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The Different Types of Cycling Gears

cycling gears

When it comes to shifting gears on bicycles, the number of gears has long been the most observed criterion. The more gears, the better the bike – that is the long-outdated opinion from most people. Nowadays we know: The “right” cycling gear for the right purpose makes a bike a very good bike.

In addition to the established manufacturers Shimano, Sram and Campagnolo, there are other, mostly smaller manufacturers that bring different philosophies and approaches to the topic of cycling gears. For example, the manufacturers Pinion, Rohloff and Nuvinci should be mentioned, who have great expertise in the gearbox and hub gear segment and are therefore on the rise. Thanks to the introduction of modern electronics into the bike – and not just on the e-bike – there are exciting new opportunities in the area of ​​bike gears. The selection of the different gear types and their different configurations is large, but with a little thought and our guide you will find the right gear type for you and your bike.

What types of cycling gears are available?

The right gear type for your bike is primarily determined by the intended use, but also by the budget.

Inexpensive derailleur gears do not have to be a disadvantage and if they are properly cared for, they can also work without any problems for years. It is exactly the same with the hub gears: you can do your daily journeys with a proven Nexus hub gear.

However, there are also many reasons for a higher quality gear, which you should always choose if you have high demands on your bike. Weight and precision often play a role for road cyclists, for mountain bikers the reliability under bad conditions can be a criterion, for e-bikers maybe the convenient automatic gearshift and for cyclists the reliability and large gear ratio.

If you know the main purpose of your bike, you can use this guide to choose the right gear type.

The different gear types can be divided like this:

  • Derailleur gears: mechanically, electrically or radio controlled
  • Hub gear: mechanically, electrically or automatically operated
  • Bottom bracket: mechanically operated

Derailleur gear

Functionality

Derailleur gears are one of the most common gears on bicycles and are available in all price segments – from functional and inexpensive to classy and high-priced.

On derailleur gears are 1, 2 or 3 different sized chainrings on the crank, which are selected by a derailleur. A chain connects to a ring gear that is mounted on the rear wheel hub. A rear derailleur ensures the selection of the individual gear levels.

Multiplying the chainring and sprocket gives the number of gears ( 3 chainrings front x 8 gears rear = 24 gears). Since the available installation width cannot be changed in the frame, increasingly narrow chains have to be installed at the rear for more gears, which in turn leads to greater wear. 

A major advantage of derailleur gears is the relatively simple option of exchanging individual components and thus influencing the gear ratio. For example, by replacing the rear sprocket, the bike can either be designed for mountain use or for high speeds on the flat. It is also possible to replace the chainrings, but this variant is usually more expensive than replacing the sprocket.

Where are derailleur gears used?

In the city and trekking area, triple cranks (3 chainrings) with an 8-, 9-, 10- or 11-speed group are often installed in order to do justice to the varied use of the bikes. The actuation is mostly mechanical, i.e. the front derailleur and the rear derailleur are operated from the handlebars using a Bowden cable. Mostly there are Shimano components on city and trekking bikes.

In the road bike sector, the 2-speed crank with 11-speed group at the rear is the current state of the art. The actuation is often mechanical, but the electronic gear that sends the switching commands to the actuators in the rear derailleur and front derailleur (Shimano Di2 and Campagnolo EPS) is becoming increasingly popular. The easy integration, especially in elaborately manufactured carbon frames, and the lack of wear due to Bowden cables that are not required offer great advantages. With a battery charge from Shimanos Di2, mileage of more than 1000 kilometers is possible (mileage depends on the switching frequency).

The wireless transmission of the shift commands is currently at the forefront of development. With the innovative eTap group, Sram has brought a shift to the road bike that for the first time can completely do without Bowden cables and cables. Few moving parts, a very tidy look and the simplest installation on practically all frames are the biggest advantages of this circuit. The rear derailleur and derailleur have interchangeable batteries, the shift levers each come with a standard button cell.

In the mountain bike, cyclocross and gravel bike sector, the 2-speed crank with 10 or 11-speed group is still often installed, but there is more of a trend towards the simpler 1-speed crank (up to 1×12, Sram Eagle). The advantages are low weight and error-free operation, but at the price of sometimes large and noticeable gait jumps.

Even in the constantly growing e-bike segment, the mechanical derailleur system is still popular. Depending on the engine manufacturer, the 1-speed crank on the mid-engine can be used in combination with an 8, 9, 10, or 11-speed group at the rear to use the full range of drive and engine power.

The market leader in derailleur gears is clearly Shimano, the manufacturers Sram and Campagnolo are more specialized in the sports sector (road bike and MTB) and offer independent solutions there. The mode of operation is the same in each case, however, the manufacturers differ in part in the operation and the circuit diagrams.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Derailleur gears

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Simple TechnologyCare and maintenance requirements due to many exposed moving parts
Technology that has been perfected for decadesWear on chain, gears and sprocket sets
Easy maintenanceShifting gears only possible in motion
Spare parts can usually be supplied anytime, anywhere
Available in all price ranges
By changing the ring gear and / or crank set, the overall ratio can be adjusted

Hub gear

Functionality

The basic design of hub gears is almost maintenance-free and consists of planetary gears running in an oil bath in a fully encapsulated rear wheel hub. The shift takes place inside the rear wheel hub, so that the chain only has to transmit the power from a chainring on the crank to a gear on the rear wheel. This in turn creates the perfect conditions for using an alternative power transmission, such as the almost maintenance-free toothed belt.

