MEC has started selling a flat bar bike called the Chance that is equipped with an Alfine 11 rear hub. I took one for a brief test spin the other day. I was interested since I have about a year’s experience riding two different bikes with the Alfine 8 hub. I’ve been very happy with the 8 spd, and I was curious to see how the new hub compares. There has been a lot of buzz about this hub, since it has a wider gear range, and is potentially easier to service (having an oil bath rather than grease lubrication), but this was the first time that I had an opportunity to ride it.
There is a lot to like about the way this bike is set up. The bias in the design is clearly to reduce weight, which accounts for the aluminum frame, carbon fork and seatpost, and relatively nice components. The rear dropout is a sliding vertical dropout design to tension the chain. Note that the rear disc mount slides with the rest of the dropout, and there are provisions for both fenders and rack mounts.
However, one thing that I find really handy on a city bike is a kickstand. I wish that there was a kickstand plate. Worse still, the way the cables are routed under the BB, you can’t attach a standard kickstand at all, although I guess you could use one of the rear triangle designs.
I do like the newer brake lever design. Here you can compare it back to back with my older 8 speed unit.
Note that on the 8 speed lever, the brake line extends out the front of the unit much in the same position as a brake cable. In the newer unit, the brake line comes out much closer to the lever itself, making a more compact and pleasing arrangement.
How does it ride? Please bear in mind that these impressions were gathered during a 20 minute test ride on fairly busy downtown streets. The first thing is that many of the characteristics that I like about the Alfine 8 carry over here: the unit is near silent in all gears, and also during freewheeling. The shifts are quite quick and positive. The hydraulic brakes are great. My favourite feature of the new unit is that the direction of shifting is reversed from the 8 speed. On the 11 spd, hitting the forefinger trigger slackens the shifting cable and shifts the hub to higher gears, like a conventional derailleur unit. On the 8 speed, the trigger also slackens the cable, but it shifts the cable to lower gears. You can see that the direction of the numbers on the two different shifters is reversed. I can get used to this on my Alfine bike with the rapidfire shifter, but when I use the 8 speed on my bike with JTek bar end shifters, it is always disconcerting.
There have been some reports on the web with problematic shifts on the 11 spd unit. I didn’t find the shifting to be much different than on the 8 spd. On either unit it is always helpful to let off on the pressure on the pedals while shifting. However, if I really tried, I could get the unit to almost miss a shift, particular between 4 and 5. In such cases, it would shift with a loud “clunk”. It would still shift; I never got any skipping, which I could experience on the 8 spd when the cable adjustment was off.
Overall I was impressed, but since I already have two bikes with the Alfine 8 speed, I justify the upgrade right now. There is a lot to like about the Chance. As far as I know, the MEC Chance and the Brodie Once are the cheapest bikes out there with the 11 speed, with MSRP’s of $1500 and $1450, respectively in Canada. I think that it is a difficult price point in the market. Most people who would be inclined to pay that much for a bike wouldn’t pay that much for a city bike, or would want something lighter. The salesperson said that they have had it in stock in Toronto for about a month, and have sold three in that time. At the same time, for people with very particular tastes such as myself, the lack of a kickstand plate is disappointing, and I’m also put off by the carbon fork and seat tube.
Also, the manufacturers are just at the point where belt drive is gaining traction for high end city bikes. The Norco Ceres with belt drive and Alfine 11 is just a little more money. It looks like my dream city bike is just a year or two off.
Update: in response to Alex’s question, here is a reverse angle view: The gear changer and brake lever are mounted slightly apart on a curved bar, but this is not enough to account for the visible angle between the brake line and gear cable. It seems that this is a design flaw that has been corrected in the newer version.
Update #2: One of the reported benefits of the new hub is that it is more efficient than the old. Although it was not possible to detect any difference between the 8 speed and the 11 speed during the short test ride, I was curious to see if there was any difference in spin down time of the rear wheel. I went back to MEC and spun the 11 speed, side by side with my 8 speed. What I found was that the 8 speed spun much more freely. The salesman said that it takes a while for the hub to wear in. Also, I grant you that the test is only an indication of the hub drag during coasting, rather than under power, but I guess this test was inconclusive.