Table of Contents
- What are the advantages of internal gear hubs?
- The Shimano Alfine IGH
- Shimano Alfine 8 vs. Shimano Alfine 11
- Shimano Alfine vs. Rohloff Speedhub
- Shimano Alfine Electronic Shifting
- How Do Shimano Alfine Hubs Feel In Comparison To Rohloff Hubs?
- Are Shimano Alfine Hubs Suitable For Touring & Bikepacking?
- How To Increase Shimano Alfine Hub Reliability
- Lowering The Recommended Gear Ratio
- Are Shimano Alfine Hubs Reliable?
- Electric Bikes
I’ve analysed many of the top-tier bicycle gearboxes on this website, but have spent little time discussing the Shimano Alfine internal gear hubs that offer almost unbelievable value for money.
So, how good is a $199 Shimano hub? And should you switch from your derailleur gear system to an internal gear hub?
I will answer all of this and much more in this in-depth Shimano Alfine resource.
By the way, according to Shimano, it’s not pronounced Al-fine or Al-feen. It’s Al-fee-nay.
I’ve actually spent many years using and abusing Alfine hubs, including on a mountain bike that I built specifically for wet and muddy conditions. But over the last decade, I’ve been riding around the world on expensive Rohloff hubs. With a good handle on both gear systems, I’ll be drawing comparisons between these hubs throughout this presentation.
What are the advantages of internal gear hubs?
Internal gear hubs replace the derailleur gears on a bicycle, and you can actually remove your derailleur drivetrain from your bike and fit one up right now.
Internal gear hubs usually offer between 3 and 14 different gear ratios that are hidden inside a weather-sealed hub shell. As a result, you get a significant reduction in drivetrain maintenance, and with fewer components exposed to the elements – a reduction in running costs too.
For example, I’ve known Shimano hubs ($199) to have worked well for around 90,000km (56,000mi). Add in the nine chains ($63), six rear sprockets ($18) and three front sprockets ($33) that your drivetrain will wear through over 90,000km, and you’re looking at US $313 to ride more than twice the circumference of Earth!
Additionally, should you crash or drop your bike, there is no rear derailleur (or hanger) to put out of alignment, or worse – destroy.
Other nice features include the ability to shift gears while stationary and the rear wheel can also be built stronger thanks to the shorter spokes and even spoke tension.
To cut down on drivetrain maintenance further you can pair gear hubs with belt drivetrains. These drivetrains are cleaner, quieter and longer-lasting. In fact, they can last upwards of 30,000km. I’ve been riding belt drivetrains across multiple continents for over a decade, and have worn through just four belts in that time.
In terms of gear hub manufacturers, Rohloff and Kinderney make very expensive hubs that in many circumstances can outperform derailleurs. Sturmey Archer has manufactured IGH hubs for over a century, and Shimano is easily the biggest manufacturer of gear hubs on the planet.
The Shimano Alfine IGH
Shimano released their first internal gear hub in 1957 and has slowly built on their multi-speed hub designs ever since.
The Alfine series components come under the “urban” umbrella in Shimano’s product range, and they’re the highest-quality internal gear hubs that Shimano manufacturers. You can get Alfine hubs with either 8 or 11 gears and they are only compatible with regular 135mm dropouts (sorry, thru-axle frame owners).
These hubs offer unparalleled value for money. You can find the 8-speed hubs for less than US $200 and the 11-speed hubs under US $400. That’s significantly cheaper than a Rohloff 14-speed hub (US $1500).
The low cost of the Alfine products also translates into complete bikes that are very well priced. For about US $1000 or €1000 you can get an 8-speed bike with a belt drivetrain that’s fully decked out and ready to go.
Keep an eye out for bikes with Shimano Nexus 8-speed hubs too, as these hubs are virtually identical to the Alfine 8-speed with the exception of the brake types available.
Shimano Alfine 8 vs. Shimano Alfine 11
So, what’s the difference between the 8-speed and 11-speed Alfine hubs?
1. Gear Range
The gear range of the 8-speed hub is 306% and the 11-speed hub is 409%.
This simply means that the biggest gear ratio is 3.06x times bigger than the smallest ratio on the Alfine 8, and it’s 4.09x bigger on the Alfine 11.
