Mediocrity Goes Electronic

Recently I shared the World’s Saddest Kestrel:

Well, here’s the World’s Most Overvalued Kestrel:

Our example is from 1990, towards the latter end of the 4000s production, which ended in 1992. Kitted out with Campagnolo Croce D’Aune parts, including the iconic Delta brakes.

Croce D’Aune? Fuck that! C-Record or GTFO!

By the way, there is much debate in the cycling world over how to say “Croce D’Aune,” but the definitive pronunciation is obviously “Crotch Down.” (As in: “Check out my sweet plastic Kestrel with the Campy Crotch Down!”)

Meanwhile, in cycling industry news, the humble Shimano 105 group has gone electronic:

And disc brake only, of course:

We’ve already seen the end of mechanical Ultegra, so this essentially the kick in the teeth you get after you’ve already taken a shot to the crotch.

The Shimano 105 group serves a vital role in the road bike universe because it’s the colonoscopy of bike components: everyone tells you that you should get it, but nobody is willing to get one for themselves. “All you really need is 105,” Fred-splains the middle-aged guy on the bike with Dura-Ace who would sooner attempt to finger a snapping turtle than operate a lever made from anything other than crabon. Given this, the implications of it going electronic are profound, and raising the subject on Twitter results in interminable threads in which bike dorks argue over whether this is a good thing or not, and whether you need it or not, and whether mechanical shifters are disappearing or not, and so on and so on.

On a purely subjective level, I find the idea of electronic 105 (or really any electronic shifting for that matter) about as compelling as an electric toilet paper dispenser. Then again, at this point in my life I also find current mechanical 105 completely uninteresting, and have fallen victim to a profound and all-consuming state of pretentiousness in which I can only become aroused by friction shifting. I don’t know if I’ll be this way for the rest of my life, or if I’ll wake up tomorrow with an intense desire to ride a state-of-the-art crabon bicycle equipped with Campagnolo Super Record EPS, but at this precise moment in time friction shifting is really the only thing that makes sense to me and everything else just seems annoying and pointless. (Warning: this disease is highly contagious, and you catch it from riding Rivendells. To avoid it, be sure to place a layer of toilet paper on your Brooks saddle before mounting.)

Objectively however I know none of this means anything and that all the arguments on either side are stupid. “Electronic shifts better.” “Mechanical shifting gives you more feedback.” “But what if you forget to charge it?” “But what if you snap a cable?” And so forth. Who gives a shit? All of this stuff is highly reliable, until it’s not, at which point you’re forced to deal with it one way or the other. I personally think it’s ridiculous to have to charge a road bike in order to ride it, even if you only have to do it once every few months. At the same time, if you’re buying a complete road racing bicycle off the rack you’re not only buying a highly specific type of bicycle, but you’re buying a snapshot of whatever the bike industry happens to be selling at the moment. People like to express overwrought concern: “Consumers will be forced to buy this! It’s bad for cycling!” Bullshit, nobody’s forcing you to buy anything; you walked into a bike shop and purchased a plastic bike that needs to be charged before you can change the gears on it completely of your own volition.

I do admit I was sort of baffled as to why anybody would want electronic shifting at this level, given how well the mechanical stuff works at every level. At one point I went from having a bike with and 11-speed Ultegra electronic group to having a bike with an 11-speed Dura Ace mechanical group and in no way was returning to cables a step down; then someone sent me a bike with an 11-speed 105 mechanical group and that just about as good as the Dura Ace, go figure. Really, the difference between all this stuff, mechanical or electronic, is no greater than the difference between riding with a different pair of gloves.

But then I realized that, for all the bickering, it’s not the shift quality that’s driving the change; rather, it’s the digital integration and the expectation on the part of the rider to have constant access to data. Just like everyone’s decided you can’t ride a mountain bike without a dropper post, they’ve also decided you can’t ride a road bike without a power meter. You’ve got a computer with a GPS that tells you everything about your body and your ride that you could possibly want to know. You can also connect your electronic shifting to that computer, and of course you can make adjustments to it via an app on your phone. Increasingly, if you’re a racer or racer-adjacent, you’re simply going to expect all that stuff–everything connected to everything else, all pumping out data that’s visible on a screen. For this reason you can absolutely count on race-level road and mountain bikes to go fully electronic, and for the big companies to stop offering mechanical shifting. Why would they keep making it? The frames won’t accommodate it anyway, so no big bike company is going to stock their bikes with it. The future is digital and integrated. What are they going to do, sell mechanical racing groups you can connect to a computer somehow? They tried that already, it was called Flight Deck:

But this doesn’t mean mechanical shifting will disappear altogether, not at all. Here’s how I think it will work. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say there are basically three types of bike:

Transport Bikes: These bikes are not for fun or fitness or anything else. They’re for getting around. Their owners don’t want to think about anything other than where they need to go.

Fun Bikes: These are bikes people use for non-competitive recreation.

Sporting Goods Bikes: These are bikes for racing and training and building fitness.

Please note: this is an intentional oversimplification. Someone can have fun and get fit on a Transport Bike. They can ride to work or go shopping on a Fun Bike. They can engage in non-competitive recreation on a Sporting Goods Bikes. They can put together bikes with elements of every single one of these. But very generally speaking, that’s the bicycle landscape.

As for the future of each, count on component groups intended for Sporting Goods Bikes to go fully electronic in the next few years. Maybe companies like MicroShift will keep offering racy mechanical stuff, and maybe Campagnolo will too because nothing they do makes good business sense, but obviously Shimano and Sram will fully abandon it for Sporting Goods Bikes, and in fact they basically have already anyway. And any complete bike with racy aspirations is going to be electronic.

Transport Bikes will all have motors and none will have derailleurs. The gear-changing systems may or may not be electronic, but they’ll certainly be either CVTs or electronically-controlled automatics. The Specialized demo I attended last September made that abundantly clear. And, like their race bike counterparts, they’ll generate tons of data on little screens and integrate with your smartphones.

Electronic shifting will never dominate the Fun Bike segment. The sorts of people who ride Rivendells and Crusts and spend 45 minutes brewing coffee at the campsite will continue to equip their bikes with mechanical transmissions and adorn them with boutique machined components from California and Oregon. People who build up their own frames will always have access to bar-end shifters and triple cranks and that sort of thing, new or used. They just won’t be sold by large companies that start with “S.” And the people who are upset that mechanical shifting and rim brakes have disappeared from road bikes will finally be forced to admit they’re just too old to be riding road bikes.

As for 105, it occurs to me that last Sunday’s Discover Hudson Valley ride was a fully 105 affair for us:

My son has appropriated my Milwaukee, which has 10-speed 105 parts (except for the crank, but that’s only because the 105 chainrings were worn, and it was easier to just put on another crank). And of course the Normcore Nostalia Bike has the “new” 7-speed 105 group complete with Biopace chainrings. Up until now, whichever iteration you may have had can certainly last. We’ll see if that remains true as it enters the digital age.

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