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.
Comparisons with Rohloff’s Speedhub are inevitable, so even though the two products aren’t really competing with one another directly, let’s make the comparisons.
|Shimano Alfine||Rohloff 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 Â£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.