Are gearboxes the way forward for MTBs or are derailleurs here to stay?

The most vulnerable part of your bicycle and the one that most bicycle manufacturers seem determined to keep: the derailleur. Why? Is there a benefit over internal gearboxes? Are gearboxes a luxury that we can do without, or are they something that manufacturers should have jumped on years ago?

10-helius-am-pinion-233r0724.jpg
Nicolai Helius AM Pinion

 

Look, either way, it would be a while until major bike manufacturers adopt internal gearboxes. It's sad to say, but they just wouldn't take that next step into custom building a frame around a gearbox. It's too risky. Personally I think it would be a risk worth taking, especially for one of the big boys, to just make one model with a proven gearbox. Make it a popular model, advertise the hell out of it and get one of your famous riders to race it. Isn't that how all the new innovative technologies make it to the public? Oh, and make it affordable.

 

Internal vs External


Versus.jpg
In some ways it's a no brainer. Having a hanging gear changer on a very vulnerable section of your bicycle seems counterintuitive. It dangles, it moves back and forth and it moves the chain about. Doesn't seem practical, does it? This is what is moving you forward; this is what drives the entire system, and to have all that exposed is risky.

 

There's that whole conspiracy theory (of which I subscribe) that says that manufacturers from all industries -- from cellphones to cars -- purposefully build-in expiration dates into their products. So basically, whatever the product, it will only be so long until it needs repair or replacement. You can't entirely blame manufacturers for this. How else would they make money? If every BMW or iPhone or Trek lasted 20 years with minimal maintenance they would go out of business -- quickly.

 

It still screws the consumer though. It actually gives meaning to that term: consumer. And the bicycle industry consumes derailleurs on a mass scale. Not to mention chainrings, cassettes and chains. These items are not made to last.

 

But let's put that argument aside for now and look at the actual benefits of the derailleur drivetrain.

 

Derailleurs everywhere


SRAM-XX1-1x11-mtb-11speed-cassette-details06.jpg

 

In a nutshell, they are what works. Whether it's just that manufacturers persevered to make it work or it's actually what should be driving a bike, it doesn't matter. What matters is that they are found on almost the vast majority of bicycles, from road racers to kid's department store cheapies to downhill monsters.

 

In most recent times, Shimano and Sram have been making some pretty damn well-working drivetrains. Derailleurs can actually last more than one season and free-wheels are significantly less maintenance. I haven't broken off any teeth from a cassette in a long time too. It's a good thing, and about time.

 

In terms of weight, there's no question: derailleur drivetrains are the lightest option. Gearboxes will probably never be as light as derailleurs; it's the nature of it. The cassette gears don't need to be so robust, so thick, and the oil necessary to keep everything running smooth like in a sealed internal system isn't needed.

 

zerode_g2_custom_3.jpgZerode G2
And this is a huge deal. Weight-weenies are notoriously fiendy about every little gram. So if one option -- even if it is more efficient and durable -- is significantly heavier, it's simply not worth it. Lugging up an extra 500-1000g may not seem like a lot, but when you've been riding all day, or in the heat of a race, it can make all the difference. And that's what manufacturers want: winning components.

 

They're expensive too. To the average rider, a mid-range derailleur drivetrain will work just fine, if not as well as the high-end, albeit with some weight penalty. High-end equipment isn't necessary for outrides or casual weekend races. But gearboxes are only high-end. You show me a mid-range gearbox and I probably wouldn't go near it, not now. If it were to fail, then that's your whole system gone.

 

Unfortunately, there isn't enough of a market to support such a thing and make it an actual option. So few people actual subscribe to gearboxes, or can afford them in the first place, so that no cheaper option is viable to build. If you look at Alutech Cycles, for instance, they offer the same frame with or without a Pinion P1.18 gearbox. The Pinion option basically doubles the price. It's extraordinary. But then again, it's about the same as Sram's XX1 groupset. Shimano does do a cheaper hub gearbox option called the Alfine that has been used on DH bikes like on the Zerode G2, but this hasn't gotten much attention outside touring and cruiser bikes.

 

Technology surrounding derailleur drivetrains has grown in leaps and bounds. Chains, cassettes and derailleurs are stronger; chains don't fall off and those silly flimsy as hell hangers are all but replaced by stronger and often replaceable dropouts. They finally work. But for how long? And how far can they go up the evolutionary ladder? Isn't it just time to push to that next step.

 

Logical or over the top?


