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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Internal Gears are better for Commuter Bikes

The case for Internal Gears

By Smokey Dymny, Veteran Bicycle Mechanic and Teacher
Quadra Bike School

North American commuters have been led somewhat astray when it
comes to drive trains. The trend in the recent past was to design commuter
bikes derived from high performance racing bikes. Let me explain.

Most bicycle drive trains consist of external front and rear derailleurs
which change gears on front chain rings and rear cassettes. This is because
these systems are adapted from competitive road and mountain racing bikes.
Each of these bike types has external drive systems because they are light and
can have their cassettes changed rapidly to adapt the drive train to different
terrain. Their drawback is that they need to be cleaned and maintained
continually to remain efficient. Chain wear is rapid. Now, racers don’t mind
doing this continual maintenance. But most commuters don’t clean their drive
train often enough, if at all, so it deteriorates as a result.

A few decades ago there were more sensible commuter bikes available, which had internal 3-speed gearboxes in the back hub. Remember the venerable Sturmey-Archer 3-speed? What was their best feature? One thing was they could be down-shifted when at a standstill. But the real benefit was, if you added oil to the rear hub occasionally, they lasted for decades. Sure, you wore out a chain once every several years, but since it never had to shift from side to side it lasted significantly longer and required comparatively little maintenance.

So if your drive train has worn out completely and you’re going to replace all your components, rethink your commuter bike. Start thinking internal gears and try out a bike with internal gear shifts so you can see the advantages.

At the very least you could look at and test drive one of the new-generation of internal drive train bikes. They are now available in 3, 5, 8, 9, & 11 speed combinations and offer the same ease of maintenance as did the Sturmey.

You can also opt for disc brakes or internal hub brakes and eliminate constant brake pad adjustments. (Disc brakes will still need pad replacements but they stop very well in wet conditions) You can get all these options on a heavy or a light bicycle frame so shop carefully.

You should also get properly measured before you buy a new bike. Some shops are better at fitting you than others. You can measure yourself at and go to “fit system.” Then you will go shopping knowing exactly the bike fit you need.


The very first bicycle I ever restored was a blue Road King with a 3-speed internal gearbox. It was retro, but it was a dream to ride. The gear shifts were smooth, the bike required very little maintenance, it was FUN to ride, and it could go just as fast as other people on the road, if not faster... (I have a tendency to race people so I don't know if it was the bike that was fast or just me. I credit the bike.)

Internal gears are really complicated on the inside, but its a bit like the machines moving the pins around in the back of a bowling alley. What you don't know doesn't matter. It works and it doesn't require your attention beyond a little oil once a year.

So Smokey Dymny is absolutely correct. Internal gearboxes are wonderful and if you haven't tried one you should.

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