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I've had my hybrid 24-speed for a bit over 3 years now, and just last weekend, when looking for a bike for my wife, discovered internal gears. Suffice to say it blew my mind when I saw 7-speed internal gear hubs, for example on this This Giant Suede Women's bike.

So the question is, what are the trade-offs between the internal gear hub and an external gear hub and derailleur?

I'm assuming they'll be more expensive? but what about the set of gear ratios they provide? the reliability? the serviceability? tuning/maintenance? other effects on the chain/sprockets?

Going back to the bike linked above, there's a near-identical model with 21-speed external gears that's considerably cheaper, and I'm wondering whether the extra money for the internal gears would buy any real benefits (e.g. longer lasting chains/sprockets or fewer services), or whether it's just for fashion?

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...depends on your climate and geography. I have inner hub bike and XYZ-speed bikes. I use the inner hub bike during salty-snowy winters. During summer when I do longer rides, I like to use XYZ-speed bikes because there are a lot of hills, mountains -- where inner hub is not that comfortable, of course you can change the geometries but it is a hassle. If you want more targeted answer, you could mention weather/geography restrictions. –  user652 Apr 16 '11 at 21:20
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for the sake of a useful answer for the community, i'll leave the question as is, though where I am it doesn't snow and i ride almost entirely on sealed surfaces - the biggest problem for my gears/chain is a bit of grit and occasional rain so not a hugely compelling reason to switch... –  drfrogsplat May 9 '11 at 6:16
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4 Answers 4

up vote 36 down vote accepted

The main advantages of hub gears over a 1xN derailleur system are reliability and being able to shift while stationary. Since there's no derailleur or chain tensioner it's easier to add a full chaincase which means chains last a lot longer and with mudguards added there are no dirty bits accessible on the bike. They're heavier and harder to maintain if you have to maintain them.

There's a whole style of bike that uses those advantages (and others) and from a US perspective is called a "european" or "dutch" bike. Broadly, it's a bike built for someone who is not a cyclist, rather they are someone who uses a bike for transport. It should just work, no special clothes or rituals required.

Compared to a 3xN derailleur system a hub gear is much simpler to operate and maintain. All the gears are in order and you only have one shifter. The compromise is a smaller gear range (Rohloff being the obvious exception), ranging from a little smaller for the Shimano Alfine 11 down to "yes, there are two gears" for the back-pedal-shift 2 speed hubs. But in return you get extremely long life for the chain and cogs (10,000km or more for the chain, 20,000km+ for cogs) and a general low-fuss maintenance requirement. That also makes it practical to put a hub gear in places where derailleur gears could go but you wouldn't want them - under my load carrying quad, for instance, where the derailleur hung down between the rear wheels just waiting for a rock to break it off, and turning the thing over for maintenance is a pain.

Removing the rear wheel on a hub geared bike ranges from nigh on impossible (some of the Shimano hubs, and some dutch bikes have chain cases that are just irritating to work on) to almost trivial (a Rohloff with QR). The problem is the shifter cable - you have to detach it to remove the wheel. Good ones just unhook, poor ones you have to undo the adjuster barrel and re-adjust the gears on reassembly. Shimano are getting better, but Rohloff and Sturmey Archer have it down pat.

Servicing hubs is not often done these days. The manufacturers generally allow bike shops to swap out the internals for new, saving the hassle of building a new wheel, but that's about it. I had three Shimano Nexus 8 hubs fail at 5,000km intervals, and every time I just got replacement internals rather than the hub being repaired (the last time, of course, Shimano had stopped making the hub so I had to throw away the wheel). With Rohloff the same thing might happen, except after 150,000km or more... most people don't ride that far in a lifetime. Also, with Rohloff you change the oil every 5,000-10,000km, at a cost of half an hour of your time and about $20 for an oil change kit (or $10 for just the oil).

I usually run a Schwalbe Marathon Plus on the rear of my hub geared bikes, which trades a little extra rolling resistance for huge puncture resistance. It's part of the "my bike just works" philosophy. I'd rather reliably take an extra 30s to get to work than at random intervals be 5-10 minutes late and dirty due to a puncture (because you know that you'll only get punctures when you're in a hurry and it's raining).

