike a normal bike where you have to wait to start riding to shift, you can use the shifter stationary.

The Disadvantages Of Internal Gear Hubs

Although an internally geared hub sounds like an ideal solution on the surface, unfortunately, they are not always what they seem and come with some disadvantages. 

The Price

Internal gear hubs are not cheap.

There are some budget options, but if you go top of the range, you can spend $1500 on a hub from a top brand. That’s more than a complete good-quality racing groupset.

Limited Gearing

On a modern conventional groupset, you have a very wide range of gearing to get you up and down the steepest of hills.

On internal geared hubs it doesn’t offer as much range or the amount of options within that range (in most cases).

When They Do Go Wrong, They Go Very Wrong

When an internally geared hub breaks down, which is rare, they are not something you can easily fix on the side of the road. Even most bike shops send them away to be fixed or don’t keep the parts on the shelf.

They are Heavy

If you are looking for a light wheelset, you are not going to find it with an internal gear hub.

The wheel is generally very heavy, and the weight of the hub is not light either. It doesn’t help that it is filled with oil. Some are above two kilos, which will not help you win a race.

You Need To Build Them Into A Wheel

When it comes to internal gear hubs, it’s not just as simple as popping them onto a wheel, as they must be built into a wheel instead.

This means you must either be a wheel builder or hire a wheel builder to bring it all together, or buy a bike that comes fitted with an internal gear hub.

Limited Axle Options

You will find internally geared hubs for disc and rim brakes, bolt-on, and quick-release axles. When it comes to the newer standard, which is thru-axles, there are not many options on the market. So, if you want to convert a modern bike, it can be challenging.

Close-up of an internal gear hub on a blue bike.

What Kind Of Bikes Do You See Internal Geared Hubs On?

Many cyclists, especially new ones, haven’t encountered internally geared hubs. If you are a roadie or find yourself regularly on MTB trails, you might wonder what bikes these hubs are on.

Their most common use is on city bikes, where their convenience and reliability matter more than any performance disadvantages. They’re very well-suited to folding bikes for similar reasons, as well as being less vulnerable to damage while folding than conventional gears.

Touring bikes are increasingly making use of internal gear hubs for their extreme reliability and protection from the elements.

Electric bikes are also a natural home for internal gear hubs. Given the complexity of performing maintenance on an eBike, the reliability is a huge benefit. The electric assist also means the weight penalty of internal gears hubs on hills doesn’t really matter.

You won’t see them often on performance bikes such as road or mountain bikes. Performance internally geared hubs are very rare, and they just don’t offer the same experience you would get from a decent external gearing system.

Can You Fit An Internal Gear Hub To Your Bike?

Yes, in most cases you can.

There are lots of hubs available that will work with a bike currently fitted with external gearing. As the spacing is the same, finding a solution to fit an existing bike you might have will be easy. However, the installation itself may not be.

You will need to get it built into a wheel, and then once installed, you might need to add a chain tensioner and remove the front derailleur. Then, swap the shifter over to the one correct for the hub.

Often, investing in a bike (or at least a wheelset) with an internal gear hub already installed is easier. 

Are Internal Gear Hubs Right For You?

Internal gear hubs are a fantastic way to enjoy cycling. They provide a low-maintenance solution to a rider who wants to keep it simple. They suit a city bike or touring bike over any other type.

If that’s the kind of riding you are doing, it’s a great solution. 

If you are planning on racing or going onto mountain bike trails, then internal hub gears for bicycles might not be right for you. Although fantastic, they will not give a great experience in that environment.

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