Mastering the Ride: An Introductory Guide to Bicycle Transmission Systems

Mastering the Ride: An Introductory Guide to Bicycle Transmission Systems

The world of cycling is diverse, with bicycles tailored to a wide range of activities, terrains, and rider preferences. A crucial component defining the character and usability of a bike is its transmission system. Expanding our view to encompass the entire spectrum of possibilities, let's explore the seven primary types of bicycle transmission systems—fixed gear, derailleur gear, internal gear hub (IGH), continuously variable transmission (CVT) hub, chain drive, belt drive, and shaft drive—and delve into their positives and negatives. This exploratory analysis will offer insights into how each system can affect your cycling experience, from performance and efficiency to maintenance and durability.

Fixed Gear Transmissions


  • Simplicity and efficiency: Fixed gear bikes, or "fixies," are the epitome of simplicity, lacking complex shifting mechanisms. This direct drive system ensures that nearly all the power from your legs goes straight to the road, boasting an efficiency of around 99%.
  • Maintenance: With fewer parts, fixed-gear bikes require less maintenance.
  • Weight: They're lighter than their geared counterparts due to the absence of additional hardware.
  • Control: Offers a unique riding experience, allowing for direct control and connection to the bike's motion.


  • Versatility: Fixed-gear bikes are less versatile. They're not ideal for varied terrain, as the single-gear ratio limits speed and ease of pedalling.
  • Learning Curve: There's a learning curve, especially regarding braking and control, as the pedals move continuously with the bike's motion.

Derailleur Gear Transmissions


  • Gear Range: Offers a wide range of gears, making it easier to pedal in various terrains and conditions.
  • Efficiency: Modern derailleur systems are highly efficient, with efficiencies ranging from 87% to 97%.
  • Weight and Cost: Generally lighter and less expensive than comparable IGH systems.


  • Maintenance: Exposed gears and mechanisms require regular maintenance and are prone to wear and damage from environmental factors.
  • Complexity: More complex to use and adjust, especially for beginners.

Internal Gear Hub Transmissions


  • Durability and weatherproofing: The enclosed design protects the gears from elements, resulting in longer service life and less maintenance.
  • Simplicity: Shifting is simpler and can be done even when stopped.
  • Compatibility: This can be used with a broader range of frame designs.
  • Efficiency: The direct-drive middle gear is highly efficient.


  • Weight and Cost: IGHs are generally heavier and more expensive than derailleur systems.
  • Efficiency: May have slightly lower overall efficiency compared to well-maintained derailleurs.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Hubs


  • Smooth Shifting: Provides infinitely variable gearing, allowing for seamless shifting and the ability to maintain optimal pedalling cadence across a wide range of speeds.
  • Simplicity: Fewer moving parts than multi-speed geared systems, potentially reducing maintenance.
  • Gear Range: Can offer a wide range of gear ratios in a compact package.


  • Cost and Complexity: Tend to be more expensive and mechanically complex.
  • Weight: Components can add significant weight.
  • Efficiency: While efficient at low power, CVTs may not match the peak efficiency of the best derailleur or IGH designs.

Drive Transmission Linkage

Chain Drive Linkage Overview

Chain drives, the most prevalent system in cycling, consist of a series of links that wrap around a gear at the pedal (the chainring) and a gear at the rear wheel (the cassette or freewheel). This system is beloved for its simplicity and efficiency.


  • High Efficiency: Well-maintained chain drives can achieve efficiencies of 97-99%, thanks to direct power transfer with minimal energy loss.
  • Versatility: Compatible with a wide range of bikes, including those equipped with multiple gears and derailleurs, making them suitable for various cycling disciplines.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Generally more affordable to replace and repair compared to other transmission types.


  • Maintenance: Requires regular cleaning and lubrication to maintain high performance and prevent wear.
  • Exposure to Elements: Without protection, chains can be susceptible to rust and debris, impacting longevity and efficiency.

Belt Drive Linkage Overview

Belt drives replace the traditional metal chain with a durable, often carbon-reinforced, rubber belt. This system is gaining popularity for its clean, quiet, and maintenance-free operation.


