Review: Shimano Alfine 11-speed drivetrain

Shimano Alfine group

By Eric McKeegan

I’ve always been interested in internally geared hubs, but other than servicing a random few in my shop days, I’ve had little riding time with them until we started Bicycle Times. Over the last year I’ve spent many of my commuting and utility miles on Shimano’s Alfine group.

Alfine (“Al-feen-eh,” not “All-fine”) is Shimano’s high end IGH (internally geared hub) group, a step above the Nexus 3-, 7-, and 8-speed hubs. The group consists of the rear hub, trigger shifter, front dynamo hub, hydraulic disc brakes, crankset with guard, and a chain tensioner for frames with no such provision.

I installed the complete group (minus the tensioner) on my regular commuter, a Steelwool Tweed all-rounder (reviewed in Dirt Rag #138). I laced up the wheels with a set of Sun-Ringle Equalizer rims and Wheelsmith spokes. Let’s talk about the support- ing cast before getting to the star of the show, the hub.

Cranks

The crank is a modern two-piece design using an external-bearing bottom bracket; it closely resembles some of Shimano’s road cranks, which I think are plenty good-looking. Chainring options are 39 or 45 teeth. I ran a 39 paired with a 20-tooth rear cog, which jives with Shimano’s recommend 1.9/1 gear ratio.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say most users don’t think too much about crank stiffness, but the few that do won’t have anything to complain about here. A 170mm length is the only option, a good middle ground and my preferred length, but very tall or short folks might need to look elsewhere. After a harsh winter on salty and wet roads, the bottom bracket bearings were starting to feel a little gritty, but not bad enough for me to replace them.

Brakes

I’ve got a lot of miles on mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes, and having a set on my commuter has been a very good thing. The Alfine brakes use mineral oil (as do all Shimano brakes) rather than the more common, and caustic, DOT fluid, a pleasant change for home mechanics.

The brakes provided plenty of power for one-finger stops. That power was very easy to modulate, and behaved the same regardless of road conditions. They were oh-so-quiet, wet, dry or frozen.

Front Hub

This is my first experience with dynamo hubs, and I’m pretty taken with the idea of never worrying about battery charge. The hub does create a small but noticeable amount of drag when the light’s on, but it was a tradeoff I was willing to deal with.

I used Shimano’s LP-R600 light head, which uses a switchable halogen lamp combined with an LED always-on running light. The halogen was surprisingly bright, but the light pattern was one of the worst I’ve seen in recent years—lots of dark spots and weird circles. It was functional, but I’m pretty spoiled by modern, high-end LED headlights. The little LED lamp was a nice touch, but if I wasn’t moving there wasn’t any light. There are plenty of other lights on the market that will work fine with this hub.

Rear Hub and Shifter

The 11-speed hub doesn’t look much different from the 8-speed version; the Center-Lock disc mount remains the same, and 32 or 36 are still the options for spoke drillings. Other than that, most things have changed.

The gearing options for IGH can get pretty complicated—you might want to skip this paragraph if you never think about gear inches or ratios. The hub itself has a range of 409% (vs. the 307% for Alfine 8), and this, combined with the wheel size, cog, and chainring, gives the true gearing range. My 39×20-tooth combo and 700x32mm tires result in a nicely spaced range from 27.7 to 113.4 gear inches, which gives one lower and one higher gear than standard compact road gearing. This was perfect for my commuting and general mucking about, even on somewhat rough trails. If I were setting this bike up for more touring or off-road use, I’d lower my gear ratio, maybe go with a 39×22-tooth combo. Honestly, I see no reason to go higher; at the speeds needed to make those big gears worth it, I’d rather be riding a bike with a lighter and more efficient derailleur drivetrain.

If the preceding paragraph didn’t make sense to you, I’ll try to translate it into non-geek speak. The 11-speed hub has a ton of range, but the stock gearing on some bikes might be too hard for less sporty or more tour-y riders. A simple cog or chainring swap should get most people a gearing range that works for them.

Removing the wheel is easier now, with a finger tab that helps to rotate the shifting ring on the rear hub to allow the cable to be pulled out—a big improvement over the finicky system on the 8-speed that needs a small hex key. This may seem like a minor thing, but it shows Shimano is paying attention.

The shifting action is standard: the thumb lever gets you easier gears, the trigger gets you harder ones, and you can shift two gears at a time in either direction. Alfine 8 was set up reversed from this standard, which created some problems for me when switching bikes. The shifter also gets the dual-release treatment, meaning the upshift trigger can be pushed with the thumb or pulled with the forefinger, something I’ve really come to like from riding mountain bikes. No drop-bar shifter option from Shimano yet, but hopefully we’ll see one soon.

Finally, let’s talk about how it rides. In the big picture of things, I like it. Being able to shift while stopped or moving is great for city riding, and there is plenty of range to get up and down steep hills, although I am admittedly on the fitter side of average. My only com- plaint is finicky: at various times shifting could be noisy or slow, but a reading of the included instructions revealed this to be an inherent trait of the hub. The only time the hub completely refused to shift was trying to shift to a harder gear while pushing hard climbing up hills. Sometimes I pulled the lever a few times and the hub wouldn’t shift until I backed off the power, although sometimes it shifted fine under these conditions

The shifting improved the more I rode, perhaps due to a combina- tion of technique, the hub breaking in, and a new cable. What started out as a pretty large issue for me turned into a minor annoyance, but this set-up never reached the shifting performance of a well-tuned derailleur drivetrain.

In the easiest gears there is a “soft” feel to the pedals, almost as if the hub transferred power through an elastomer. This is mostly due to the roller clutch freewheel system in the hub, which is completely silent.

All those gears shoved inside make for a heavy hub—1590 grams in total, which is actually a little lighter than the 8-speed version. I never noticed it much unless I was coming off a lighter road bike, or had the wheel out to change a flat; it wasn’t an issue while riding.

Conclusions

The Alfine hub has many advantages over a traditional derailleur drivetrain, although it also has its share of drawbacks. I’m pretty stoked on it as a drivetrain for what comprises probably 75% of my cycling miles—commuting and general riding around, be it out for drinks with friends, messing around on non-technical trails in local parks, or even some light touring. I’m not giving up my derailleur on performance-oriented bikes, but that is fine; it’s not like every ride needs to be a Tour de France stage or X-treme singletrack.

 

 
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