Rohloff v’s Derailleur – Cycle Touring

If you’re not familiar with the Rohloff Speedhub you may not want to read any further.  Since the birth of this high end hub in 1998, cycle tourists have had another decision to make when planning their next bike build. The mainstay of touring bikes rely on regular external derailleur drivetrains to provide gear range but there is another option, and it’s an option more and more cycle tourists are seriously considering.

The Rohloff Speedhub is a rear wheel hub containing your entire gear system. All moving parts are permanently bathed in oil, protected from knocks, moisture and dirt. It eliminates the need for front and rear derailleurs, cassette, rear hub, chainrings and a front shifter.

Rohloff internal gears for cycle touring bikes

There’s no dispute that the Rohloff hub is yet another example of superb German engineering. The company has been established since 1986 and has sent their Speedhub 500/14 model all over the world. Potentially this system could be considered the natural evolution of bicycle drivetrains and it’s only a matter of time before all high end bicycles incorporate a hub geared system, leaving derailleurs behind forever.

The Rohloff Speedhub may seem the clear favourite over a basic derailleur gear system but the ‘Rohloff or not’ debate is hard fought between cycle tourists. The biggest sticking point against Rohloff is the price tag, at around a thousand pounds it’s a big investment.

Redundant Shimano XT components - rear and front derailleurs, casette, chain rings and shifters when using a Rohloff Speedhub for cycle touring

If cost is not an issue the other common stumbling block is the ‘what if?’ camp. The Rohloff hub has an excellent track record of reliability but naturally with anything mechanical we worry about what happens when it breaksdown? What if the hub fails completely in the back of beyond? The very nature of the Speedhub is that it’s a completely sealed unit protecting the internal gear system from muck and moisture. Should your hub fail, there’s little tinkering opportunity to get you back on your way.

To help you decide what gear system will suit your cycle touring best I’ve complied some common questions asked about the Rohloff Speedhub

Cross scetion of the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 internal hub gear system for cycle touring bikes

Rohloff Speedhub – Pro’s and Con’s

How does using a Rohloff hub geared bike compare to bike fitted with a derailleur?

Although staggeringly complex internally, the mechanics externally are beautifully simple. The shifter requires a simple twist up to go up a gear and a twist down to go down. No more ‘change up on the front derailleur and down two sprockets on the rear’. There is a two cable system between shifter and hub, these are easy to replace (if ever needed) and there’s also nothing spring loaded at either end to fail

Another difference between the two systems is the ability to change gears whilst stationary or coasting with the Rohloff. No need to struggle pushing off in too low a gear after a sudden stop, just twist through to your preferred gear and go. This is an especially handy feature with a fully laden touring bike. You can also change from a high gear to a low gear in one movement without having to physically go through the gears.

A new Rohloff hub may initially feel a bit notchy but will wear in. If you’re use to riding with derailleur and cassette the Rohloffs gear spacing although evenly spaced (13.5%) will feel quite large . That said, gear changes are faultless, there’s no chattering between gears, no slipping or jumping. Changes happen in a fraction of a second whereas a derailleur gear change is delayed by the physical movement of the chain.

I have never felt so confident riding out of the saddle, there’s a reassuring certainty when riding with a Rohloff that needs to be experienced. Hubs are the same as derailleur gears regarding changing under pressure, the Rohloff system has a safety feature to prevent excess wear so you physically cant crunch through the gears.

How does the gear range differ from a derailleur set-up?

Although a Rohloff Speedhub has only 14 equally spaced gears, the lack of overlap experienced on a derailleur setup means a range of gears can be achieved similar to a typical 3×10 triple or 2 x 10 compact chain-set – making it ideal for all types of riding and touring on or off-road.

Final ratios are determined by the size of the chain-ring used at the crank and the size of the sprocket used at the hub.

Rohloff Speedhub gear range in comparison with a 27 speed mountain bike drailleur drivetrain

What does a Rohloff set up weigh compared to a derailleur drivetrain?

The comparison between the Rohloff SPEEDHUB 500/14 and the components of a derailleur system shows a slight increase in weight. The derailleur system weighs in at around 1600 grams and the Rohloff at 1820 grams.

