I was reading an article about the CeramicSpeed’s Driven concept and, while not interested in the efficiency part, the chainless system reminded me of something I was wondering for some time: are there real-life alternatives to the chain + derailleur combo?

By "real-life" I mean a solution which is reasonably commercialized. I realize that there is nothing obviously replacing them as I do not see them at my Decathlon shop but there may be something a bit less mainstream which is still in use.

My main concern is the complexity of the derailleur system coupled with a chain which breaks - and all of this requires maintenance.

An analogy would be the engine in petrol cars together with the mechanics to bring the couple to the wheels vs a Tesla solution where a small, one-block electric motor sits directly on the wheels axis (Note: I am not thinking about replacing the power source (that is me) by an electric system, just to show how the complexity has been reduced in a tesla vs my regular car. I still want to pedal, less the maintenance and system complexity)

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    Cool link :-) I have no clue whether this proves to be robust enough for everyday usage, but it's always nice to see people think outside the box. – cmaster Jul 11 at 16:05
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    Shaft drive + internally geared hub. Bikes like that are currently available as rent bikes in different cities, like Antwerp in Belgium. – Carel Jul 11 at 16:29
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    Single speed chain + internally geared hub is very low maintenance and highly reliable. Note that a single speed chain is more robust and requires less maintenance (especially with a fully enclosed chain guard) than a derailleur chain. I’d prefer it over a belt or shaft drive. – Michael Jul 12 at 7:28
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    @Michael I read the answer and couldn't believe nobody mentioned that. Please post your comment as an answer, or I will do it and steal your Internet points! – JiK Jul 12 at 11:09
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    @Sam - was the pennyfarthing more or less (or equally) efficient as this in terms of "all your energy being sent directly to the ground": Buster Keaton demonstration ride – davidbak Jul 13 at 0:08

11 Answers 11

Belt drive + Internally Geared Hub is a popular combination.

Existing systems are based around a gates carbon belt drive. See the Breezer Beltway series bikes. Also Reeb Cycles began offering belt drives for mountain bikes when they first came to market.

Also, now there is a breakable belt system called Veer that doesn't require a frame cutout (though uses cogs somewhat different from older belt drive systems) which could be used in configuration with an internally geared hub (when their new pro-version comes out). Currently it appears to be singlespeed only.

Though this is still rather similar to a chain drive system, there is less regular maintenance needed to keep the drivetrain clean as wear is not as damaging on the belt drive system. Performance is different with an IGH hub though.

There are also shaft driven bikes which engage with a standard internally geared hub (instead of a cassette like mechanism). See related SE question with some detail. Any experience with shaft driven bikes?

  • I can definitely recommend the Breezer Beltway bikes from own experience over years. Very sturdy and a good ride. – plocks Jul 13 at 5:04
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    The list of manufacturers which sell belt + internal geared bikes is nearly endless. I'm extremely happy with my newest bike which has a Gates belt + Shimano Alfine hub (used primarily for cycling to work) and I'm 99.9% convinced that for my next trekking/touring bike I will go for a belt + Rohloff hub. – Bart Jul 14 at 11:52

If you can live with the chain, there is a geared hub by Rohloff (Germany) with 14 gears. Quite expensive, but common on high end foldable bikes.

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    Or belt drive + hub gears, to lose the chain and associated grease – Chris H Jul 12 at 13:45
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    Those who can afford it love it. The chain is in a fixed position so that it is easy to protect from dirt and rain which are the main reasons for wear on bicycle chains. It's also always perfectly well aligned (which it is almost never with a derailleur). On top, if I'm not mistaken, one can use sturdier chains than is possible with modern derailleurs. This combination makes the chain last a very long time. – Peter A. Schneider Jul 12 at 14:04
  • I've seen Rohloff hubs used on (expensive) touring tandems to good effect - and that's on the Isle of Harris, where the gradients can be significant. – Toby Speight Jul 12 at 15:11
  • And for those who don't need 14 gears: chain driven internally geared hubs with 3-11 gears (like Shimano Alfine) are inexpensive and have been around for many years on city and touring bikes. Combined with an enclosed chain guard it's virtually maintenance free. – MadMarky Jul 13 at 11:54
  • @MadMarky The Shimano hubs are indeed great, but I read some stories that they are not really suitable for loaded touring trips over non-flat terrain. Unfortunately a Rohloff hub is nearly 3x as expensive as an Alfine 11.... – Bart Jul 14 at 12:02

