Monday, September 10, 2007

Techno-geeks: Please leave my bike alone

Have you noticed how simplest things in life have become high tech when they don’t really need to? For example the paper towel dispensers in the restrooms at work, and in bars and restaurants.

What was wrong with just pulling on the paper, or operating a simple lever at the side? Every one of these new devices is different, so you stand there like an idiot with your hands dripping wet, trying to figure out where the “electronic eye” is.

Is it on the front, is it underneath; shouldn’t there be a little red light somewhere? You wave your hands all around this abominable black plastic box, which even looks like a piece of high tech equipment. Like a microwave oven or a CD player more than a simple towel dispenser.

Invariably someone will come to your rescue making you feel like a total retard. (That used to be a politically incorrect term, but no one ever uses it to refer to a mentally challenged person anymore, it is only used when referring the type of person who can’t operate a stupid paper towel dispenser.)

Why make the simple things in life high tech, when there is no good reason other than we can? Or because we have the technology. The makers of these “Black Box” towel dispensers will argue that by eliminating the handle, they eliminate a source of germs that could re-contaminate our clean hands.

Now wait a minute; every person using the towel dispenser has clean hands; they have just washed them. That’s why they need a paper towel. And, anyway after sterilizing our hands thoroughly, we grab the filthy door handle as we leave.

Why do we need electric can openers? One of the times we really need a can opener is during an emergency when the power is out.

Now the techno-geeks, always searching for more simple devices to make complicated are turning their attention to the bicycle, and toying with the idea of electronic gear shifting.

To be honest, I never got over index shifting in the late 1980s. At the time, the European cycling community scoffed at the idea, and so did Campagnolo. This was tantamount to a violinist needing marks on the neck of the fiddle to show where to place your fingers.

Of course, the engineers at Shimano knew better. They knew that in America there were people who actually did not know how to operate a friction shift lever. Maybe they had great foresight and could see this same nation of people, in the future, would not be able to operate a paper towel dispenser.

I always felt that index shifting was developed to cater to the “instant gratification” element. Nothing that requires a degree of skill, gives instant gratification. Muffing gear changes on a hill is no fun, but then neither is learning to play a musical instrument. However, the rewards are far greater once you master the skill. The satisfaction of doing something other people cannot, for a start.

In the case of indexed shifting, Shimano proved to be right, and Campagnolo spent years playing catch up. I will agree that indexed shifting has developed into something that is useful to all cyclists, including the pros. No one wants to go back to friction shifting, except old farts purists like me.

However, now there is talk about automatic shifting on a bicycle linked to a bicycle computer that will measure your heart rate and will automatically shift down when it senses you are trying too hard. Rather like the automatic transmission on a car.

Isn’t this taking the fun out of cycling? In the same way automatic transmissions took the fun out of driving. Cars used to be stick shift, with a clutch, and it took a certain amount of skill to drive one. Have you ever noticed that car adds on TV show people driving at speed, having fun, and shifting a stick shift? When in reality there are few such transmissions.

This is one of the main problems with car driving today; it has become so easy that people drive their car like they are sitting on their living room sofa. Eating, drinking, and talking on the phone. No one takes pride in being a good driver anymore. Would people be drinking coffee, and talking on the phone if they were driving a stick shift?

Will electronic shifting on a bike catch on? What about the weight-weenie? Batteries are heavy. How about this idea; an electronic eye on your handle bar stem. When your head is down and you are trying, it stays in a big gear, but when you sit up, it shifts down. I just hope it works better than the paper towel dispenser does.


Anonymous said...

ok, i agree: no one needs electric shifting on a bike, but believe me (i live in good ol' europe), car drivers don't drive better, only because they (can) change gears manually.

Anonymous said...

I've been driving for over 40 years, and each of the four cars I've owned were manual. All my road bikes (bought many more of these then cars) are friction shifting except for a recent purchase last year... a litespeed with Shimano-Index shifting. After all these years of steel and downtube levers, I wanted to try something "modern".

OK it is pretty sweet not to have to reach down, the shifting is easy, and exact. It's not hard to understand why this has gotten so popular and will be hard to change. However, I haven't learned how to take it apart and fix it yet.

In getting more friends our age to take up cycling and appreciate some of the variables, no one seems interested in friction shifting. Oh well...

I do wish I could eliminate all those pesky and irritating "modern conveniences" out of my car.

Doug said...

Dave, I read last week that most college freshmen this fall have never rolled down a car window manually. I fall into the "old fart" category even though I'm 44 y.o. I didn't have a microwave in my home until my wife moved in in 1998. I don't have a cell phone. And I keep telling my wife I'm going to write a book titled, "Technology Does Not Make Life Easier". I may just do that yet. I do like my computer and the internet, but there are days I wish it didn't exsist.

Andrew Karre said...

