Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alfine 11 - Short Term Review

I have put some solid time in on the Alfine 11 gear.  The only that I can't really comment on would be the long term durability, but I will definitely follow up on that if there are any problems.  What follows are my impressions of my Shimano Alfine 11 set up with a Gates Carbon Drive 50 tooth/24 tooth centertrack belt drive.

Initial Impressions

In a few words...I'd call it "not good".  This stuff is really expensive.  It trickled in to distributors in bits and bobs.  There was little to no information on the Shimano North America  Website.  Nobody knew anything about it.  I had to go to a separate distributor to get the mandatory parts kit (why wouldn't it come with all the parts that you need?) and even that didn't come with all the parts I needed (proper no-turn washers).  Much of this will go away over the next few months, but I wasn't left with a great impression.

As well, the actual parts weren't that impressive.  The hub showed up in a box that had soaked in it's own juices...which left me wondering about the hub seals.  And the shifter was nowhere near the quality that the price implied.  It feels especially terrible when you shift it while it is uninstalled.  Still...I wasn't about to send it back.

Wheel Building/Assembly

This is only the 2nd wheel that I've ever built and it didn't seem to be any more difficult than a normal wheel.  But there are a few strange points.  First, the wheel would only spin one way in my truing stand.  Perhaps this was just because of the plastic spacer that held all the seals in place?  I didn't try it with the spacer removed...which just sort of came to me now.  But when spun the wrong way, the hub would back itself out of the truing stand.

Next, you should try to line up the oil fill port with a gap in the spokes.  I missed it by one spoke but it wasn't super obvious until I had the wheel completely laced.  I'm sure this will be easier for somebody with wheelbuilding experience but it wasn't for me.

Once you have the wheel built, the cog is a giant pain-in-the-ass to get on.  It's held in place by a dinky little split washer that is tough to get on and tough to get off.  Throw in the Gates Carbon Drive rear cog, which seeems to be a bit thicker, and it's even harder.  This just does not seem like a great way to hold a cog in place.  As well, the Nexus/Alfine system only engages three little indents.  I don't foresee durability problems, but it doesn't exactly fill me with confidence either.

Next, you have the no-turn washers.  Not only do you have to buy an aftermarket parts kit to make this also have to buy separate no-turn washers if you have anything other than a vertical dropout set-up (these no-turns come in the parts kit).  And then if you want to install chain tugs, you have another problem.  I was lucky enough to have access to a machinist at work, who was nice enough to cut some threads in to the no-turn washer to allow me to use it as my chain tug.  Why couldn't Shimano have thought of that?

The shifter comes with about a mile of cable/housing.  It has a fixed metal ferrule on the hub side, so you have to completely unthread the cable in order to shorten the housing from the shifter side.  There's a rubber boot on the hub end of the cable that I could not thread my cable back through.  So I just left it off.

The final issue is bike specific.  But there isn't much clearance back there.  The arm with the cable stop on it digs into my chainstay.  And the cable comes very, very close to rubbing on the Gates Carbon Drive cog.  In fact, when I first installed it, it did rub.  I had to pull it off and flip it around to it's lower-profile position.  This removes some of your ability to play with chainline.  You'll have to make all of your adjustments at the crank.  You can see in the below photos just how close that cable is to the cog.

Disc set-up is relatively painless.  I've avoided the shimano splined disc system as I'm not found of the restrictions and overly expensive replacement discs.  But there's no option with Alfine.  It's actually pretty slick.  I probably wouldn't use it if I didn't have to, but I'm no longer going to completely avoid it.

Once everything is mounted and located properly, cable set-up is a breeze.  Shift the shifter to the #6 spot (which is nicely marked on the shifter) and adjust your cable tension until the two yellow marks line up.  So simple.

Most people are probably buying this gear already installed on a bicycle, but for anybody that isn't, be prepared for some installation hassles.  I've assembled dozens and dozens of bicycles from the ground up and this is easily the most I've ever monkeyed around.

