Too many of my mountain bike rides this later summer and fall ended with frustration and a walk. I had lots of tire issues, but those are almost always fixable, the real problem was broken drive trains. Our trails are in the Shawnee National Forest are plentiful. The re are so many trails that there is no way to keep them clean and in good shape. Limbs and sticks fall faster then you could pick them up. I’ve broken 2 derailleur hangers and 2 derailleur’s this year and I’m getting tired of waiting for a stick to end my ride.
A majority of riders have converted to single speed bikes and a couple of my riding associates have even went with the Rholoff internal geared hub, which is a marvel of technology and costs more then I’m willing to pay for a complete bike. Sometime ago I read about the Shimano Alfine, a 8 speed internal geared hub that is designed for commuter bikes. Apparently Shimano’s internal hubs are tough enough for trail riding as several users would attest to online. The best part, The Alfine costs about 300 dollars and a Rholoff costs about 1500.
This year I decided to go for it and convert. While cruising ebay I found a good deal on a wheelset built with an Alfine, along with the shifter, tires and brake rotors. It was the deal I’d been wating for. Luke’s old GT Peacer single speed made the perfect test bed machine and in no time I had the wheel installed.
Yesterday was my first actual mountain bike ride with the internal gear hub, and I’m happy to report it was successful. So lets get down to basics first, the Alfine gives you a range of gearing that is about like a 32 tooth chain ring paired with a 36×10 cassette, something that doesn’t exist. It uses a rapid fire style shifter as the only option, and has a mount for a centerlock disc brake rotor. It gives you a range of gear ratios with all the advantages of a single speed.
What are the advantages of a single speed? No derailleur to get hung up and broke off, a straight chain line, no slapping chain, no chain falling off, and no chain suck. Now Single Speed apostles will tell you that the true benefit of a single speed chain is that it forces you to focus on riding the bike and push yourself to make the climbs instead of gearing down and spinning up resulting in you becoming a stronger rider. This is probably true, but I like gears.
So how did it work? Several of the issues I read about and feared are not issues. It shifts under power just fine, now you can’t be putting out 500 watts on a near vertical climb and shift like I can on the rear with my derailleur bikes, so you got to plan ahead a bit which I should be doing anyway. Another issue I was concerned about was that the shifter only allows one gear to be changed per click. This turned out to be no real issue. You can rapid fire click through the gears and the bike shifts no problem.
One problem I didn’t expect is that the shifter is wired backwards to a standard Rapid Fire shifter. The top button releases cable which lowers a gear while the bigger bottom paddle pulls up cable and raises a gear. That caused me some problems early in the ride, 10 years of muscle memory is hard to break, but by the end of the ride I was shifting flawlessly.
Another issue is the gear spacing, there is a big jump between gear 1 and gear 2 and according to gearcalculator.com I’m used to a gear being right between there on my typical 9 speed cassettes. Using a 32×18 on the alfine I couldn’t help but think it was a bit on the high side for mountain biking, but the trails were soft from recent rain.
The final issue to note is weight, the rear wheel with tire, tube, and brake rotor weighed in around 8 pounds, and the complete bike was weighing in around 31 about 4 pounds heavier then when it was a single speed. My old full suspension bikes weighed more than this and I managed to ride around fine on them. I can’t say that the bike feels light, but I don’t think the hub is the real root of the problem. The tires are heavy and have slime tubes adding even more weight, and the frame is a heavy steel as well. Honestly though it may be worth carrying a bit extra weight in tubes and tires to avoid flats, and it’ll be far easier to take weight off my body then trying to cut weight from the GT Peace.
So how did it ride? On the maiden voyage we rode a mix of trails that were a bit damp all the way to some deep Belgian style mud holes. The gear range treated me well, and I was often able to spin a nice cadence. Compared to my single speed buddies the bike really shined in the mud. They were grunting and getting bogged down and I just geared down and chewed through. In these kinds of situations on my derailleur bike I would have been dealing with tons of chain suck as the mud gummed up my drive train and eventually the chain would jam up and shut me down. I’ve got to give the tires some credit as well, the Kenda Klaw XTs that came with these wheels are a true trail tire, heavy with big knobs and great at digging through the mud.
I quickly realized that being limited to one shift at a time on the Alfine was not an issue because the large jumps in ratio meant usually one gear change was all I needed. I never had one bad shift all day, I never tried to shift under crazy power though. The only problem I had all day was my chain falling off, which was due to my wheel sliding a bit forward in the horizontal drops. Mark loaned me his 15mm wrench and I was able to tightening in few minutes.
The last half mile or so to the truck is a gradual climb, typically this is where the race commences. Eli said that if got past the creek the climb was his and I hoped to challenge him. I have a great deal of trouble with this climb and often can’t hold the other rider’s wheel through here. Eli pulled away from me but I was keeping him close and telling myself that I was just biding my time. I kept telling myself that when I could no longer see him. About half way up he stopped to let me catch up. He dropped the hammer a second time once I caught him and I held his wheel for a few minutes but my lungs and legs were screaming for me to drop a gear. When I did Eli just rode away from me. I dropped to the granny and spun my way up the hill as Eli then Joe rode out of sight.
So would I take the Alfine on an uphill race, probably not, though I doubt I would have fared better on any bike. There is no doubt that a light bike just feels… lighter, springier, quicker, The thing is its way more fun to ride a slightly heavier bike up the hills than to push a lighter bike with a broken derailleur back to the trail head.