It’s natural to want to make improvements. We’re hardwired to expect better and to constantly strive for growth. No business can afford to keep producing the same old product when customers are demanding something new.
Whatever it is you make, you have to make it bigger, faster, smarter, sleeker, with more buttons and extra flashing lights. It has to be ergonomically optimised, voice-activated and incorporate space-age materials with micro-this and nano-that. And it has to have an app. Everything has to have an app.
The problem is, when it comes to the bicycle, they pretty much got it right first time. Look at ‘safety bicycles’ from the late 1800s and they’re remarkably familiar. The double-triangle frame, the forks and steerer, the drivetrain, the pedals, the saddle… all the same, which means that for over 100 years bike makers have been tinkering around the edges in search of things to change.
True, some of those changes have been genuine improvements. Who would trade their lightweight carbon for heavy iron, or go back to solid rubber tyres instead of pneumatic? But some of them seem like progress for progress’s sake. And one of those – in my ever so humble opinion – is the electronic groupset.
Hear me out
‘But electronic groupsets are great – you just press the button and it changes gear.’
What, you mean exactly like with a mechanical groupset? Yes, you have to press the lever a bit harder, but who ever came back from a century ride saying, ‘My legs are fine, but my fingers are exhausted from all those gear changes!’
To my mind, the benefits of electronic seem particularly minimal, while the disadvantages are manifold. So let’s get listing:
1. The weight. Electronic groupsets are heavier than mechanical ones. Not by much, and I don’t really care about a few extra grams, but it’s still worth mentioning and getting out of the way.
2. The fiddly buttons. Again, better than they used to be (‘improved ergonomics!’) but it can still be hard to even know if you’ve changed gear when you’re wearing gloves and you can’t hear the whir of the servomotor (‘quieter than ever!’).
3. Price. Electronic things are just more expensive than mechanical things. Get used to it, schmuck.
4. The risk of running out of juice. The standard answer to this is, ‘But one charge can last months.’ Which is exactly the problem. If there’s no need for regular charges, you’re more likely to forget, and more likely to have it fizzle out on you when you’re 80km from home with a storm coming.
5. No home maintenance. In truth, I’m a lousy mechanic, but even I can adjust a mechanical derailleur, replace parts and bodge a fix when things go wrong. With an electronic derailleur there’s no chance.
A year or so ago I was on a ride in northern Portugal, which included the mighty Serra da Estrela climb – 21km and 1,440m of ascent – when my ride partner’s Di2 electronic groupset failed. We tried every reset method, but she was trapped in a 34/14 gear.
Fortunately she was a former pro, and so simply cranked up the mountain in a display of strength that left me breathless with admiration. But it also left me wary of relying on electronics when far from home. Would anyone choose Di2 for a round-the-world ride?
Keep it simple, stupid
Beyond all these practical considerations, however, there is simply the principle of the thing: bikes shouldn’t need to be plugged in. The bicycle is the single most efficient mode of transport ever invented. In terms of speed and distance out for energy in, nothing can match it, and its beauty lies in its simplicity.
I love that the bicycle requires no input other than muscle power, and it generates no emissions other than body heat. It doesn’t rely on access to the National Grid or a petrol station. It won’t stop functioning when the Wi-Fi goes down, and it will continue to work even after the total collapse of society.
There is a purity to the bicycle that deserves to be revered and protected, which is why my heart sinks a little more every time another update to a top-end groupset appears with the words ‘electronic-only’. How soon will it be before the urge to grow, to find improvements – real or imagined – means that mechanical groupsets will be confined only to the lowest tiers in the big manufacturers’ line-ups?
In the words of German-British economist Ernst F Schumacher: ‘Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.’
Disagree with Pete? Check out our full Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 review.