Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dumbing Down The Front Derailleur

Or: How Technology Is Making the Front Derailleur Irrelevant

No Chain Rub! No Missed Shifts!
The front derailleur- You know- that thing that swaps the chain from one chain ring to another? I have a funny feeling the bicycle industry has targeted this component for elimination.

It is a pesky component from a manufacturers standpoint. It gets in the way of innovation, it needs several different variations, and by golly, people complain about them. (Or do they?) I wonder. I think front derailleurs get a bad rap. But whatever the reason, you can look around and see that the component manufacturers are finding ways to emasculate this component. Electric powered servo motors, advanced geometry, and outright elimination of the component altogether are being shown on many top end bikes these days.

It used to be a skill that was somewhat cherished back when a rider had to learn how to shift without causing mayhem, and without noise. Back in the days of friction shifting you really earned your ability to shift with a stealth-like quietness and lightning quick speed. What? It wasn't possible, you say? Oh, au contraire my friends. Actually one could shift those old bikes quite efficiently and with a smoothness that might amaze you.

I once had a commuter bike with run of the mill 1980's componentry. Bar end shifters, drop bars, seven speeds, and two chain rings of 53 and 39 teeth a piece. Without a doubt this was one of the best shifting bikes I had ever owned or have been afforded the opportunity to ride. Yes- I had to learn how far to move the lever for each shift, but after some practice it was intuitive, smooth, silent, and fast. Plus, I didn't have to worry about where I put a battery charger for when the battery goes dead.

The front derailleur was dead simple and reliable. Fast shifting up or down. Under power or not. Miss a shift? Trim problems? Whatever. You learned how to operate the bike and it rewarded you with an always there, simple to use system.

Yeah.....maybe it's the retro-grouch coming out. Either that or there is something to this attraction to simplicity and reliability. Something just rubs me a bit the wrong way when a bicycle becomes a "device" and not the machine of beautiful simplicity and functionality that it has been for over a century.


Zero said...

My old man tells (possibly tall) tales of a time before front shifters, when one had to reach down and pick up the chain between your fingers then drop it onto the other cog. Now that's real shifting...

mw said...

only ever had two road shifters with indexed front shifting. my preference is for friction front and that is what you'll find on all my current bikes with front ders, road or mtn.

Matt said...

Agreed! There's too much mollycoddling going on. Learn to shift!

George said...

The new SRAM Red group has a pretty interesting take on the front derailleur. It has a yaw feature that follows chainline rather than the chainrings. By far the most exciting thing I have seen in regards to these little bits of metal and plastic

Shane said...

There's already an app for this - Shift my Ride. You don't even have to on the bike to shift now. Mechanical and Di2 is so olde school.

blackmountaincycles said...

What I find annoying about front derailleurs is the elimination of the 28.6 clamp size. There still are some R450 series out there, but that's it.

There was an old Suntour down tube shifter that would self trim the front as you shifted the rear through its range.