Part 1 – Goodbye Derailleurs

“Single speed, eh?” It is a comment I hear often out on the trails and, on the face of it, my bike looks like a single speed. But look a little closer and there are two cables attaching the rear hub to a gear shifter. And that rear hub is massive – almost the same diameter as my disc rotor. The hub isn’t, in fact, a singlespeed. It is a Rohloff, and the oversized hub body houses fourteen gears. This Rohloff also happens to be bright red. The color doesn’t help performance, but it certainly gets it noticed.

Rohloff hubs aren’t a common sight on New Zealand trails, or trails anywhere for that matter. They come a distant third in popularity behind the overwhelming majority using derailleur gears, and the significant few who choose the purity of a single speed. Many riders will have heard of Rohloff though, even if they have never used one.

For most riders in most situations derailleurs work very well – but they aren’t perfect. They can be susceptible to damage, rely on good maintenance and need a juggle of front and rear shifting to find the right ratio and chainline. The Rohloff promises to fix those shortcomings.

I found myself in the privileged position of having a Rohloff hub to try out long-term thanks to the New Zealand importers, Puresports. I could gain direct experience without risk to my wallet and determine if, for me, the pain of changing over a complete drivetrain is worthwhile. In return I agreed to report on my experience – warts and all – through this series of articles.

I have used derailleur gears for most of the two decades I’ve ridden mountain bikes. A few years ago I added a single speed to my bikes and most recently this has become my ride of choice. My mountain biking is a mix of trail riding and longer day and multi-day rides. I lean towards epic trips, and never turn down the opportunity to ride technical back-country trails. I thought that the Rohloff hub would suit me well. I like the simplicity and toughness of a single speed drivetrain, but multi-speed gears would be great for longer and rougher rides. But, having never actually used a Rohloff before, I only had my preconceptions to draw-on.

Installing the hub, shifter and cables was no more difficult than setting up a pair of derailleurs. The trickiest part was planning how to route dual cables from the handlebar shifter to the non-driveside of the hub. Everything else was as simple as fitting a wheel, single chainring, single speed chain and a solitary shifter. I used my single speed frame with horizontal dropouts for this build, which made installation slightly harder than it needed to be. It meant I didn’t need a chain tensioner, but it was more of a battle to install and remove the wheel. I think a regular mountain bike frame with a chain tensioner would work really well, and a frame with an eccentric bottom bracket or sliding dropouts would be nigh-on perfect.

The most common question I’m asked about the hub is ‘How do you find it?” The simple answer is “Different”. From my first ride on the Rohloff it was apparent that this was not the derailleur norm – some differences were immediately welcome, while some would take a little getting used to. Perhaps the most enlightening aspect was the ability to change gear while freewheeling or stationary. I soon found myself pedaling into corners harder, changing gear mid corner and accelerating out faster. It left me wondering how I ever managed for so long without it. It was also easy to grab a handful of twist shifter and change through nearly the whole range in one go. I know best practice is to read the trail ahead and change gear in good time, but it was nice to be able to mash into a pinch climb without fear of the drivetrain jamming or chain falling off. I was riding a single speed before installing the Rohloff hub, and I was happy to find the advantages of a single speed drivetrain were still apparent:  simplicity, chain security and a complete lack of chain slap. It was a dry autumn when I installed the hub, but I was actually looking forward to riding through the winter and having a geared drivetrain that needed very little TLC and would not be plagued by chainsuck.

On the less positive side, I found that the hub didn’t like to change gear under heavy pedal loads. It isn’t advisable to change a derailleur gear system fully loaded either, but it will change – grudgingly. The Rohloff, however, simply would not change under heavy loads. I found myself adapting my riding slightly to work with the hub. I changed gear more often while coasting, and I learnt to change at the bottom of a pedal stroke when loads are lighter. Not bad, not good, just different.  The hub also made a noticeable mechanical whir in gears 1-7, which coincided with a sluggish, draggy feeling. I don’t know how much of that drag was real and how much was just my brain responding to the noise. I am told that Rohloffs take a while to wear in and will get smoother and quieter. That is the trade-off for its legendary durability. Now there is a reason to ride more!

The next steps are to put some kilometres into the hub. My first impressions are good – the advantages certainly seem to outweigh the quirks – but it will take a while to get used to the Rohloff and retrain my riding and shifting to suit. I have a multi-day tour planned to ride the Old Dunstan Trail in Central Otago. I’ll visit my favourite playground – the Akatarawa Forest – for some rough, feral bush riding. And I’ll manage lots of riding on my local Wellington trails. Look out for the next report, coming here soon.

Paul Smith

Comments are closed.