The Stringbike is an interesting alternative that supports 19 speeds and claims the wheels are easy to remove. Unlike belt drives, it works in a fundamentally different way than chain+derailleur bikes.

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    The Stringbike is overhyped nonsense but, hey, the question doesn't ask for good alternatives to chain and derailleur, so +1. Welcome to the site! – David Richerby Jul 13 at 10:06
  • Just because something is overhyped doesn't make it nonsense? I find the hate pretty off-putting. You can just say it's not for you. If you really want to make new members feel welcome. – Andy Jul 13 at 21:24
  • Stringbike uses one complicated mechanism to convert rotary motion into linear motion, and then a simpler mechanism to convert the linear motion back into rotary motion. There's no way on earth that's an improvement over a chain around two cogs, which is one of the most efficient machines known to man. If you want to call that "hate", I find that pretty off-putting. – David Richerby Jul 13 at 22:47
  • Hmmm. How close in efficiency to a chain around two cogs would it have to be for you not to consider it nonsense? (I don't claim to know) Like say it were only 1% less efficient, compared to a chain bike without toe clips or clipless pedals? – Andy Jul 14 at 0:27
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    Please take David's comment in this sense: The string bike was hyped a lot last year. Technically it makes no sense whatsoever. It is inefficient and unreliable. The solution comes up every other decade or so, and then disappeares again. Summarizing that as "over hyped nonsense" may be seen as factual correct. Yet it is somewhat bad form to post it as the first convent to a new user. However the overall comment was rather cheerful. I cannot see why it would be considered hateful if one were to reply that what I said before was "utter nonsense", since it might be correct. – gschenk Jul 14 at 9:54

Sturmey-Archer have been making hub gears for a very long time! In the UK, most kids' bikes back in the 70s and 80s had 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gears (at least those which had gears anyway). A large number of adult bikes used them too.

Whilst a 3-speed doesn't give you a very good range of gears, the advantages of hub gears has never changed: namely that you can change gears whilst stationary; they need no adjustment; and they are maintenance-free (beyond occasional oiling). For children or for people who don't cycle regularly, these are all very useful. Derailleurs give you better choice of gears so your legs can work more efficiently and speeds can be faster, and parts are cheaper too because they're cheaper to make, but derailleurs simply aren't as user-friendly as hub gears.

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    And there are much more advanced hub gears, these days. Rohloff, for example, makes a fourteen(!)-speed internally geared hub; Shimano make a variety of them between three- and eight-speed. – David Richerby Jul 13 at 12:29
  • @DavidRicherby Yep, certainly are. Other answers have already mentioned Rohloff, so I didn't want to duplicate that. But those other answers focussed on current equipment as more esoteric equipment for high-end bikes, and didn't mention how common hub gears used to be for cheap bikes. I thought it was worth adding this for context. – Graham Jul 13 at 12:32

Pinion drive/gearbox is an enclosed 18-speed drive for the (custom) bottom bracket. No need for a RD in that case.

Yes, fixed gear! The answer may appear facetious but this is what I do for my "utility bike" as it is a very low maintenance setup and completely bomb proof. You soon get used to it and it makes you fit.

If you need gears the relatively mainstream options are either gear hub or derailleur. There are also less common setups with belts or even shafts.

