Look Ma! No Derailleurs
By Dan Towle R+E Cycles
Over the last eight years or so, we’ve seen a lot of interest for internally geared rear hubs, IGH for short. A bike equipped with such a system has all of the gears housed inside the rear hub instead of using traditional cogs, derailleurs and chainrings. Remember your old 3-speed or maybe your parents’ old 3-speed? It’s the same, but with a lot more shifting options. IGH technology has been around for 100+ years, although with the invention of the derailleur, the good old 3-speed internal hub was abandoned by most cyclists in favor of the seemingly unlimited gear range provided by the newcomer. I don’t see the end of derailleurs anytime soon, but for those who are investigating IGH, I will try to help you with your homework.
When Todd Bertram, one of the frame builders here at R+E Cycles in Seattle, returned from Europe in 2003, he brought with him something special. It was a finely crafted piece of engineering known as the Rohloff Speedhub. He’d spent almost two years in Germany, worked in the Rohloff factory, and had seen a lot of these on bicycles throughout the old continent. He had a sneaking suspicion that soon this engineering marvel would capture the eye of American cyclists as well.
Since then, news of the Rohloff Speedhub slowly made the trip around the world and eventually reached the United States. What used to be a curiosity is now an accepted design. Because of its reputation for reliability, it has become a popular item with touring cyclists and “go-anywhere” riders. Building Rohloff-equipped bicycles has become an industry in and of itself. These hubs call for a special frame layout to make life easier for the rider, though. Custom frame builders all over the U.S. are trying to design adaptations for their touring bikes to accommodate customers who are requesting them.
A Rohloff hub features 14 speeds instead of the conventional three, which allows the IGH rider to have the same range of gearing that would be found on a traditional 27-speed touring bike. The Speedhub is virtually trouble-free as far as shifting goes.
As builders of Rodriguez Bicycles, we answered multiple questions from curious adventurers, but we didn’t start getting many orders for the Rohloff setup until 2009. Since then, sales have ballooned and requests have doubled each year. As of November 2011, Rodriguez Bicycles has become the number one builder of Rohloff-equipped bicycles in the United States, as confirmed by Cyclemonkey, the exclusive U.S. Rohloff importer.
Who Wants an Internal Gear Hub?
While most of our touring bikes are still equipped with derailleurs (only Shimano these days) higher end seekers have been looking for alternatives. This is because Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano have all but abandoned the high-end touring market. Instead, the big three have focused their advertising and development money on racing equipment that is expensive, doesn’t hold up well for touring, and limits the gearing ratios. Shimano still has some great derailleur options in the sub $2,500 bike market, but for the top of the line, a lot of folks are now considering moving away from derailleurs altogether.
Another group who is strongly interested in IGH is the urban cyclist. Commuters are very hard on their equipment and some of them are greatly attracted to the idea of a bike specifically designed to be trouble-free.
What Are the IGH Options?
With the worldwide popularity of the Rohloff Speedhub on the rise, Shimano has taken notice of this new market as well. Although they have been building IGH hubs for several years, their offerings have always been more suitable for the bike commuter rather than the serious touring type.
Last year, Shimano introduced their first genuine entry into the field of IGH touring hubs, the Alfine 11. Now that the company is making a run at the high-end market, it has spawned a lot of questions about IGHs. People, including us, were hoping that the new hub would provide Rohloff performance at lower cost, but it isn’t quite the case.
When Bicycle Paper asked me to write an article comparing IGH hub options, we were actually in the middle of answering those questions in the form of a FAQ series for our website. As it happens, we have some answers, as in addition to Rohloff-equipped bikes, we now build and sell several models with Shimano internal hubs as well. Our experience with the different options has shown us the best use for each.
Let’s compare three hubs, the Shimano Alfine 8-speed, the Shimano Alfine 11-speed, and the Rohloff Speedhub 14-speed. Shimano does make some lower end 8-speed versions such as the Nexus, but we’ll ignore it for now as this article is geared toward the more serious cyclist.