With bigger gear ranges, we can pedal our bikes across a broader range of speeds, which is especially handy for pedalling downhill or with a stiff tailwind.
To understand this concept a bit better, let’s set the lowest Alfine gears so that they have you spinning the cranks at 60RPM at 8.4kph. The wider gear range of the 11-speed hub will allow you to pedal up to 57kph (100RPM) in the top gear, while the 8-speed hub will only take you up to 43kph.
2. Gear Steps
Gear steps are the percentage difference in gear ratio when you change your gears.
A bike with smaller gear steps is particularly nice at higher speeds, as you can better fine-tune your gears to achieve the cadence (crank revolutions per minute) you’re most comfortable riding.
The Shimano Alfine 8 averages 17% gear steps across its gear range. To give you a sense of how this compares to a derailleur drivetrain, it’s a bit higher than a 1×12 mountain bike drivetrain (SRAM 10-52t, 15% gear steps).
In comparison, with the exception of the first gear (which is an unusually large gear step of 29%), the Alfine 11 averages a much smaller 13.5%. This is more like a 1×11 gravel bike cassette with 11-42 tooth sprockets (13% gear steps).
It’s worth noting that the 11-speed hubs offer consistent gear steps throughout their range. In comparison, the 8-speed hub has 14% to 22% steps between the gears, which means that gear changes won’t feel quite as predictable.
3. Lubrication System
The Alfine 11-speed hub operates inside an oil bath. The big advantage of this design is that it is hard for water and debris to make their way inside the hub shell.
The downside is that oil slowly leaks out the side, so you will need to wipe everything down regularly.
In comparison, the Alfine 8-speed rolls on thicker greases and oils. This is a pretty fuss-free design, although, if it’s not grease-packed appropriately for wet environments – water can and will work its way into the hub.
4. Drive Efficiency
Both Shimano Alfine hubs achieve around 90% drive efficiency on average.
This is approximately 5-7% less efficient than a clean and well-lubricated derailleur drivetrain. But note that this doesn’t mean you’ll be 5-7% slower on an Alfine bike – when you do the maths, it’s close to 2%, or a minute per hour when compared to a well-lubricated derailleur drivetrain.
That said, in poor weather conditions, it’s not unfeasible for the Alfine hubs to work out more efficient, as there are fewer places in the drivetrain for mud and debris to get caught.
5. Shimano Alfine Hub Weight
The Alfine gear hubs both weigh around 1700 grams (3.75lb) while regular rear bike hubs are often under 500 grams (1.1lb).
It might sound like an Alfine hub will add a significant amount of weight to a bike, but when we peg Alfine bikes against derailleur bikes at similar price points, we often end up with a weight penalty of less than half a kilogram (<1.1lb).
The lightest Alfine bike I’ve ever seen was just 7.6kg (16.7lb) – it’s pictured above.
Shimano Alfine vs. Rohloff Speedhub
Rohloff hubs are generally considered the gold standard of internal gear hubs as they are built incredibly well and experience very few failures.
They also offer 14 gears across a 526% gear range, which is about the same as a modern mountain bike drivetrain (1X drivetrain with a 10-52T cassette). In addition, they’ve been tested to be around 4% more efficient than the Alfine hubs across the gear range.
There is even a guy out there who has cycled 430,000km on a Rohloff hub, which is about five times the life expectancy of an Alfine hub.
These are all great characteristics, but the Shimano Alfine hubs are actually better in a number of ways. In fact, on balance, I think the Alfine is the best hub for most people.
So, what’s better about the Alfine hubs?
- The biggest reason for me is that they run significantly quieter, especially in the lower gear ratios. The Rohloff hub is particularly noisy in gears 5, 6 and 7.
- The price is more than US $1000 less than a Rohloff setup, resulting in a great price-to-performance ratio.
- Alfine hubs are built around a trigger shifter, which many people prefer over Rohloff’s twist shifter design.
- You can use some Alfine hubs with electronic shifters that will complete perfect shifts every time as there is no cable housing that can be affected by grime or grit.
- Alfine hubs also tend to be better for drop-bar bikes as they’re compatible with various aftermarket shifters or the Shimano Di2 electronic shift levers.