If I can be so frank and perhaps a bit crude: it's almost like the difference between male and female genitalia. Sure, men can stand up, but it also leaves everything exposed to the elements, exposed to potential punishment; just dangerously exposed in general. And guys know all too well the pain involved when things go wrong.

 

a380a7_dae88d24ebc5bb0cf42e9dcfc96231fb.jpgeffigear with carbon bash plate

 

If you've ever smacked a root / rock / traffic sign / chicken, whatever; you know the pain of having to push your bike home. Your day has been ruined. That's the biggest downfall; the most obvious. Smack your gearbox on that same hard object and you're fine; you get away scott free.

 

Having the entire drivetrain in a sealed, contained package makes sense. You don't see motorcycles or cars with dangling clutches or gears hanging off the wheels, and bicycles more often go through more rugged conditions. The entire drivetrain in a simple package, in one place, protected from the elements by a metal housing. Sounds good, no?

 

helius-ac-pinion-233r0913-low.jpgNicolai Helius AC Pinion

 

Yes, it's heavy. But where is the weight? Speaking of Rohloff, the Speedhub still sits at the wheel, replacing the rear hub, so not ideal weight distribution. But with gearboxes like the Pinion P1.18 and effigear, the weight is kept exactly where you want it: in the centre and low down, helping with the overall balance of the bike. Unsprung mass is also kept to a minimum, allowing the suspension to move more freely.

Internal Gearboxes.jpgNicolai Nucleon AM dropout
The one downside of this is that it's more or less rendered a single speed. You have to keep the tension taut in the chain -- or in some cases carbon belt -- and taking the rear wheel off for a simple flat tyre can be made more of a mission than necessary. Nicolai has an interesting take on this problem, though, having developed a special dropout system for its Rohloff-gearboxed Nucleon E2 and AM. They placed the Speedhub in the middle of their frame, like they do with the Pinion and effigear, keeping it in a CNC'd housing. It strangely resembles a motorbike system in the way that the driveside is on the left and the brakes on the right.

 

It really does seem like an obscure idea hatched many decades ago, derailleurs, and not much thought was given to the practicalities of them. And this is mostly the manufacturer's fault, I think. Let's look into the efficiency of both systems. With a 2x9 speed setup, there are at least four redundancies, four gears that repeat themselves. A 1x11 setup solves this, mostly, but with the effigear you can choose how many gears you want and what the ratios are to be, while with the Pinion you have 18 gears, all spaced equally apart with no redundancies.

8026_b_09.png

Shimano and Sram dominate the cycling industry. Simple as that. To break into that is like trying to beat a hippo using a tennis racket. It's as much trying to do the beating as it is convincing people that you can actually succeed. Because people don't like change. They will often praise the fact that there are components out there that are better or innovative, but won't take that step and try it. It's probably because they don't trust the technology: what if something goes wrong? Who am I to call? Well, in the case of Rohloff, there's a fantastic story of a 55 000km Speedhub that was basically replaced free of charge. Don't see that happening from the derailleur guys. And personally, I would be mighty happy if I didn't have to readjust my derailleur every month in order to get smooth changes.

 

What are your options


The only thing stopping me, admittedly, is expense. They are just too damn much! I would jump at the opportunity to ride one -- any one -- of the gearboxed bikes out there just to see exactly how they feel.

 

Alutech-Fanes---Pinion.jpg
Alutech Fane with Pinion P1.18

 

Gear changes are smooth, there's no need to constantly adjust everything and maintenance is minimal. I mean, the Pinion P1.18 is said to be good for at least 60 000km. That said, what happens when the 60 000km is up? As far as I can see, there are only three options that are worth buying: the Pinion P1.18, the effigear and Rohloff's Speedhub.

 

Pinion


pinion with gates.jpg
Hilite titanium frame with Pinion P1.18 using a Gates Carbon Drive // Image credit: www.hilite-bikes.com

 

This is a gem. It looks fantastic and from what has been said about it, works just as well as it looks. On a technological level it trumps almost every system out there. The total ratio of its 18 gears is 636%, way more than the typical derailleur system, which averages around 500%, and you can change gear whenever you want: no peddling is required.

 

wpid-Photo-11092012-955-AM.jpg

 

The gears sit in a sealed steel housing and operate in an oil bath system, keeping everything running smooth. It may have too many for gravity use, but it is perfect for enduro. For hardtails there is a chain or Gates Carbon Drive option, whereas a full suspension frame needs an idler to account for chain growth as the suspension moves. Pinion lists a number of frame manufacturers using its gearbox, but they are mostly boutique brands doing custom titanium hardtails. For more on Pinion go here.