There is something to be said for the side effects indexing on friction shifting. For instance, shifting friction on an 8, 9, or even 10-speed Hyperglide cassette is tactile and aural bliss, especially with nice levers like Simplex Retrofrictins or PowerRatchet-style levers. Old, unshaped freewheels with comparatively wide cog spacing feel, to me, comparatively unrefined (for reference, I'm 28, so all of my serious cycling is in the age of indexing and integration).

This is the nice thing about innovation in cycling, especially as opposed to innovations in automobiles. If you're even slightly mechanical and patient (and have sufficient disposable income), you essentially have a buffet of the last forty years of technology spread out before you to mix and match. It doesn't get much better. Not so with cars, unfortunately (or my 1994 Camry wagon would be a five-speed manual with a hybrid motor and crank-operated windows).

Miss Machine said...

Amen! I love friction shifting, which I have on my bike. (A 2003 KHS road bike.)


Anonymous said...

Electronics on an elegant, minimalist road bike... Yech!

No electronics on mine. I tried a computer once, but that lasted about a week. I couldn't stand being fixated on numbers. I just want to ride, and if I need to know average speeds and distances, I just use a map and a watch.

As far as indexed shifting goes though, I don't mind it. I'm about as retro-grouch as one can get, and I started riding a "road bike" as a teen in the late 1960's. But I specified Ergo on my 1998 custom-built road bike. Now, I could live without it, no problem, but I like it. I would not put indexed shifting in the same frivolous category as electronically-operated derailleurs on bikes, and automatic transmissions on cars. Indexed shifting is just a very logical, relatively simple mechanical system. If we want to use automotive comparisons, I would say indexed shifting is more like the invention of manual transmissions that didn't require double-clutching. Nothing against clutches, but double-clutching was a pain I was happy to get rid of.

Anonymous said...

'Rusty' does not imply SENILE! :)
Ever realize that typical indexed dérailleur shifting controls (Left = front, Right = rear) operate in a REVERSE manner (mirror image) to one another.
Obviously, Ergonomic qualities are damned for mass production economics within GLOBAL bicycling.
(Hint: Solution's afoot!)

Ed W said...

The idea of putting electronic activated shifting on a bicycle offers some problems. Vibration is the bane of electronics, and only helicopters vibrate than a bicycle. Intermittents would be sheer hell. The system would shift, then shift back when it encountered transient signals. What happens when a battery fades or the power goes away entirely? What happens if it depends on HRM data, and the sensor gets flakey - a not uncommon situation.

Anonymous said...

I like indexed shifting but I also like friction. What I don't like are integrated levers. That's just a level of complication I don't think belongs on a bike. And really, what is the advantage for non-racers over bar-end shifters anyway?

That said I keep my bike in the 70-gear-inch ratio about 95 percent of the time anyway.

David Killick said...

I've switched back to downtube friction shifters after a short affair with STI. I enjoyed the convenience, but hated the awful cable runs and the need to be constantly tuning the buggers.

Friction shifting is superior in so many ways. True, it takes a small amount more skill and effort, but not so much anyone would notice. They're cheaper, lighter, more reliable, easier to maintain and mechanically much more simple.

It also means I can run just about any rear derailleur with any cluster - and swap nine-speed clinchers for six speed-tubulars should the urge strike me, with the need only to adjust the limit screw on the derailleur. And provided those limit screws are properly adjusted, it also means that regardless of things like cable stretch, the gears always work just fine. And the handlebars look so much cleaner and uncluttered without great arcs of cable looping hither and yon. I suspect I'm a bit of a retrogrouch at just 39, but so be it.

I've been meaning to write for a while to say how much I enjoy reading your blog, and how useful I find the articles, particularly the instructional ones. The series on tubulars was fantastic and has seen me dust off an old set of wheels which rides like a dream but wasn't getting much use.

VintageSpin said...

Do we need a computer to shift for us? And who programs it (and us by default)?
Like training programs: who writes them based on whose data?
You want to ride well, ride. You want to race well, race. If that doesn’t work, nothing will, because you aren’t doing the work; you are counting on someone else to come along and tell you how to train, when to shift, when to stand on the pedals.
The only reason we have index shifting is because somebody kept adding more gears; we now have 10 in back! You need index shifting because the chain and sprocket spacing is so narrow, compared to the five and six speeds we had for decades, that friction would probably skip gears.
Sounds like someone (making money off us) now wants to make decisions that should be ours, with auto-shifting: They already have our money, why not our minds? Designer workouts (by subscription), clothing ($400 bib shorts), bikes ($10,000+) and now they’ll take the last visage of riding away, shifting.
They say you can’t go back once technology is here; well I do every time I hop on my ’84 Moulton time machine.
The bike hasn’t changed, and neither has the feeling I get from riding it.

Yokota Fritz said...

It was the bicycling industry that INVENTED planned obsolescence way back in the 19th century. Today's builders are continuing the fine, time honored tradition.

To reject newer componentry is to reject tradition!

If violins had marks, would you call them frets?