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@Neil: it depends which Nexus you have. Some of them require either lining up flanges on a plastic washer with matching indents on the hub then turning the locking bit, or slotting a cable end stop into the hub. Neither are necessarily easy - I've seen mechanics in a dry, well-lit workshop struggle with the former as it's not at all intuitive. Try the Rohloff sometime if you think Shimano is easy... –  Мסž Apr 16 '11 at 8:58
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Why do you spell "puncture" with an asterix? –  Bartek Tatkowski May 10 '11 at 13:21
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@Bartek: superstition - by mentioning something you call it to you. –  Мסž May 10 '11 at 22:12
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Good answer: +1. I've suggested an edit. It replaces "p*ncture" with "puncture". It also changes the post from using megameters to kilometers: megameters are confusing for most readers. –  unforgettableid Jun 25 '13 at 22:25
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unforgettableid: "if" means that most geared hubs can go long periods without any maintenance at all, but when they do need it it's often not obvious what needs doing. Adding a little oil is actually easy, but if you break or wear out the shift mechanism it's going to be harder to fix than the same thing on a derailleur system. Partly because it happens so much less often. –  Mσᶎ Jun 25 '13 at 23:10
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I don't have an internal hub, but I want one for the following reasons: They are sealed and protected from the elements. They are nice for commuting because you can shift them while stopped... If you've ever stopped at a red light on a normal bike and struggled to get going again because of your gear, you can appreciate this. With an Internal hub, you can just change to an easy gear and then get going.
Also, I've had a derailleur brake off before and I've had a different one shift into my spokes! These failures will not happen with internal hubs.

Disadvantages are that they add a bit of weight and tie you to that wheel. That is, you can't just switch out wheels like you can with a derailleur. Finally, while internal hubs are seen as very dependable, if something does go wrong internally, you have to bring it to an expert. Wikipedia has a good summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hub_gear

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Also, as M. Werner pointed out, changing a flat or swapping tires on the rear wheel become more time-consuming procedures. Reinstalling the rear wheel means adjusting the internal hub; easy with some hubs, harder with others. (I had a pleasant surprise when reinstalling a Shimano Nexus hub after swapping tires, and found an adjustment indicator.) –  Neil Fein Apr 12 '11 at 21:32
    
With a Rohloff it can be easier than the derailleur version because it's a single-speed wheel change with a thumbscrew to remove the shift mechanism. And I think all the modern hubs have an adjustment indicator, and most of the older ones. –  Мסž Apr 12 '11 at 22:42
    
-1 the sentence "if something does go wrong internally, you have to bring it to an expert. " is too stereotypical or even wrong. I have no education or any expertise what-so-ever and I have repaired inner hubs. The way I do it is to disassemble them carefully, compare things to working things on the specifications and then get the new replacement parts. I tend to get them disassembled first because the specs (at least new shimanos) have step-by-step instructions from the parts to the constructed thing with good photos how to repair them. It is not hard at all but it requires patience. –  user652 Apr 16 '11 at 21:10
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.......Well that is fine for you, but for the average human, these things are too hard to fix. The complexity is nicely hidden in your comment by such phrases as "And then get the new replacement parts". The OP, who owns a hybrid said, "it blew my mind when I saw 7-speed internal gear hubs". The guy is still trying to piece his life back together after seeing the OUTSIDE of an internal gear hub and you want him to crack it open and "compare it to the specs"? –  mcgyver5 Apr 18 '11 at 16:01
    
to mcgyver, outside of gear hubs...you mentioned gear hubs are better for commute because you can shift while idle and with the derailleur you "struggle to get going again because of your gear". shift down before you stop, like a manual car. –  user8722 Dec 6 '13 at 6:22
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Pretty much as above. They are generally dependable, maintenance free, and easy to use.

Also heavy, difficult-to-impossible to service, and sometimes a bear to get loose if you have a flat tire. I fixed a flat on a Nexus hub wheel a couple of years ago, and getting the thing back in place and getting the cable properly lined up and tensioned was...Frustrating. I understand the new ones are better.

In fact, this one was so difficult that the previous owner had left a flat tube in the bike and had inserted one of those "straight" tubes with the sealed ends... On top of the old tube. Really strange....

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+1 for heavy. I notice a big difference between my fixie and my single speed with a 3-speed hub even though the rest of the bikes are very similar –  Mac Jun 25 '13 at 23:17
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I drive the same Rohloff for over 8 years and do not see an end of its lifetime. I cannot speak for other brands, but in all posts above the free-of-charge service by Rohloff, as part of their special corporate culture was not mentioned. Up to now, whenever there was a problem, the thing was being send to Rohloff and I had to pay nothing. That being said, yes there are some problems worth mentioning and I assume these can apply to other internal gears as well:

  • Hard to impossible to shift under load, which is the major reason why I have an additional bike with external gears that I use when going to the Alps.
  • At tempeatures below 0 or -10 °C, the gears loose grip, i.e. you turn several times without moving. Up to now, after some turns, it started to work again but I always fear that it will stop working at -20 °C in the middle of nowhere. Rohloff recommends to use a special oil mixture during winter time which does not prevent this.
  • Even in summer time it rarely but does happen that my Rohloff shows the slipping effect mentioned.
  • You should have a LBD who knows Rohloff (including how this company is operating), which might not be easy to find. Moving, I had to turn my new LBDs into experts for two times.
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