Does The Future Have Fewer Gears pt III - Editorial
Dr. Strange Hub: Or How I Learned To Love The Gearbox
High Pivot Opportunity
This is a story about oil-bathed, trigger-shifted, any-shop-can-service, shift-without-pedaling, <350 USD, 409% gearboxes, that are available right now. They're heavy, but they’re robust. They have some drag, but you get a perfect chainline in all gears. They don't like to shift under heavy loads but give it two weeks and that will make you a better rider. Beautiful. And yes, you did read that right, it's less than 350 USD. For comparison sake, just the cassette from a SRAM Eagle XO1 drivetrain is around 380 USD.
The only thing missing is a frame to put them in but thanks to the re-awakening of beautiful, brash, and bold high-pivot bikes like Forbidden's Druid and Deviate's Highlander there has never been a better time for Gearboxes to rise. Not in a beautifully engineered, proprietary mounted, limited-service-center-options, twist-shifter, fashion that is so massively cost-prohibitive that only the true believers can commit to it. No gentle reader, I'm talking about personal choice. Frames that can simply and easily run a gearbox or a derailleur, whichever you choose.
This is mostly not a new idea. Buffalo Composite Designs (BCD), GT Bikes IT1, Lahar, Zerode G1 & G2, and I'm sure there are others, have been here before. Bolt a 307% Shimano Alfine 8 or 409% Shimano Alfine 11 hub into a high-pivot frame and ride on into the mud-set. It's easy enough to do. Bolt the internally geared-hub into a frame and then hard mount the hub shell to the frame, to keep it from spinning, by bolting down the spoke flanges.
The next level is providing a drive-side dropout with a derailleur hanger and selling the bikes with a dummy axle assembly that can be swapped for the internally-geared hub with a few minutes of work. There are no risks for a customer buying into a modular gearbox-compatible frame. Want to run a derailleur instead of the Alfine hub? You could sell the complete unit that is easily laced into a commuter bike wheel for a savvy rush hour racer.
There's even the potential to run the gearbox set up for the bike park and the nastiest winter riding months and keep that super posh 12-spd drivetrain fresh for epic ride season and dominating the local beer-league race series with your wicked new high-pivot machine.
Let’s take just a moment to recognize that Alfine is far from a perfect product. As it sits, bolting in the 409% Alfine 11 hub surrenders either my high or low range compared to the leading 12spd derailleur drivetrains. And some of those gear ratios feel like I'm pedaling through the rubber. And some of those gear ratios have an amazing amount of wind-up. When I grab a couple of gears, there's a chance that I'll land in one of the sub-par ones. But, every time I crinkle my nose here I remind myself that this gearbox system costs less than a high-end cassette and I'm so ready to ride one on trails.
There is ample room here for Shimano to cut weight and improve efficiency and still keep Alfine-MTB well within the price range of a journeyman drivetrain. For mountain biking, the jumps between gears could certainly be larger and there's no reason to believe that, given proven sales and demand, a 500% Alfine 11 hub, or in the spirit of Fewer Gears, an Alfine 8 hub, would be an issue for Shimano to manufacture.
I love being able to shift without pedaling. I don't mind the system protecting itself by telling me to f*** off when I try to bust evil shifts under full pedaling load. In a few weeks it has made me better at shifting any bike and I'm holding momentum better into climbs as long as I keep my brain turned on.
Drag from the hub system is absolutely overstated and I wish everyone could spend a day on Alfine themselves to generate their own opinion. My Alfine-equipped, human-cargo-carrying, commuter bike, is a beast to crank up hills. That's with slick tires and even the least efficient ratios on paper are totally fine on the road. Add in knobby tires and factor in that perfectly straight chainline v. that brutally side-loaded chain I'm forcing around a 50t cog, and if I could go Alfine without the massive unsprung weight added to the rear wheel, I'd do it tomorrow.
The Alfine trigger shifters, whether 8spd or 11spd, feature my favourite piece of patented Shimano gear-changing tech; Multi Release. I hope whenever this patent expires everyone gets on it. Is clicking multiple times to drop gears a big deal? Well, no. Is single-click, instantaneous, Multi Release incredible? Yes! So how does the actual gearbox work?
Tiny unicorns. Seriously. End of article.
Actually, I'm going to drop Bruce Dance in here, writing for SheldonBrown.com, as his is the simplest explanation I've come across:
"In a nutshell, the hub is best thought of as a two-speed (reduction or direct) gear which drives a six-speed (direct or 5 increase options) gear.
The six-speed gear is itself a 3x2 gear, i.e. an intermediate three speed (direct or 2 increase options) gear which in turn drives a further two-speed (direct or increase) gear.
The gear ratios are selected via four selectable clutches (one sliding clutch, three lockable sun pinions) and four automatically selected, spring-preloaded roller clutches. The eleven available gear ratios all use at least one gear train, and three gear ratios use all three gear trains in series.
The gearsets could give twelve ratios (2x6) of which only eleven are used, because one ratio is a near duplicate of another. The unused gear is the direct drive gear. Instead, a gear that gives almost the same ratio is used, despite its using three gear trains and presumably being less efficient."
If you're interested in going full-nerd, check out the link to Sheldon Brown's invaluable resource and legacy, above. There are ratio tables for Alfine 8 and 11 hubs, and various deeper thoughts on the systems from people who have a lot more experience with them than I do.
The Alfine hub, or gearbox, depending on where it's oriented, is filled with oil and features a prescribed service interval. Chains will last significantly longer as the drivetrain combines the best features of single speeding (a straight chainline), and multi-speed bikes (being able to spin seated up climbs).
Great looking high-pivot bikes like the Forbidden Druid and Deviate Highlander had me dreaming that Zerode had stuck with a high pivot, and affordable Alfine setup, for their trail bikes. The Pinion gearbox is a very cool example of the breed at the higher end but as non-derailleur setups go, I'm way more into add-ons like Hammerschmidt than proprietary mountain-moped-esque housings. A bike like Zerode's G2 could have easily been configured to run a derailleur or an Alfine hub and taking a similar concept to the Enduro market would open up a real possibility of mass gearbox adoption because of the easy choice to step back to a derailleur as preference or situation demands.
Another beautiful reason for the hub-in-frame model is that anyone could theoretically design an internally geared hub to suit the application. Instead of the development costs having to be eaten by a narrow segment of mountain bikers, those hubs could be used in a huge range of commuter bikes, both e-assist and solely-human-powered. Economy of scale baby. Today there's Alfine 8 & 11, Rohloff, Sturmey-Archer, and SRAM only discontinued their G9 hub in 2015 so undoubtedly they could jump back in the game if the concept took off.
As I conceded above, there are challenges with pasting the current Alfine hub onto one of these pretty frames; drag, gear range, dropper post interference, and aesthetics are all potential red flags. Each one on its own would be a deal breaker for many product managers and probably a similar percentage of riders, and when put together the sell gets very challenging indeed.
A system like this won't be for everyone, but with the easy ability to upgrade in the future and the economy of scale of a hub that can be used for commuting and city riding, this could be a huge opportunity for a forward thinking brand. I'm fully ready to drop bombs on derailleurs and rebuild mountain biking with self-contained, long-lasting, frame-mounted gearboxes that cost less than a high-end cassette.
Who's with me?