Fallbrook Technologies marketed a CVT (the Nuvinci) for bikes starting around 2006-2007 and came out with a couple of models, getting the weight down to 5.5lbs. I just tried to look them up, and they have since expanded beyond bikes. They spun off the bike CVT stuff to Enviolo (a division of Fallbrook) which is headquartered in Amsterdam even though Fallbrook is an American company (bikes are a bigger deal in Europe, I guess). If you click on the German flag circle, you can get to the english version and download manuals and stuff. I could not see any way to get one in the US and I could not create an account to ask about it. I also didn't see any pricing. The Wikipedia page on Nuvinci has info on ratios (0.5 to 1.9) and such. Found that their FAQ states that US bike shops can order from Fallbrook directly (look under Fallbrooktech.com Contact Us).

Belt drive + CVT: the Continuum

An article about the Continuum.

The CVT is a NuVinci N330 which weighs 2.45 kg, quite a bit more than conventional derailleurs, shifters, freehub, and cassette.

  • I'd like to know what gear ratio that CVT hub provides, and the max torque. – Argenti Apparatus Jul 11 at 19:59
  • CVTs are generally heavy. If anything, the price and weight are suspiciously low. – ojs Jul 12 at 9:44
  • Ah, I think you missed a zero - I found a N360 hub is around £200. – Toby Speight Jul 12 at 15:19
  • @studog Ah, right -- I'd not realised the quote was a quote. I've edited to clarify that, as well as clear up the pounds money/pounds weight confusion. Honestly, I'm not sure I believe the CVT is 20lbs. Looking at the photos in the article, it doesn't look very big at all and even a solid lump of steel the size of that unit probably wouldn't weigh much more than 20lbs. A one-foot square sheet of half-inch steel weighs about 20lbs: that's a lot of steel. (30cm x 30cm x 1.5cm for those who prefer metric.) – David Richerby Jul 13 at 23:03
  • Fallbrook's own website is lacking information about the N330, which this bike uses, but according to wikipedia it weighs 5.4 lb. Even the older N171 weighs 8.7 lb en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Andy Jul 14 at 5:50

I once saw a clever idea of multiple small sprockets between two plates, one of which has radial slots and the other spiral slots, and a mechanism to rotate the two plates relative to one another when a change in gearing is desired. This looks like it might be the patent for it: https://patents.google.com/patent/US3995508A/en

It still uses a chain, but no derallieur, and in theory the small sprockets can be stopped at infinitely many places, making it a CVT.

  • Huh, it seems to claim that it would automatically adjust the drive ratio? I don't fully understand how the sprockets can remain fixed enough to drive the chain, given that they must rotate when expanding out from the center or contracting. – Andy Jul 14 at 6:13
  • The article I read long ago suggested that pressure on the pedals rotating the spiral and radial slots against each other could provide the adjustment. The idea is that you'd have a lever you could pull that would allow that relative rotation to happen when you wanted to shift, and you could spin the pedals either direction as needed. If I'm remembering it correctly. – Monty Harder Jul 16 at 18:02
  • The abstract of the patent says "The drive ratio of a bicycle transmission is automatically varied through a radially contractible drive chain sprocket wheel assembly that is drivingly coupled to a pedal driven, drive ratio control disk" and talks about dampening fluctuations in the drive ratio so it kind of sounds like it's automatic, but I don't have a full picture of how it would work in my head – Andy Jul 16 at 18:55

Several solutions have been presented here, but I'll offer my take on this. The answer is no. There is no alternative to the chain/derailleur combo that would offer all of the benefits of a chain/derailleur combo.

Shaft drive, belt drive, internally geared hub, all of them suffer from the same fundamental problem: fixing a flat rear tire is difficult on those.

At least on an internally geared hub, all of them must have some lever against the frame to provide a point of torque, as the hub must be able to convert low torque (and high speed) to high torque (and low speed) or vice versa. The requirement to disconnect and re-connect the torque lever adds to the complexity of fixing a rear tire flat.