  • Low Maintenance: Unlike chains, belts do not require lubrication and are less prone to stretching, offering a cleaner riding experience.
  • Efficiency: measured to have an efficiency of around 98% when in good condition.
  • Quiet and smooth operation: Belts run more quietly than chains and provide a smoother power transfer, enhancing rider comfort.
  • Durability: Resistant to environmental factors, belt drives can outlast chain systems, making them a cost-effective option over time.


  • Initial Cost: Typically higher upfront cost than chain systems.
  • Compatibility: Requires a frame specifically designed or adapted for belt drive use, limiting retrofit options.
  • Efficiency: While highly efficient, in some conditions, they may slightly underperform compared to optimally maintained chain drives.

Shaft Drive Overview

Shaft drive systems transmit power to the rear wheel through a rigid shaft rather than a chain or belt. This enclosed system is less common but offers distinct advantages for certain riders.


  • Durability and Low Maintenance: The enclosed shaft protects the gearing mechanisms from debris and weather, reducing wear and maintenance requirements.
  • Cleanliness: With no exposed greasy parts, shaft drives are ideal for commuters or riders in formal attire.
  • Consistent Performance: Offers reliable performance without the need for adjustment or tensioning.


  • Efficiency: Generally, shaft drives are less efficient than chain and belt systems, with typical efficiency ranging from 90-95% due to the complexity of power transmission through additional gears and bearings.
  • Weight and Cost: Heavier and more expensive to manufacture, which can be a drawback for performance-oriented cyclists.
  • Compatibility and Repairability: Limited compatibility with bicycle frames and higher complexity for repairs, often requiring specialized services.

Great video from @Bikotic on the history of the evolution of bicycle gears and how to use them. 

Deeper Dive in to the World of Gears. 

Fixed Gear Transmissions: A Deep Dive

In the cycling world, fixed gear transmissions, commonly known as "fixies," hold a special place for their purity and simplicity. Let's explore the intricacies of fixed-gear bikes, detailing their advantages and the challenges they pose to riders.

Positives of Fixed Gear Transmissions

Simplicity and direct connection: Fixed-gear bikes have a straightforward design. With no gears to shift, the rider's pedalling directly turns the rear wheel. This direct transmission of power from rider to road provides a unique feeling of control and unity with the bike that many cyclists cherish.

Maintenance and reliability: The minimalistic design translates to fewer components that could fail or require maintenance. Without derailleurs, shifters, or multiple cogs, fixed gear setups are notably durable and reliable. This makes them especially appealing to urban cyclists who value low maintenance.

Efficiency: Fixed-gear bikes are incredibly efficient. The direct drive system eliminates the energy losses typically associated with chain slack and derailleur friction. The efficiency rates of fixed gear transmissions are around 99%, ensuring that almost all the power generated by the rider is utilized for forward motion.

Weight advantage: The absence of additional gearing components makes fixed-gear bikes lighter than their geared counterparts. This weight saving can be beneficial in urban environments and for cyclists who prioritize speed and agility.

Skill development and fitness: Riding a fixed-gear bike can enhance a cyclist's pedalling technique and cadence. Since the motion of the bike directly correlates with the rider's pedalling, it encourages smooth, consistent strokes. Additionally, the inability to coast forces riders to pedal continuously, which can improve overall fitness.

Challenges of Fixed Gear Transmissions

Limited versatility: The single-gear ratio of fixed-gear bikes limits their adaptability to different terrains. Climbing hills or accelerating quickly can be more challenging without the ability to shift gears. This can make fixies less suitable for varied landscapes compared to multi-geared bicycles.

Learning curve: The fixed gear mechanism means the pedals continue to move as long as the bike is moving, which can be initially challenging for those accustomed to coasting. Stopping and slowing down also require techniques like skidding or resistive pedalling, which can take time to master.

Braking concerns: Many fixed-gear bikes are designed without traditional brakes, relying instead on the rider's ability to control speed through pedal resistance. While this can offer a purer cycling experience, it also demands higher skill levels and can pose safety risks for inexperienced riders or in hazardous riding conditions.

