It is a common misconception that internal gear hubs are maintenance free. Like any other moving part they require periodic maintenance to ensure a long, trouble-free lifespan. The good news is that it’s often a straightforward job and that 12-18 monthly is fine for most commuters.
Different types of Internal Gear Hubs
There are several different brands and types of internal gear hub (IGH). The old 3 speed Sturmey Archer hubs are bombproof and require very little attention. Newer Sturmey Archer’s are prone to being problematic. Shimano make both grease-based and oil-based IGHs. The grease-based versions range from a 3 to an 8 speed. All are very reliable and straight forward to service. Shimano’s only oil-based offering is the Alfine 11 speed. Sram make a range of gear hubs from 3 to 9 speed with which we’ve had varying levels of success in maintaining and repairing. And finally, there is the pinnacle of IGH technology, the touring-spec Rohloff. The Rohloff is a 14 speed oil-based hub that functions quite differently from the Shimano 11 speed. It is more robust than the Shimano and as a result better suited to touring.
Servicing requirements for IGHs
Broadly speaking, grease based internal gear hubs will require cleaning out, inspecting and re-greasing about every 12-18 months. The higher the number of gears, the more moving parts and the more critical this is. A cheap 3 speed hub may not be deemed worth the labour charge to do this with and will likely last many years even without a service. An 8 speed Shimano hub will definitely require this treatment regularly to get the most life out of it possible.
The two oil based hubs both require periodic oil changes. The Alfine 11 speed will also wear through two seals over time, both of which we keep in stock. The Rohloff takes many, many km to wear through seals but when it does, we keep the common ones in stock. The oil change itself is easy on both hubs and we are happy to sell you the kit if you’d like to do it yourself.
We recommend replacing the shift cables periodically or at the first sign of mis-shifting on any IGH other than a Rohloff. This is critical because on most hubs the shifter controls the alignment of all of the planetary gears and a damaged or lagging cable can prevent the elements inside from aligning properly, leading to damage and accelerated wear. Rohloff’s control their indexing between gears in the hub rather than the shifter so this is less of an issue with the Rohloff. A damaged or lagging shift cable in a Rohloff will just feel nasty but isn’t causing any damage.