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).