Riding Performance

I've never ridden with an internally geared hub before and I'd imagine some of these benefits aren't specific to the Alfine 11.  How does the thing actually ride.  Well, even with some dramatic flaws, it's still pretty amazing.  I didn't really realize how amazing until I rode my standard derailleured mountain bike after a few weeks of only riding the City Bike...but more on that later.

First, this thing is nearly soundless.  Couple it with the Gates Carbon Drive and it is a remarkably silent ride.  With fenders on, there's some slight clacking, but other than that you cannot here this bike.  There's some minor clicking when you backpedal the hub, but nothing while coasting.  Totally silent.

I'll talk a bit here about gear ratios.  As I mentioned above, I'm running a 50 tooth ring and a 24 tooth cog.  24 is the only Nexus/Alfine size offereed by Gates.  I thought the 50 tooth might be too small, but the next largest one is 55.  Shimano doesn't recommend using a ratio lower than 1.9.  For what it's worth, this 50/24 set-up is just about perfect for a 700c commuter bike.  I spend the majority of my time in the 6-7-8 slots.  Steep hills can generally be done in the 2-3 slot.  And I've yet to spin it out in the 11 slot.  However...I haven't used a front derailleur in 7-8 years, so I'm not really all that used to pedalling quickly down paved hills.

On to the shifting.  Shifts are pretty much instantaneous, with some serious qualifications.  Normal operation will see the shift happen as soon as you hit your shift lever.  Under load, things change.  Downshifting under load is generally pretty good.  I've gotten a few strange metallic grinding noises, but nothing too bad.  Upshifting under load is a different story.  If you're used to a derailleur set-up, you may have to re-think how you ride.  A bit.  Not much.

"How so?" you say.  Well, think about how you normally shift your bike.  When I shift (I'm talking about rear derailleur, I don't ride with front derailleurs any more) I slightly ease up on my pedal stroke as the chain moves through the cogs.  This is something I don't even think about.  This is something that new cyclists find really difficult to grasp.  This is something that is hard to explain in words.  But you probably know what I'm talking about.  If you use this technique with the Alfine set-up, sometimes it will shift, sometimes it won't.  It seems worst in the 5-6-7 slot.  Better everywhere else.  But upshifting around that range requires you to almost completely back off your pedal stroke.  Once you get used to it, you can actually shift the lever, keep pedalling, and then complete the shift a half block later when you decide that it's the right time.  It's very strange.  Once you get used to it and anticipate it, it's not so bad.  It would be better if it acted the same way across the whole range.

The shifter itself feels a lot better once it is on the bike.  It's still not great and for such an expensive shifter I would expect it to feel much nicer than this.  The wholesale cost rivals XT, but the lever feel isn't close.  As well...Why didn't they just make it Alfine 10 and let you use whatever Shimano shifter you'd like?  I'm sure they could have figured out a way to make the cable pull of the two systems line up.

Other than that, there are a few other quirks.  Sometimes, as you push the bike, you'll get about a half a crank stroke worth of pedal forward.  And then it will stop.  As well, when you pedal the bike on a workstand, it's obvious that there is some drag in the system.  But it certainly isn't noticeable while riding.  I've hopped back and forth between this bike and my road bike and I don't really notice any differences in efficiency.  There probably are some, but they aren't noticeable.

My final note is that the hub seems to weep a bit.  There's sometimes a few drips of oil sitting under the bike when I grab it in the morning.  I started parking it with the oil port facing up, but I think the oil is weeping through the seals.  It's not horrendous, but it's not great.  It's disappointing.

Final Thoughts

So, I read through this and I think "what a piece of crap".  But if you were to ask me in person what I think of this hub I would tell you that it's pretty great.  I'm having a hard time reconciling this discrepancy.  The only thing that I can think is that the functionality of this internal gear hub is pretty amazing.  There's some serious flaws to this system but there is nothing that dramatically detracts from it's everyday use.  If you can fight through the set-up headaches and get used to the riding quirks, you're going to be very happy with this hub.

