Gears and Shifting 101: 3-Speed vs. 8-Speed

In our first lesson, we covered the basics of gearing and how to shift effectively when starting from a stop (we skipped handing out the syllabus because nobody reads it anyway). This time, we’ll explore the differences between our 3-speed bikes and 8-speed bikes and weigh the pros and cons of each set-up!


What’s the Difference?

Besides the obvious, “One has 5 more gears, duh!”, the biggest difference between our 3-speed and 8-speed gearing systems is their design. The 8-speeds use what most folks would probably refer to as the “standard” gearing set-up on a bike – different-sized external cogs are shifted through by moving the chain with a derailleur (that thingy that hangs down with the “little pulley” on it that adjusts the chain’s tension and slides it left and right to change which cog is being engaged by the chain). The 3-speeds use an internal hub, so all the mechanics are sealed up inside the center of the wheel. Because the chain never has to move (it’s always engaging the same cog and the shifting happens inside the hub), the 3-speeds don’t have the derailleur so typical of a geared bike.

So which is better? Well, it really comes down to you!


3-Speed - Pros and Cons

Let’s start with the pros! Having everything sealed away in the hub accomplishes a couple of things; first, it gives the bike a clean, minimalist appearance - keeping everything simple. It also prevents water, dirt, and road grime from gunking up the gears, causing premature wear, and that means less maintenance! In fact, because the 3-speeds don’t need to move the chain and don’t require a derailleur, they’ll allow you to mount a full-coverage chainguard so your entire drivetrain can be sealed from the elements, which means no more greasy pant-legs, less frequent chain repair, and the cleanest look possible on two wheels.

Internal hubs require less maintenance in general. Besides having the essentials secured safely inside, there’s less wear on the chain as it never needs to change cogs, it’s impossible to cross-chain, and thicker, sturdier cogs can be used so your whole drivetrain will last longer. The lack of a cassette allows for the spokes on each side of the wheel to be more evenly matched, making a stronger rear wheel possible, which means less frequent truing is necessary as well. Durability gets a boost too, as an internal hub won’t be knocked out of alignment (or break off) if the bike falls over – something derailleurs just can’t match.

The last positives are ease of use and reliability. The internal set-up allows you to shift even when you’re at a stop, which is a huge bonus at that red light you “just missed” because you can downshift and get rolling again easily. Internal hubs are also more reliable than their external counterparts because of their sealed mechanisms and because actuation requires much less cable pull. That means your cables stretch and wear more slowly, which translates into fewer missed-shifts and less time spent futzing with barrel adjusters. Even when you must futz, the 3-speeds are easier to tweak because the minimal movement of the cable means you never need to take big swings at it and there's no risk of an over-adjustment throwing your chain into the spokes.

So what’re the downsides? The most obvious is cost. Internal hubs are just more expensive than external gearing because they're more complicated systems. Small parts, highly-engineered designs, and some mechanical wizardry combine to give internal hubs a higher initial price tag – one that’s hopefully alleviated by the reduced maintenance and repair costs over the life of the bike. But, when it does come time to repair, expect to pay a bit more than you would for an external system as well. The more technical internal hubs require a bit more time and expertise so, while most bike shops are comfortable servicing them, you'll usually pay a little more for the work. Luckily, those repairs will be fewer and farther between thanks to the reliability and durability inherent in the system.

The last drawback is that you have fewer speeds. There are only so many ways to cram all those gears into a hub, so you’re often forced to choose between the versatility of having a lot of gears and the practicality of the internal set-up. While it won’t matter much in a flat city, if your rides regularly have you tackling taller hills or hauling heavy loads, those extra gears can be a lifesaver.


8-Speed – Pros and Cons

Based on the above, you probably guessed that two of the huge plusses for an external set-up are the lower initial cost and the benefit of a wider range of gears. Less difficult to engineer, available from a wider array of manufacturers, and more ubiquitous – designing, producing, and procuring an external set-up is just plain cheaper, and sometimes that’s all you need. Toss in the fact that you can more easily fit a wide range of gears, and it’s easy to see why the derailleur has been the industry norm for years.

The other upsides to an external system also revolve around cost. Because they’re everywhere (and their larger parts are easier to work on), repairs and maintenance will be cheaper than their internal counterparts and every bike shop will have the knowledge and experience to work on them. An external set-up is also cheaper and easier to upgrade or replace. Whereas an internally-geared hub needs to be disassembled to be serviced, if your external set-up needs a new jockey wheel, you just pull the old one and pop a new one in. Want to tweak your gear ratios? It’s as easy as grabbing a new cassette (and maybe a new derailleur if you'll need a longer cage, but you’ll never need to swap the entire hub).

The downsides to a derailleur set-up are the opposite of an internal one. More friction on the chain and cassette causes more component wear, and exposure to the elements leaves you at the mercy of mother nature – all of which conspire to mean more frequent maintenance is necessary to keep everything running smoothly. Longer cable actuation also speeds up cable stretch, so more frequent adjustments are necessary to keep everything dialed in. If you’re comfortable making your own tweaks, it’s not a huge deal but, if you’ll need to pop into your local shop every time your shifting starts to fade (and if that’ll bug you), it’s an important consideration when you pick your bike.

Durability also takes a back seat to ease of repair and price. Because a derailleur hangs off the side of the bike, it’s more vulnerable to falls, debris, and all the other little surprises the road can spring on you. Obviously, if you’re careful, you can do a lot to mitigate those risks but, if you’re after a “zero worry” set-up, an internal hub will provide more peace of mind.


So what's the answer? It’s a toss up! There’s probably one that seems like the clear winner to you but, to someone else, the deck may appear stacked in the opposite direction. It all comes down to personal preference! Below is a handy table of the pros and cons we covered today, and don’t forget to pop into your favorite bike shop and go for a test-ride. There’s just no better way to get a feel for the differences between bikes, and the folks that work there will be able to help you make up your mind based on your riding style, local environment, and your personal preferences!

 The Breakdown

 3-Speed Internal  8-Speed External
Durability X
Reliability X
Aesthetics X
Ease of Use X
Versatility (Gear Range)
Initial Cost
Repair Cost X
Ease of Repair X


In our next class, we’ll talk about decelerating (how to shift when slowing or approaching a stop) and descending (riding down hill)!