Can We Please Stop Ruining Bike Races With Electronic Shifting?

Jul 2 2013

I’m not going to claim impartiality here—if nothing else, I think electronic shifting is massively over-priced. I’ve never ridden it—I hear it shifts well and smoothly and precisely and is super-cool, and I have no reason to dispute that. But similarly, I think there’s no counter-argument to the fact that when it doesn’t shift, you are completely boned.

Goss and Greipel and bikes that don't work

The body posture conveys as much information as the drivetrains.

The photos above are cropped from the highest-def screencap I could find—a 1080i .ts files, no compression beyond what occurs prior to transmission. I can’t see exactly what’s wrong with Greipel’s and Goss’ bikes, but what I can see is a droopy chain—as in probably off the chainrings—and rear mechs that seem more or less intact—that is, not on the ground or above the chainstay.

As far as I can tell, this is the classic mode of failure for electronic shifting. The front derailleur has two programmed shift actions—one to go up, one to go down. Unlike conventional shifters, where a cable always pulls against the tension of derailleur spring, there isn’t an option to half-shift in an attempt to jimmy the chain back into place. When you’re off, you’re off. This is a fact not in dispute.

That said, one report claims Greipel’s mechanical on Sunday was a rear derailleur “smashed to bits…in the big crash that took Greipel out of the running”. This is at least partially inaccurate—he survived that big tumble, and pedaled on for several k before appearing mysteriously at the back, bike rendered non-functional in a very familiar way.


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I’ve posted a chopper shot of what I believe to be Goss’ bike failure above. Obviously, you can’t see the chain, and honestly, I can’t even prove it’s him. But inside the final 500m an Orica-GreenEdge rider is jockeying for position, with a teammate (probably Impey) behind him him, then just stops pedaling and stands to coast, leaving the teammate with a huge gap to close. Robbie McEwen claims Goss crashed, and I guess maybe it’s possible, but only if he went down after his bike stopped working.

It’s beginning to feel a little creepy. Consensus is that electronic shifting is still a work in progress—nearly a year after noting its problems last summer, Inner Ring reported on a rash of misfires from this spring. But rather than improve (or better yet—remove) the parts, earlier this week, we got two not-quite-right stories about incidents of likely electronic shifting failures that had a definite impact on how the final results played out. I’m sure it’s all just innocent misunderstanding—on their part or on mine—but I wouldn’t want anyone get any ideas.

So before this devolves to petty subterfuge, let’s all of us—media, marketers, brand managers, riders, directors—just sit down and agree like grown-ups that pros should absolutely have the no-pressure-option of using mechanical shifting. With Greipel on Campy and Goss on Shimano, no one company will take a PR hit.

Everyone’s heard the buzz about the awesome, super-precise shifting produced by electronic levers—and the fondo set is already totally into it. But by taking away the option of historically reliable front shifting, all anyone is doing is making the high-profile failures more obvious—and alienating serious amateur racers in the process.

Let’s be honest—if watching your rider taking a win on legacy gear is a bigger marketing bummer than watching him pout at the side of the road when the latest and greatest fails, your brand’s got bigger problems a front derailleur.

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