Shimano Alfine Electronic Shifting
Ok, I’ve just mentioned that Alfine hubs are excellent thanks to their electronic shifting, so let’s take a closer look at these components.
You might be thinking that Di2 electronic shifting is a bit of a gimmick, but when you understand how Alfine hubs shift, it can definitely be worthwhile.
This is because it’s the shifter that controls the alignment of the planetary gears in an Alfine hub. That means that improper cable adjustment and dirty or damaged cables can prevent the hub’s internal components from engaging properly – which can result in gear slipping, grinding, or worse – internal components breaking inside the hub and making a mess of things.
Electronic shifters make perfect shifts every time, ensuring you do not damage anything inside the hub from improper cable maintenance. Out of the two Alfine hubs, electronic shifters make the most sense on the 11-speed model, as the cable adjustment is especially sensitive.
It’s worth noting that you cannot upgrade Alfine hubs from a mechanical shifter to an electronic shifter. The Di2 hub design is different.
Electronic shifters are also nice on drop-bar bikes as you can easily pair them with Shimano hydraulic brakes for an ultra-low maintenance brake setup too. Additionally, the Di2 drop bar levers can be programmed in a number of ways. You can change the buttons so that your left-hand shifts down and your right-hand shifts up. And you can hold the buttons and shift multiple gears at once.
How Do Shimano Alfine Hubs Feel In Comparison To Rohloff Hubs?
In terms of ride feel, the Alfine hubs are ‘spongy’ compared to Rohloff hubs due to the use of roller clutches inside the hub.
You can actually see how much forward movement there is in the hub when you step on the pedals from stationary. When riding, this is only noticeable if you mash your pedals at a slow cadence. It’s not at all noticeable at higher cadences.
The gear steps are actually quite similar between the Rohloff and Alfine 11 for the most part (13.6%). The thing you might miss is the extra-wide gear range of the Rohloff (526%).
The shifting on Alfine hubs is incredibly fast when the shift cable and cassette joint are running perfectly. But when either of these components gets muddy or gritty, shifting is not as instantaneous as a Rohloff hub. The Rohloff holds the advantage here as the gear indexing is inside the hub, rather than from the shifter.
Are Shimano Alfine Hubs Suitable For Touring & Bikepacking?
You will find lots of people who have successfully completed bike trips on Shimano Alfine hubs. In fact, the around the world record was once set on a Shimano Alfine 8-speed hub!
But there are two things that prevent me from recommending Alfine hubs to all bike travellers. Please note that these ‘issues’ do not apply to everybody in every situation.
1. Low Climbing Gears
Low climbing gears are important for bicycle touring as they allow you to ride up hills at a sustainable effort with all of your luggage. When your climbing gear is too high, you’ll be working much harder than necessary, which results in more muscle fatigue, and frankly, makes hills much less enjoyable.
Ultimately, the Alfine hubs are optimised for urban use, which usually means getting around town on flatter terrain.
Shimano’s lowest recommended gear ratio on the Alfine hubs is 1.8:1 (11-speed) and 2:1 (8-speed). When we calculate the climbing gear that this yields in “gear inches”, it’s simply not low enough for most bike travel. And it’s not by a little bit either; the first gear on the Alfine is about the same as my fifth gear on my Rohloff bike (27 to 30 gear inches).
Riding up steep hills with an Alfine either requires more power output or a lower pedalling cadence, both of which will tire you out faster.
2. Reliability, Spare Parts & Repairs
For touring, another thing an internal gear hub needs to be is reliable. This is absolutely paramount. Getting an Alfine hub fixed can waste a lot of time – potentially ruining a trip.
Now, Alfine hubs are often very reliable, especially the 8-speed model. But it’s still not uncommon to hear of people having problems with them.
I wouldn’t be too concerned about servicing and spare parts in the UK or Europe, as internal gear hubs are common and you are often close to a bike shop that can help. In the US, it’s probably ok too as long as you’re happy to ship your wheel to a gear hub specialist. But in the more remote parts of the world, you should be prepared to ship your wheel internationally for a repair.
You could say the same thing about a Rohloff hub, but with their track record for reliability, it’s a very safe bet.
How To Increase Shimano Alfine Hub Reliability
Ok, let’s now talk about maintenance and damage prevention.