 

effigear


large_die-Effigear-Getriebebox-in-einem-Cavalerie-Bike-verbaut.jpg
From top left: Gates Carbon Drive, sequential twister, sequential trigger, internal view // Image credit: Christoph Bayer

 

Similar to the Pinion, the effigear has a slightly different take. Not quite as many gears, but lighter; I could see it being used on DH bikes more so than the Pinion because it doesn't have the full 18 gears like the Pinion, but a selection: from 6-9, depending your application. The total ratios depend on the gearing, ranging from 260% for the 6 speed, to 444% for the 9 speed. Effigear would surely argue that there is no need for more than 9 if you spaced them properly, but some people might find it lacking.

 

It uses a three-axle system, two holding the gears with the BB acting as the third. Interestingly, effigear works on a sequential-type shifter. It looks like a grip shift but instead of twisting it moves only a little, changing one gear at a time. Effigear fitted system to a Cavalerie DH bike, more details of which can be found here. The bike uses a Gates Carbon Drive belt, which increases efficiency is because the belt does not flex as much as a chain.

 

Rohloff


MTB-Rohloff-SLiding-Disc-Drop.gif
Stainless steel Igleheart with Rohloff Speedhub // Image credit: igleheartcustomframesandforks.com/

 

Known for reliability and heavy weight, this is still the most tried and tested internal gearbox available. While it usually acts as the rear hub -- especially on commuters and the like -- like I mentioned above, Nicolai also has two frames with the Speedhub situated above the BB. This fixes the weight distribution issue of having it at the rear. Nicolai is not the only one to offer this setup: a few downhill bikes over the years have played with it; though, it is very unusual to have the chain on the left.

 

 

The Speedhub has 14 gears with a total ratio of 526%, right between the effigear and Pinion. The gears are evenly spaced at 13.6% ensuring a smooth transition between gears. If reliability and aftermarket servicing is your main concern, then this might be the option to go for.

 

Conclusion


The MTB industry is full of fads, but technologies that work are often held onto. The Rohloff Speedhub is one of those items and has so far stood the test of time. The others are full of promises and whether they make good on them only time will tell. Hopefully they will catch on, though I think it may be wishful thinking. Fact is, the derailleur is still king and won't be ready to relinquish it's crown for many years to come.




Related Articles
33 Comments

jughead_dave, Oct 09 2013 10:33

intresting

Gerlach, Oct 09 2013 10:33

Gee nog so tussen 5 en 10 jaar, dan sal dit meskien behoorlik in werk gestel word. Daar word al n tyd lank op DH fietse al getoets, met groot sukses so ver.

jughead_dave, Oct 09 2013 10:34

I was discussing this just yesterday. I think it comes done to price vs weight vs reliability.

One a balance of all 3 has been achieved, I think we will see more "gearboxes"

LanceB, Oct 09 2013 10:49

Would be fantastic if ZF got involved: German engineering and sufficient production scaling to ensure efficient supply. Perhaps they could poach some of the SRAM XX designers, who are German anyhow.

The current MTB transmission providers would not be keen on a durable solution, though, lots of exposed little working parts in an off-road usage environment, pretty much equates to an evergreen income stream.

The SS brigade is obviously chuckling at all this. As is their right, I guess.

Jewbacca, Oct 09 2013 10:53

I do a bit of work with the Rohloff stuff and they are not durable.

For a commuter or a general cruiser they are fantastic but if you thrash them and expect them to last under race conditions they will fail. Once they fail good luck repairing on the trail!

Weight vs durability vs practicality says they still have a LONG way to go.

To the Down hillers out there, why don't you try in out? It might suit you...... Shifting under stress but not too much stress like riding up hills.. :ph34r:

LanceB, I am indeed chuckling at this. Well played sir.

Ooh, on another note, check out the 2014 BMW e-cruisers........ If you have 30 gears you might as well have one of these........

Andyr249, Oct 09 2013 10:54

I think the main issue would be weight as well as some sort of clutch system. With the derailleur system we essentially have a clutch system but without the weight. Would be interesting to see where this goes. Also how you would be able to remove the rear wheel to sort out a puncture quickly.

braailegend, Oct 09 2013 11:02

Had a gearbox bike.. was awesome, no maintenance. Rearwheel removal easier on frame mounted gearbox, same as singlespeed.

And not that heavy, remember you're losing a cluster. Also the frame mounted box distributes weight more evenly, making wheels even lighter!

