We are always on the lookout for ways to up riding time and minimize time spent on wrestling wrenches and cogs in the workshop. This has inevitably led us to internal gear hubs (hereafter IGH). As pointed out by Sheldon Brown, these gearing systems have been used since the first decade of the 20th century, usually operating as 3-speeds. These systems were typically used on city bikes and their likes, while the more modern avid cyclists have opted for derailleur systems that have been widely used since the 1970s. This could however now be changing, at least for amateurs as ourselves, as IGHs have evolved and are now more reliable and efficient than ever before.
The purpose of this article is to compare the Shimano Alfine 11 (hereafter Alfine) and the Rohloff SPEEDHUB 500/14 (hereafter Rohloff). There are a number of articles out there already dealing with this topic, so our take is to skip the more technical details and look at this from a laymans and user point of view. We will discuss how these IGHs actually feel like when riding, reliability and maintenance, and of course just how much damage these systems will do to your budget. We hope this can be useful input for those that have decided to go for an IGH, but have not yet decided which one. If you have already bought the Alfine, you might want to check out Uncle Johns Bike Shed. He maintains a web page that contains all sorts of information about the Alfine. The Sheldon Brown website also has a very useful article on the Alfine.
Our writings here be based on about 29.000 kilometers with the Rohloff and about 57.000 kilometers with the Alfine, over the course of some eight years. We are not paid or sponsored to write this article.
The riding experience
The most important part of it all is of course how the IGH actually feels when riding. Most often the Alfine uses a rapid shifter, whereas the Rohloff is equipped with a twist shifter. The rapid shifter feels a bit more convenient and easy to use. This is particularly the case when it´s raining and our cold and fatigued hands sometimes slip on the the twist shifter. This is a minor thing and whether you prefer the rapid shifter or the twist shifter is more than anything a matter of preference. It is however worth noting that, at least to our knowledge, both IGHs can be (re)fitted with a shifter of your choice. But note that the Alfine is based on spring loading while the Rohloff is based on two cables pulling in their opposite direction to change gear. This must be taken into account when customizing shifters. Check out Uncle Johns bike shed for more information on compatible mechanical shifters for the Alfine.
Both standard shifters for the Alfine and the Rohloff have indicators to show which gear you are in. That is actually useful on IGHs as you cannot determine the gear by simply looking at the gearing system.
On both IGHs the shifting itself is very straightforward, just to click or twist. For both systems you need to back of the pedaling power just a tad, at the shifting moment, but you can keep pedaling.
With the Rohloff, each gear feels firm and tight, much the same feeling you would get with a single speed or derailleur setup. The Alfine on the other hand feels a bit spongy, particularly at the low end of the gear range. We have also experienced on more than a few occasions that the Alfine slips when really pouring watts into it. The noise it makes when slipping sounds very expensive. The hub keeps working after such slipping. But we find it unlikely that it wont shorten the lifespan of the hub and certainly the chain itself. We are not sure exactly what causes this slipping, but we believe it to be caused by the gearing cable being slightly misaligned. Opposed to the Rohloff, where each gear has its own position that clicks in place, the Alfine is seamless and has no fixed position for its different gears. In our view this increases the chance of misalignment as the cable stretches. In our opinion, this is a property of the Alfine that should not be taken lightly. It should however be mentioned that the Alfine has dotted indicators on the hub itself to help correctly (re)adjusting the gears.
So while the Alfine has its gears indexed at the shifter, the Rohloff has its gears indexed at the hub itself. We definitely find it best to have the gears indexed directly at the hub. For one thing this makes the IGH less likely to be affected by issues with the cables. But more importantly, particularly for touring purposes, when the gears are indexed at the hub you can still change gears with a small wrench even if the shifter breaks. That is assuming you go for a Rohloff with external mech.
As for sound, the Alfine is completely silent, it doesn't even produce any noticeable ticking sounds when freewheeling. The Rohloff is entirely quiet from the 8th gear and higher gear ratios. But from the 7th gear and lower ratios it makes a sort of a humming noise. We dont mind, but some might find this annoying.
Bikestation.fi did a weight comparison and found that a complete Rohloff system, fitted to the bike, weighed about 1820 g, while the Alfine was about 120 g heavier. This is a little bit heavier than most setups with cassettes, but hardly an issue for bikes used for touring and commuting. The weight difference between the Rohloff and the Alfine when riding is probably not noticeable.
The inner workings of the Rohloff and the Alfine are more than a tad too complicated for us to get our heads around. But, obviously, they are different on the inside and this also affects the gearing range they provide. The range of the Rohloff is an impressive 526 %, and whats more, the gears are evenly spaced at about 13 % all the way. This means you will have a wide gear ratio to choose from, in fact about the same as you would have with a typical 2x10 derailleur setup. The evenly spaced gear ladder also makes it easy to choose exactly the right gear.
