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Electronic shifting: where we are, where we're going

Peter Stuart
28 Oct 2016

Electronic groupsets are getting smarter all the time, but are they preparing to take over shifting duties for us?

There was a time when we just changed gear. We’d pull a lever up or down, and the chain would move up or down the cassette. Then we invented indexed shifting, which removed the need to find the right sprocket on a friction shifter.

Then came electronics, and the rule book covering a century of cables and tension was tossed aside. Now, systems such as Di2 and EPS are not only shifting more accurately, but logging and broadcasting shift data in a way that may change how we ride altogether.

‘Generally speaking we see a trend for more information, more data and more feedback,’ says Shimano product manager Tim Gerrits.

Shimano developed a system called D-Fly several years ago that broadcasts data on the gear position to a cycling computer, which can in turn log every shift for an entire ride. D-Fly was an add-on, but Campagnolo and Sram now broadcast the same information as standard.

Extra data

Sram eTap broadcasts its gear position, both front and rear, in a standard ANT+ signal, to a cycle computer. ‘We knew that we wanted to put that functionality in there early on, and building in the ANT+ shift profile was not as laborious as building our encrypted area network for the actual shifting signals,’ says Sram product manager Brad Menna. ‘We consider it a great extra data point without the need for any extra hardware.’

Monitoring a groupset electronically isn’t altogether new. Shimano’s Flight Deck served exactly that purpose back in 2007. Then, however, it was a closed system, using wires and sensors to broadcast gear position live on a cycling computer. The difference now is the use of ANT+ communication channels that can transmit gear shifts.

‘That opens up a whole new world of analytics,’ says Lorenzo Taxis, global marketing director at Campagnolo.

The company’s MyCampy app is probably the most advanced, as it can map out component wear and identify detrimental habits such as cross-chaining. Campagnolo’s V3 EPS groupset is also the first on the road to do some shifting for us, with a feature called Shift Assist. For now it’s a neat feature, but in time it may prove to be a turning point in the machines taking over.

Self-awareness

‘We do have a simple system of Shift Assist that aids the rider in maintaining a constant cadence and power output when derailing from large-to-small or small-to-large on the chainring,’ says Taxis.

‘It doesn’t run on power data but rather does up to a three-gear compensation with the rear derailleur when a front derailment is performed, softening the shift and preserving pedalling rhythm.’ It’s the first example of gearing not working on a simple binary instruction, but acting intelligently to aid the rider.

And Shimano has followed suit. ‘We released Dura-Ace 9100 with Synchronized Shifting, which selects the next most appropriate gear for you, regardless of whether that change needs to be made via the front or rear derailleur,’ says Gerrits.

The impetus of both systems, it seems, is to use electronics to better select gearing for the rider. For some, though, the idea of shifting without the shift is heresy to the spirit of cycling, and it’s a view shared by some manufacturers too.

‘I do think it takes a little bit of the experience out of it,’ argues Menna from Sram. ‘I can certainly see the value for somebody who isn’t so in tune with their bike and gearing.

It’s like if you get into a sports car, do you want to drive it automatic or do you want to use the shift paddles? The shift paddles can be more fun on the right road, because you’ve got this interaction with the vehicle as you’re controlling it.’

There’s a grander vision for automated shifting, though – one where the technology increases the efficiency of the rider, and this is where third party tech-heads are really taking the reigns from the big players.

At this year’s InterBike expo in Las Vegas, a small brand by the name of Baron Controls exhibited a new product called the ProShift, with the capacity to shift entirely automatically, and intelligently.

Taking over

‘I think it’s the logical next step,’ says Ennio Mastracci, senior vice president of Baron Controls. ‘Once you have data, it’s intuitive to want to control what that data is showing and to optimise it.’

The ProShift is a head unit that can be hardwired to an electronic groupset and begin to take over the business of shifting by itself. ‘We take power, cadence, speed, heart rate and torque, in addition to some personal preferences from the rider, and calculate the perfect gear for that moment and shift the rider into that gear,’ says Mastracci.

It’s not just a matter of automating what we do naturally. While a rider can input a preferred cadence, the system will work towards determining the most efficient cadence based on a rider’s power and efficiency over time – potentially fine-tuning a rider’s own physiological attributes.

‘We’ve had quite a bit of interest from triathletes, as well as hand cyclists,’ says Mastracci. ‘FSA has just launched an electronic groupset and has expressed interest in working with us toward automatic shifting. Out of the blue we’ve been approached by two other companies who are developing electronic groupsets too.’

And there’s more. Baron Bio Systems (the company from which Baron Controls split off) has developed the BioShift. Operating through a Garmin bike computer, BioShift is similar in principle to the ProShift, but the brand has a different vision of the future, as it aims to develop this type of app into an automatic shifting mechanism itself.

‘Our strategy is simply to encourage the electronic drivetrain manufacturers to make available their wireless shifting protocol and we can then offer automatic shifting to the masses without requiring any additional hardware, other than a typical bike computer,’ says founder Armando Mastracci, brother of Ennio.

Baron Bio Systems is betting that automatic shifting compatibility will come from the big brands, while Baron Controls is wagering that a third party – namely, itself – will need to bridge the hardware gap to do the shifting for you.

If the effect of automatic transmission in the automotive industry is anything to go by, gears that change themselves could in turn change the landscape of cycling. For some, though, a friction shifter will always do fine.

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