Reality Check: Shimano Alfine

In less than a week of running the Alfine-11 Di2 on my daily commute I’ve encountered nearly every failure mode known to the internet.  I have only myself to blame.

Alfine’s (arguably) lesser reliability compared with Rohloff isn’t news to me.  A quick internet search reveals many complaints about Alfine hubs in general and the Alfine-11 in particular (there seems to be some consensus that the –8 is more robust).  In my decidedly unscientific survey, far more complaints than I see for other Internally Geared Hubs, though to be fair, most complaints are in mountain biking forums and even I don’t consider Alfine a good choice for that.  The complaints include skipping, missed gears, gears that take ages to engage after shifting, suddenly and randomly popping out of gear, having to shift one past and then back down to the intended gear to get it to engage, and alarming clicks and pops while pedaling.  In less than a week I went from shifting nirvana to having all of these problems.

How could this be?  Sure, I was aware of people having these problems before going down this road but most of them seemed to be a by-product of a design where the indexing is handled at the shifter and then transmitted through a long and error-prone mechanical cable to the hub itself.  In the case of a recumbent, a very long run.  In my mind this is exactly what the Di2 electronic shift technology is designed to fix for Alfine, effectively putting the indexing at the hub where it belongs while adding fast and precise shifts and shifter designs optimized for performance and comfort instead of constrained by a mechanical cable.  What I had instead was rapid and ergonomic shifting from one randomly failing gear to another.  At it’s worst I might have ended up walking the trike home if not for the Big Black Lab with me who was more than happy to drag me and the trike along for the ride.

Fearing the worst, I called Shimano Customer Service, 1-800-423-2420, for any insight they might have and to explore the possibility of a warranty return.  I’ll admit I had pretty low expectations for this call.  When I talked recently with the designer of the TRIOT, I asked him why he had specified the Rohloff hub instead of the Alfine for his design.  His answer was that Shimano wouldn’t talk to him.  If they wouldn’t talk to a bona-fide trike manufacturer, what were the odds they would talk to an individual trike owner like me?  So imagine my surprise when I was immediately connected to an extremely knowledgeable and accommodating Shimano Customer Service representative.  But the biggest surprise of this call wasn’t the technical competence and excellent product knowledge of the Shimano rep.  Nor was it the fact that even his technical knowledge couldn’t solve my problem over the phone.  The surprise was that I began the call thinking I had a problem with a hub and ended it thinking my problem was ever considering Alfine in the first place.

The gist of the problem comes down to what this Shimano rep (at least) considers acceptable use of the Alfine hubs.  Pulling a trailer?  No.  Carrying a child?  No.  Off-road? Racing?  Touring?  No, no, no.  Standing up on the pedals?  Be careful.  Temperatures below 30 degrees F?  Uncharted territory.  Big hills?  No.  Seriously, he said that.  And he admitted you won’t find any of these constraints documented by Shimano.  He said the way to look at it is that the name of the component group suggests its intended use, in this case Comfort or Pavement depending on where you look.  Apparently these terms mean something different to Shimano than they do to me.  I was surprised that he didn’t balk at recumbent but suspect this just reflects how thoroughly uninterested the big guys are in this niche.  I don’t mean to shoot the messenger here, I sincerely appreciate that he was willing to talk to me at all and am most impressed with his knowledge and insight.  But his message, Shimano’s message, seems silly to me.  He summed it up thus:  “The Alfine hub is really intended for easy commuting, like riding to the beach.”

I get that different component groups are designed for different types of riding and that, say, a road component might not be the best choice for a single-track trail.  But design limits for an 11-speed hub as narrow as “flat ride to the beach” seem hardly worth the effort.  Even if I manufactured beach cruisers I’m not sure I’d want Alfine on it if that’s really the extent of it’s expected performance.  Perhaps I’m overstating it a bit but I’m beginning to connect the dots:  Seemingly less reliable than Rohloff,  rarely found on anything but “city bikes”, narrow and undocumented design limits— maybe this thing really isn’t up to the task.  Maybe no IGH is up to the task.

In a cruel twist of fate, my hub is now working perfectly.  It turns out the Alfine CS-S500 sprocket I used is not intended for Di2.  (In my defense this part number is clearly called out in the Alfine Di2 product spec, but either the SM-GEAR sprocket (whatever that is, I’ve never seen one) or a Nexus sprocket is a better bet.)  The CS-S500 includes an outer plastic chain guard that rubs against the Di2 motor housing.  It sort of works but adds a lot of friction and prevents the motor from seating properly against the hub.  I knew this wasn’t right when I first assembled the wheel but at the time was more concerned about bench-testing the Di2 system and secured the motor finger-tight.  Then I got distracted with the holidays, frustrated with my ever-frozen mechanical cable, and undone by an ill-conceived, late-night Di2 install.  When I popped the wheel off to see what was going on with my shifting, the axle nuts and the motor itself had obviously loosened up.  It’s pretty apparent that this, not the “extreme” 15 degree cold, was the source of my shifting woes.  The fix was simple enough—rip off the plastic chain guide from the sprocket and secure the motor properly.

Right now, my Alfine Di2 setup performs better than I’d hoped.  Shifts are quick, precise, reliable, and nearly silent.  The shifter is comfortable and shifts without the obnoxious CLICK!!!! and random performance of my SRAM grip shifter.  It shifts in cold weather!  It shifts while stopped! The display is useful, easy to read, and out of the way.  The cable routing could be extremely clean, mostly invisible.

