Have You Considered Internal Gearing?

Since we’re trying to devote Friday as the official Commute By Bike! day, we’re running articles of interest to commuters.

IGH or Internal Gear Hubs forgo the usual cassette-style gear cluster, and instead house the gears inside the hub, much like a car’s transmission. They can range from a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed to the super pricey, no compromises 14-speed Rohloff. But there are also a bunch of in-betweeners, a few of which I have had the privilege of riding over the years.

NuVinci hub with Gates belt drive
NuVinci hub with Gates belt drive

There are many subtleties to each IGH design, but basically there are two larger manufacturers -Shimano and SRAM – and three smaller manufacturers -Rohloff, NuVinci (by Fallbrook), and Sturmey-Archer -that make IGHs. But why would you go IGH? Let‘s discuss the pros and cons, and the scenarios where it just makes sense.


Good news first. IGH‘s can be very low maintenance. I used a NuVinci hub for over 2 years on a utility bike that spent most of its life with a rusted chain, getting rained on waiting for me to get out of class. That NuVinci just kept on keeping on.

Simplicity. Did I mention low maintenance? Derailleur adjustment reduced or gone completely! And no more waiting for shifts to grind into place, in fact, most IGHs can shift without pedaling (good for intersection stop and go‘s).

Long term savings. Like a solar panel, all the cost is upfront. Think of all the parts of a drive-train that need replacing over the years – cassettes, chains, derailleurs, chainrings, cables, and housing.


Up-front expense. I can slap a cassette on almost every type of wheel. If you want to put an IGH on an existing bike, you will have to get a wheel built around whichever IGH you choose (which is more expensive than a stock set-up).

Gear range. Without going into specifics, the more expensive the IGH, the more you are approaching the available gears of a normal drivetrain.

Weight. Related to the gear range in a way, the larger the gear range without a price increase – you add in weight. Nuvinci boasts a 360% gear range (equal to most external drive trains), a moderate price tag, but comes in at around 8 lbs. -the hub alone! You ever try and spin a merry-go-round from the center? Add a fat kid in the middle of it and you got one slow-accelerating wheel.

In summary, cheap, gear range, and lightweight -pick 2.

Shimano Alfine IGH
Shimano Alfine IGH

Pros and cons of models (in general)

Shimano Nexus and Sturmey-Archers. The most cost effective of IGHs and can be used on geared or single speed frames, vertical or horizontal dropouts. Plus these models have been around so long (especially Sturmey-Archers) you know it will keep running. They are like the Jeep Wrangler of the IGHs. They are limited by weight and/or gear range -but you get what you pay for.

Shimano Alfine, NuVinci, and Rohloff. Excluding the 8-speed Alfine model (honestly not a big difference between the 8-speed Nexus also made by Shimano) but including the 11-speed Alfine, you have 3 IGHs in this group with huge gear ranges. The cheapest, NuVinci‘s N360, is also the heaviest. The 11-speed Alfine has a bigger range, bigger price tag, and less weight than the NuVinci. Then a Rohloff blows them both away by being the lightest and the most expensive (think $1000 and up price range).

Then there are odd balls like SRAM‘s Dual Drive, Truvativ Hammerschmidt or Schlumpf which in a sense features the combined use of planetary gears and external drivetrains. The rotational weight penalty is not as bad as IGHs, but it is also not going to have the same long term savings as a low maintenance all internal system.

A whole other upside is most IGH systems now are also belt drive compatible. In fact, some bicycle manufacturers are selling stock bikes now with IGH and belt drive for all-weather commuter and utility bikes.

Best used scenarios:

What is the best IGH for you? So there are two practical scenarios where an IGH makes sense:

You got a Craigslist frame or everything but a drive-train for your old ride and you are pretty sure the wheels are shot too. Strip it down, throw a Nexus or Sturmey-Archer with an adequate gear range on a new rim and you got a worry free commuter. Need more gears for hauling $80 of groceries in 2 panniers and a trunk bag? Get a NuVinci or Alfine 11-speed and you can sit down and pedal with a big gear range instead of sloshing your load around trying to hammer up the hills (speaking from experience).

Buying a whole new commuter and you are determined to ride in any weather? Get a stock belt-driven bike with an IGH. It will have a moderate price tag, super low maintenance, and more savings in the future. IGH‘s paired with belt drives are awesome systems that are much more enjoyable when they come on a stock bike vs. installing them yourselves.

As always, it pays to do some research before you get started. Consult your local bike shop, or click the links below for pricing info.

Shimano Nexus Inter 8 on Amazon.com

NuVinci N360 rear hub on Amazon.com

Rohloff Speedhub, 14 Speeds on Amazon.com

– Jon

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