Being a rider who [edit 28/7/10] used to change gear using the old fashioned method (derailleur), I have had a fascination for some time with hub gears. Partly because I don’t have a bike so equipped, partly because I like the idea of over built German engineering, and partly because I also appreciate the fact that they provide a superior solution to the problem of ratio-shifting, I have a keen interest in the subject. And, let’s face it, it is a market place currently dominated by one player – the default manufacturer of high-end hub gears – Rohloff.
The attractions of hub gears, especially to high mileage riders, are manifest. Firstly, the chain does not have to flex and shift in a lateral plane. Therefore the links are less stressed, and the chain lasts longer (in theory). Secondly, the concept of indexing, whereby a derailleur has to get the chain to line up exactly on the relevant cog, is still prone to problems from such inevitables as cable stretch and minor knocks. Thirdly, as anybody who has cleaned the jockey wheels, derailleur body, and cassette of a muddy bike knows, it is a very fiddly job because these parts all attract grime, dirt and grit which then wages a war of attrition on the parts.
A hub gear, in simple terms, solves these problems. It keeps all the complicated mechanicals within a sealed hub. The chain does not move laterally. A periodic oil change generally keeps things moving sweetly. Sure, oil seals can leak, and there are no user-serviceable parts inside the hub. But, as Rohloff’s marketing people are keen to tell us, they don’t know the service life of a hub, because they have never had one fail completely. Just look at the riders who have ridden around the world – they all have a Rohloff on their bike.
So, as I might remark were I a New Yorker, what’s not to like? Well, as I mentioned earlier, cost is the answer. The Rohloff hub, without a wheel built around it, is over £600. Built into a bike, we are looking at £1700 plus. It’s a very considerable investment and one which demands commitment, the likes of which my cycling buddy and northern correspondent, Mark, has made.
It’s fair to say that, based on an unassailable reputation for quality and some clever marketing, Rohloff have become THE high end choice for bicycle gears. But there’s a cloud on their horizon, and it’s moving slowly but surely from Japan.
Shimano have had hub gears – the Nexus and the Alfine – available for some time. The Alfine is an eight-speed hub gear, and has traditionally been associated with commuter and hybrid bikes. It has always been seen as a competent but not especially earth-shattering component. Until now, perhaps……
In September this year, Shimano releases the new Alfine hub gear, an 11-speed model that looks set to threaten the mighty Rohloff. Priced at around the £350 mark (half the price of the Rohloff Speedhub), this is clearly aimed at the higher end of the market. Shimano claims that the new design of the cogs, helical as opposed to straight, means that a smooth and seamless shift can be expected. The range, whilst still three gear ratios short of the Rohloff, should be suitable for most conditions and should also match most derailleur offerings for flexibility.
The thought of a Thorn Raven with disc brakes and an Alfine hub is really quite an enticing one!
So; will we see bike makers like Thorn, Koga, Santos et al offering their Traditional Touring Bikes with a new transmission option? Let’s see what happens!