Learn about some of Internal Gear Hubs we have available on our bikes!
Happy New Year! Twenty Twenty Two is going to be a great one, with more families than ever embracing the wonderful joys of cargo bike life. Together we made some big steps in growing London’s family cycling community in 2021 (did you attend our cargo bike meet-up?!), and we are excited to start more families down the path to transportation freedom this year.
This post is about the “Big Three” internal gear hubs (IGH) found on most of our family cargo bikes and many e-bikes in our store. Technology is changing fast on family bikes, and we want you to feel confident and knowledgeable about your choices. Fair warning, this is a long-ish and information dense post. If technical details make your eyes glaze over, book an appointment to see us and we’ll be happy to help you choose the best system for you!
Internal Gear Hubs are complex machines that are simple for the user to operate. We describe it as having a tiny wizard inside the rear wheel of your bike making magic happen. Unlike derailleurs where you can see the gears at work (with the consequences of having your gear system exposed to the elements), gear hubs turn pedal power into wheel movement in a way that’s invisible to the user. In this way, IGHs function much more like an automotive transmission than what you’d find on an old ten speed racing bike. For our climate and conditions, we strongly recommend a gear hub vs derailleur if you can afford it (and it’s available).
The three IGH you’ll find on most of our cargo bikes this year are:
Each of these systems has its own benefits, and while we’ll help you choose the right one, deciding is ultimately up to you! These are the main factors that we think can help you make the choice.
- Gear Range (how easy to pedal) and Design (Continuous vs Discrete Gears)
- E-Shift vs Cable Shift; manual vs automatic (yes, automatic!)
Universal Benefits of IGH
Each of the ‘Big Three’ IGH share some common benefits.
- Simplicity of operation: each uses a very intuitive single gear shift lever / button, and shifts happen more or less instantly. Riding a bike is supposed to be easy.
- Low maintenance, especially in winter. Having your gear system inside the shell of the hub means you don’t have to spend any time cleaning (or replacing) your gears. They don’t require regular replacement like chains and cassettes, and should give you years of riding without thinking about your bike. Plus, your chain never falls off its single cog.
- You can change gears when you’re stopped. Yes, really! If you’ve ever experienced coming to a stop in the wrong gear, it can be maddening to get your derailleur back into the right gear, (clunk clunk clunk). With IGH, there’s no issue, just stop, shift and start again.
- Carbon Drive: Gates Carbon Drive is a carbon fiber belt that has replaced traditional bike chains on many of our models. No chain, no grease, no fuss. Belts last up to five times as long as a chain, require no oil, and stay perfectly clean. When your toddler inevitably puts their hands all over the bike, there’s no extra trip to wash up! Gates Carbon Drive offers the best available winter cycling solution for our climate.
The universal drawback of each of these gear systems is that they are not compatible with hub-style e-bike motors: a mid-drive system is required to operate an IGH. The enormous benefits of IGH for a transport bike is one of the reasons we choose to source exclusively mid-drive systems with Bosch or Shimano motors in our store. This is a topic for another post, but we do a lot of thinking about support, warranty, and supply-chain in the bike industry, and use all of those ideas to pick which bikes we stock. The combination of mid-drive motor and internal gear hub is (we think) the right one for most people, families, and businesses in London. If you’re reading this post from elsewhere (e.g. less wet, less snowy, and less salty), your mileage may vary.
Gear Range and Design
Gear Range refers to how easy to pedal the the lowest gear is compared to the highest gear. A higher number means you can climb steeper hills, and haul more stuff. Gear ratio is most commonly expressed in percent difference between high and low gear, for example, consider an 12-28T (12 teeth on highest gear, 28 teeth on lowest gear) freewheel on a typical city bike. With twenty eight teeth on the biggest ring, and twelve on the bottom we calculate 28/12 = 2.33 * 100% = 233%.
Gear design describes whether a system features discrete (e.g. numbered gears) or continuous (infinite positions) operation. You might have heard this called CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) in an automobile. Same idea.
Rohloff Speedhub is a discrete gear system, with fourteen (14!) gears. It offers the highest range of almost any bike transmission with 524% range. Realistically there’s no hill anywhere you can’t climb with an e-bike and a Rohloff Speedhub.