Once I've saved enough, Im definitely going gearbox again (on a Nicolai).

GLuvsMtb, Oct 09 2013 11:03

You need to add electric shifting into the equation. Expect to see more electric shifters on the mtb scene in the next year or 2.

Brighter-Lights, Oct 09 2013 11:19

Chains are long due for replacement...

Jewbacca, Oct 09 2013 11:24

Chains are long due for replacement...


You can run a carbon drive on a gearbox hub....

rouxtjie, Oct 09 2013 11:27

So which is the rohloff to go for....

Claudio, Oct 09 2013 11:32

So which is the rohloff to go for....

Rohloff currently only offers the Speedhub 500/14 as shown above.

rouxtjie, Oct 09 2013 11:33

Rohloff currently only offers the Speedhub 500/14 as shown above.

Yea quickly went through their, find your rohloff hub app, quite usefull.

Ed-Zulu, Oct 09 2013 11:35

...and while we at it, why not drop the belt drive and go internal shaft drive...everything nicely sealed up, no more hassles

ChUkKy, Oct 09 2013 12:14

...and while we at it, why not drop the belt drive and go internal shaft drive...everything nicely sealed up, no more hassles


A drive shaft would be a good idea and I suppose the only consumable on either side would be a little CV joint of sorts...

blackwing, Oct 09 2013 02:27

I will buy an pinion equipped bike in a hearbeat if I had that cash. It's actually o.k priced (what is these days?) You can buy the frame and gearbox from alutech for 3500 euro. That is a dual suspension frame & drivetrain in one go.

I had some correspondance with them, and all the minor issues have been ironed out, and oilchanges is only once a year, or every 60000km.

Further you run a single speed chain to the back which means it chains will last even longer.

If I win the lotto tonight, I ordering my Alutech Fanes 650b tomorrow!

Claudio, Oct 09 2013 04:16

I will buy an pinion equipped bike in a hearbeat if I had that cash. It's actually o.k priced (what is these days?) You can buy the frame and gearbox from alutech for 3500 euro. That is a dual suspension frame & drivetrain in one go.

I had some correspondance with them, and all the minor issues have been ironed out, and oilchanges is only once a year, or every 60000km.

Further you run a single speed chain to the back which means it chains will last even longer.

If I win the lotto tonight, I ordering my Alutech Fanes 650b tomorrow!

I'm there with you, but depending the winning I might go for a Nicolai. The craftsmanship is phenomenal.

Gerlach, Oct 10 2013 08:11

check this one out!!! i think some of you will like this. http://www.bikerumor...bike-prototype/

braailegend, Oct 10 2013 08:31

check this one out!!! i think some of you will like this. http://www.bikerumor...bike-prototype/


That is to cluttered, haha

With gearboxes it should look slim and stream line like this. When Nicolai makes the 6' travel version of this, im in. This to me is the best design look for me.

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

DaviM, Oct 10 2013 08:34

Nice article. A true test would be the imana.

JoeMan, Oct 10 2013 09:38

Gearboxes...naturally yes. However, if you're thinking dual suspension then obviously stay away from hub-gearboxes. Unfortunately, gearboxes are still a bit expensive. Are gearboxes expensive due to the small demand or due to small-scale production costs? My future ride is the Nicolia Helius Am Pinion! Smooth gear changes and you can change gear at zero velocity.

BrandonF_, Oct 10 2013 09:49

That is to cluttered, haha

With gearboxes it should look slim and stream line like this. When Nicolai makes the 6' travel version of this, im in. This to me is the best design look for me.

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image


Yoh, that boytjie in the middle looks nice!

zekebacca, Oct 10 2013 07:27

Chain drive is simply the most efficient. Especially in bicycling terms it is hard to drive technology in a direction that increases complexity, cost of manufacture and at the same time increases weight or friction losses.

Shebeen, Oct 11 2013 10:53

Gearboxes...naturally yes. However, if you're thinking dual suspension then obviously stay away from hub-gearboxes. Unfortunately, gearboxes are still a bit expensive. Are gearboxes expensive due to the small demand or due to small-scale production costs? My future ride is the Nicolia Helius Am Pinion! Smooth gear changes and you can change gear at zero velocity.

I think they're expensive due to low production/demand. the thing is that they have the potential to become more affordable. derrailleurs and especially they're consumables only get more expensive over time. (i still ride 9speed mtb...still happy with it)

Where they obviously win is the lifetime cost. throw in 5 years of riding with 6/7 chains, 3/4 casettes and 2 cranksets and it doesn't look so bad.