Thursday, November 03, 2011

Analog Or Digital?: The Electronic Shifter Debate

K-Edge left electronic mtb shifter
Today's rant brought to you by The Electron, without which your day would totally suck. (And without which you wouldn't even be looking at this!)

  Remember to pick up your Electrons today! (Now in handy pill sized Lithium-Ion form for your convenience!)

Changes....they keep on a-comin', and one thing is certain, that won't change. The latest thing to bubble up is electronic shifting. Just a roadie thing, you say? Well, I think it will definitely come to mountain bikes someday. Probably sooner than later.

I'm speaking of production gruppos, by the way. If you want a mountain bike Di2 set up, you can get that already here. It is a graft of road production electronic shifting onto a mountain biking format.

My thoughts are not whether this is "good" or "bad", per se', but rather, just what does this say, if anything, about mountain biking? Is it really "mountain biking" if we cross the line to electronic shifting, or have we sold our souls to a "digital devil"? Where does it stop? Maybe you've heard about, or remember electronically controlled suspension forks, and certainly we all know about electrically assisted mountain bikes.

It seems to be the way of "progress" to make everything robotic and digitized. Certainly, it is a pillar of our Western world culture. Make something "new" and "better" in terms of what this means to our culture and you inevitably come to grips with zeroes and ones at some point. Digital, electronic, and servo-motored reality is encroaching upon all aspects of our way of life. Don't think so? Turn off the power to your house, and take away the batteries, then see how far you get. Suddenly the Amish don't look so foolish.

But I am not debating the good or bad concerning our post-post modern way of life, just pointing out that it seems inevitable that cycling will be overtaken by servo-motored, assisted shifting, electronically controlled shock damping, and heck, even navigation and training are already dominated by electronics. 

Bringing it back to shifting: Does this signal the end for Bowden cable operated mountain bikes?

First off, I think that answer is no, it doesn't. Much needs to be figured out yet, and even then, the costs of such electronic shifting systems is enormous compared to "normal" shifting systems. I do think it will happen, but I don't think it will eliminate what we already are using.

The bigger question to me is the philosophical one about what is mountain biking? Does mountain biking become something less when we start to decrease the human power element, if electronic shifting even does that to any degree? (I would say that it does.) It seems like the more we rely on electronics to do work for us, the more we remove ourselves from something essential to bicycling.

Maybe that's just old, crusty, retro-grouch me, but I believe it. (Signing off now as I switch off the electric guitar and pick up my acoustic.....)


mw said...

i like cables.
they are simple.
they slide an exact distance when requested to do so.
you can feel the chain and tooth profile thru a well adjusted and maintained thumbshifter.

MostlyFurious said...

I would agree with you that electronic shifting decreases the human power element, but I don't feel that forcibly removes ourselves from mountain biking. Whether or not it diminishes the experience is up to us individually. We won't have to use this stuff, but it does us more options. All the technology changes we've seen come to mountain biking, whether they are mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, or electronic have made things a little easier. Sometimes those advantages enable us to go further or faster than we could have without them. Sometimes we'll have more fun when we choose to leave one or more of them behind if we choose. My opinion: bring on the electro-hydro-pneumatic all-wheel-drive magnetically-suspended superbike! I'll try it out, but if if it's not fun I'll go back to riding a hardtail 29er. Even if it is fun I wouldn't get rid of all of my other bikes.

grannygear said...

Interesting. I am not sure if it really takes the human element out of it all that much. You push on a lever and the cable transfers that input to the der. You push a button and the wiring/servos transfer that input to the der.

You pull a brake push on a master cylinder filled with non-compressing fluid.

Either way you are doing the decision making. But I would hate to have a 'dead' shifter due to a low batt condition. Kinda silly, but maybe there is a spare electrons option.

Captain Bob said...

Well, I do like the looks of the shifter pods. A push push is appealing. I should never say never but..... Won't need it either since my favorite bike(s) are single speeds.

Rob said...

Will someone explain the benefits (real or hypothetical) over traditional cable stuff? No cable stretch for one...what else?

[I'm with Bob by the way, don't think this will effect me much as a single speeder!]

Rob said...

and how far away are we from an "automatic" bike...not necessarily for a mountain bike, but I could see a benefit on a roadie...

electronic shifting + cadence/power meter + some sort of computer control unit = automatic?

jons_opinion said...

One additional benefit I see is the auto trim functions for the front. Knowing where the rear is and tuning the front to match it can improve front shifting.

Granny Gear's Hydro/Cable analogy is spot on. If not physically actuating the der takes you out of MTBing, what have the SS ers lost out on? I'd bet the feel they are getting MORE out of MTBing than us geared folks.

I agree it should improve your personal ride to work. Despite all the shifting advances, still guys riding SS, cause that's the best for them. Until you stop pushing on the pedals, it's still cycling. IMHO.

David O'Sullivan said...

What i never understood with Di2 is why you need 4 buttons/levers still. surely it would be easy enough to just have an upshift and downshift button and the "brain" adjusts both f+r at once. It would save huge jumps between middle and granny if you don't upshift first. Maybe more of a road thing, but if you are going to go electric may as well do it logically...
I am with granny gear too, you are controlling if and when you shift, how many cogs etc. I'm sure these arguments were raised when index shifting came in. I know the vela orange / rivendell crowd likes friction but having index as an option doesn't take anything away.

But yeah. I'll prob stay with a simple 1 x 9.

Justin Heckman said...

I love that a bike is purely mechanical. I am even a little curmudgeonly about hydraulic disc brakes. Mechanical systems are simple (machines) and very easy to look at and trouble shoot.

Travel Gravel said...

AAA It's all analog output baby!