The Alfine has a gear range of 409 %, which is also quite impressive. We find that to be more than sufficient for city commuting and maybe even some short tours, but still considerably less than the Rohloff. The Alfine gears are spaced at a somewhat evenly 13 % and 14 %, except between the first and second gear, where there is a 30 % jump. This is not really a big problem, but still something you notice.
In any case, for both IGHs, the generous gear range means that you have quite a bit of flexibility when choosing external cogs to get the gear ratio that best fits your riding style. You should however avoid combinations of external cogs that will bring the gear ratio too far down. A low external gear ratio can potentially produce elevated input torque to the IGH, particularly combined with a heavy rider or a loaded touring bike. If too much torque is produced you might risk damaging the internal parts of the IGH. We have read somewhere that the Rohloff has some sort of safety mechanism that protects the internal parts from too much torque. We do not believe the Alfine to have that same safeguard.
The Rohloff is rated for a maximum input torque of 130 nm. We havent found torque ratings explicitly mentioned in the documentation for the Alfine, but the authors of this blogpost reason that its probably capable of at least 50 nm, maybe even up to 100 nm. See Sheldown Browns gear calculator for more information on gearing ratios and Rodbikes for more information on gear ranges for the Rohloff and the Alfine.
Dirk Feeken has made available an interactive calculator that is very useful to figure out gear ratios and cog combinations. It even gives you a warning if the combination of cogs you have selected is likely to produce too much torque.
We be all year riders and need equipment that works flawlessly all through the year, regardless of weather and seasons. When it's cold, typically below -10 degrees Celsius, the Alfine sometimes wont downshift properly. When this happens the problem is usually the shifter cable and not the Alfine itself. Moisture and dirt can build up around the shifter cable, particularly in the areas where the cable exits the cable housing. This will cause friction that prevents the cable from moving freely. When this friction exceeds the tension applied by the spring loaded Alfine external mech, the gear wont change. Obviously this is only a problem when downshifting, as you are actually pulling the cable and not relying on the tension from the spring loaded external mech when upshifting. Although cumbersome, a workaround for this issue is to stop the bike and manually push the external mech downwards (clockwise) to change gears. Frequent replacement of the shifter cable and housing minimizes the chance of this problem happening. We find it good practice to change the cable and housing at least once a year.
On a few occasions, when the temperature is below -12 degrees Celsius, we have experienced problems downshifting, even with a fresh cable and housing that is moving without friction. In these cases we believe that the problem may be caused by the freezing temperatures that makes the oil approach its pour point and that it somehow prevents the inner parts of the Alfine from engaging properly. In our experience, a workaround for this problem is to upshift to the first gear and use that for a few minutes. After that, downshifting will work properly again, for a while.
Supposedly the fault tolerance of the Alfine is quite low and it doesnt take much to cause problems, for instance from micro debris or moisture that build up inside the hub. Read more about that, and much more, in this excellent article by Bruce Dance, John Allen and Aaron Goss.
As we don't use our Rohloffs during the winter, we don't know if this would also be a problem with the Rohloff. In any case it is good practice to store the bike in a dry place between rides to prevent moisture from building up around the shifting cable or inside the hub.
Although some opt to completely disassemble their Alfine from time to time, most of the maintenance on the Rohloff and Alfine is limited to changing the oil each once year. Oil service kits can be bought easily online and are not that expensive either, typically around 30 USD. The cables might need some servicing as well from time to time, particularly at the Alfine where the cable is exposed at the external mech. With the Rohloff the cable runs in its housing all the way, at least in our setups. The Rohloff has no easily accessible adjustment setting for the cable. The Alfine shifter has a barrel twister, similar to that of derailleur setups, that can be used for minor adjustments. We have to use this barrel shifter from time to time, to readjust the gearing.
We have had some issues with spokes snapping at both hubs. This does not happen often and should not be a big deal as these spokes may be easily replaced. For the Rohloff it could however be a problem if the spoke snaps on the left side of the flange where the rotor is. In that case you need to disassemble the external gear mech in order to remove the rotor. Pay close attention when disassembling, so you are able to easily refit the external gear mech in exactly the same position. This is not an issue with the Alfine, as the rotor is fitted completely outside the hub. We think this is better, as roadside repairs on tours are already chaotic enough..
There are many authorized dealers of Rohloff worldwide, but they still might be far between. This could be a problem when touring and something, however unlikely as it is, breaks. On the positive side, that sort of makes up for this, is that Rohloff and their dealership network are known to be super fast in sending replacement parts worldwide. In addition, the Rohloff is designed with roadside repairs in mind. As long as the hub itself is intact, you will most likely be able to get by with some help from a random local bikeshop. We are not quite sure about Shimanos policy and response times when it comes to spares and repair. But this is less important as the Alfine is much more mainstream than the Rohloff. As such, we expect that both spares and knowledge about the Alfine is widely available.