In order to fully understand the comparison, you’ll need to be familiar with a few terms:
This is the percentage of change from the lowest to the highest gear. A good range between high and low is important for touring, and the higher the better. Unlike a derailleur system, the IGH gear range is permanent. A standard modern day touring bike will come with a gear range of about 450 percent. It can easily be adjusted to about 600 percent, but 450 gives us a good starting point. By comparison, an old 10-speed bike from the 1970s would come with a range of 250 percent.
The gear ladder is the percentage of distance between each individual gear change. On a derailleur system it can be adjusted by using different cogs or chainrings combination, but it isn’t the case for the internal gear hub — you bought it, you got it.
Let the comparison begin.
Shimano Alfine 8-speed
We’ve built several urban commuter bikes with this hub, and even a few sport/fun tandems. It is limited to a 308 percent gear range, which is more than the old 10-speed, but not really enough for serious touring. The gear ladder is very uneven. Ranging from first gear, it looks like this: 23%, 16%, 14%, 17%, 23%, 16%, 14%. Not what we would call optimal.
The wheel attachment is bolt-on only, so there’s no possibility of having a quick release rear wheel. A complete bicycle equipped with the 8-speed Shimano Alfine will run you about $2,000 to $2,500.
Shimano Alfine 11-speed
At 409 percent, it doesn’t quite get you the gear range of a stock touring bike, and has nowhere near the reach of the Rohloff. Although Shimano originally planned an evenly spaced gear ladder, the final result was disappointing to many rabid IGH fans. The spread between first and second gear has a whopping 30 percent jump. The ladder runs an even 17 and 18 percent for the rest of the gears, but that first 30 is quite a step.
The absence of a quick release makes this hub less desirable to many serious tour cyclists as well. Also, for belt drive fans, either Alfine hubs will limit your tire width options.
A high quality build equipped with an Alfine 11-speed will set you back about $3,000.
For the truly serious touring cyclist, the choice should easily be the Rohloff Speedhub. We’ve built touring bikes, mountain bikes, and serious tandems equipped with them and the gear range is a massive 526 percent. That’s even more than a standard touring bike set up with derailleurs.
The gear ladder is a uniform 13.6 percent all the way through and the Speedhub can be ordered with a quick release axle or a bolt-on axle. The design also allows for better belt drive and wider tire compatibility.
All in all, the Rohloff is better suited for the customer who wants an internal gear hub and an excellent replacement for their touring derailleur setup.
Fairly pricier, a bike designed for and setup with a Rohloff Speedhub will start at about $4,000.
In all, the Alfine 11 is not really the alternative that the IGH touring cyclist, us included, were hoping for. While it’s a great hub for an urban commuter, our touring customers want more than it has to offer in many ways. Rather, the Alfine 11 is an alternative to the Alfine 8 for the commuter that wants a bit wider gearing range.
The serious touring cyclist will still have to choose between derailleurs and the Rohloff Speedhub. Since a high quality custom tour bike runs about $2,000 in our shop, a serious internal gear hub tour bike turns out to be quite a bit more expensive. Also, an IGH-equipped bike is going to weigh more overall, and some gears may be audible or “rumbly,” certainly more so than a well-maintained derailleur-equipped setup. Even so, many folks are choosing to go this route in order to have the convenience and low maintenance quality of the Rohloff. In comparison, we currently sell about 70 percent traditional-geared touring bikes and around 30 percent with the Rohloff.
If you’re considering a Rohloff or other IGH-equipped bicycle, the FAQ section on our website (www.rodcycle.com) has a dozen or so articles comparing, contrasting, and listing all of the pros and cons of each design.
Dan Towle is the owner of R+E Cycles (Rodriguez). He has been fitting, fixing, building, customizing, selling, and loving bikes since the 1970s. He, and his entire staff, can be found at R+E Cycles in Seattle. www.rodcycle.com