Part 1 – INTRO: Who of you has heard about the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14? For those of you who have – it probably holds the image of German engineering par excellence – and of high pricing probably.
For those of you who haven’t I will give you a very brief wrap-up of the thing:
The Speedhub is an all German made, internally geared hub with 14 gears spaced evenly at 13.6 % resulting in exactly the same range as a standard MTB 27-speed drive train. By following extremely low tolerances and keeping the system completely encapsulated Rohloff claims to have comparable power loss by friction to an externally geared system (aka derailleur driven) and will run virtually forever with minimal servicing (only an annual oil change recommended). The hub has been in production for over 10 years And yes, it is costly, even here in its homeland.
(Before you readers start raining a myriad of technical questions, I herewith redirect your enquiries of such kind to the Rohloff website: www.rohloff.de. There is tons of technical info to be read about the working, on Rohloff´s – including compatibility charts, gearing ratios, exploded drawings. They even have done a book covering the Rohloff story)
fig. 1 The ROHLOFF Speedhub 500/14 in the test – condition like it should be: spotted with dirt. The labeling is laser etched into the black anodized hub shell. Each hub is individually numbered.
What motivated Bernd Rohloff, the man behind the hub to build this? – Before the Speedhub Rohloff has been producing (and still is for that matter) premium bicycle chains including several precision tools in that area.
There is a neat anecdote about it (rephrased to keep it short): “He was doing a vacation on the French Atlantic coast, riding along the sandy beach … or at least trying to as it only took two breakers to completely foul the drive train. It was there and then that the idea for a ever-running system was born. Two years and countless hours with technical drawings and engineering later, Bernd was pedaling it away happily without a second thought to the drive train-hostile environment. That was 1998 and by now there are over 100.000 Speedhub units in use on all kinds of bikes.
Here comes a bit more tech talk though:
The Rohloff 500/14 Speedhub basically consists of three units:
1, The 14-speed internal geared hub (available in a disc- or v-brake specific, and a QR or through axle version). Consisting of a hugely oversized hub shell housing the transmission unit (32 and 36 holes available in the colors silver, black and red anodized with laser etched logos), interchangeable side-plates on both sides and a screw on cog (standard is 16 teeth, 13, 15 and 17 teeth are available separately)
2, The mounting hardware: It takes special attachment systems to compensate the rotational forces induced by the internal gearing. Depending on the drop-out and frame design these can be simply a plate (if the frame is Rohloff-specific like in fig. 2), or varying torque arms (depending if the frame has disc brake bosses or not, one version shown in fig. 3)
fig. 2 This set up shows Rohloff specific dropouts, where the torque is taken up by the long slotted dropout and a special plate (only visible by the “in the know” near the lower end of the slot). Chain tensioning here is done by the sliding dropouts. The shifting commands are transferred by dual cables and the external gearbox.
fig. 3 Here a version with the long torque arm is shown. This version is needed when the frame is not suitable for disc brakes or when the disc brake tabs are not on the seat stays of the frame like on this frame. Why? -Think about which direction rotational forces will work.
3, The twist shifter proprietary to the system. This shifter is driving dual cables to the hub – usually in full length housing. The attachment to the hub can be by an external gearbox, like shown, which is recommended when running disc brakes or by an internal system which is about 100 g lighter. The shifter is not indexed like all other bike gearing systems but the indexing is happening directly at the place of shifting, inside the hub.
(Bikes with no built-in chain tensioning option or suspension bikes will need a chain tensioner) The rest of the modifications is like converting into a single chainring crankset and a specific 4-bolt disc rotor, as the standard systems don´t work with 6-bolt rotors.
Fig. 4 The shifters are like any twist shifter – only these actuate two cables. Yes, they are a bit clumsy looking.
So much for the marketing talk.
What is the Speedhub really all about? Does it work fine? How does the planetary gearing react when put through its paces? What about the total weight or weight distribution on the bike, compared to a standard derailleur system or SS? Is the system really bomb-proof and maintenance free – regardless of riding and climate?
Rohloff Speedhub part II
(First of all thanks for the patience on this follow up of the first article concerning the ROHLOFF Speedhub 500/14 and the great input by so many of you.)
So let´s get started. This winter is slowly passing for the spring (at least that´s what the
weatherman said before the recent blizzard turned all into a late winter wonderland) and I have been riding the Speedhub 500/14 in 29er set up for a fair amount of time – that is every time I had the derailleur gearing on any of my other rigs frozen or mucked up, I simply turned to my Rohloff build and rode away.