Shimano Alfine hubs are low maintenance, but they are not zero maintenance. Here are three things you can do to keep your Alfine hub reliable for many years to come.
1. Shift Cable Maintenance
If you learn how to tune the Alfine gears and maintain your cables, you will likely have no problems with your hub.
In the electronic shifting section, I discussed in detail why cable maintenance can prevent gear slipping, grinding, or internal components from breaking inside the hub and making a mess of things.
As the 11-speed hubs are much more sensitive to cable adjustment than the 8-speed hubs, you will need to keep a closer eye on its shift components.
2. Make Careful Gear Shifts
Regarding gear shifting, it’s best practice to ease your pedal power momentarily when you change gears. I’m talking just a fraction of a second! This is because you can damage your hub by putting high loads into the internal components before the shift is 100% complete.
3. Check lubrication
As the oil slowly seeps out of the Alfine 11-speed hubs, you will need to conduct regular oil changes. The first oil change is the most important one, and it’s after just 500km. After that, it’s every two years or 5,000km.
If you’re using the 8-speed hub in wet and gritty conditions, make sure to get the hub re-greased every year. The grease helps to keep water and grit out of the hub, and will vastly improve the life of the hub.
Lowering The Recommended Gear Ratio
I discussed the issue of low gear ratios and Alfine hubs previously. But some users have reported using ultra-low gear ratios (eg. 24t front, 20t rear) to achieve a similar climbing gear to my touring bike – and with no problems at all.
But I’d be careful here, especially if you’re a heavier and more powerful rider.
With an ultra-low gear ratio (1.2:1), a 100kg/220lb rider can stand on the pedals and put 143Nm into an Alfine hub, which is more than the maximum input torque that Rohloff allows (130Nm) – and that’s a hub rated for tandem use.
Rider weight is critical for maintaining a low input torque. With a 1.2:1 gear ratio, a 50kg/110lb rider only puts 72Nm into the hub when standing on the pedals. But if an 80kg/176lb rider did the same thing, they would put 115Nm into the hub, increasing the chance of internal damage.
Here’s a table I made that shows the minimum gear ratios one could use without exceeding 100Nm of torque. But use it at your own risk, and please don’t tell Shimano.
Are Shimano Alfine Hubs Reliable?
The name Alfine is derived from the phrase “Always Fine”, but a quick search online reveals endless forums with examples of Alfine hubs that didn’t do their job.
The main culprit is the Alfine S700 11-speed hub that was in production between 2010 and 2017. Oil leaks were a-plenty, the cassette joint sometimes had manufacturing defects, and if the shift cable was not adjusted correctly – internal damage was much more probable.
The latest S7001 11-speed hubs employ six new internal components that were re-designed to prevent damage, but these hubs do still leak some oil that periodically needs to be wiped off the hub.
The Alfine 8-speed hub is considered to be the most durable option of the two.
The S7001-series Alfine hubs are rated for eBike use, but be careful as the maximum torque of the motor will need to be on the low side.
While there is no official torque rating for the Alfine hubs, the STEPS E6000 internal gear drivetrain comes with a 50Nm motor, so we can assume it’s about that.
Speaking of the STEPS internal gear drivetrains, they’re super cool! The Alfine 8 Di2 (or Nexus 5E Di2) hub will automatically change gears for you based on your speed, cadence and torque.
Shimano Alfine hubs are excellent, and for many people out there, I think they’re actually a better option than a Rohloff hub. This is because they’re cheaper, quieter and employ trigger or neat drop bar shifters. I especially like the drop bar electronic shifters.
With an Alfine-equipped bike, you will enjoy just how easy, cheap and low maintenance an internal gear drivetrain is. Better yet, pair an Alfine hub with belt drive and enjoy a grease-free and long-lasting drivetrain for years to come.
I recommend the 8-speed version for a simple grocery-getter or for someone who simply just wants a bike that works. For someone who rides a bit more seriously, the 11-speed version offers smaller and more predictable gear steps, along with a wider gear range.
I don’t usually recommend Alfine hubs for touring and bikepacking due to the climbing gear ratio that’s too high, and fact that mechanical failures are not unheard of. This is where a long-lasting and robust Rohloff drivetrain clearly wins out. But if you ride flatter trips and keep on top of the shift cable maintenance, Alfine hubs work out great.