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by James Huang
June 2, 2017
Photography by James Huang
I remember vividly the first time I rode a modern electronic transmission. It was August 2008, and Shimano had flown a small group of journalists to Japan to sample its latest achievement. As a longtime fan of various forms of motorsports racing, it was also quite a treat to have that first taste be on the legendary Suzuka race circuit where so many Formula 1 and Moto GP machines have traveled before. And with so much hype surrounding Shimano’s new Di2 system, suffice to say that I was looking forward to the experience.
As for the test ride itself, it didn’t quite go according to plan.
Uncharacteristically for that time of year, there was a virtual monsoon that day, with buckets of rain pounding down from dark grey skies and a race course that was covered in standing water. That said, it was also ideal conditions — at least in my eyes — for testing an unproven electronic drivetrain that could literally short-circuit if something went awry.
That ride didn’t last very long, but it was telling. I made every effort possible to treat Shimano’s new baby like an absolute gorilla, reversing directions out back before the chain was allowed to settle into the originally selected gear, simultaneously shifting both ends (repeatedly, and under power), and generally breaking every drivetrain rule that’d been drilled into my head after so many years of riding.
And do you know what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Regardless of what I did, Shimano’s system simply outsmarted me, delivering perfect shift after perfect shift.
Granted, nine years of collective experience with Di2 (along with Campagnolo EPS and, now, SRAM Red eTap) have demonstrated that electronic drivetrains aren’t always perfect, but on the whole, it’s hard not to be impressed by their robotic consistency. 100% would, of course, be ideal, but 99.5% is still pretty damned good.
Shimano’s third-generation Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset is a technological marvel. But as good as it is, pushing a button to send electrons down a wire still feels a bit cold to me.
So why do I still prefer mechanical drivetrains on my own bikes, then?
There are a lot of reasons why electronic drivetrains are superior. Unlike braided steel cables and plastic-lined housing that constantly stretch, squish, and abrade, wires aren’t subject to wear over time. Aside from periodic battery charging, electronic drivetrains are practically maintenance-free. They also don’t care if it’s cold or wet or muddy, there are heaps of customization options, they’re more consistent, and so on.
But electronic drivetrains have always left me a little cold. When I push a button on an electronic shifter, it does exactly what I tell it to do, but at the same time, it also doesn’t tell me anything in return.
I’m hardly averse to advancing technology: I’m a big believer in disc brakes, I usually prefer carbon-fiber frames, and I almost never ride without a GPS computer. But when it comes to bicycle transmissions, it’s just that I prefer the feel of physically doing something with my hands. When I push on a standard Shimano Dura-Ace lever, I can feel the derailleur moving at the other end. When I release the ratchet on a SRAM DoubleTap lever, I’m rewarded with a loud “click.” When I slam the thumb lever on a Campagnolo Ergopower lever, I know exactly how many gears I’ve selected by how far my finger has moved.
Is there a lever that delivers more tactile feedback than Campagnolo’s Ergopower? Electronic systems may work better, but it doesn’t speak to me.
There’s also the undeniable appeal in the simplicity of a mechanical drivetrain: a lever moves a cable at one end, and another component at the other end of the cable moves in kind. I can see and hear what’s going on, and problems are easily diagnosed (and fixed); the same can’t be said of electrons traveling at light speed through a copper wire.
Yes, I know that mechanical drivetrains require periodic maintenance to keep everything in tip-top shape. Yes, I know my prized stash of Gore Ride-On sealed derailleur cable-and-housing sets will eventually run out. And yes, I know that in many ways I’m nursing a dinosaur and turning a blind eye to the future.
But I spent fourteen years as a bike shop mechanic and still do all my own work. I enjoy doing bike maintenance, not needing a computer inside my garage, and that stash of Gore Ride-On cables is big enough to last me a lifetime.
SRAM Red eTap has forged new ground, delivering the reliable wireless electronic groupset that Mavic could not many years ago. But is an electronic drivetrain inherently better than a mechanical one?
For me, it’s like an automatic transmission versus a manual one in modern automobiles. While the former has advanced to the point where the latter is essentially obsolete, there’s a level of user engagement that comes with one, but not the other, that still justifies its existence in the eyes of the faithful.
Don’t get me wrong; I love electronic drivetrains, I really do. I have the utmost of admiration for what they’ve become, for their technological superiority, for their merciless pursuit of engineering perfection. From a purely functional standpoint, they are, without doubt, better.
But for the type of riding that I typically like to do, getting from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible isn’t as important as how much I’m enjoying the space in between — and as far as cycling goes, my interaction with my machine is a big part of that.
Shimano recently reaffirmed its commitment to mechanical drivetrains with its latest Dura-Ace R9100 groupset, as has Campagnolo with the recent launch of its long-awaited hydraulic disc components, all of which have mechanical as well as electronic analogues. And while SRAM is sure to bring eTap down to the Force (and perhaps Rival) levels at some point, it’s clear the company isn’t abandoning cables any time soon.
And do you know what? That’s just fine with me.