My story with the Speedhub: The last sentence pretty much states my story why I (and so many others) had turned to the Rohloff Speedhub in the first place: Because I was spending simply too much time cleaning and adjusting the external shifting, time that I wanted to ride instead. I could have turned to SS but some reluctance to self-induced suffering, and the desire to ride everything (that is everything I had been riding on my standard geared bike) made me turn my attention to internally geared systems.
The offerings of trail worthy internally geared systems are few and the Rohloff was and still is by far the one with the largest gearing range. I had been riding my Speedhub for more than 2 years in a 26” wheel but as I was turning more and more towards exclusive 29er riding, and the Speedhub was getting less and less use. Not because of the hub, but because of the wheel size it was built into … eventually, after a considerable time of neglect, I felt it was time to rebuild the Speedhub into a 29er wheel – and so I did.
One more word on compatibility: Initially I was using the Speedhub in a standard frame with vertical disc mounts and without disc brake tabs, which required me to run a chain tensioner and the external torque arm – which both worked flawlessly but looked dead ugly. Later I had the frame retrofitted with Rohloff specific sliding dropouts (incl. disc brake tabs) and I was able to use the much more elegant OE1 torque plate and leave tensioning duties to the sliders. Like I stated before almost any frame can be converted to Speedhub with one of the multiple mounting options. (again: turn to the Rohloff website and their step-by-step Speedhub finder.
Building a Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 is nothing spectacular but can be a bit peculiar -only two things need to be considered:
1, Spoke length: The large diameter of the Speedhub´s shell requires considerably shorter spokes than with other hubs. In a 26” configuration getting the right length spokes can be difficult at times but running the larger diameter 29er hoops puts you in the range of your standard 26” spoke lengths. For finding out your required spoke length have a lookhere (http://www.rohloff.de/en/technical/speedhub/spoke
2, Lacing pattern: The other issue is that lacing is recommended to be different. This is because the spokes can interfere with the hub shell. When doing a 26” wheel it is only possible to execute a 2-crossed, lacing. With 29er wheels and their common ERD of 600 to 605 mm Rohloff clearly recommends doing the same but there is more flexibility.
On my rebuild I had done a 3-crossed lacing with good results. (This was primarily because I wanted to use some high end Sapim CX-Ray bladed spokes that I had laying in my shop.)
Adapting the bike and gearing limitations: The changes to the bike are analogue to the steps of converting your bike to single speeding; meaning you only need a single chain ring, do away with the front and rear derailleur plus shifters, shorten the chain, ….One thing is worth mentioning and that is the ratio between the chain ring and the cog is recommended to be no lower than 2.35 / 1, which basically means in order to not exceed the maximum input torque you should not run a combination lower than 40/17, 38/16, 36/15 or 32/13. By design this also represents the same gearing range of a 9-speed 11-34 configuration. I kept to these recommendations with my 26” wheel but decided to neglect them in my 29er build to compensate for the larger wheels. During the last 7 months I was running my bike most of the time with a 36/16 configuration (yes, this is lower than recommended) and on some specifically grueling alpine trips was even doing a 34/16 combination – (you can see the double ring configuration in the front on the next picture). And this much needs to be said at this point: All without any adverse effects. (Note that this was my personal choice and is not encouraged here.)
When confronting the Rohloff people with this they sure enough told me that this was not covered under warranty but in the same breath assured me not to worry as the hub was built to last. First of all it is built plenty strong (it is designed to handle Pro racing and tandem usage!), secondly there are several safety features built in the hub that would fail when overloaded before serious damage occurred to the hub. For example the internals of the hub are fixed to the shell by 9 small nylon pins that will shear when overloaded prior to any gearing damage. Then there are the bolts that hold the torque plate in place and the list continues …. All things that are easy to fix. GERMAN ENGINEERING at its best.
Weight and mounting:
The weight of a fitted Rohloff SPEEDHUB 500/14 including twist shifter, shifter cables and cable guide is 1700 to 1825 g. This variation is mostly attributed to the way the shifting action reaches the hub. The different mounting options can vary by up to 100 g as well with the OE1 version being the lightest.
The external gear box (picture with the red hub, courtesy of Rohloff AG, also showing n OE1 torque plate and disc brake hub shell) is generally recommended when running disc brakes. It requires full length cable housing running from the shifters right up to the to the box and acts as a transmitting device to the hub. The two screws at the intake act as the cable tensioning devices. The box part can be easily detached by loosening a single tool-free screw for easy wheel removal, while the longer arm remains fixed to the hub. The fixture of the gear box can be rotated by 30° steps all around the hubs axis, independently of the torque arm setup – to allow for maximum flexibility. In the unlikely event of any failure of the shifter or cables this configuration allows to set any gear by a simple 8 mm open wrench.
