From the workshop: a laymans view on Shimano Alfine 11 and Rohloff SPEEDHUB 500/14
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
This is another article in our article series: "From the workshop". In these series we write brief notes on bicycle maintenance, ranging from wiring of dynamos to basic service of internal gear hubs. These articles will sometimes deal with the most obvious of maintenance tasks, but still we find them useful as reminders for our future selves, and perhaps also for some of you other amateur mechanics out there..
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.
Our writings here be based on about 29.000 kilometers with the Rohloff and about 22.000 kilometers with the Alfine, over the course of some four 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.
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 with 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 17 % and 18 %, 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 the number of teeth on your front cog. Keep in mind that both the Rohloff and Alfine operate with minimum sprocket ratios in order to limit the torque applied to the hub. Although we havent tested otherwise, its probably a good idea to stay within these minimum ratios. Consult the dealer manuals for details. 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.
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 celsius, the Alfine sometimes wont change gear. We are not quite sure exactly why this happens. It doesn't seem to be related to the cable itself, as the external mech is clearly moving, so we expect it to be something in the inner workings of the IGH. It could perhaps be that the cold makes the grease too sticky and that it somehow prevents the pawls from fully extending. Supposedly the fault tolerance of the Alfine is quite low and it doesnt take much to cause problems, for instance micro debris 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 building up inside the shifting cable or at the external mech joint where the cable exits.
Although some opt to completely disassemble their Alfine from time to time, for most 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 part of the Rohloff. Needless to say, pay close attention when disassembling, so you can easily reassemble the parts. 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 gear arm from moving. We found is necessary to tighten up to 45 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. Without loosening the bolts, the wheel will not come off and it will be impossible to change tube or tire. On the upside, if you are having a hard time getting the wheel of, so will any burglars out there fancying a new wheel. 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.
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 a wide gear ratio, 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 gir. 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!