I’ve been commuting to work via bus and bike for more than 3 years, and my primary commuter bike must be durable, low-maintenance, and work in all weather conditions. Last year, I purchased a Rohloff Speedhub for my Surly Troll commuter, and after a year and about 1,000 miles on the Rohloff, I’m ready to offer a review.
Bikes in Europe that are used for daily transportation often have internally geared hubs (IGH) that seal the bike’s gears within the hub of the rear wheel. IGHs such as the Rohloff need less frequent cleaning than standard derailleur gear systems and provide reliable performance even when the bike is exposed to rain, snow, dirt, and road grime. Because part of my commute is on a dirt trail and part of it is exposed to harsh weather on a bus bike rack, an IGH seemed like a good investment for me. Further, because I use my bike on a daily basis, the lower maintenance of an IGH seemed especially appealing. Because of the design of the Rohloff’s shifter mechanism, shifter cables never need to be adjusted and shifting is always spot on. Finally, I needed an IGH with a wide range of gears, because I live in an area with steep hills and my ride home takes me through short downhill sections, long uphill sections, and up some shorter, fairly steep grades.
There are a number of IGH hubs available, and I did a good deal of research beforehand. I wanted something that would approximate the choice of gears I had with the Troll’s stock 3 x 9 drivetrain. Because of my need for a wide range of gears, the choice came down to the Rohloff, the Shimano Alfine 11, or the NuVinci 360 (which is actually not a geared hub, but a CVT). The gear range of the Rohloff, with its 14 speeds, was the widest by far, but it was also more expensive than the others. While most reviewers liked the Shimano and NuVinci and I am sure they are fine pieces of machinery, there were occasional reviewers who reported problems. By contrast, I couldn’t find any reviewer who’d experienced mechanical problems with the Rohloff under normal use. My trusted bike mechanics at Topanga Creek Bicycles, who have sold a number of Rohloffs to customers and know the Rohloff reps, also reported that they’d never seen or heard of one failing mechanically. Zero. The consensus seemed to be that the Rohloff was a marvel of German engineering. I decided to save my pennies and get the Rohloff (see Sheldon Brown’s website for technical specs).
After a year, I can say that I have not been disappointed. In fact, if anything it has exceeded my expectations. In general, the Speedhub has performed flawlessly. It shifts crisply and quickly. I love the way I can shift several gear levels at a time, and can shift at a standstill (a great advantage for commuting in stop-and-go conditions). On numerous occasions I’ve used the entire range of gears, so I appreciate having the range. Because of the 14 speeds, I’m always able to find the right gear for any terrain. The sealed hub keeps the gears from getting dirty under adverse conditions. I have a bomb-proof drivetrain on my daily commuter bike that provides me with trouble-free shifting and a wide range of gears.
Shifting the Rohloff is a little different than shifting a derailleur-geared bike. With a derailleur, the crank needs to be spinning in order to shift gears. With an IGH one can shift while standing still, but not while applying pressure to the pedals. Some people don’t like the feel of an IGH for that reason. The first time I rode the bike, I got caught mid-shift, and had to back off and ease off my pedal stroke before trying to shift. I quickly learned how to briefly ease up (usually at the top of my pedal stroke) when shifting, and I soon reached the point where I could rapidly shift on the fly without losing momentum or pedal cadence.
Maintenance is super easy. When I remove my chain to clean it, I simply wipe off the front chainring and the rear cog, re-mount the clean chain and, voila, done! Once a year, Rohloff recommends draining and replacing the gear oil in the hub, which I did this summer. It took me about 20 minutes to complete the operation (most of the time involved letting the old oil settle to the bottom of the hub before extraction), but it was pretty easy, even with my limited mechanical skills. Changing the oil is done with the wheel on the bike, and the instructions provided with the Rohloff oil change kit are easy to follow. The only tool necessary is a 3mm allen key for the hub’s drain plug.
Are there any downsides? A few minor points. The Rohloff is a bit heavier than most rear cassette/derailleur systems. Not by much, but if you’re a weight weenie, it’s probably not for you. The Rohloff can also be a little noisier than a properly adjusted derailleur system. In the lower 7 gears, the hub produces a soft buzz of gear noise when spinning. This is normal and is a result of the extremely close tolerances required to engineer 14 speeds in a small hub, but does not seem to affect performance. In my estimation, these minor downsides do not outweigh the reliability, performance, and low maintenance of the hub.
For most people who ride a bike occasionally, or primarily for recreation, or who don’t need the extreme gear range, it’s safe to say the price of the Rohloff probably wouldn’t be worth it. For me, however, my bike is essentially my car and the money I’ve saved on gas and parking in the last year has already paid for a little over half the cost. I can’t be sure that the Shimano or NuVinci wouldn’t have been serviceable but I couldn’t be happier with the Rohloff. I wanted an IGH that I wouldn’t have to baby, had as wide a range of gears as possible, and would provide many miles of trouble-free service. The Rohloff has not disappointed.