Electronic shifting is here—now what?
It’s time to set aside our doubts and misgivings and embrace electronic shifting. Shimano’s Di2 platform has eclipsed all expectations and the Italians are slowly ushering their version to market, so where’s it all headed?
In any field of endeavour, progress can be seen to take place in one of two ways: first, there are the incremental advances that occur as an idea or notion is refined, and second, there are the great leaps that come with a major shift in thinking. Electronic shifting has to be viewed as a great leap forward for the bicycle, and while it may take a few years, it will have a profound effect on the way that bikes are designed and ridden. I’ve collected a few early examples here to illustrate my point.
By getting rid of the cable-and-lever system for shifting, bike-builders will be free to explore a new level of component integration with electronic shifters. Di2’s leads are easily threaded through frame tubing, however the system’s brain and power source are still housed in a makeshift manner (and look about as awkward as a set of training wheels). Rob English is one of the first frame builders to integrate these items into his frames with some stunning results. First, he created a new home for the brain in the stem.
Second, Rob devised a very clever solution for the battery by sourcing an after market product from Icarus Lights that can be hidden in the frame and charged via a USB port situated the seat tube of the frame. Plug-and-play, baby!
Out of the box, Shimano’s Di2 system can be customised a little by toggling the function of the buttons on the brake levers and fitting satellite buttons, but much more can be done to personalise the platform as demonstrated by Jason Woznick and his team at Fairwheel Bikes in Tucson, Arizona. Dura Ace Di2 was barely on the shelves when Fairwheel decided to modify it for a mountain bike. In Version 1 of their Di2 MTB, they engineered custom shifting buttons and threaded all the cables (including the hydraulic brake lines) through the handlebars and stem for a very clean build.
However, Jason had bigger ambitions and for Version 1.2, he recruited Jeff Roberson to crack open Di2 and engineer a new brain to create sequential gear shifting. The new bike was fitted with just two shift buttons, up and down, and Jeff programmed the brain to combine front and rear shifting to yield a semi-automatic gearbox for the bike. He also added in a manual shift option and a gear dumping function. For the final build, the brain was hidden in the stem and Shimano’s satellite buttons were mounted next to right brake lever.
Again, the result was another clean looking build, but it was the function of the customized Di2 platform hat really stood out. Indeed, Jason was blown away by the quality of the sequential shifting on his first ride:
“I had high hopes but not high expectations. Here’s the problem I was having: front and rear derailleurs shift very differently, they feel different and typically allow/require different amounts of pressure on the pedals to make a clean shift. I figured that not knowing when the system was going to shift the front would be a problem. My guess was a front shift when I was not expecting it would seem very out of place compared to the rear only shifting which would precede it. To my absolute surprise this was not the case at all. The Di2 shifts the front so quickly and firmly that front shifts were hardly noticeable.”
For 2011, Fairwheel Bikes brought Version 1.3 of their Di2 MTB to Interbike, and it’s their cleanest build yet. The sequential shifting application has been retained but the shift buttons have been split to place one on either side of the handlebars.
Jason and his team are continuing to develop their ideas, saying “we’re really close to a version 2.0”. They have Shimano’s blessing too and have even benefitted from “factory” support over the course of this project. Jason has no plans to commercialise their work, but he does see it contributing to the evolution of electronic shifting:
“I think what I would most like to do with all of this is influence others, which is why we’ve been so open about what we’re doing. We’re hoping that some of our ideas get adapted into future production versions and that they convince the developers to try new things. In several years everyone will be riding electronic and our little projects will have been totally forgotten, but hopefully some of our ideas will be commonplace in the systems, particularly that of apps and open source style development is what we’re hoping. If we can inspire and maybe influence a little to help get that concept into place, I think every cyclist will be better off for it.”
I can’t provide a clever forecast for the future of electronic shifting but the examples above demonstrate that it will be exciting. The possibilities seem enormous and there is perhaps no better indication of this than the recent Prius x Parlee concept bike, where some engineers from Toyota had their way with the Di2 platform with stunning results. If you aren’t familiar with this bike, watch this video:
Special thanks to Jason Woznick for taking the time to answer my questions and providing lots of pics to share with the readers of CT.