Comfort: The continuous pedalling requirement, especially on longer rides or downhill stretches, can be physically demanding. Riders may find fixed-gear bikes less comfortable for leisurely or extended rides compared to bikes that allow coasting.


Fixed gear transmissions offer a distinct and engaging cycling experience, celebrated for their simplicity, efficiency, and the unique connection they foster between the rider and the bike. While they shine in urban settings and among cyclists who appreciate their minimalist appeal, and the riding skills they develop, fixies may not be the best choice for everyone. Their challenges, particularly regarding versatility and the learning curve, highlight the importance of considering individual riding preferences and environments when choosing a fixed-gear bike.

Derailleur Gear Transmissions: A Deep Dive

Derailleur gear systems, prevalent in the vast majority of modern bicycles, offer versatility and performance that cater to a broad spectrum of cycling needs, from urban commuting to competitive road and mountain biking. This section delves deeper into the intricacies of derailleur gear transmissions, highlighting both their advantages and the challenges they present.

Positives of Derailleur Gear Transmissions

Versatility and range: The hallmark of derailleur systems is their ability to provide a wide range of gear ratios. This versatility allows cyclists to efficiently tackle various terrains, from steep climbs to fast descents and flat stretches, by selecting the optimal gear ratio for the situation.

Fine-tuned control: With multiple gears at their disposal, riders can precisely adjust their cadence (pedalling rate) to maintain optimal efficiency and comfort. This fine control over gear selection can enhance performance, especially over long distances or in races where strategic energy management is key.

Weight and aerodynamics: Derailleur systems, particularly those designed for performance, are often lightweight, contributing to a bike's overall efficiency. High-end models use materials like carbon fibre and titanium to minimize weight without sacrificing strength. Additionally, the external mounting of derailleurs minimizes the aerodynamic drag compared to some internal systems.

Cost-effectiveness: Compared to more complex transmission systems, derailleur gears are generally more cost-effective, both in terms of initial purchase and maintenance. This affordability makes them accessible to a wide range of cyclists, from beginners to seasoned enthusiasts.

Ease of repair and replacement: The widespread use of derailleur systems means that parts are readily available and compatible across different brands and models. Many cyclists can perform basic adjustments and repairs themselves, and bike shops everywhere are equipped to handle more complex issues.

Challenges of Derailleur Gear Transmissions

Exposure to elements: Unlike internally geared systems, derailleur mechanisms are fully exposed to the environment. This exposure can lead to accelerated wear and tear from dirt, mud, and water, necessitating regular cleaning and maintenance to ensure optimal performance.

Vulnerability to damage: The external positioning of derailleurs makes them susceptible to damage from impacts, whether from falls, collisions, or transport. Bent derailleur hangers or damaged components can significantly affect shifting accuracy and require professional adjustment or replacement.

Shifting under load: Shifting gears while pedalling hard, especially on climbs or during sprints, can be challenging with derailleur systems. It requires skill to reduce pedal force momentarily to enable smooth gear changes without risking chain or gear damage.

Complexity for beginners: For those new to cycling, mastering the use of multiple gears and understanding when and how to shift can be daunting. The learning curve can be steeper compared to single-speed or internally geared options.

Chain drop and misalignment: Inaccurate shifting or an improperly adjusted derailleur can lead to dropped chains or the chain rubbing against the derailleur cage, causing noise and potential damage. Regular maintenance is essential to prevent these issues.


Derailleur gear transmissions stand out for their flexibility, performance, and cost-effectiveness, making them the preferred choice for a wide array of cycling disciplines. While they demand more maintenance and care than some alternatives, their advantages in terms of gear range and efficiency make them a favourite among cyclists worldwide. Whether you're an aspiring racer, a mountain biking aficionado, or a daily commuter, understanding and maintaining your derailleur system can greatly enhance your cycling experience.