Enviolo CVP is a continuous gear system with a very respectable range of 380%. It feels “just right” for most cargo bikes, and is found as an option on most bikes in our store. Most people find the shifting system to be very intuitive, with a simple to operate twist shift that makes it easier or harder to pedal, instantly!
Shimano Nexus 5 is a five speed discrete gear system. It offers less gear range than the other two systems, with 263% difference between high gear and low gear. The Nexus 8 system is an eight gear discrete hub found on non-cargo e-bikes offers slightly more range at 307%. Don’t fear the lower gear range of Shimano’s offering in London, our hills are not steep compared to most places, and the benefits of Shimano’s integrated motor and transmission can make up for the difference in absolute gear range. Perks of 5-speed: you shift far less often than with other bikes, and the simplicity feels like a feature for a lot of people.
Cable Shift vs E-Shift, Manual vs Automatic
Electronic shift is the next revolution in bike technology at all levels. E-shift definitely costs a bit more but its benefits are myriad. Shifting happens with speed and precision required by Tour de France riders (almost nobody riding in Le Tour is using cable shifting anymore). Your electronics never freeze, and because you’re riding an e-bike, you never need to think about charging your shift batteries. The motor and the transmission “talk” to each other via the onboard computer, and make sure shifts happen at just the right moment, and you can even let the computer take over in automatic mode for certain products.
Cables are a simple mechanical device that you can maintain on your own if you’re a DIY kind of person, but cables can also stretch, bend, rust, freeze, get misaligned in the shift lever. Plus with an e-bike all the cable routing is complex and replacing them is expensive. I know some of you reading this are thinking "but not if you maintain them" - most people don't. Trust us. We see a lot of rusty cables. E-shift is the way of the future.
Shimano Nexus 5 (Manual / Automatic) - The Shimano Di2 system is the oldest and best developed e-shift system on the market. It requires a full Shimano system (e.g. motor + hub) but the integration of hardware makes for a smooth and effortless ride. In manual mode, shifts are crisp and clean. In automatic mode it gets things mostly right on flatish ground, but climbing steeper hills it sometimes feels like there’s a bit of a lag.
Rohloff Speedhub (Manual Only) - Rohloff’s Speedhub is only available as a manual e-shift, but it shifts gears much faster than the other two systems. You can shift up to three gears at a time, and it feels incredibly solid after every single shift. High precision, outstanding performance.
Enviolo CVP (Manual / AutomatiQ) - Enviolo’s AutomatiQ system feels like it has an advantage with continuous gearing. There’s a certain something in “set it and forget it” riding that takes care of the rider without any thought. Enviolo allows you to set your desired cadence and the computer adjusts gear accordingly. To an experienced rider, AutomatiQ may feel a little queasy at first, but the more time you spend with it, you get used to it, and the more it feels like magic. If you’re new to gear hubs, it will probably just feel natural and effortless. You can put this system into manual mode (on most bikes) if need be, and it’s great. But if you want a bike explicitly for Automatic Gear Shift, this is the one we recommend for you!
Finally, using each of these systems in four seasons is easy - the buttons are big enough to be operated with most gloves, and the electronics don’t freeze like your cables might. In the coldest temperatures, batteries tend to struggle, so be sure to bring your battery (and computer) inside when you’re done using your bike!
This is the subjective part of the post, where we make some judgments based on real-world use. Take these with a grain of salt, because everyone uses their bikes differently. We spend a lot of time with all these hubs, and have collected some thoughts below.
From a user experience perspective, the Rohloff Speedhub is king. Shifts are instant, and feel incredibly solid. The hub feels as sturdy as any cassette, and there's never a "missed" gear shift where you get even the tiniest bit of grind. E-shift is very good, and the combination of a high powered motor feels absolutely natural. The best of the best.
