***I’m on vacation, and yet I keep typing words into this blog. What can I say? I’m like a do running in its sleep.***
In recent years I’ve sort of stopped keeping up with the newest-and-latest bike tech in earnest. Mostly, I just give stuff a cursory glance and then make fun of it:
When faced with the prospect of innovation or death, I generally opt for the latter.
However, whilst on vacation I have more time to “geek out” on bike stuff and read about it as a rider rather than a semi-professional knee-jerk naysayer. In turn, I also realize just how “behind” I am. Consider the Jones LWB, which I’ve been riding most often:
This is by far the most “modern” bike I’ve got. It has disc brakes, tubeless tires, and even one of those newfangled wide-range 1X drivetrains with a clutch derailleur. However, by modern industry standards it’s thoroughly primitive: the discs are mechanical, the frame is steel, the seatpost doesn’t telescope, there’s no suspension… Also, while the aforementioned newfangled drivetrains still seem brand-new to me, they’re already quite long in the shaped, shift-enhancing tooth, and SRAM has already come out with a whole new system that renders it all obsolete or something:
I was peripherally aware of this when they announced it, and I paid just enough attention to decide, “New derailleur mounting standard therefore EVIL,” but not enough to note that the “Full Mount” design evokes the manner in which a dog humps your leg:
But as I shift my way up and down an older Eagle drivetrain every day I figured I might as well actually read about this thing and see what the deal is–and basically said deal is that it bolts on with like no adjustment, it shifts reliably even under heavy load, and it more or less eliminates the risk of mangling your derailleur or derailleur hanger when your off-road riding gets too bro-tastic. From what I can tell, it also seems to mostly live up to its promise, with at least one reviewer saying it’s “virtually impossible” to fault:
In our increasingly bifurcated digital existence, it’s important to remember that two things can in fact be true at once. In this case, even though this new SRAM stuff is expensive and non-backwards compatible and non-integratable (is that even a word?) with any of the parts you already have, it might very well be true that this is the very best-performing off-road bicycle drivetrain made to date. At the same time, it can also be true that I have absolutely no interest in ever owning it. I don’t like charging batteries, I’m not worried about ripping my derailleurs off, and I don’t at all mind finessing my shifts–or even riding a singlespeed and not shifting at all, for that matter.
Moreover, at the risk of succumbing to bifurcation, I’d say there are two types of riders: those who take satisfaction in riding at the very pointy edge of refinement, and those who prefer the safety and comfort of the tried-and-true. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong, and indeed one cannot exist without the other; the former group must remember that not everybody wants to constantly “upgrade” or spend a bunch of money or deal with more batteries and shit, while the latter would do well to keep in mind that the constant pursuit of refinement is a fundamental part of human nature, and that at least some of this stuff eventually winds up benefitting us all. For example, the friction drivetrain on my road bike is incredibly smooth and sumptuous, but that’s largely due to all the refinements to cog shape and chain design and derailleur geometry we’ve seen over the last 30 years–refinements driven largely by the indexing and integrated shifting technology I take such great satisfaction in eschewing, go figure.
This in turn got me thinking about another SRAM product–the “Fight Attendant” robotic suspension system I got to try a couple years back:
It worked, it was fun, and it was impressive–and yet I am perfectly content to never, ever own a bike equipped with this technology, because the idea of a bike that has batteries in every component right down to the seatpost just stresses me out and turns me off:
Look, I get it–in fact, descending a steep gravel road on the Jones the other day I even found myself thinking, “I could descend even faster if I could lower my ass a few more centimeters. OH MY GOD, DO I WANT A DROPPER POST!?!” Ultimately though I just find simplicity too damn seductive to forfeit it. I mean I can’t say I’d never get some sort of dropper post, since if there’s one thing life teaches you it’s that saying you’d never do something is silly; but I will say that if I rode in a place like this all the time I’d probably be more likely to use a Hite-Rite than to use a seatpost that requires a battery. (Yes, I realize there’s a wide middle ground between a Hite-Rite and a dropper post with a battery.)
Anyway, being the sort of person who has no interest in owning an electronic suspension bicycle, I hadn’t followed along with Flight Attendant, and had so no idea if it was catching on. So I consulted a popular search engine, and it looks like it’s now getting some use on the World Cup circuit:
Sure, I can see that. If you’re riding to win above all else, a bike that’s constantly performing suspension adjustments makes sense. I’ll always go for the simple option, and the fact that the simple option sometimes makes riding more challenging is even part of the fun. But obviously that’s exactly the opposite of what professional bike racing is all about, and it’s silly to expect otherwise out of the companies that equip these riders. It’s not about fun and self-expression, it’s about winning. And that’s it.
So all of this got me thinking about the future of the sporting bicycle. Clearly, battery-powered everything is inevitable, as is stuff like electronic brains to control it all, as well as total integration with your smartphone. In turn, this requires everything to be part of a system, which leaves no room for intercompatibility among the different manufacturers. Moreover, while SRAM may have redesigned the derailleur to a certain extent, it’s shocking the antiquated derailleur still exists at all–as a dangling protuberance that is susceptible to the elements and requires a tiny amount of skill to operate, it is exactly the sort of thing the modern bicycle industry is desperate to eliminate. The front derailleur is already dead outside of road cycling, and its days are likely numbered on the road too. When you consider this, and you consider the fact that cyclists have now completely embraced batteries and electronics in most aspects of bicycle function, you have to wonder if the future of drivetrains isn’t just some internally-geared derailleur-less setup; maybe it’s a completely electronic one.
As of now, UCI rules prevent this. You can have electronic controls, but the bike ultimately has to be “propelled solely by a system of pedals acting on a chain:”
But consider some not-yet-invented battery-powered transmission that drives a chain dependent entirely on rider input–a computer-controlled “pedal-by-wire” system with both assist and resistance that takes into account the terrain and the rider and replicates the watts and torque or whatever else that the rider is able to deliver across a set range of gears, sort of the way virtual trainers can replicate climbs. In short, you’d have to pedal just as hard, and the complete reliance on the rider as the engine would ostensibly be preserved, but you’d have a computer for a middleman. The word “solely” is all the UCI would have to remove and replace with some quailifier in order to allow some new drivetrain–one made by UCI-approved manufacturers according to UCI-dictated parameters. Would this be weird, stupid, and redundant? Yes. But we seem to be redesigning every other aspect of the bicycle along these lines anyway (electronic braking next!), so the drivetrain itself seems like the ultimate expression of that, and the inevitable result of the Bicycle Drivetrain Arms Race. Sure, such a drivetrain seems counter to the fundamental ethos of competitive cycling, which is that it’s completely human-powered. But if Henri Desgrange saw a modern racing bicycle I suspect he’d find it about as sporting as riding a motorcycle to the finish, so all this is relative. As for why the manufacturers or the UCI would want something like this, pick a reason: the manufacturers would say it’s “better,” and that it preserves the human element whilst eliminating the mechanical pitfalls. The UCI would say it’s “safer,” since it would integrate traction control and ABS. Maybe someone would figure out how it’s more “environmentally friendly,” since that’s something bike racing seems to be beating itself up about for some reason. By 2050 it’s not hard to imagine a racing bicycle that is essentially computer-controlled diamond-shaped chassis, its silhouette the only remaining vestige of its heritage.
Sooner or later, the derailleur will be dead. The question is what it’ll take to kill it.