It’s amazing that derailleur gears work at all, really, let alone as well as they undeniably do. But while modern MTB transmissions will take a hell of a lot of stick (actually, that’s a bad choice of phrase – sticks are one of the things that they’re not that keen on. But we digress), there’s certainly a significant range of UK conditions that they can start to object to.
There’s a lot of muttering about hub gears going on, and Shimano’s Alfine 8-speed hub is starting to put in an appearance on MTBs – Genesis is speccing them on the Io ID seen here, and Charge is producing an Alfine-equipped version of its Duster hardtail. It’s a pretty straightforward retrofit, though, especially if you’ve got frame designed for singlespeed use with either track ends or an eccentric BB to adjust chain tension. You’ll just have an extra bit of cable and a shifter. If you’ve got a frame with vertical dropouts you’ll need to use a chain tensioner of some sort. There’s no need for any additional torque arms or anything, just an anti-rotation washer that slots in to the dropout. You’ll have to carry a big spanner on rides, though – the Alfine has a solid axle held in with big nuts. Inside the oversized hub shell is a bunch of whirly cogs giving you a choice of eight gears, selected by means of a RapidFire+ trigger pod.
Shimano AlfineRohloff Speedhub
|Number of gears||8||14|
So, in a nutshell, the Rohloff has getting on for twice the range and number of gears, while the Alfine is a little bit lighter and a lot cheaper (although bear in mind that there a lot of Rohloff variations, so the exact degree of cheaper and lighter will vary a bit).
Of course, the big draw of the Rohloff is that its huge gear range matches that of a typical 27-speed derailleur setup but without any sticky-out dangly bits. The Alfine offers the same range as a 12-38 cassette, which on the face of it doesn’t sound like much. But if you think about the gears that you actually use, you may find that it isn’t much of a limitation. The majority of bikes spend the majority of their time in the middle ring, and that’s essentially what you’re getting here. With a standard 32t chainring up front, you’re still getting a below-1:1 bottom gear and just losing out a bit at the top end (but you can always coast…).
Looked at that way, the extra £600 for a Speedhub to give you gears that you’re not using 90% of the time looks like money ill-spent. What the Rohloff does have on its side is tried-and-tested durability – there are a lot of them out there, a lot of them have covered a lot of miles and nearly all of them still work. The Alfine, meanwhile, was designed primarily for town/utility bikes, although it’s given Genesis its blessing to use it on MTBs so it presumably thinks its up to it.
Our well-used sample certainly seemed in good shape. We certainly appreciated the presence of a familiar RapidFire+ shifter rather than Rohloff’s 14-click gripshifter. You have to use the specific Alfine shifter, though – the cable pull isn’t the same as derailleurs. It also works back-to-front, although if you’ve got your head around low-normal mechs then you won’t have a problem with that.
Shifting is impressively smooth, and while it may occasionally hesitate under load, it always flicks over if you ease off a touch. It’s also quiet, and pretty much equally so in all the gears – some of them are a bit more audible than others, but it’s not at all offensive. One thing worth noting is that the steps between gears are quite big compared to a nine-speed cassette, so occasionally you find that you’re in a gear that’s not quite right but the adjacent one isn’t quite right in the opposite direction. If you want to keep flicking up and down one or two gears in a close-ratio race style, derailleurs are where it’s at. For more casual, recreational use, the Alfine is just fine. We found ourselves using it in a kind of “singlespeed with gears” style, which sounds ludicrously oxymoronic – what we’re getting at is that you tend to pick a gear and stick with it until there’s a really significant change in terrain rather than constantly shifting for fairly small changes.
One thing that really sets hub gears apart is the ability to shift at a standstill, which turns out to be more useful than you might think. In town it’s a no-brainer – no need to shift down as you come to a halt at lights or junctions, just stop and choose the gear you want to set off in. But off-road it comes in handy, too. You can shift down while coasting in anticipation of the next hill, you can trackstand before a tricky bit and change gear before tackling it and so on.
Genesis Io ID
The Io ID comes with an Alfine hub, which seemed like an easier test option than building one on to a frame. We’re not going to give the Io ID the full bike test treatment, mainly because the 2008 model pictured is sold out and the 2009 one will be a bit different – we’ll do the honours when it arrives. We’ll give you a quick run-through, though, for the sake of completeness.
As the name suggests, the frame is essentially the same as that found on the Io singlespeed, although it’s made from the Reynolds 725 tubing found on the Io frame-only option rather than the 520 pipes on the full bike. The only change is the addition of some cable stops for the Alfine’s shifter cable and a coat of eye-catching orange paint.
The frame is designed for 100mm forks, and the vacancy is filled by a RockShox Recon fork. It’s a decent enough pair of prongs, although the damping isn’t as sophisticated as a Reba or Revelation and it can occasionally feel a bit gaspy and out of its depth.
A Hone crankset with the granny ring taken off sits in the middle, with the stock bashring giving a clean look as well as warding off logs and rocks. There’s a Deore hub up front and a pair of Alex rims shod with Conti Mountain King tyres. Deore disc brakes bring everything to a halt, and all the finishing kit is Genesis-branded stuff. It’s mostly perfectly acceptable, although the stem clamp is all a bit square and sharp-looking for something that may have knees rammed into it.
With geometry shared with Genesis’s well-regarded Altitude range, the ID delivers a fun, agile ride, and we weren’t troubled by any hub-gear-affected weight distribution weirdness either.
All-up weight is 27.5lb and the full bike was £899.99 while they were still on sale – we’d expect the 2009 model to hit a similar price point, but we’ll have to wait and see. Keep an eye on www.genesisbikes.co.uk for more…
Positives: Has the gears you use most, clean lines, low maintenance, mud-friendly, smooth shifting
Negatives: Not quick release, shifter looks a bit “comfort bike”
Verdict: The Alfine isn’t going to suit everyone, but it’s definitely got a place on MTBs, especially in UK conditions. You get most of the gears you actually use in a low-maintenance, clean-looking package that’s not all that expensive. What’s not to like?