The internal gearbox (shown on black hub with OE2 plate and non-disc hub shell) is about 100 g lighter by having the shifter cables run directly into the hub but requires some kind of frame mounted stop for the cable housing. In addition the cables need to have a splitting device for wheel removal. (no worry, all these parts are readily available through Rohloff or your dealer). These cables may interfere with the disc rotors, which is why it is not recommended for use with disc brakes. The proprietary twist shifter weighs in at roughly 140 g (with a very small number of tuning shifters available (e. g. by Tune called the “Rolff” or REWEL, Italy) and can be mounted on either side of the bars.
The Rohloff specific rotors (with a 4-bolt attachment by standard chain ring bolts) weigh roughly the same as standard rotors and are available in 160 and 180 mm diameters. There are several aftermarket versions available to get the rear rotors match your front rotors if you are worried about your bikes appearance. All in all my rear wheel with Speedhub and all mounting hardware weighed roughly 2530 g (sans tires that is). This sounds like much (and it is) especially when the comparable wheel with XTR hubs (incl. cassette and rotor), comparable spokes and rims weighs at a seemingly featherweight 1380g. But keep in mind there are about 700 g of other components you get to take off when running the Speedhub (like granny and big chain ring, front and rear mech, and part of the shifters weight). So when you do the math, your bike running on a Speedhub will gain between 500 g (when compared to a SLX/XT level drive train) and ~1100 g (when compared to other high end componentry) – It can be more when considering ultralight components but these riders don´t usually look at the ROHLOFF Speedhub anyway.
Ultimately my personal bike gained ~700 g compared to my XT/XTR drive train I was running before. Was it worth it? Wait and see the riding report. This weight difference will always be there (until ROHLOFF releases a light version of the hub that has been rumored for years now) and it is one of the strongest arguments among weight weenies and XC racers against the Speedhub 500/14, but when you take a look at the internals (shown in this cut away picture, courtesy of Rohloff AG) you begin to appreciate that it is only this much.
Speedhub in Action – Riding experiences on the ROHLOFF Speedhub 500/14:
OK so now that the bike is set up with Rohloff – let´s get it out and dirty!! Like I have mentioned I had owned the ROHLOFF Speedhub 500/14 for some time now, originally in 26” but now for more than 7 months in a 29er wheel so this review is based on some serious mileage. In the 29er configuration I have been on the bike on and off – mostly in the worst of conditions.
Add-ons to the last post: The original Rohloff shifters are not recommended for Carbon bars: For that combination you will have to turn to one of the few aftermarket shifter alternatives like Tune´s Rolff.
And one more thing for those running one of those modern Post-Mount disc brake equipped frames – no adapters existing! (The only option for you is to refer to the long torque arms – not too aesthetically pleasing, but possible)
Shifting impressions: So how is the Speedhub on the trail? The first thing you will realize when coming from your standard external shifting is that you can change gears whenever you choose to – no pedaling, wheel rotation or other motion required. You can change gear with your bike standing – cool.
The downside is that shifting becomes increasingly harder under pedaling loads. It has been mentioned here in some comments that when pedaling hard it becomes near impossible to shift and you are right – it is. This might be a bummer for some but I learned to live with this very quickly and never felt like it was taking away from my performance. You simply learn to take off the pressure for this moment of shifting and then go on. This takes quite some discipline when standing in the starter block but is possible nonetheless. Not being a racer primarily I have come to love the “anytime shifting” of the Rohloff – just think of how often you needed to lift up your bike and do a pedal stroke to air shift into the desired gear when starting out or on the first steep pitch after a downhill, in technical riding, or after a crash. With the Speedhub you just shift, wherever, whenever – simple as that. Besides, Rohloff claims that you just can´t harm the hubs internals by forcing a shift, no matter how hard you pedal – good to know.
With the above mentioned case – there can be some ghost shifting, when shifting under pedal load – I have been able to force them on the hub. But they can happen only between the gears 7 and 8 and it really took me several deliberate attempts to ever make that happen. In all my time on the Speedhub I never experienced this to happen unintentionally so to me the shifting has been 100 % spot on (at any condition).