Internal Gear Hub Transmissions: A Deep Dive

Internal Gear Hubs (IGHs) represent a sophisticated evolution in bicycle gearing systems, encapsulating the gearing mechanism within the hub of the rear wheel. This innovative design offers a seamless cycling experience, markedly different from the conventional derailleur systems. Let's delve into the intricacies of IGHs, highlighting their advantages and potential drawbacks.

Positives of Internal Gear Hub Transmissions

Durability and protection: The gears within an IGH are encased, shielding them from environmental elements like dirt, water, and debris. This protective measure significantly enhances the longevity of the gear system and preserves its performance over time, making IGHs particularly suited for all-weather commuting and off-road adventures where exposure to elements is a given.

Reduced maintenance: Given the enclosed nature of IGHs, the need for regular cleaning and lubrication is drastically minimized. This feature appeals to riders who prefer spending more time on the saddle rather than on maintenance.

Ease of use: IGHs offer a straightforward shifting experience. The ability to shift gears while stationary is especially beneficial in urban environments that involve frequent stops. This characteristic, combined with the absence of complex gear indexing, makes IGH-equipped bikes user-friendly, particularly for beginner cyclists or those who value simplicity.

Frame compatibility: The design of IGHs allows for a broader compatibility with various bicycle frame types. This flexibility is advantageous for unique bike builds or for cyclists who prefer custom solutions.

Consistent performance: IGHs provide a wide gear range within a compact system. Modern IGHs can offer gear ratios comparable to those of multi-geared derailleur systems but with a more consistent and reliable shifting performance.

Challenges of Internal Gear Hub Transmissions

Weight consideration: The complexity of the internal mechanism makes IGHs heavier than their derailleur counterparts. This additional weight, centralized at the rear wheel, can affect the bike's handling and may be a consideration for riders sensitive to weight distribution.

Cost implications: The technological sophistication and manufacturing process of IGHs typically result in a higher cost compared to basic derailleur systems. This initial investment may be a deterrent for some cyclists, despite the long-term savings in maintenance and replacement parts.

Efficiency and range: While IGHs are highly efficient, especially in their direct-drive mode, they can exhibit a slight decrease in overall mechanical efficiency compared to well-tuned derailleur systems. Additionally, while modern IGHs offer a commendable gear range, extreme-performance cyclists or those requiring very specific gear ratios may find limitations.

Service complexity: Repairing an IGH can be more complex, often requiring specialized tools and expertise. While less frequent, servicing an IGH might necessitate a visit to a bike shop familiar with internal gear systems, potentially inconveniencing the rider.

Shifting nuances: Some IGH models may require a reduction in pedalling force to shift smoothly, a slight adjustment in riding technique that might take time for some cyclists to adapt to.

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Internal Gear Hubs present a compelling alternative to traditional derailleur systems, emphasizing durability, ease of use, and maintenance simplicity. While they carry certain limitations in terms of weight, cost, and serviceability, the trade-offs may be well worth it for cyclists prioritizing a clean, reliable, and low-maintenance gearing solution. As technology advances, IGHs continue to evolve, bridging the gap in efficiency and gear range, thus broadening their appeal to a wider spectrum of riders seeking a different cycling experience. Whether for urban commuting, touring, or off-road adventures, IGH-equipped bicycles offer a robust and user-friendly option for modern cyclists.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Hubs: A Deep Dive

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) hubs introduce a revolutionary approach to bicycle gearing, breaking away from the traditional fixed-gear ratios. By offering an infinite range of gear adjustments, CVT hubs promise a seamless and customizable riding experience. Here, we delve into the nuances of CVT hubs, exploring their advantages and the challenges they present.

Positives of CVT Hubs

Infinite gear ratios: The hallmark of CVT hubs is the ability to change through an infinite range of gear ratios seamlessly. This allows riders to fine-tune their pedalling effort with precision, ensuring optimal performance across diverse terrains and riding conditions.

Smooth shifting experience: CVTs provide a smooth, step-less transition between gear ratios, devoid of the jumps and jolts characteristic of traditional gear changes. This not only enhances riding comfort but also contributes to a more efficient transfer of power.

