Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Would I Rohloff again?

Galen dropped me an email asking: "...I actually have an Xtracycle set up on a Specialized stumpjumper, and I'm considering moving over to a Big Dummy so I can have my mountain bike back... I've found your blog very informative, and I'm wondering if you were to set up the BD again, if you'd still go with the Rohloff Hub? It seems like a big investment, but I've read nothing but good things about it... Is there anything else you'd change?"

Great question so I thought I'd answer it as a blog post instead of replying by email.

The simple answer is yes I'd buy another Rohloff if I was starting from scratch with a Big Dummy. Nothing that has happened so far has changed my interest in finding out what a Rohloff is like. It has performed flawlessly and has not needed any attention once installed. However keep in mind that one of the reasons that I bought it is to see what they are like in the long haul. So in part this is an experiment for the sake of field data.

In comparison to the MTB/trekking drivetrain on my LHT the Rohloff really has not added anything significant into the mix so far. In other words had I built up my Big Dummy with a inexpensive deore/LX MTB drivetrain I think I'd still be completely happy and have $1000+ in my pocket. That's not a slam against the Rohloff as much as it is a testament to how well a normal MTB drivetrain works and how cheap you can get them for. As the miles accumulate on both my LHT and my Big Dummy I'll compare how they are both aging and what pros/cons come up with them.

To be fair the Rohloff does have 4 benefits over the MTB drivetrain and 1 potentially serious con:
  • The first benefit is that you can shift at a stop with the Rohloff. This isn't life altering, but when you've got the back end of your cargo bike heavily loaded it's a very nice luxury when you've stopped at the bottom of a steep hill in high gear.
  • The second benefit is that it's immune to sand/mud/dirt/rain with all the important bits inside and no springs to clog up it will shift and work for you as long as the chain can go round.
  • The third benefit is that drivetrain maintenance is minimized and once you wear out your chain/cog/chainring on one side you can simply flip them over and wear them out all over again. How important these last two benefits are really depends on where you ride. If dirt roads and offroading in the rain are part of your life this could be key. If you live someplace where it's raining all the time and you don't want to futz with your drivetrain a Rohloff and Scott Oiler could mean zero maintenance until the chain skips 'cause you've worn everything out - cool.
  • The fourth benefit is the rear wheel is zero dish. That makes it very strong. Now Rohloff kind of screws up this benefit by then only offer 32H hubs. So instead of using a 36H or 40H standard hub you use a zero dish 32H hub. That makes it pretty much a wash. Although 32H rims are ubiquitous and so far easier to locate should you suddenly need a replacement.
  • Well now we come to the serious con. It's simply that if something does goes wrong with your Rohloff that needs parts and/or servicing you are screwed. During my Big Dummy build I forgot to order a couple small parts for my Rohloff and my build stopped in its tracks while they were ordered and shipped from the US. It took 3 weeks to get things going again and that's from the US to Canada - with email/fax/cellular phone at my disposal 24/7 - plus I was ordering some common Rohloff parts. Imagine if I was in Peru and I needed an obscure part or worse still I had no idea what I needed and my hub wasn't working. Even something as simple as replacing the cog on a Rohloff takes a special Rohloff tool that nobody has. The gamble with a Rohloff is that nothing will ever happen to your hub. It seems like Rohloffs, by and large, work for years trouble free for their owners, but one read of the Thorn Rohloff Forum tells you that problems do occur and in many cases the solution is shipping the hub back to Rohloff or a major Rohloff dealer like Thorn Bikes. Contrast that with a problem you have with a normal MTB drivetrain in rural Mexico. Your derailleur is toast so you ask around the small town you're in for someone with a cheap MTB, you buy their rear derailleur and install it. You flip your bar end shifter to friction mode and you ride away. Problem solved 2hrs. There is something to be said for using parts compatible with 60-80% of the bikes in the world.
I guess another way to answer this question is would I buy a second Rohloff if I was building up another cargo bike? No - I'm happy to have one and I want to see how things go with it, but at the same time I don't have another $1000 to invest in a specialized internal gear hub. I'd just use a MTB drivetrain [I've got at least one spare one I could throw on] and I'd accept that in a few situations I'd have been better off with a Rohloff.

Who knows give me a few years of Rohloff happiness and I might change my tune. Instead of being "the cat lady" I'll become "the Rohloff Guy" with Rohloffs as far as the eye can see on all of my bikes...=-)

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