Everyday Cyclist: What’s The Hubbub With Internal Hubs?

An internal gear hub is an alternative to most geared bikes that are sold in North America. Most bikes here use a derailleur to shift the bike chain to different gears. A bike with an internal gear hub shifts gears inside the rear hub. For much of the 60’s and 70’s, many of the department store bikes, Schwinns, and English imports shipped with internal gear hubs; they were 3-speed bikes. Because many of these bikes were cheap and heavy, 3-speed bikes are now regarded more as vintage novelties than they are “serious” transportation. By association, it seems until recently, internal gear hubs have also been associated with heavy clunkers as well.

Over the years, cyclists that value low-maintenance, reliability, and simplicity have used internal gear hubs for practical bikes. In other parts of the world, where bikes are used more for utility than for recreation, internal gear hubs are much more abundant. As a result, companies like Shimano, SRAM, and Rohloff have continually developed and improved the efficiency and performance of internal gear hubs. It appears now that North American product designers are catching on to the value that internal gear hubs can provide, especially for the commuter.

Unlike a derailleur system, where everything is exposed, an internal gear hub is protected from the elements. Since the chain line is straight, the chain can be enclosed in a chain case. The straight chain line reduces wear significantly on the chain when compared to a derailleur system. And by closing off the chain and gears from the elements, maintenance on the system is further minimized.

For the cyclist, enclosing the gears makes for a great commuter bike: there is never a greasy chain to rub your pant leg against. And reduced maintenance is always a good thing for daily commuters who must depend on their bike. Shifting is easier too. You can shift while at a dead stop, which is a great feature if you ride in stop and go traffic.

There are some disadvantages to internal gear hubs. They are slightly heavier than derailleur systems and the shifting options are limited. To me, the heavy part is not huge. We’re talking about an extra water bottle of weight, which shouldn’t be a concern for a utility commuter bike. It’s the shifting options that I wish were better. Manufacturers of internal gear hubs only provide shifters for straight bars, so thumb shifters and grip shifters are the norm. Many cyclists prefer drop bars, which don’t do well with thumb shifters and grip shifters. You can buy after-market, expensive shifting solutions to accommodate drop bars, but I wish the manufactures would provide a better solution.

Also, changing a flat on a wheel with an internal gear hub is a hassle. But, like any other bike maintenance chore, it’s something you can learn to master.

While there are still 3-speed internal hubs on some bikes, you can now find 5, 7, 8, 9 and even 14-speed internal hubs. I think the 7, 8, and 9-speed internal hubs make a lot of sense for commuters that live in Spokane. It’s not so much the number of gears that matter—though the steps between gears is important—it’s the range of gears that allows getting up the hills here important. With an 8-speed hub you can set it up so that you have plenty of low gear to crawl up to Five-Mile prairie while still providing enough middle and high to keep up with traffic on the flats and descents.

As mentioned above, the big manufacturers are starting to pay attention to the internal gear hub. Here are a few to seek out and test ride.

  • Bianchi has delivered the Milano for a number of years. It’s an upright bike with an 8-speed option. It’s pretty, but the geometry is more suited for tooling around the neighborhood and breezing around on bike paths, not fast and hard commutes.
    The Masi SoulVille is very similar in style and geometry to the Milano. The finish details like leather saddle and cork grips are really nice, and the ladies version, with a curved step through frame is very pretty.
  • On paper, the Trek Soho appears to be more suited for fast commuting. The larger sizes have more “road” type front-end geometries compared to the Bianchi and the Masi. To further reduce grime and maintenance issues, the Soho uses a belt drive instead of a chain, and roller brakes instead of rim brakes.
  • The Globe Live2 Mixte appears to be the most interesting of the latest crop of production bikes that ship with an internal gear hub. Globe is a brand of Specialized bikes. The Live2 Mixte is an 8-speed ladies bike with a front rack. The geometry of the larger sizes is a direct copy of classic French city bikes known for their spry handling, even with a sack of groceries over the front wheel. Complete with chain guard, fenders, and a rack, this bike is ready to roll out the door.

John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.

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