Derailleurs have been changing gears on bicycles since the early 20th century. Needless to say, early versions differ wildly from today's easily-operated, lightweight models and so for many a decade, the derailleur has ruled the bicycle drivetrain roost. That's not to say there aren't other options out there. Here we explain why these different systems of changing gear exist, why you might want to consider a bike with one and finally, the different types available today.

A brief history of derailleur alternatives

The first patent for what we now know as a hub geared system was granted in the USA in 1895. Seward Thomas Johnson's invention was a 2-speed system that didn't grab much attention but as the 20th century came around, Sturmey Archer's 3-speed version hit the big time. After its release in 1905, hub gears quickly general became the most popular geared bike system in much of Europe, certainly, in flatter countries like the Netherlands. Indeed it was such a success that it took another 61 years before Sturmey Archer launched a version with more speeds.

Image courtesy of Sturmey Archer

During the mid-1900s parallelogram derailleurs, to give them their exact title, developed rapidly. They became lighter, stronger and cheaper. Crucially, however, they also offered the cyclists of the time a greater "riding range", that is to say, their number and ratio of gears opened up the possibility of riding steeper, faster or for longer. As hub gear popularity wained, the German company, Fitchel & Sachs (ZF Sachs AG) attempted to turn its fortunes around by introducing a 12-speed hub gear in 1995. This was quickly followed by Rohloff and their Speedhub 500/14 14-speed hub in 1997 - a system that offered an equivalent riding range to a 27-speed derailleur gear system.

Whilst it can be considered a variant of the hub gear, the Enviolo system, which launched in 2007 as Nuvinci, is a "continuously variable transmission" (or CVT) system. Whilst you might need a mechanical engineering degree to understand it fully, this gearing system isn't changed with a click or twist, rather a "stepless" twist, like turning down the gas on a cooker hob. More on this below.

Pinion gearbox mounted to a Schindelhauer electric bike

It wasn't long before Japanese bicycle component giant, Shimano pushed the envelope. First with their 8-speed Alfine hub, quickly followed by an 11-speed version. The most recent derailleur alternative comes from Pinion and its gearbox system.

Benefits of alternative bicycle gearing systems

  1. Better reliability - Alternative gearing systems are usually sealed units. That way, water, mud or salt can't inflict damage like it would to a derailleur. As such it's no surprise to see hub gears and the like on bicycles that have been designed to be ridden frequently or for long periods of time to time. Think urban commuter bikes to get to work every day, or touring bikes to see the world.
  2. Less maintenance - It's comforting to know when a bike is there when you need it, not stuck in a workshop being fixed or with gears working incorrectly. Bikes without derailleurs require less maintenance. Shimano quote a maintenance interval of 5000km for their Alfine 11 hub for example.
  3. Compatible with belt drives - Hub gears, Enviolo and Pinion are all compatible with Gates Carbon Belt Drive. Belt drives are cleaner, quieter and last longer than a traditional bike chain. For more on this, read An Absolute Belter or 7 of the best bikes with Gates Carbon Belt Drive.
  4. Changing gear when stopped - Come to a stop in town in the wrong gear and getting going again can be a pain - derailleur gears can't be shifted to an easier gear unless you're moving.
  5. No flimsy derailleur to worry about - Derailleurs are precious little beasts. Hanging by a thread, they're easily knocked, bashed and broken, especially in the event of an accident. Other gear changing systems are enclosed, safely tucked away in the rear wheel or frame.
  6. The chain can be enclosed - In a non-derailleur system, the chain isn't moving in a horizontal plane and can therefore be enclosed with a chainguard, protecting it from the elements and the rider from an embarrassing (and tough to shift!) oily chain stain.

Negatives of alternative bicycle gearing systems

  1. More expensive - As touched on earlier, derailleurs are cheaper than hub gears and their competitors.
  2. Fewer gears, perhaps less efficient - Fewer gears and larger jumps between them may make it difficult to find the right gear for the road you're riding, ultimately making the bike less efficient.
  3. Flat tyres can be a problem - Bikes with a hub gear in the rear wheel can be problematic to remove in the event of a puncture. This is because the chain or belt has to be re-tensioned when the wheel is reinstalled. A pair of tyres with puncture protection or a tubeless tyre system can negate this, however.
  4. Maintenance can be tricky - Although maintenance intervals are less frequent than on a bike equipped with a derailleur when the time comes, it can be a tricky job. In the event of a complete failure, some systems must be returned to the original manufactured to be repaired.

Explaining alternative bicycle gearing systems

Hub Gears

An epicyclic or planetary gearing system, commonly known as a hub gear (or internal gear hub) is the most popular alternative to a derailleur gearing system. Housed in a bicycles rear wheel, a cable or electrically operated shifter changes gear, making it harder or easier to pedal.

A Shimano Alfine hub paired with a Gates Carbon Belt Drive

As we covered above, major bicycle manufacturers like Shimano offer internal hub gears for urban bikes like the Schindelhauer Ludwig or electric bikes like the Kalkhoff Image 5.B Season. As an urban and electric bike specialist, you'll see plenty of hub geared bikes online and in our stores.

Hub gear bikes are worthy of deeper discussion, that's why we've written this piece: Why you should buy a hub gear bike. Spoiler: the article includes 5 of our favourite hub gears bikes you can buy right now.

Enviolo (Previously NuVinci)

Enviolo's continuously variable transmission is, like a traditional hub gear, placed in the rear wheel hub. The system is extremely durable - especially when shifting under load. Therefore it's no surprise to see it most often used on electric bikes like the Tern GSD S00 Electric Cargo Bike.

Enviolo is currently available in three different guises: Manual, Automatic and AUTOMATiQ. Manual requires the cyclist to change gear themselves and remember that's in a "stepless" manner, rather than in set increments. Automatic allows you to set a preferred cadence and the system will control the gears automatically, that way you're always riding at the same pace on the ups as well as the downs. AUTOMATiQ changes up another gear with app connection, customisation and service reminders.

Pinion

The new kid on the block is Pinion. From a team with a history in automotive manufacturing, the system places a gearbox on the frame of the bike, rather than at the rear wheel. Again it has all the benefits of a closed system, but by placing it at the crank of the bike, the system becomes extremely efficient. This system also frees up the rear wheel for bike manufacturers to add an electric motor, as Schindelhauer has done with the Arthur Pinion e-bike.