BTCEB Blog No 49: Electronic Shifting or “Huston we have a problem”.

Your electronic shifting system is here.

I went to the 2012 North American Hand Built Show last weekend. The Sacramento show featured some of the best and some of the brightest builders out there. For me it was exciting to see the creativity of some of these builders but I’m depressed knowing some of the larger companies have been sending people to the shows to poach ideas from builders who can ill afford the loss of income when the inexpensive knockoffs start rolling out of the far east in the next two years.

I’m also depressed that some of the majors are going to be incorporating some of the ideas from the smaller builders and not pay them either due respect or pay them for their design work. Also depressed by the prospect of seeing the majors producing frames using internal cable routing (ugh) and integrated lighting systems (same comment).

I wrote about my dislike of internal cable routing a while ago and I’m holding fast to that position. The integrated light systems have a similar issue in that while they may look cool on the showroom what are you going to do when you can’t get replacement batteries, bulbs, lenses? Lame.

Junkyards and antique shops are filled with bikes that had bikes with integrated lighting systems so the question is why is that design any better idea today than when they were first being introduced? I’m at a loss to explain but then again I’m not a designer. On the other hand there have been advancements in light bulb and battery technology but there’s nothing an integrated light system can’t so that battery powered or newer generation bolt on generator system can’t do and with less hassle.

Speaking of batteries, electronic shifting is here and Shimano is going big with it. Granted I know it’s going to be the wave of the future but what an insanely bad idea especially for mountain bikes. I can’t help about thinking what happens when a battery pack or a lead wire craps out on you out in the middle of the woods. I also think about contamination, sub freezing temperatures (the bane of batteries everywhere) parts availability, replacement costs, and the inevitable planned obsolescence that will render the unit useless within five years after your initial purchase.

I suppose, however, that since electronic shifting systems are here they do make some degree of sense for the pro peloton but it will make life on neutral support vehicles that much more interesting. Supporters of electronic shifting say it’s faster, lighter and more accurate than mechanical systems and that may indeed be true I can’t imagine it being anything other than the next Browning Automatic Transmission.

I’m not opposed to technology and I’m not a retro grouch or a Luddite but I seriously believe we’re barking up the wrong tree when it comes to bad design and inappropriate applications of technology. During the last twenty years or so I think there have been some great advancements that have really helped mountain biking, lighter and stronger alloys, tubeless tire systems, suspension, disc brakes, threadless headsets, clipless mountain pedals, 29” wheels, riser and “freak bars” (read; ergonomic mountain bike handlebars by way of Jeff Jones, Titec, and Groovy Cycleworks), condition specific tires, wide range gear bands, external bearing bottom brackets and hallow spindle spline cranks, and chamfered chainrings and cassettes that with lifting and ramps and pins have all made mountain biking enjoyable for a wider range of people.

Retro bikes are fine, heck I still even use top bar mounted shifters, but I know the writing is on the wall and it’s my personal belief that the mountain bike of the future will be using disc brakes, belt drives and low weight, high quality internally geared systems such as the Rohloff Speedhub  but as far as I’m concerned battery powered mountain bike shifting systems make about as much sense as having a screen door on a submarine.

Adam H




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