You want to buy an electric bike. The product descriptions focus on all sorts of things, from the power of the motor to the capacity of the battery, and yet they say almost nothing about gears.
And so, you found yourself wondering: Do electric bikes even need gears? Well, it’s good that you asked, because the answer isn’t a clear-cut yes or no. Here’s everything you need to know before buying.
Single Speed Electric Bikes
Gears allow you to adjust the pedaling speed of your bike, so you don’t have to pedal like a madman to go fast and can climb hills without hassle. But, depending on where you live and what you use your bike for, they might not be a necessity.
If you live somewhere flat — say, in the Netherlands — then you probably won’t need gears on your electric bike, just like you wouldn’t need them on a regular bike. You can get a single-speed e-bike for your daily commuting and shopping, knowing it’s cheaper to buy and easier to maintain.
Multi-Speed Electric Bikes
If you live in an area with different elevations, and you have to switch between cycling, climbing, and going downhill whenever you go out for a ride, you probably want to get an electric bike with gears.
Electric bikes have a motor that can take over pedaling for you on relatively flat roads, which is great if you want to go further with less effort. But you still have to pedal when going up long and steep hills, even if not as hard as you’d need to on a non-electrified bicycle. Having speeds on your e-bike reduces the strain even further.
There are three types of gears you can get on electric bikes: derailleur shifters, internally geared hubs, and automatic gears.
Derailleur gears are the oldest type of gears around. A cluster of sprockets of different sizes, called a “cassette,” is installed on one side of the hub of the rear wheel. A mechanism that shifts the chain between sprockets, called a “derailleur,” switches gears on your command.
This gear mechanism is cheap, reliable, and easy to fix. But it has one major drawback: it’s external, so it’s exposed to air, water, dirt, and dust — making it prone to corrosion, rust, and mechanical failure if not cared for properly.
This is why derailleurs need a lot of maintenance, and regular cleanup and lubrication. The other drawback to derailleur systems is that they’re compatible only with chain drives — and not with belt drives.
Internally Geared Hub
An internally geared hub, as its name suggests, is an internal system of gears enclosed inside a wheel hub. The gears are sprockets inside the hub. But instead of the chain moving from one sprocket to another, the coupling of the sprockets in the hub determines the active gear.
Because they are better protected from the air, water, dirt, dust, and weather, internally geared hubs don’t need as much maintenance as derailleur gear systems. Seasoned cyclists would say that this gear system is better for northern climates, where it’s damp and rainy almost all year round.
However, internally geared hubs are also pricey and difficult to repair. You’ll have to pay up when buying them, and you can expect your trips to the bike repair shop to cost more.
Some electric bikes have automatic transmissions. This makes riding a bike feel very much like driving an automatic car. Simply set the pace at which you’d like to pedal, then the system controls the gears automatically for you.
Like derailleurs and internally geared hubs, automatic transmissions have certain limits. If you’re climbing a hill and you reach those limits, you will need to put more effort into pedaling.
These transmissions are quite modern and efficient, but they’re not as well known as the manual ones. Their reliability will vary from brand to brand, and not every e-bike shop will know how to maintain and repair them.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not an electric bike needs gears depends on the terrain and rider.
Commuter cyclists who ride mostly on flat terrain may be perfectly fine with a single-gear e-bike. However, those who cycle uphill and descend on steep climbs will want to get a bike with multiple gears.
Multi-gear electric bikes generally have three types of transmissions: externally-mounted derailleurs, internally geared hubs, and automatic transmissions. Decide which to buy based on your budget and preferences.