Enviolo's CVP is found on more bikes in our store than any other gear hub. It feels “nice and easy,” like hanging out with an old friend. Most hubs are cable-driven (we won’t see huge adoption of e-shift for a few more years), but you don't notice most of the time - shifts are fast and feel solid. For bikes that are always loaded, the CVP system performs exceptionally well, and Enviolo has made big strides in durability over the past three years (they had some reliability issues in the first generation hubs, these have been nearly completely resolved). The CVP becomes even more powerful when it's paired with the AutomatiQ system. E-shifting isn't as fast in manual mode as Rohloff, but it's really smooth, however that’s not why you want this system. The AutomatiQ shifting in full-auto mode is as good as it gets in 2022: you can just get on your bike and ride. After a short adjustment period (because you’ve been shifting gears on your bike since you were eight years old) it feels amazing to not have to shift. We have this system on our Mobile Repair Bike and it’s perfect for hauling tools all over the city. As more users adopt everyday cycling, more people are just going to want to "get on their bikes and ride,” we expect that the simpler user experience will win over lots of people, and we see Enviolo as the leader in automatic transmission for bikes at this time.
Shimano’s Nexus system has the benefit of having a fully integrated system made by a single manufacturer. Its shifts are fast, intuitive, and the newest controls feel superb. Choose between “comfort” and “sport” settings and you’ll get very different riding styles. Automatic mode is pretty good on flat ground, but it struggles to find the right gear when climbing hills. The Shimano drive system is absolutely silent, and that wins points for us, too. It feels the least like riding an e-bike compared to the heavier motors typically found on other cargo bikes, and feels great to shift with comfortable push-button operation.
Maintenance is something to consider for all bike components, and for gear hubs, these procedures are mostly things that should be done by your local bike shop. There's no sense in buying all the specialty parts / lube kits etc. for something you'll do once every year or two.
Regular maintenance on Shimano IGH units require a "dip" in an oil bath, and specialty grease on bearings and other parts. This process refreshes the hub and helps it roll smoothly again. Recommended by Shimano annually or every 5000 km. Shimano’s hub is the fastest and easiest to replace in the rare case of total failure, since the “core” of the hub is a replaceable part.
Rohloff has a similar process - except it's done externally like an "oil change" in a car. Drain the oil out the bottom, add more oil in the top. Pretty easy. Certainly the most DIY of any of the hubs. Required every 5000 km, recommended annually.
Enviolo's hubs are "maintenance free" - nothing you can do to make them work any better. The CVP mechanism uses sealed bearings and non-Newtonian fluids to make it easy for you to pedal. You probably shouldn't mess with them.
Price, Cost, Value
Finally, let’s talk dollars and cents. We have a very common saying in store: price is what you pay, value is what you get. An IGH usually represents somewhere around 10% of the total cost of your new bike. We usually focus on getting the best value, not the lowest short term cost. None of these hubs are cheap (in price or quality), and all are superior value to a derailleur and external gears for most family cargo bikes, and even most e-bikes. You’ll get more miles of maintenance-free riding, more time enjoying your ride with your family, and spend less time thinking about how your bike works (or isn’t working).
We certainly understand price is a factor. However, if you're thinking about replacing your car, and using a cargo bike for transport, the difference in cost between hubs is like a single set of brake pads for your SUV. By this metric, the ~$700 extra (vs derailleur) to get an Enviolo CVP, or ~$1200 extra (vs derailleur) to get a Rohloff Speedhub seem less scary. Bikes with IGH tend to be equipped with additional upgraded components, too, so you generally get more overall value with increasing gear hub cost.
The lower maintenance of a gear hub will certainly offset some of those costs, and the improved performance and lower stress will do the rest of the justification. If you’ve never ridden a bike with IGH, don’t hesitate, book a test ride with us and we’ll show you around each of these systems.
Which one is right for you?
This is the question we want to help you answer. With test rides of all three systems available in store (in cable, e-shift, manual, and automatic all available across our spectrum of demo bikes, come try them all!), we can help you choose what’s right for your family. All three systems are excellent, and we aren’t going to pick a “best” one here. “Best for what?” tends to be our response. Manufacturers spend many hours deciding how to spec their bikes, and generally they make excellent choices for most people. Retrofitting IGH systems onto bikes that weren’t designed for it has unintended consequences; it’s not something we typically recommend. If you have your heart set on Rohloff, buy a bike that is designed for it. If you dig Enviolo’s AutomatiQ system on a test ride, the best thing to do is buy a bike that features it natively. Things just work better when they’re used in the way they’re designed.
The magic of the Internal Gear Hub is something we love to share every day. Whether you love the low-maintenance simplicity, high-tech automation, or just the feeling of smugly changing gears at a red light, we can help you find the right setup for your family’s new bike.