One big difference between the two hubs is that the Alfine, at least to our knowledge, cannot use quick release axles. It has to be fastened with regular mounting bolts. These bolts must be tightened quite hard to prevent the axle from spinning in the dropout. Remember that it is not the axle that should be spinning freely, but all the internal gears that revolve around it. According to the dealers manual for the Alfine, the bolts should be tightened to somewhere between 30 nm and 45 nm. We usually get by with 40 nm. You could probably get away with less, if you apply some Loctite or similar. In any case, the problem is to get those bolts undone with a small multitool. On the upside, if you are having a hard time getting the wheel of, so will any burglars out there fancying a new wheel. Do not use grease on the Alfine fastening bolts as it may prevent the threads from properly engaging.
The Rohloff may be used with either bolts or quick release axle, making mounting and dismounting a breeze for the latter.
The joint of the Rohloff, where the gearing cable attaches to the hub, is quite easy to both dismount and mount. It is however paramount that you leave the shifter in the 14th position before detaching the mechanism. Failure to do so may lead to misalignment of the shifter and the indexing of gears at the hub. The Alfine is a bit more tricky to dismount and mount, particularly in dim light conditions and with cold and wet fingers. But as with most other things, this also gets easier with experience. Nevertheless, you definitely do not want to experience a flat tire with the Afline. Fiddling with the gear mech is one thing, but quite another thing is to try to loosen the bolts roadside with a small multitool. Except from this, fixing a flat with Alfine or Rohloff, is just like any other bicycle wheel.
If you are interested in maintenance of Alfine hubs, you might also like our article about oil change and deep clean of the hub.
We paid about 550 USD for the Alfine hub, including wheel build and the fitting onto the bike with shifter and everything. The Rohloff cost us about 1 600 USD, everything included. Cost for parts and labour will of course vary across countries, but it seems like the Rohloff is usually three times more expensive than the Alfine.
Both the Alfine and the Rohloff are, in our opinion, magnificent IGHs. They are reliable, offer wide gear ranges, and help minimize time spent on maintenance. Our impression is that the Rohloff is the better option, much due to it seldom slipping on gears and the firm feeling of each gear. On the other hand, the Alfine is roughly 1/3 the price of the Rohloff. For commuting we find the Alfine more than adequate, but for touring we find Rohloff worth the extra money.
We have not discussed belts in this article. There are both pros and cons with these belts. We prefer to use belts for all year commuting, while we stick to chains for touring. This is simply due to the fact that if something breaks, chains are easy to get hold of, belts are not. There are a number of articles out there, that are discussing the use of belts.
Please send us an email if you have comments or questions to this article. We are more than happy to update it!
Experience and insights from other riders
⚠ 30.12.2022 ⚠
Pekka has been travelling in SE Asia with a Shimano Alfine 8-speed IGH for more than ten years and has some valuable insights on the availability of spare parts for the IGH. In agreement with Pekka, the email is shared in full below. Thanks for contributing to the community, Pekka!
In your article you presume that spare parts and know-how about the Shimano IGH is widely available in the world.
Unfortunately, this isn't so. I have been travelling in SE Asia with a Shimano Alfine 8-speed IGH for more than ten years, and very few shops have knowledge about, or spares for, these Shimano products.
So, I've gotten used to ordering spares (hub, shifter, rear chain sprocket, etc) from Europe.
However, due to some recent trade-related conflict concerning the export of Shimano products from Europe to SE Asia, this isn't possible anymore.
Instead, I usually buy them online from Germany and send them to my brother in Sweden, who in turn ships them over to me. It's much more expensive, but I haven't worked out a better solution yet.
For repairs, I have actually, by pure chance, found a guy in Ho Chi Minh City, Mr Van at "Saigon Bikeshop", who is a complete expert on everything bicycle, including Shimano IGH:s!
I suspect they can also service the Alfine-hubs in Singapore, but for the rest of the countries in the Mekhong-area I wouldn't put much hope in that.
Thank's for an interesting article, and looking forward to more material from you guys.
⚠ 09.08.2022 ⚠
Martyn Hazelhurst has written to us about his experience with spokes snapping at the nipple end and how to deal with the issue. For those of you building your own wheels, this is a really interesting read. In agreement with Martyn, the email is shared in full below. Thanks for contributing to the community, Martyn!
A great article on IGHs. I note your comment on spoke failures and would like to offer my own experience on how to prevent this.
When I bought my own (used) rohloff equipped bike, I suffered several snapped spokes at the nipple end in a short period of time, which prompted a little research about addressing this problem.
