Hub of the matter
Internal hub gears have many advantages over the cumbersome derailleur system, finds Rowan Lamont.
Many riders have fond memories of the Sturmey Archer three-speed hub gear on one of their early bikes. Hub gears have been around for quite a while – Sturmey Archer patented its idea more than 100 years ago – and they are currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with some big companies investing a lot of money into the technology.
Let’s face it, shoving a chain off one sprocket and onto another is not very sophisticated – even with modern stepped clusters and integrated chains, the whole idea behind a derailleur is agricultural. When they work they are brilliant, but some of their shortcomings appear when regular tuning and maintenance becomes a chore.
They are sensitive pieces of machinery that are exposed to the elements and requiring regular maintenance to keep running smoothly. They’re also very vulnerable to being knocked, damaged and even torn off if a wayward stick gets tangled.
An internal hub gear system is a very different beast. There are no external gadgets – all the gears, mechanisms and moving widgets are sealed within the rear hub. Most work on a planetary gear basis, which to you and I mean that it is similar to a car gearbox. There are no parts to get bumped or tangled, they are incredibly reliable, and require very little up-keep or maintenance.
All the systems on test had a twist mechanism built into the handlebar grip, which is great on flat bars but requires an adaptor for drop bars. The Alfine uses Rapid Fire buttons.
Riding with a derailleur there are many gear ratios that overlap: the small front ring and small rear cog may be equivalent to a ratio in the middle ring and bigger cog on the rear. There might be 27 or more gears, but only a handful are ‘true’ gears.
With a hub-gear system, the gear ratios are like walking up a set of stairs – each step being harder than the last. The exception to this is the very novel Nu Vinci system, that has infinite variability; instead of ‘stepping’ up or down from one gear to the next, the Nu Vinci transitions smoothly from easy through to difficult. More like an escalator than a flight of steps, but you still have to pedal!
Riding with a hub system is very different to riding with a derailleur. It is easy! Because you can change gears while stationary, you don’t have to plan ahead. For instance, stopping at a red light in a high gear, you can shift to a low gear and ride smoothly away when the lights turn green.
There are some down sides. Firstly, the range of rotation in the wrist only allows the rider to jump three gears in one ‘twist’. When cresting a climb with a derailleur system it is nice to be able to push the gears from the middle ring into the big ring and enjoy a big jump in gear range as you smash down the other side. This isn’t the case with a hub system, where it takes a few twists to jump ahead in the gear range.
The shifting isn’t always as crisp as with a derailleur, and can occasionally hang up, momentarily causing a loss in momentum. Not a problem unless you are in a hurry, which is partly why we don’t see them on the race scene. They also weigh considerably more than a derailleur system, which makes the rear wheel feel sleepy, the extra rotational mass requiring more force for the wheel to accelerate.
It is also a little bit fiddly to repair a flat or replace a tube on the rear wheel, but with a little practice you can master two techniques you can choose between: patching a tube without removing the wheel or learning the steps of disengaging the hub gear to remove the wheel.
Some commitment is required to convert your derailleur bike to a hub gear system: they are expensive and require a new wheel to be built. To maintain chain tension a dedicated frame with horizontal drop outs or an eccentric bottom bracket can be used, or a chain tension device can be added to a standard frame. When the time comes for a service a trained mechanic is needed, but due to their reliability and being sealed against the weather, this is only required once in a blue moon.
The new systems probably don’t signal the end of the derailleur, but they are very good alternatives that may suit your type of riding. Hub systems lend themselves to commuter bikes, load-carrying bikes, and touring bikes, where an uninterrupted journey is key. If you plan to ride for long periods of time over great distances, don’t like to fiddle with your bike, and tend to give it a hard time, a hub system is just the ticket.
Rohloff Speedhub 500 / 14
$1621–$2050 depending on the set-up you choose
- Widest range of gears as well as the most gears on test (14)
- Incredible reliability, even with 125 moving parts
- 3 colours available
- Disk brakes can be fitted
- Only system available with a quick-release option
- Occasional hesitation between shifts
- No gear indicator to tell you which gear you are in
A very hardy, reliable and trouble-free system that is ideal for big distance touring and mountain biking
$180 for the 3 speed hub and shifter
The 8 speed hub, shifter and roller brake kit was $365 when last available
- Versions with 3 and 8 speeds available
- Coaster brake option (back pedal to slow down)
- Big indicator to tell you which gear you are in
- Very quiet
- Some hesitation felt between shifts
Perfect for urban commuting and getting about town
$449 for 8 speed hub and shifter
$926 for 11 speed shifter, adaptor kit and hub
- Versions with 8 and 11 speeds available
- Superior performance over the Nexus
- Crisp and precise gear shifting with no play felt through the cable
- Rapid-fire button shifters or twist shift options
- Needle bearings used to reduce drag and noise
A well-refined system for high-end commuting or touring
$799 for hub and shifter
- Clever worm indicator shows where you are in the range of difficulty
- A smooth, continuous feel
- Simple internals using rotating balls improves reliability.
- No miss shifts or hesitations when changing gear
- Disk-brake option
- Capable of managing very high torque loads – ideal for carrying
Always in the right gear – great for carrying loads, tandems or commuting bikes.
Many thanks to Epic Cycles in Brisbane for their help organising test rides for this article.