How does fitting a Rohloff Speedhub effect the rear wheel?

The rear wheel of normal derailleur systems need to be dished to accommodate the room required for the cassette. This creates a difference in spoke tension. The tension on the dished side is considerably higher and this can lead to problems.

When the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 is built into a 32 or 36 spoke wheel, it is considerably more robust than the common 36 spoke wheels. The stability is actually almost identical to that of a 48 spoke tandem wheel.

The spoke flanges of the Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 are constructed symmetrically. This allows all spokes to be at the same angle on both sides of the wheel making for a much stronger wheel due to the evenly distributed spoke tension. This also makes for a much more straightforward job when replacing spokes, no more struggling with cassette removal and no need to carry chain whips and a cassette tool.

What maintenance is required with a Rohloff hub?

The Rohloff hub holds 25ml of oil which Rohloff recommend should be changed once a year or after every 5,000km. This is a simple process that involves removing a small grub screw in the hub to drain old oil and refill with new. Otherwise it’s recommended that the hub outer is occasionally washed with water and a mild detergent and not with a pressure washer.

Rohloff Speedhub Service kit including oil cleaning fluid syringe and straw

What if my Rohloff Speedhub fails?

There has never been a single reported complete failure of a Rohloff Speedhub. I’ve read of only a few problems, one after 54,000km and the other two both over 100,000km. Two of these problems were the result of water ingress, the third was a hub flange failure. Not bad considering there has been well over 150,000 units produced. In these three cases the hub has remained operational and the rider has been able to get to a location where the hub can be sent back to Rohloff. Rohloff has an exceptional customer service reputation and are renowned for their speedy service and keeping travellers cycling.

Although the hubs are completely sealed it is worth checking the condition of the seals and bearing or having a hub service from time to time where oil, bearings, seals and cables are renewed.

The worry of a complete failure in the back of beyond is the main concern echoed by a lot of cyclist considering converting from derailleur to Rohloff hub, but this is irrefutable. Yes, derailleur drivetrain parts are more likely to be found in the back of beyond, (after all this system has had a century’s head-start over the Rohloff) but any urban centre in any part of the world can be reached by courier in a matter of days for a delivery of parts. The bigger picture is that the hub gear (or derailleur system for that matter) is not the only or even the most likely point of failure. It could be argued that the wheel rims, the handlebars, the forks and even the frame are more susceptible to catastrophic failure. Statistics state that there is very little chance of catastrophic failure from the Rohloff hub.

exploded diagram of a rohloff speedhub 500 14 for cycle touring bikes

Cost – How can anyone justify a £1000 component?

As far as getting underway on a cycle tour is concerned a regular derailleur system is equal to a Rohloff. You’ll have to spend more time maintaining, tweaking and cleaning a derailleur drivetrain but you’ll be able to ride and that’s the important bit, right?

Should you have a thousand pounds burning a hole in your pocket, can the Rohloff be justified? I really believe it can be. Take a look at the Rohloff inners, there’s a whole lot of componentry going on in there, it’s a mechanical masterpiece! Every component is precision engineered using top quality materials, those components are away from the elements, protected from damage and permanently bathed in oil. Great engineering, quality components, perfect conditions – could you ask for more?

The ultimate question is how a Rohloff hub performs and lasts in comparison to a regular derailleur? In terms of build quality, the Rohloff is in a different league to say a Shimano XT derailleur. Nobody knows what lifespan to expect from a Rohloff hub. Rohloff say that to date they’ve not had a single unit fail. I’d expect a Rohloff hub to outlast a conventional drivetrain three times over but then there’s also the vulnerability factor of the external derailleur to consider.

Could one Rohloff potentially replace three or four regular derailleur purchases? There’s no initial outlay, fitting costs or replacement purchases for a front derailleur, front shifter, cassette and additional chainrings when using the Rohloff system. Your rear wheel is stronger when built with a Rohloff hub so should last longer and therefore not need replacing as often. All of a sudden that Rohloff price tag isn’t looking so expensive!

See the Rohloff website here

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