Anonymous said...

First off, the primary motive they have the electronic paper towel dispensers isn't for sanitary reasons, it's economic: saving money on the cost of paper towels and the resulting mess from the neanderthals who pull out ridiculous wads of paper from the dispensers when two or three would do just fine.

On index shifting, I think the biggest advantage is safety: not having to remove a hand and reach for the downtube shifters when you're bombing down a mountain road at 45 MPH or when you're riding 3" behind another guy's wheel banking into a tight turn of a criterium is a good thing. Keeping both hands on the bars during sketchy periods of a ride works for me.

Having said all that, all of my vintage bikes are equipped with good old Campy friction shifters that I dearly love (reminds me of when I first got into high-end lightweight roadbikes in the early 70's). I'm still working on building up my '84 Fuso frame with Super Record bits, tubular tires etc, and you can bet I wouldn't dream of using anything other than friction shifters.

To the guy who mentioned he hasn't gotten around to figuring out how to fix Shimano STI ergo shifters: you can't, it's all sealed. It breaks, you throw it away and get some new ones. Not so the Campy ergo shifters. I've had success rebuilding both 8-speed and 10-speed Campy ergo shifters. It's amazing how many teeny parts they cram into those things. Really a mechanical engineering marvel. However, it does make a case for the elegant simplicity of friction shifters. Nuff said!

VintageSpin said...

I kind of had to put in my thought on supposed saftey of index integrated shifters vs friction. I have never, ever shifted in a hard corner, racing or training (you just push or spin a little more). And when going downhill at 45mph, I'm usually in my top gear already, or my hands are next to the stem tucked in so much that saftey is a last concern (look at Tour racers downhill).
Being 3" behind someone in front of me and reaching down to shift is no more dangerous than grabbing my water bottle.
At least with friction I have continuous practice riding one-handed.

Anonymous said...

Most posts seem to lean towards the purist side of cycling. I understand this and enjoy being able to make my own decisions on such matters. I own a DM Fuso, two single speeds, a grip-shift MTB, and a 10-speed/Dura Ace/carbon road bike. I enjoy riding the "modern" bike the most. I am comfortable on it and am secure in a pack with the shifting the way it is set up on the brake levers. To denounce technology and the "improvements" made in and for cyclying may be somewhat shortsided. Have the purists noticed the increase in cyclists on the roads in the past 5 to 10 years? Do you think many of those new riders would be on a bike if they did not have a choice of the new technologies in cycling? Do you think there are people out there that would get on a bike for the first time since childhood if there was "just an easier way to ride"? I say "great" to the new stuff - I probably won't use it, but if it gets someone off the couch and onto the road it's better for them than nothing. I'm sure friction shifters will be around forever for those who want them. BTW how many of you are riding clincher vs. sew-ups?

Anonymous said...

I agree on the automatic transmission thing when it comes to cars. After driving manual transmissions all my life, I had to switch to an automatic about 5 years ago. I needed a minivan for hauling bikes, large quantities of musical gear, and occasionally people. And those things never come with standard transmissions.

I really do like the Odyssey, but automatics are just not fun to drive. I occasionally catch myself going down the road, leaning against an armrest, two fingers at the bottom of the steering wheel, eyes squinty, starting to drool... That doesn't happen with a manual shift. You are just too connected to the world around you.

Anonymous said...

I got a kick out of this post following the previous one wishing to get more people commuting by bike.

Sure if you're motivated to learn the art of friction shifting you can find that it just works for you and you rarely make a mistake but if you're looking for riding a bike to be comfortable, easy, and safe, something like index shifting or 'automatic shifting' is likely a draw for you - same as an automatic transmission that takes the fear of stalling on that big hill away.

John Natiw said...

Dave, I just had this exact same conversation with myself this past weekend. The family and I were on a trip and we came to a rest stop along the toll road. Every bathroom has those stupid automatic soap dispensers, faucets and towel dispensers. I stood there waving at the d*mn things trying to get enough soap, water and towels.

Thanks for tying it all into cycling.

Anonymous said...

Electric Shifting would serve a huge audience for hand-cycles!!!

SOOO looking forward to the manufacturers getting this product completed.........

go to ... take a look at their new LC1....

This kicks ass.....

Anonymous said...

After 30 years of friction-shift cycling I bought a new bicycle today. The mechanic in the shop kindly offered to show me how the bike worked, but I declined because I thought it would be waste of time. So I pedalled off quite happily and 200 yds down the road I reached down to change gear. But there was no lever there. So I pulled over and tried to work out how to change gear on this thing. It was a waste of time. I couldn't see anything that looked relevant. I set off home again and noticed there was a tiny lever beside each brake. I pressed down on each one and the chain moved smoothly down onto to the smallest cog and wheel. Now I just need to work out how to get the chain to move back up again. The manual supplied with the bike doesn't help. I think I'll be going back to the shop tomorrow with a red face to ask how it's done.