MTB Review: 2011 Shimano Alfine 11 Internal Gear Hub

I’m fortunate. I have a girlfriend who not only shares my passion for biking in general, but she also loves mountain biking. Susanita brings a different perspective to my normal male-dominated “must go as fast or as long as possible” perspective. I enjoy riding with her because it’s not about competition, it’s about enjoying the ride as much as possible.

With that in mind, comfort and convenience are important. Susanita rides a Specialized Safire full suspension bike that I bought her for Christmas two years ago and I noticed that on normal singletrack rides she rarely leaves the granny ring. She mentioned that “it’s a pain to have to shift to the middle ring to go down hill only to need to shift to the granny ring going up” and that she hates starting out in the wrong gear.

I’ve been riding a long long time and my first reaction was to explain that a. it really isnt that hard to shift from the middle ring to the small ring and back and b. you need to anticipate and select the proper gear before you stop. But does it really have to be this way?

When I told her about the Rohloff hub she got excited about it for a few reasons that we all already know about. No front shifting, shift to the perfect starter gear from a stop, and less maintenance to deal with. The added of weight wasn’t a deal breaker but the cost seemed ridiculous. $1,400 to try it out? No WAY!

Enter the Alfine 11: about half the cost of the Rohloff and lighter weight. The Alfines 409% gear range basically covers all the gears in the granny and middle rings. She NEVER even had the bike in the big ring and rarely in the middle ring so it seemed like a good match.

Initially I had some trouble digging up the equivalent gear ratios to her current setup but I eventually stumbled on this chart which allowed me to calculate the chain ring/cog combo that would give her close to her existing ratio (22/32 with a 11-34 cassette). Originally I wanted to use a single speed 32T crankset with a 23T rear cog. The problem is the Alfine and Paul tensioners have a max cog size of 20T. This forced me to rely on using the small ring and eliminated the possibility of using a single speed 32T crankset. Sigh.

After doing a little research I figured that we could use her existing cranks, replace the 22T granny ring with a 26T, use a 20T on the hub (16T to 23T are available), and use the Alfine rear tensioner. In the process I could remove the front and rear x9 derailleur and shifters, middle and large chain rings, and replace the middle ring with a 32T bash ring. I talked to her about the plan and the project got the green light. I ordered all the parts, weighed her bike (26lb 2oz) and waited for the parts to arrive.

The first part to arrive was the Alfine tensioner. I wasnt impressed at all. The tensioner was well built but heavy at 216g. I did a little more research and decided that the 90g Paul tensioner would work just as well and would give back some of the weight. When the Paul arrived I was impressed. Excellent workmanship and very light.

After the hub arrived I started to plan the wheel build. The goal was to shave as much weight as possible in order to make up for the boat anchor weight of the Alfine. If you pick up the hub by itself it is almost impossible to think you can remove enough bike parts to come even close to the weight of this hub. Because I love Stans NoTubes products I decided to build the wheel with the Stans Crest 26in rim with DT double butted spokes. The wheel build was uneventful, basically lacing the wheel three cross.

Next, after waiting an additional two weeks for the Alfine small parts kit we started converting the bike to work with the Alfine. We stripped off the rear derailleur, fitted the cables to the frame and got everything lined up and adjusted correctly. The instructions were flawless (I wont go into the details) and the hub shifted perfectly straight out of the box. The only minor snag was that installing the cog on the hub was challenging because the snap ring was so tight.
Next we installed the Paul tensioner. It was obvious right away that the Paul tensioner was not going to line up with the Alfine cog even at full adjustment. Fortunately it was fairly easy to add a spacer to the derailleur cage to provide the additional 1/8 inch of adjustment we needed. After that the Paul tensioner lined up perfectly.

We decided to give the hub a try with the chain on the 32T middle ring before messing with the front chain rings or derailleur. I wasnt positive that my gear calculations were correct so we decided to let Susanita give the bike a try. We also weighed the bike. The bike now weighed 27lb, 12oz. and I was scared. That was a lot of extra weight.

The following day we headed out to the single track at Schaeffer farms in Germantown, MD. Susanita could tell immediately that the gear range was 2-3 gears too hard. This basically confirmed that my calculations were correct and that the 26T ring would be just about perfect. Secretly I had hoped that she would be OK with the 32T ring because there are a lot of sweet and light 32T single speed cranksets out there that would look really nice on her bike. Oh well.

The next weekend I decided to tackle the front rings and derailleur. I had a spare 26T small ring in my parts bin so I installed the 26T ring and removed the big and middle rings, front derailleur, and shifter. All of these parts together totalled 1lb 1oz. I was a little worried about the chain jumping off the front ring without a derailleur to keep it there but was willing to go for a ride to see if that would happen.

So we headed out to the trails for the second trial. We rode for about an hour and a half over rocks and roots and the Alfine performed flawlessly – the chain never jumped off the front ring. Numerous times Susanita used the shift-while-stopped feature and was happily spinning wildly in 1st gear up some rooty climbs. Before the Alfine she would run out of gears in the granny ring; now she still had 3-4 gears to go with the Alfine. It was obvious the bike was heavier in the back but Susanita commented that the front end felt lighter and it seemed easier to pull the bike over things. Overall she was very happy.

The crank was looking very franken-crank-ish with no big or middle ring. To fix that I ordered a Race Face lightweight bash guard in blue which added another 65g to the total weight and matched the other blue anodized parts on her bike. The final bike weight came in at 26lb 13oz which is just 11oz over the original weight. I was pleasantly surprised that this was less than the weight of her tool bag. I’m pretty confident we could get the bike back to the original weight if we forked out the cash for a Middleburn crank with a 27T ring. Well see.

With about ten rides on the bike with the new hub, Susanita is very pleased with the results. There are only a few negatives that we see so far. The first is how the rear wheel mounts to the frame – there’s no quick release. Instead there are two huge (I mean heavy) shiny nuts on the back that need to be cranked down. These are bad because they are heavy (already looking to a titanium replacement) and also because we need to carry an extra tool to get them off in the event of a flat.

The second negative is that the hub complains when shifted under a heavy load. It shifts, but it gives you the same “it-is-going-to-break” snap that happens when you shift a conventional drive train under a heavy load. The difference is that I have no idea what is going on inside the can and I’m not sure whether the hub is going to explode. The bottom line is it’s important to ease up on every shift to save the expensive bits.

I anticipate that in the future Susanita will get stronger and may outgrow the 26T/20T combo. This should be no problem. Cogs range from 16T to 23T or we can upgrade the small chainring up to 28T. I am sure that there will always be a gear ratio for her. Best of all, the Alfine brings a smile to her face and ensures that she will keep riding with me for many many miles to come!

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