While I was building this bike, I often thought that it would be pretty bad-ass to build up a mountain bike with this same set-up.  After riding it for a while on the streets, I'm not sure if I'm still as excited about this potential project.  The shifting hesitation in the mid-range might be too much to overcome.  I can't imagine riding a technical North Shore trail and having to think that hard about shifting my bike.  The silence and simplicity would be very appealing...but it is a project that might have to wait.

Update - July 24, 2012
I bought a Rohloff Service Kit and the proper Shimano oil and I'm finally going to service this hub.  This lady has insane details on this process on her recumbent.  Worth checking out if you are going to service.  I still haven't decided if I will use the Rohloff cleaner and oil that came with my kit (that was 1/2 the price of the Shimano kit that doesn't include oil).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

City Bike Prototype is Complete

This has been the most difficult bike build that I've ever done. The first ever Lumberjack was easier than this. I guess that's why you prototype.

I'm very happy with how this turned out. Not ecstatic. But very happy, and all the little nitpicks that make me less than ecstatic will be hammered out in the production version. The big things are there. I'm happy with the concept. I'm happy with the general arrangement. I'm happy with the colours. I'm extremely happy with how it rides. But the production bike will need to be cleaner. Better cable routing. Sliding dropouts. Etc. Just a bit better.

I'll also follow up with some impressions of some of the gear on this bike. Brooks saddle and grips. Alfine 11. Gates Carbon Drive. North Road style handlebar. Etc. Anyhow, take a look at the photos.
Here is a photo of the rolling chassis. I was super excited at this point as the bike was so clean. I think I can recapture most of this with some better cable routing. Internal? Maybe.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Custom Bike Building


Slate has a story about custom building your own bicycle. I often thought that this might be a direction that I would head in...custom building customer bikes. It's so hard to get the right accounts set up in Canada though. Much easier in the US.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bixi is in Trouble!

The Montreal Bixi system is so fantastic. I've also used a similar system in Paris, but the bikes were nowhere near as good as in Montreal. The Bixi takes away so many excuses to not ride a bike. It's cheap. You don't have to worry about your bike getting stolen. You don't have to worry about maintenance.

My only worry about a similar system coming to Vancouver is:
- You'd have a hard time keeping a stock of them at the top of hills
- The rain might make things difficult
- Our helmet laws make it difficult to hop on/hop off

Hopefully financial problems in Montreal don't derail the whole thing. And hopefully Vancouver is smart enough to purchase designs already in place in Montreal.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Race Face RIP

I was hoping there'd be some more news up today before I commented on this. But there isn't. So prepare to get weepy. For me to get weepy. Probably not you.

I remember the first time I ever layed eyes on a Race Face component. It must have been 1993 or therabouts. I was young and impressionable and I somehow found myself hanging out with my friends older brother and his good friend, Chris Sheppard. Chris was a Kamloops XC god at the time and to find myself hanging out with him at a bike shop, looking at new parts was kind of surreal. I remember standing around with him, looking at these new cranks. He was blown away by them and it became another one of those things that I just never imagined would be on my bike.

The first Race Face part I ever owned was a pair of Gold Turbine LP cranks. We had ridden our bikes downtown from UBC and we got about halfway there and my crankarm fell off. I had an 8mm so I screwed it back on and then it fell off again. Sugino square taper cranks weren't made for the North Shore.

We rolled in to Simons and I started trying to figure out how to make a new set of cranks work on my tight budget. I asked Simon if he had any cranks and he showed me a set of gold Race Face Turbine LP's that he had pulled off a bike that the new owner didn't want. I had a brown Rocky Mountain Equipe at the time. The prospect of throwing a set of gold Race Face LP's on there just blew my mind. "One hundred and twenty-five dollars." I gave him the money before he could change his mind. I think those cranks are still rolling strong on my old Stiffee that I sold to my friend Dan. I miss those cranks.

