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I was poking around in my local bicycling emporium the other day when I came across my first in-the-flesh impenetrable technology frontier. Now you, and certainly I, would probably relate the world of bicycles to technological conservatism; or at least with a considered pace of technology advancement that admits change only when change is for the good. Unlike just about every other dimension of a world gone mad, cycling is the place where stuff happens only because stuff needs to happen rather than just because it can. Except, of course, when it comes to the wondrous world of wavy system carbon decorating the mad Dali melted clock-like frames from the House of Pinarello. Or those zertz inserts in my precious Roubaix. Of course.

A bicycle is a bit of a refuge from the plastic deceptions of consumer trash that bloats the rest of the world in which we ride.

I mean, when was the last time you checked out the astounding junk that the automobile makers regurgitate into inanities of their designs? Fake wood plasti-dashboard panelling, ikky-yuk plush pile seat covers that even the mice won’t touch, ludicrous flashing lights to distract attention from everything – including the road, ipod docs, mobile phone cradles, and cup holders! Lots of cup holders.

When was the last time you checked out the honesty-of-purpose of stuff like stereo systems (designed by marketing departments rather than audio engineers), automatic washing machines and espresso coffee machines that work worse than the manual designs they replaced – and electric razors (do we really need an LED readout to tell us to wash the stinking thing out?).

No, dear and gentle reader, the bicycle is one of the few icons left for honest goods that meet simple needs without the distractions of pretence. The bicycle provides absolutely no apology for the fact that to make this thing work as per its design, the onus is on you, the rider, to perform. Bloaty baldies riding their middle-aged fantasies of youth will still just look like bloaty baldies having themselves on… Which explains the allure of tinted windows, loud colours and a roaring engine as the preferred vehicle of choice thorough which to automate those particular fantasies.

Until now.

I’ve found my cycling technology frontier. I think I have become a Luddite. I certainly felt like smashing the newfound object of my scorn. Like a cancerous growth on an otherwise sound limb – there it was. A festering joke told by accountant-traumatised engineers intent on having a good final laugh. An April Fool’s joke spelt out in plastic and wires.

I refer, of course, to Shimano’s new electric gruppo. Little electric engines to shift our gears. Like a parasitic growth, the battery to make all this work attaches like that nasty cancerous disease afflicting the mouths of Tasmanian Devils. And there are wires everywhere. And for what? So that instead of a simple push on a traditional lever, these whirring engines of a culture gone mad can take up that miniscule effort instead?

I played with this thing. I pushed the buttons. Push them and the derailleurs move in or out. Like a sewing machine. About as useful as one of those blower machines people use these days instead of brooms. Brooms work better. And so do the now old fashioned push buttons of SRAM Red or Campagnolo Record.

I tried to point out to my over enthusiastic comrade in his local cycling emporium of machinery and culture that the push I provide to make my SRAM Red move is actually less of a push than is needed to move these new electronic gears. And I can push, and push and push some more and not have to worry about a battery running out. Or having to live with a battery cancer-attached to the flowing (yes, wavy carbon) lines of my bike. So what’s the point? No cable maintenance he said. Says he while I am looking at all those stupid electric wires fouling the lines of this bike he’s trying to sell. It self-centres it’s shifts, he proclaims. So does SRAM Red. So does Campagnolo Record. Or the old Dura Ace.

So what’s the point?

Ha! I think I have it sussed. This is the gear that it’s going to take to get those bloaty baldies into exorcising their fantasies of a long lost youth via two wheels instead of four. This is the gear a golfer would buy!

9 Responses to “The Luddite Frontier”
  1. Your last paragraph hits the nail right on the head.

    (See also Cycling is not the new golf.)

  2. This doesn’t make any sense to me either, but seems like I’ve seen several new electric shifting bikes lately. I can understand it just a little (very little) bit more for those automatic bikes aimed at senior citizens, but this seems a bit like buying a Porsche with “auto-manual” paddle shifters.

