So just as so many of us are embracing more traditional bicycle technologies; including but not limited to steel frames, fixed-gear drivetrains, friction shifting (bar-end or downtube), and leather saddles, it is clear that the majority of cycling enthusiasts are moving in a very different direction. While they aren't racing on this quite yet, an article found in yesterday's New York Times describes Shimano's electronic shifting system dubbed "Di2" that will be used in the Tour of California (which started yesterday) by American teams Columbia High Road and Garmin Slipstream, as well as the Dutch Rabobank squad. The componentry replaces traditional cable and pulley systems with battery-operated, motorized worm gears that shift instantly, and allegedly with incredible accuracy. According to reports the rear derailler operates much as the traditional manifestations, while the front mechanism is programmed to calculate the positioning of the chain on the rear gears and automatically trim its location in order to reduce the noise and friction attributed to the rubbing that accompanies a poor chain line, a factor that the Times says can, "drive riders to the point of distraction." The system's proponents argue that this benefit, as well as factors such as reduced maintainance, efficient and consistent performance, and flexibility regarding where shifting buttons may be mounted, can result in the minor advantages that can result in a stage win for a rider.
Both Shimano and Campagnolo think they have solved the errs that plagued systems originally unveiled by Mavic and the fact that several major teams have opted to use Di2 in competition is about as much evidence that one could ask for in reference to its benefits. I however, am less enthusiastic. I am of the same train of thought as Monsieur Henry, the bicycle historian, when he argues that the beauty of the bicycle as technology is that it is powered and operated by the human being that rides it. Indexed shifting obviously limited the human level of control of the shifting process to when and how much yet the action continued to take place without the assistance of an alternative energy source or computerized calculations. Human power remained supreme. In my opinion this technology separates the rider from the bicycle in a way no previous technology has. Don't get me wrong, I find it highly doubtful that these arguments would be enough to restrict the use of any "advancement" that a team felt would give its riders an edge but I do wonder what might come next? What is this technology a gateway to? Call me old fashioned but I don't want to turn on the 2019 Tour of California and see robots operating these electronic shifting systems rather than Christian Vande Velde and big George Hincapie just because the robots proved to fatigue less quickly than their weaker human predecessors.