I'm a fairly well built guy, but on the other hand these hubs are designed to withstand tandem use, so I figured that there must be a problem with the way the wheel had been built.
It looked to me like the awkward angle at which the spokes entered the nipples and the nipples into the rim was contributing to the failures, because it certainly didn't look like a "natural" angle, nor were the majority of the spokes particularly tight.
Comparing the spoke lacing to Rohloff 's website revealed that my wheel had been built incorrectly as a three cross pattern with the lacing pattern reversed on the brake disc side, hence the numerous failures.
I had decided that I needed wider rims for my intended use of the bike, so I ordered a pair of Exal ML21s from Spa Cycles and calculated the spokes at 264mm for the correct cross 2 lacing pattern on a 36 hole rim of 601mm ERD.
As the Alfine hub is of a similar size with similar flange width and separation, it would make sense to build those wheels to a similar specification to the Rohloff using a cross 2 lacing pattern to reduce the spokes' rim entry angle.
The Alfine wheel in your article looks to be cross 3, which would likely explain the spoke failures you have experienced.
The 700c Exal rims were a bargain at £15 each, with their double eyelets and "French" hole pattern making them a good compromise between weight and strength.
Using the correct spec double butted Sapim race spokes and Rohloff's flange rings, I took the plunge and built the wheel myself, following Sheldon's excellent guide throughout.
Because of the wide separation of the hub flanges, I found Sapim's 14mm brass polyax nipples gave a much straighter entry line into the rim than did standard 12mm nipples, thus giving more confidence when fully tightening the spokes to the required high tension, indeed it should feel like you're actually stretching each spoke a little at the final tightening stages.
The French hole pattern ensures that the trailing spokes run up the inside of the flanges on both sides of the hub, which is Sheldon's stated preference. I also took great care to ensure that I de-stressed the spokes correctly during the build - a critical part of the process.
Fast forward 12 months and several thousand miles to report that the wheel is still nice and tight with not not a single spoke failure, nor has the rim gone out of true.
The point being made here is that fine attention to detail and sticking to recommended specifications is everything when building reliability into a Rohloff wheel, in particular the use of polyax type nipples to eliminate spoke fatigue at the nipple entry along with sufficient tension in the spokes are two critical factors.
Rohloff's website can be a little confusing, but Sheldon's guide made the process reasonably straightforward, and I would not hesitate to do another Rohloff build using the same method.
I hope this information is useful to someone.
Best regards Martyn H
⚠ 11.07.2022 ⚠
We have been so fortunate as to receive an email from Rob Cybak from Canada, where he shares his experience with long term use of the Alfine. This gives some really interesting insights, particularly for those considering belts and electronic versions of the system. In agreement with Rob, the email is shared in full below. Thanks for contributing to the community, Rob!
Great to read your article. I've been riding an Alfine 11 hub for 8 years now, and I think I have some pertinent information for you.
I first started off with the mechanical Alfine 11, which I put about 30,000 kms on. I ran a belt drive, and I only changed the chainring and rear sprocket once in that time. The belt did have some wear, which I would put at about 50%. One issue that kept coming up was the shift cable required at least a weekly adjustment, and new cable and housing about 4 times per year. I live in Vancouver, BC, Canada, so while our winters are fairly mild, we do deal with significant rainfall. I found that once the cable couldn't move perfectly freely, the shifting really suffered. Another issue I noticed was that in some of the gears, but especially gear 2, I get a fairly consistent clicking/snapping noise that isn't super loud, but definitely noticeable. I would sometimes get the same clicking in gears 5 and 7, but not nearly as bad.
Although my hub was still functioning very well, I was really wanting for my commuter bike to be far less maintenance than I was performing on the mechanical system, so I upgraded to the Di2 Alfine 11. I've since put over 25,000 kms on this system, and I have to say it has been totally worth the money. Electronics take the weakest part of the system, the cable, out of the picture, and I've never once had a misshift. The battery lasts a long time between charges, and it functions the same no matter the conditions. Although my hub was silent at first, it eventually developed the same noise in gear 2 that the mechanical hub did. I ended up getting a new internal mechanism on warranty from Shimano, but it too made the same noise.
I have all the tools to fully disassemble the internal mechanism, and I've been unsuccessful in finding a fault with the planetary gearing, or anything that might be causing the noise. In fact, with the internal mechanism out of the hub shell, and the shifting motor hooked up, the hub runs silent. This leads me to believe that the boat must be coming from the interface between the hub shell and the internal mechanism in that one gear. I'm imagining that the hub shell wears a bit over time, and perhaps there is some extra room in one spot where there never was before. It's likely due to the steep hills I ride on my daily commute, mainly in gear 2.
Anyway, hopefully this information is something you can use in the future.