The shifting action at the shifter can feel a bit undefined, though, especially when coming from the latest crispy SRAM and SHIMANO shifters. Keep in mind that the Rohloff shifter does nothing but pull cables – all the indexing is done inside the Speedhub itself. So cable tension and cable friction do play a role in this but the shifting feel will always be less precise to high end conventional shifters. Theoretically you can shift all 14 gears in one stroke. The 21° twist per gear (273° for all 14 gears) limits this capacity though. Unless you can twist your wrist in very strange ways, it will take 2-3 strokes to cover the full range – but here again, anytime and anywhere. Additionally the large diameter barrel at the shifters make for a considerable cable throw in the hub. If I were to ask for a shifter redesign it would be to make gearing steps smaller, reduce the shifter in overall size and make it carbon bar compatible. The shifters have some strongly triangulated grip area, that has been receiving some “semi-positive” comments – to me it felt fine and despite being a bit oversize I felt OK with it.
Shifting action in respect of finding the correct gear is as simple as it can get – no dual shifters, cross chaining or double gears to consider just equal transmission steps by 13,6 % with each shift. A real no-brainer.
Riding impressions: The first thing that struck me on my bike equipped with ROHLOFF´s Speedhub was the clean looks. I like that and there are way less possibilities to get caught on rocks or branches. (I ride much in wooded or rocky terrain and so I usually have several fatalities with my rear derailleurs every year.) Just like a SS bike, pure, clean and simple but without the limitations (and, yes – more weight).
Gearing range: Like stated many times before, the gearing range is equivalent to a standard 27-spd external system. With the Speedhub it is a very easy task to modify this range in either direction. Going faster is no issue at all (just mount a bigger chain ring) – fine for those running smaller wheels. But us big wheelers are prone to peek in the other direction – choosing even lower gears. The introduction of ever more 11-36 cassettes and other 29er specific gearing are signs for that. And unfortunately here we run into manufacturer recommendations (see prior report). I am glad to say that my neglect of these recommendations and decision for running smaller chain rings (36 and sometimes 34 instead of the recommended 38 teeth) has never ever caused any issues riding (apart from voiding my warranty) but has granted me the option of riding through some climbs where with a normal 34 to 22 gearing I would have been walking.
I admit that at these speeds walking might have been just as fast but personally I love the sensation of riding all the way, rather than pushing (one more reason I could never get hooked on SS riding).
“Rohloffing”: When riding a Speedhub you will be aware that there is something going on in the rear of the bike under you. In some gears you can hear a whirring sound and sometimes feel minimal vibrations at your cranks. Nothing serious but it can be irritating at first. These noticeable gears are the lower 7 ones with a definite climax in gear 7 (which is where the third planetary gear is kicking in). It certainly feels a bit strange to not feel anything in higher gears (8 to 14) and suddenly with the switch from 8 to 7 have these sensations coming. Once you get accustomed to the hub it kind of fades away in your perception – at least it did with me. When being really sensitive you will notice this sensation increase just so slightly under high torque. To me these sensations are what kept me away from going ROHLOFF all the way and never looking back. More on that further down. While the noises and vibration can be more with a new Speedhub, it usually becomes lesser with time. It is a mere effect of all the precision crafted gear wheels adapting to one another and running smoother. The manual states that it will take between 500 to 1000 km to reach its equilibrium and has not been detected to change anymore after. So far I can fully back up that statement.
Besides these lower gears the hub is running mostly unnoticeable. The gear No. 11 is the direct gear with every rotation in the cog is translated directly to the wheel.
One thing that will get you wondering is the fact that when your take off your feet off the pedal when coasting, you likely will see your cranks starting to rotate. Ever seen that happen on your external shifting system? I have and it always has been a sign of some malfunction in the freewheel. “Friction” is the inevitable thought that will cross your mind, which brings us to the next big issue with the ROHLOFF Speedhub:
Efficiency: Rohloff goes through great effort in explaining why their system is near identical in efficiency to a well kept external gearing system – with a multitude of scientific and semi-scientific explanations which I will spare you (have a look for yourself if you have some extra hours). Basically I concluded that efficiency under pedal load and when riding is a different matter to spinning your wheel in the stand. And you know what: I have come to believe them (even though I haven´t been able to understand everything). I have read of reports by riders, who had abandoned using the Rohloff because of the sensation of resistance and friction some gears had given them (and from the above mentioned sensations I can even understand this mental connection). There is probably truth to both sides and I agree this whirring sensation does make you wonder about friction and can lead to the subjective feeling of slowness. Being a tester I can´t just get away with these thoughts and so I went through the effort of looking at the recorded speeds and lap times on my usual rounds and I came to realize it was merely going on in my head (or too minimal to detect by my simple means).