  3. Richard says:

    I think you may be over emphasising the simplicity and purity of cycling manufacturers and consumers.
    Things you dont need on a bike and fall into the same category as many of the car features you mention.
    – Carbon fibre bar tape, or carbon fibre biddon cages. Most of which are useless..
    – Suspension on virtually every MTB or Hybrid on the market, its just not needed unless you are serious trail riding/off roading. Yet like the 4wd car market, people want to enter into the delusion they might go exploring one day. Manufaureres just cant sell a MTB without suspension forks.. whats that say about the consumer….
    – Biopace change rings and many other reinventions of the wheel that apear more about marketing than improving the breed.

    Agreed the basic design has evolved slowly and sensibly, nut not without its share of strange trnds and gadgets.

  4. Bob De Jonge says:

    I like your blog & writing—very thoughtful and deep.
    I love the geeky stuff in bikes. The Di2 is cool, although I’ve been using electronic shifting since the Mavic Zap in the mid-90’s.
    I do despise the extra pair of shift cables tangling up my handlebar area, and have never had a bike with the dual control levers which seem to have taken over now. Now there is a new technology that is not needed and has taken bike design &n packagin back 10 years. The Di2 gets rid of those unneeded cables up there, and replaces them with more easily routed wires, which are not sensitive to routing and radii & such. We’re already seeing frames specifically designed for this group and internal routing, making for an extremely clean package — that’s what I’m all about.
    I still prefer downtube shifters, and have a lifetime supply of 8sp Campy C-Rec stuff to last my remaining years. Simple, clean lines afforded by D/T shifters and simple brake cables up front is nirvana to me.
    My God — the Shimano solution having these gross cables coming out of the brake lever out in the air, dangling out there — anathema to me… arrrgghh! At least the Campy solution keeps the shift cables under the tape or inside the bar. The newer SRAM follows that as well. But, all have those 4 cables wrapping around the head tube like squid ganglia.
    But, I do like to explore the geeky electronic shifting stuff. It offers clean design lines once again to the bikes.
    The rules must’ve changed since Mavic intro’d their Zap & then Mektronic gruppos, as Mavic could not move the derailleurs with any energy other than that generated by the rider. Shimano’s solution is easy as it uses simple closed-loop controlled servos to move both front and rear derailleurs. Mavic’s rear solution is really interesting. You should dissect a Zap or Mektronic rear unit sometime to check it out — chain-driven cams move the chain up/down reacting against little pins engaged by actuators. The derailleur is actually moved by power taken from the pulley wheels.
    Anyway —- great writing and keep it up. I love both old and (some)new.

  5. John says:

    Yeah, I remember asking “$500 to just shift gears? My $50 Dura Ace SIS levers do just fine!” Now you can’t even mount them on most bikes, and the rear derailleur costs $500 alone.

    But $5000 just to shift gears, especially since gear shifting is pretty much flawless now? Ridiculous. and wait until the conductors fatigue and you can only shift when turning right.

    Now regarding carbon fiber bidon holders, they’re worth every penny. I have snapped or fatigued out every aluminum cage I’ve owned within a couple of seasons. I’ve broken unbreakable Profile resin cages. I’ve had the same set of carbon fiber cages for 5 years now and they still work perfectly. Not one ejected bottle in 5 years.

  6. tonyt says:

    “the push I provide to make my SRAM Red move is actually less of a push than is needed to move these new electronic gears”

    Bull. Seriously, I’ve ridden both. Have you actually ridden the Di2?

    So much of what you’re saying was said with the advent of index shifting, hyperglide, and the first STI shifters.

    Di2 is here to stay. It’s not just easier to shift though, the real leap happens up front. The front shift happens flawlessly and without the dreaded overshift . . . ever.

    Happens every 10 years or so. The line is drawn in the sand, and the years wash it away.

  7. Anonymous says:

    love the leafblower pic

  8. ontheshoreline says:

    I just switched to a Dynamic shaftdrive with a 8speed Shimano hub… more sprockets and chains for this guy!!!
    I don’t think I would buy a chain drive again.
    yeah my bike is one pound heavier than a chain drive….but i like it,no dirty chain,I can shift when stopped,grease drive every 6 months or so.

  9. Greg Brown says:

    Great article, and the leafblower pic is gold. Those things represent mankind at his most depraved.

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