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Electronic Shifting

Electronic Shifting

(from RR42)

Just because something has been tried and found unreliable before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried again. If that were the case, your next cross-country business trip would be on horseback. No, make that “on foot.” No, make that “a mix of lying on your back and flailing like an infant, and rolling.”

So don’t rule out electronic shifting just because SunTour (in partnership with Browning) and Mavic swung and missed at it in the ‘90s. I rode them both—the SunTour/Browning for about 20 days, and the Mavic, about 300 yards. After about a week of riding (15 hours?) it shifted whenever it felt like it. The Mavic worked fine for a few laps of the Bstone parking lot, but others must have had problems, because it didn’t last. No doubt Shimano knows those failures inside and out, and learned from them.

By the time you read this, you may also have read glowing reviews of Shimano’s system. It is one thing to bet against a last-gasp SunTour effort to stay alive. It’s a similar thing to bet against a French effort to get an electronic drive train to market quick. But you’d have to be a nut to bet against Shimano’s entry, given that they’ve been working on it for well over a decade, with fear of failure and a huge cultural-based fear of loss of face at stake.

On one hand, I want it to succeed, because—being a normal person, I want the vaulter to stick the landing, and the juggler to keep on catching the firey batons while he’s riding the giraffe-like unicycle. When Shimano’s electronics succeed, it will have earned all that applause by making the first ever commercially successful and reliable electronic shifting.

But here’s the thing you knew was coming. I’m afraid of the consequences of a totally glitch-free Shimano Electronic Success. Shimano has always trickled down high-end technology to everything else. Then everybody else follows Shimano, and the next thing you know it’s a world with no manual/cable shifting. Yes, that would be bad.

Electronic shifting, to virtually everybody except the developers, is a secret inside a black box. Every time something goes into a black box, it becomes less accessible, understandable, and scarier. If you’re walking on the moor and your shoelace comes untied, you can fix it. If you’re driving along the moor and your car breaks down and you know as much about cars as I do, you’re out of luck. You get the picture.

Granted, if you don’t know anything about bikes and you shift into the spokes, you’re also out of luck. But at least you can see wuzzup, and when you can see it, your brain kicks into gear.

There’s no equivalent with electronics.

If electronic shifting were a revolutionary boon to all, that would be one thing. But Shimano’s own cable shifting is so easy and so good that there’s no room for a boon. For there to be room, the benefit has to be huge. Were the first electric windshield wipers a boon? I’d say yes.  Was the first snowplow? Yes again. The first elevator? (Consider skyscrapers and people in wheelchairs, not just the lazy). Yes. And don’t let’s even talk about the first flush toilet.

But what about the electric can-openers, vegetable chopper, and carving knives? In a one-handed world, they’re a Zeus-send. In a two-handed world, they downgraded to conveniences.

Racers will use electronic shifting and win on it. But what if the second place finisher is on manual, and electronic shifting actually gave the winner an advantage.  Was it a fair contest?

At best, successful and totally reliable electronic shifting is racer and racing-driven race-bike progress. Mostly, riding a bike is pedaling, not shifting. At its recreational best, it’s joy rides with friends. Electronic shifting won’t increase the fun of that, and cable-shifting doesn’t detract from it. All in all, I hope Shimano doesn’t give up cables. Shimano, please don’t give up cables. (I know nobody at Shimano reads this, and all in all, I give cables a decade, but I’m an optimist.)

Struggles Are Bad. Easy Is Good. Is Too Easy Possible?

People have been on the warpath against work ever since one of the early homos (habilus, erectus) figured out sharp rocks were useful. From those stone tools (which let’s see you make one in 2010!) have come the washboard and the washing machine, the abacus and the computer chip, the bicycle itself and now the electronic shifter. Do the slope lines for ease and progress ever cross? If I’m photographing Yosemite rocks on an overcast day, I can use the manualest, meterlessest camera in the land and get good exposures. If I’m shooting Miesha wearing a beanie for the website and the photo has to go up in five minutes, I use a point-and-shoot digital.

Shifting gears in the ‘70s meant easing up on the pedal stroke and timing the shift to take at the weak spot. Sounds hard, but it was a cinch. Indexing was even easier, until it failed. Eletro-shifting lowers the bar even more. It’s now under the surface. Is that low enough?