Similarly, internally geared hubs must have horizontal dropouts, to be able to adjust chain tension. Adjusting the chain tension on horizontal dropouts is time-consuming. You don't want that to complicate your flat fixing. Also, wrapping the chain around the sprocket is time-consuming. On a derailleur system, you just bend the rear derailleur a little and push the rear wheel in.

Not only that, but what do you do if a chain link breaks? On a derailleur system, you just make the chain a bit shorter using a portable chain tool you carry with you in your emergency toolbox (using a special pin, if using a Shimano chain -- the special pins are so lightweight you can carry several with you).

Also, what if the internally geared hub breaks? Everything on a derailleur is able to be temporarily fixed with just allen keys, chain tool, etc. Even if the chain tensioner breaks, you just select what gear you want and use the bike as a single-speed bike for the rest of the journey. If front or rear derailleur breaks, you use the remaining one that is still functional.

What if one of the only two sprockets (one front, one rear) on an internally geared hub breaks? On a derailleur system, you have at least two sprockets on the front and multiple on the rear. You can use one of the remaining sprockets. On an internally geared bike, you don't have any option.

I don't think any other solution allows the easy temporary workarounds possible on a derailleur system, the easiness of fixing a rear tire flat, the ability to make the chain a link shorter in case a chain link breaks, etc. About the only problem a derailleur system doesn't solve is a freewheel failure. Usually, freewheels give an early warning before completely failing.

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    Have you ever learned to fix a flat without taking the tire off? If not, there are several good lessons online and it is easy and often faster than bothering with taking out and replacing a wheel that is fiddly to get in right. Many, very many, people are happy with internal gear hubs and other methods, you seem a bit short sighted and not experienced in any but the bikes you have been using all your life. – Willeke Jul 12 at 18:05
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    I agree with most of this, but in my experience, you are more likely to suffer a bent derailleur hanger or frozen gear cable than for an entire sprocket to just fall off... Then again, who knows what would happen if you didn't periodically check those chainring bolts. True, though, that the ease of diy maintenance is a big appeal for regular chain/derailleured bikes. IGH maintenance is not so simple, and they are not quite as maintenance-free as people like to make them out to be. It would be very difficult to match all the advantages a chain and derailleur offer with any other tech. – Kris Jul 12 at 20:20
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    Lots of incorrect assumptions here about IGH. A rohloff hub with OEM dropouts doesn't take any longer to remove for a tire change than a derailleur, and it's easier on my bike than on my DR and cassette bikes. IGH doesn't require horizontal dropouts. Many, like mine, use a tensioner. This allows for suspension and it moots the worry about losing a link when repairing a chain in the field. – WPNoviceCoder Jul 12 at 23:21
  • -1 There clearly are alternatives to chain-and-derailleur. You feel they're worse alternatives and you explain why you think that. That's great, but it doesn't mean these other systems aren't alternatives. – David Richerby Jul 13 at 12:31
  • @juhist I have no personal experience in this, but I thought dropout adjustment screws eliminate the need to adjust chain/belt tension after you put the wheel back in, if you don't have a tensioner? And how is removing a rear wheel from a belt drive particularly difficult? – Andy Jul 16 at 19:09

It's technically possible to build a delta tricycle in the same way as a three-wheeled car, with a driveshaft and differential, and a gearbox in the drivetrain.

Such an arrangement could be more robust than a typical chain and derailleur, but would also be significantly heavier. An advantage, shared by most delta tricycles, is that working on the rear tyres is easier than on a bicycle.

I'm not aware of any specific examples of this arrangement actually being used. Rather, some early cars were built this way using parts from the established bicycle industry.

Personally, I've never had a chain or sprocket break on me; once, a long-neglected chain was found to have rusted solid, that's all. I have had freewheels latch open, and cables stretch and snap. If breakage often happens to you, you should probably buy stronger parts or re-evaluate your use of them.

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