Now what?  Cut my losses and go back to external gears?  Try yet another IGH?  Or press on with Alfine, ignoring the mounting evidence that it’s not a question of if it will fail, but when.

How do you forget a conversation like the one I had with Shimano?

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13 thoughts on “Reality Check: Shimano Alfine

  1. mkzig

    Clearly the market for town bikes is growing. But I wonder how much difference they think there is between a well used city bike, and normal use on road or mountain bike. I would think not much. If that’s true, then it seems there’s not much design margin for its intended use. It’s a shame that it might not hold up under anything but ideal conditions. It is such a great design with features that make it the ideal shifting system. Too bad you have to bear the risk and expense to test their hub for a more mainstream application.

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  2. Kurt Post author

    Shimano’s position on Alfine is perplexing, and impossible to validate without reverse-engineering and second-guessing their hub design, something I’m not really qualified to do. So I guess I’ve become an unpaid Shimano test pilot. With no parachute.

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  3. Jody

    I am so glad I found this post. I am getting ready to enter the world of trikes and have only ridden four so far. Of the four I rode, the best for me was an Azub Tricon. However, I have severe wrist problems (which is why it seems that an upright bike is not going to work for me anymore). The hardest decision for me will be what style of shifters to install on the trike. Every option has its own inherent threat to my wrist. The dealer finally suggested that I might be interested in the Shimano Di2/ Alfine set-up. I gave not tried a trike with it installed but I will be able to at the end of next week. However, after reading your post, I don’t think I want it. I intend to do more than flat pavement.

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    1. Kurt Post author

      You might want to consider Ultegra Di2 instead of Alfine, but using the Alfine shifter. That’s what I ended up doing and it’s working out well. If you read some later posts you’ll see what I did. The fist thing you might want to do is check out the Alfine shifter and make sure it works with your wrist problems. For me, it’s by far the most comfortable shifter I’ve used.
      Kurt

      Here’s a link to my post about the Ultegra Di2 build:
      https://seasonalcommute.com/2015/04/10/trike-build-phase-i-ultegra-di2/

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  4. Pingback: The Trouble with Alfine | A Seasonal Commute

  5. myarseiskillingme

    Hi. Internal gears in my case are always compromise. Road levers Shimano Alfine got Versa shifters which to be honest works like something made in the shed or during industrial revolution. DI shifting is not for me really, as I want to do a bit of touring without problems with charging. Rohlhoff hasn’t got really any elegant solution for drop handlebars. Don’t get me wrong I like diy big time but all the solutions I found on internet look a bit awkward. Compromise, compromise, compromise. Thanks for sharing some thoughts.
    Keep’em rolling

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    1. Kurt Post author

      I’m with you regarding internally geared hubs. I’m still holding out hope for the Schlumpf because it elegantly solves the 20″ drive wheel problem while simultaneously eliminating the ever-annoying front derailleur, but my track record with IGH is pretty dismal so far. In contrast, Di2 has been a huge success (so far). My criteria for all of this stuff is that it has to work well for long, self-supported tours. Battery life was a big concern but at this point it’s looking like about three months between charges (with significant safety margin) for my daily commuting and recreational rides. It will be less on tour but a month seems pretty easy to attain. Of course I won’t really know until I try it on a tour, but right now I wouldn’t hesitate. As I get more data on Di2 battery life I’ll post it here: https://seasonalcommute.com/di2-battery-life/

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  6. Nate

    Just a heads up. I had my alfine 8 for two years and started developing problems 6 months ago where certain gears in the higher rang (5,6,7,8) would not engage smoothly and where the 8th gear began continuously clicking. . Adjust was spot on. I just fixed the problem today by changing out the cable and it works perfectly. I opened the hub 8 months ago and everything inside was pristine and well greased. The reason why changing the cable worked so well is that once you get into the higher gears on the alfine the tension in the shifter cable increases causing it to stretch more and be less accurate in the higher gears. This is many alfine users a have issues in the higher gears. Cannot believe that the cable change was so simple, easy, cheap, and effective. Should be the second troubleshooting step after checking adjustment. Best of luck to everyone!!!

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  7. tim

    I have a bike with 3speed sram hub and never had an issue love it. but need more low end, so i’m after a new bike, and really want alfine 11 so much, along with a carbon drive, … but day after day reading through all these internet blogs and discussion on forums really makes me to drop this idea and go with standard messy dirty gunked up sand collecting derailor.

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    1. Kurt Post author

      If Alfine had bought me belt drive on my recumbent, I would have sucked it up and figured out how to make it work. I still sometimes regret not giving Alfine-11 another try (it was a dream while it worked), but without belt drive the gain just isn’t worth the risk. You might consider Alfine-8, which anecdotally (at least) appears to be more robust than the -11. Either way, I highly recommend Di2, which for me is a bigger gain than internal gears. Note that my inability to run belt drive is a limitation of most recumbents, not the Alfine.

      Of course another option is Rohloff. I never went down that path because of the cost and the desire to decrease, not increase, the number of mechanical cables in my system. But it has a pretty solid reputation for reliability as far as I can tell.

      Other options for belt drive include combinations of lower-range internally-geared rear hubs with a 2-speed Schlumpf drive on the crank.

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