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Before we had SRAM eTap we had Mavic Zap

Mavic Zapp Derailleur
Peter Stuart
17 Feb 2016

The wireless electronic derailleur is not as recent invention as you might think - in fact it goes way back to 1992.

In 2009 Shimano shook the world of bicycle transmission when it introduced its Di2 electronic shifting mechanism. Yet the truth is that Shimano was late to the party. Mavic, the French company famous for its wheels, was equipping pro bikes with electronic groupsets nearly two decades earlier. 

The Mavic Zap was unveiled in 1992, and with it came new thinking on gear changing. Unlike the Di2 or Campagnolo EPS of today, the Zap’s electronics were not used to power a motor that shifts the derailleur because the batteries needed in the 1990s would have been too big and heavy. Instead, Mavic engineered a system where shifting was powered by the movement of the chain itself.

Unlike the classic parallelogram design used for most derailleurs, the Zap was essentially an angled, sliding shaft that pushed the jockey wheels into the right position for a desired gear. When you pressed the button on the handlebars, an electrical signal was sent to a solenoid (an electro-magnetic switch), which would engage teeth on a central shaft that was rotated by the movement of the chain and jockey wheel. Depending on whether it was engaged from above or below, the teeth would cause the chain’s movement to either wind the shaft in or out – moving the jockey wheels and chain to the next sprocket on the cassette.

It was a cunning design but, being so far ahead of its time, niggles were almost unavoidable. Nevertheless the Zap was put to the toughest test of all – in the pro peloton. 

Mavic Zapp

Swiss ex-pro Tony Rominger looks back fondly on the technology, reminiscing on his experiment with it at the 1993 Tour de France: ‘My manager didn’t want me to use it in the TT because it was a risk, but I thought it could save me energy with the shifting by not moving as much on the bike.’ But 3km in he found himself stuck in 54/12. ‘Luckily it was flat,’ he laughs. Luckily he was very strong too, and he won the TT.

Despite the occasional hiccup, the system had its strong advocates. Chris Boardman used the groupset for his Tour de France prologue wins in 1994 and 1997, and stuck loyally with the system for much of his career. There were obvious motives – one of the Zap’s biggest draws was that gear switches could be attached anywhere on the bike and put in multiple spots, meaning that Boardman could make shifts with his hands on the brake levers or the aero extensions of his TT bike.

The electronic experiment didn’t stop there, and in 1999 Mavic went wireless. It was an ambitious step, and only now is it being re-explored. Mektronic was essentially the same as the Zap system, but did away with the wire connections to the derailleur, plus it offered a cycle computer that displayed your gear at any given time. 

In the end, the Zap and Mektronic systems faded away, but Mavic can claim to have produced a game changer – it just took another decade or two for the game to change.

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