97/98 rolled around and I had to explain why I had nothing but Race Face parts on my bike when I started my co-op job at Syncros. Man, those guys just did not get it. Here we were, at the epicenter of the mountain biking universe of the moment and they just couldn't see it going on. They sponsored XC teams. They were totally isolated from other bike companies in the city. They laughed when I suggested flowing some parts to some of those crazy, upstart "freeriders" that were all around them. They were bankrupt 8 months after my Co-op term ended.

But that was just the craziest time in Vancouver for biking. Every week there was some new trail. Some new stunt. The energy on each mountain was thick. Vancouver was making the bikes that mattered, the parts that mattered, the trails that mattered, the riders that mattered. Everything. And then it slowly began to fall apart.

Syncros. Gone. Dekerf. Not really relevant in the era of full suspension. Brodie. Cheapened. Rocky Mountain. Let's not talk about that. Race Face. Race Face was still there.

My only bad memory of Race Face was applying for an engineering job there a few years after that. My friend was marketing manager there at the time and it just seemed perfect for me. I've never approached something so confidently. I sent him my resume and cover letter. I started drawing up ideas for the interview. I learned 3d modelling in my spare time. It just seemed totally inconceivable that I wouldn't get that job. And I didn't even get an interview.

A few years after that, I was building my first hardtail and I needed parts for it. I dropped Race Face a line and one of the marketing guys helped me out. Diabolus had just come out and there was no real middle ground between the XC stuff and Diabolus. I ended up with the heaviest hardtail you could ever imagine (Marzocchi 66...Diabolus...insanely heavy Syncros wheels). I still have all of the Diabolus stuff running somewhere on one bike or another.

A few years after that, I'd gone in to production on the Rented Mule. I got an e-mail out of the blue from one of the Race Face Sales guys with an OEM price list and an invitation to start ordering parts. Jesus Christ did that ever help me out. It knocked a couple hundred bucks off each part and bailed me out of a few last minute parts problems. I really did start to plan all of my parts builds outwards from the Race Face parts. Yes, the headsets weren't all that great. The seatposts were a bit awkward (shit...that reminds me...I have a broken one that I was going to try to warranty) and the chainguides were a bit ugly. But the cranks, stems and handlebars were all a rock solid start to a well spec'd bike.

I completed my last Race Face order two weeks ago. I received the parts last Wednesday. I was e-mailing the sales guys on Thursday looking for a couple of bolts that I couldn't find. He was going to throw them in an envelope for me until I found them an hour later. It couldn't have been more than an hour after that conversation that it all got shut down. It just seemed so baffling to me. I honestly looked at my watch to see if it was April 1st when I saw the announcement. It was inconceivable. Just like not getting an interview for that Engineering job.

Nobody seems to know what went wrong at this point and time. Everybody had an opinion. My only comment was that as I looked through their last price list, I couldn't believe how much shit there was. So many crank options. Bar options. Colours. Grips. Chainrings. Stems. Some of it at prices that I couldn't imagine. But so, so much overlap. Perhaps that's the way you have to do things in this day and age but it took me an hour to sort through everything and make sure I had all my numbers right, just to order a couple of cranks, a chainring, some grips and a few other miscellaneous parts.

Vancouver has slowly lost it's position as the place to be for mountain biking. Trails are disappearing. Companies are disappearing. We exploded on to the scene and now we're left with Norco and a few small little companies here and there. I was a teenager when it first started to blow up. Everything seems pretty awesome when you're that age. Whatever it is, this Race Face thing depresses the hell out of me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ask Nick

I'm getting pretty fed up with the state of Mountain Bike websites these days. I stumbled across this series on Velonews and we need something like this for mountain bikes.

It's all about road bikes, but the insight from a professional mechanic is very intersting and worth checking out.