End Of An Era

Wow, so this is it, mechanical road shifting is basically over:

Shimano’s recent launch of its next-generation Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100 electronic road groupsets was bundled with a rather unexpected and especially bitter pill: the news that the much-beloved Ultegra mechanical was being discontinued.

This is a big, big deal! For years, we’ve all taken mechanical Ultegra for granted. Whatever iteration, it was always the most boring transmission on earth, lacking both the “Whoa, Dura Ace!” effect of its more costly and slightly lighter sibling, and the, “Hey, good for him, he’s still crushing it on 105” sympathetic admiration engendered by its cheaper and slightly portlier one–and that’s saying nothing of Campagnolo, which was always intrinsically interesting even in its cheapest incarnations. Mechanical Ultegra simultaneously sold countless people on shitty frames (“Well, it comes with an Ultegra groups, so…”) while also helping many others complete their dream bikes–you know, those exotic custom frames hung with Ultegra groups because they ran out of money and crossed the finish line of their build on fumes. And whatever the bike, so bereft of both excess and demerit is Ultegra that your eye basically just passes right over it. “Ultegra: An Inoffensive Blank Spot Where A More Exciting Transmission Might Be,” the tagline might read.

So if mechanical Ultegra is going away, mechanical road shifting is most assuredly doomed.

Of course, none of the above is an indictment of Ultegra; rather, it’s the very highest form of praise. Mechanical Ultegra was always excellent, with only occasional missteps such as those rattly plastic shifter caps during the early 9-speed era. Indeed, a world without mechanical Ultegra is like a world without Breyers ice cream, or the Subway chain of sandwich restaurants, or actors who you’re always confusing with other actors. For this reason, its disappearance will no doubt be profoundly paradoxical, since despite being ubiquitous, when it’s gone you’ll hardly notice.

Also, somehow people aren’t buying it anymore, which seemed incredible to me…at first:

No one can deny that mechanical shifting has a sizeable advantage over electronic shifting in terms of serviceability and often weight (particularly at anything other than flagship price points). However, in conversations with countless product managers from various bicycle brands in recent months about consumer preferences, the answer is always the same: when given the option, so few people are actually buying the cable-actuated stuff that it’s impossible to justify keeping it around from a financial point of view.

But then you think about it, and you realize that people like me who can’t imagine a world without mechanical shifting and who don’t really see the point of electronic are a tiny, smug, and irritating minority who don’t even put our money where our mouths are. The last “new” bike I bought was this, and I dug all the shifty bits out of my parts bin:

Ergo, my personal predilections don’t even register in the vast ledger of supply and demand, or factor into the calculus of anybody determining the specifications of modern mass-market bicycles.

Does this mean I’m bitter? Hardly. Vast used parts reserves around the world as well as dangerous extremists such as Grant Petersen will no doubt ensure that I have access to a wide variety of high quality cable-actuated shifty bits for the foreseeable future. Also, technology is merely another facet of human evolution; today’s cutting edge componentry is tomorrow’s vintage affectation, and one day some space retrogrouch will decry the discontinuation of simple electronic push-button shifting because everyone insists on using Shimano’s new brain implant. And so it goes.

105 Di2 though? That’s just lame.

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