Ease of use: The intuitive nature of CVT shifting simplifies the riding experience, making it accessible to cyclists of all skill levels. The ability to adjust gears without the need for precise timing or speed reduces the learning curve for new riders and enhances convenience for all.

Durability and reduced maintenance: With fewer moving parts than conventional geared systems, CVT hubs often boast increased durability. The enclosed design minimizes exposure to debris and moisture, further reducing the need for frequent maintenance.

Adaptability: CVT hubs maintain higher efficiency across a broad range of conditions by allowing the rider to continuously adjust the gear ratio to match the pedalling cadence with the terrain. This adaptability makes CVTs an attractive option for electric bikes, where optimizing the power delivery can significantly impact battery life and performance.

Challenges of CVT Hubs

Cost implications: The technological sophistication of CVT hubs translates into a higher cost. This investment may deter budget-conscious cyclists or those unsure about the benefits of continuously variable gearing.

Weight considerations: CVT hubs tend to be heavier than their traditional counterparts. The added weight, particularly at the rear wheel, can affect the bike's handling dynamics and may be a critical factor for performance-oriented cyclists.

Efficiency concerns: While CVTs boast commendable efficiency across a range of conditions, they may not achieve the peak efficiency of the best derailleur systems under specific scenarios. The friction inherent in the CVT's operation can lead to a slight decrease in overall mechanical efficiency.

Market adoption and serviceability: As a relatively new technology in the bicycle world, CVTs have seen limited adoption. This nascent status means fewer bike shops are equipped or familiar with servicing CVT hubs, potentially complicating repairs.

Rider feedback and control: Some cyclists may miss the tactile feedback and control offered by traditional gear changes. The smooth, continuous adjustment of CVTs might feel less engaging to those who enjoy the mechanical interaction with their bicycle.

For Educational Purpose Only, ecoTekSC endorment is not implyed


Continuously Variable Transmission hubs offer an innovative approach to bicycle gearing, emphasizing ease of use, adaptability, and a smooth riding experience. While they come with a higher cost and weight, the benefits of infinite gear ratios and reduced maintenance are compelling for many cyclists. As technology progresses and adoption increases, CVTs are poised to become a significant player in the future of cycling, appealing to a broad audience seeking efficiency, comfort, and simplicity in their ride. The decision to opt for a CVT hub will largely depend on individual preferences, riding styles, and the value placed on the unique advantages they offer.

Summary: Navigating the World of Bicycle Transmission Systems

In the realmof cycling, the choice of transmission system significantly influences the ride quality, maintenance, and overall cycling experience. From the simplicity of fixed gear systems to the nuanced control offered by derailleur gears, the internal robustness of gear hubs, the seamless adjustment of CVT hubs, and the distinctive characteristics of chain, belt, and shaft drives—each system presents a unique set of benefits and challenges.

  • Fixed Gear Transmissions stand out for their direct connection to the road, offering unparalleled simplicity and maintenance ease, ideal for purists and urban cyclists.
  • Derailleur Gear Transmissions cater to those seeking versatility and performance, allowing precise control over a wide range of terrains with their multi-gear setups.
  • Internal Gear Hub Transmissions appeal to riders prioritizing durability and low maintenance, providing reliable gear changes within a sealed unit.
  • Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) Hubs offer infinite gearing possibilities, ensuring optimal pedalling efficiency across all riding conditions.
  • Chain Drive Transmissions remain the most popular for their efficiency and adaptability across different bicycle types.
  • Belt Drive Transmissions are celebrated for their low maintenance and quiet operation, perfect for commuters and leisure riders alike.
  • Shaft Drive Transmissions provide a clean, durable alternative, though with a slight compromise on efficiency.

Choosing the right transmission system involves balancing efficiency, maintenance, durability, and the specific needs of your cycling lifestyle. Whether you're navigating city streets, tackling mountain trails, or embarking on long-distance tours, understanding these systems' intricacies can enhance your ride, making every pedal stroke count towards a more enjoyable cycling journey.

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