The combination of the hub gear / toothed belt eliminates a large part of the care and maintenance of the drive, which is particularly interesting for everyday drivers and commuters. Hub gears are most commonly found on city bikes, but are rarely found in sports because they are somewhat heavier than derailleurs and have a higher frictional resistance. This disadvantage plays a minor role in e-bikes due to the motor support, which is why hub gears are also very popular in the e-bike segment.

Where are hub gears used?

The inexpensive and solid Nexus hub gear from Shimano has 7 or 8 fixed gears and is operated mechanically and electrically (Nexus Di2). The most used area of ​​application is the classic city bike, but the Nexus is also used in the e-bike.

The high-quality Alfine hub gear from Shimano has 8 or 11 fixed gears and can be operated both mechanically and electrically (Alfine Di2). Compared to the Nexus, the Alfine scores with lower weight and a larger overall translation.

The Speedhub from Rohloff has real cult status among the hub gears. The gear hub with 14 gears offers a huge overall ratio of 526% and is often used on high-quality bicycles. The Rohloff hub gear is often used even in the MTB area. Whether mechanically operated in any type of bicycle or electrically operated in an e-bike – a Rohloff upgrades every bicycle.

With the Speedhub, Rohloff also offers the only approved gear hub for pedelecs.

The still young Fallbrock company has created a new milestone in the field of bicycle gears with the Nuvinci hub gear and is already well represented in the e-bike segment. The peculiarity of this gear hub is that it does not require fixed gears and the driver can choose from the large gear ratio of 380%. With the electronic H-Sync variant, even the on-board electronics do not noticeably take over the sensitive control for the driver … Shifting can be that easy these days! 

The market leader for hub gears in the classic city and trekking sector is Shimano, but the Nuvinci has quickly achieved large market shares in the e-bike segment – and the trend is rising. The Rohloff hub gear already has its own fan base and is chosen by enthusiastic cyclists due to its great reliability, such as for use in a touring bike or cargo bike. Hub gears with less than 7 gears are rarely found or on very cheap bicycles.

A not to be neglected advantage of the hub gear is the choice between freewheel hub and coaster brake, which can offer additional safety.

Advantages & Disadvantages of hub gears

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Almost no need for maintenanceHeavier than conventional derailleur gears
Technology that has been perfected for decadesHigher internal frictional resistance
No follow-up costs due to wear or maintenance of the gearHigh-quality models are slightly more expensive than comparable derailleurs
Available in all price rangesIt is not possible to change the gear ratio in the hub
Choice between freewheel hub and coaster brake possibleIn the event of a defect, the hub usually has to be sent to the manufacturer
possible to use a toothed belt instead of a chain
Good protection against dirt by completely encapsulating the gear
Shifting possible when not in motion

Bottom Bracket

Functionality

The Pinion company sets new standards in terms of robustness and bandwidth. Viewed from the inside, the Pinion gearbox looks like a small motor vehicle gearbox: the input, output and gearshift shafts are housed in a compact, closed housing. This unit sits favorably in the bottom bracket area and, with its 18 gears, delivers an incredible range of 636%. The spur gear running in an oil bath works almost maintenance-free and practically lasts a whole bike life. It also offers the excellent option of using a maintenance-free toothed belt instead of a chain.

It is particularly important to note that this transmission concept requires a special bottom bracket mount and is therefore not usable with ordinary bikes.

Where are bottom brackets used?

18 gears, easy shifting and riding, almost indestructible … which cyclist doesn’t dream of it? It’s no wonder that long-distance travelers, cycling adventurers and mountain bikers in particular enjoy the extremely reliable gearshift. External influences do not play a role in the closed Pinion gear box, it does its job reliably under all conceivable conditions.

Advantages & Disadvantages of bottom brackets

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Almost no need for maintenanceSpecial frame mounting necessary
Very robust and insensitive to external influencesHigher internal frictional resistance
No follow-up costs due to wear or maintenance of the gearCompared to derailleurs more expensive
Shifting possible when not in motionNo change of the gear ratio in the bottom bracket possible
Good protection against dirt by completely encapsulating the gearIn the event of a defect, the gearbox usually has to be sent to the manufacturer
It is possible to use a toothed belt instead of a chainHeavier than conventional derailleur gears

Mechanical or Electrical Gear?

Electrical Gears

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Extremely precise shiftingMore expensive than mechanical gears on the same level
Front derailleur and rear derailleur partially adjust themselvesHeavier than mechanical gears
No imprecise chains due to elongationAdjustment and maintenance can be difficult
Minimal operatingNot ideal to mount on older frames
Can be expanded with additional buttons
Partly freely configurable
Very long battery life

Mechanical Gears

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Easy technologyHigher assembly effort due to more parts and adjustment required
Technology that has been perfected for decades
Lighter than electrical gears
Cheaper than electrical gears of the same level
Maintenance mostly familiar
Spare parts can usually be supplied anytime, anywhere