Ignore that suspicion and chances are you will become a Speedhub fan. Give in to that nagging voice and chances are you will always wonder if you might not be faster with standard shifting systems.
Additionally I just want to throw in that efficiency is one side of the coin but being able to shift freely under any circumstance and trail condition might be the other one. In that respect the Speedhub has never let me down. For me it was: When conditions turned really nasty and my externally geared bikes were quitting on me, the Speehub equipped bike remained completely unimpressed.
One more tangible difference is the distribution of the weight with a Speedhub. Here you have much more weight concentrated in the rear of the bike. Lift up your bike and you will immediately notice. Since I was riding it on a light rigid bike the front was plenty light already and having even more weight shifted to the rear it made some adjustment necessary to succeed on some of the steeper climbs. Again, a bit of body english was all that was needed and maneuvers like wheelies and technical riding became natural again. Only Bunny-Hopping just wouldn´t work out for me like before – blame my lack of bike handling skills for that. I am not too fond of big-jumps and air-time and on those small jumps I have been doing it never became an issue. Through other riders I hear that the Speedhub is actually quite popular with gravity driven riders for so the weight distribution can´t be this much off there either.
Maintenance: That has been a very easy one for me – NONE but the frequent lubing of the chain. I have completely neglected the hub, none of the yearly recommended oil changes (though I will do one after completing the test just because it is cheap, simple and it cannot hurt). It is reassuring that Rohloff recommends the yearly oil change (or after 5000 km, whichever comes first) as the only service for the Speedhub 500/14.
When talking about maintenance it is important to note that your chain will be lasting considerably longer (because it will be stressed evenly) and with the cog being reversible you can get twice the mileage out of them (besides being high grade stainless steel anyway) So practically the cost factor grows smaller over time when compared to standard shifting.
I really love riding the Speedhub on epic adventures, tours, especially in adverse conditions or whenever reliability was key, but whenever I was doing XC-style riding with lots of acceleration it only felt 95 % right. It might have been the additional weight or potentially lower efficiency of the system or my mental inability to separate the whirring sensation from actual performance – my means didn’t allow me to distinguish – but for XC-kind of riding the Speedhub just never “klicked” with me. Like I said my basic measurements don´t back that up and so I must call that a purely subjective sensation.
If you are only riding in decent weather and don’t ride through winters the Speedhub will probably not catch your admiration but if you are the kind, who wants to ride anytime, anywhere the Speedhub might just be the ticket.
So my conclusion for the Speedhub is an ambivalent one; on the plus side you have perfect reliability, low maintenance, reliability and … did I say reliability – which to me means riding without any limitations. The bad side (consisting of added and concentrated weight, less crisp shifting and high cost) is longer but much less significant – at least to me. (Plus the whirring sensation in the lower gears I simply had not been able to ignore 100%.)
For epic rides and touring I give it two thumbs up and I favor it over any other transmission currently out there. For XC-racing, jumping and such I know it does work, it just wouldn´t be my first choice.
A few words on the future:
Rohloff and Gates Carbon Drive:
This combination seems like a very logical one (get away with the last bit of frequent maintenance by replacing the often to be lubed chain by the CARBON Drive) and some have already asked about it.
Since I don´t have any first hand experience with it (and no frame that would work anyway) I addressed Rohloff product manager Marco Rauch about it and believe me, they have spent serious time working on it and doing in-house testing with it. But the Rohloff guys wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t expect near foolproof perfection (and 200 % reliability).
Technically the specific parts do exist and given the perfect chain line it does work just fine. Did you read my constraint? While our proven system of chain rings, cogs and chain does handle minor misalignment quite well (SS-riders know what I am talking about), the carbon drive belt system is very sensitive to these things.
It seems that one of the major limitations to the systems working perfectly in sync is the frame design and production (perfect alignment and minimal flex, plus very low tolerances). These things are more or less out of the hands of both Rohloff and Gates but when something does not work perfectly in the power transfer sector, these two will be among the first to be asked for explanations. So understandably they are not easily jumping on that horse before the basic requirements have been met and are executed in frame design.
Additionally I have been told that the testing by Rohloff has shown a recommended smallest cog of 20 sprockets, thus requiring a chain ring 50 sprockets or larger. And that is the least thing you want to do place the Carbon Drive belt closer to potentially harmful things like rocks .