They’re in the “nothing new under the sun” file – electronic gears. Chrono-specialist, Chris Boardman swore by the Mavic electronic rear mechanism back in the 90′s; it’s instant, precise response was exactly what was required in the split-second-world of prologues. Mavic persevered with the system under the Mektronic name, but highly visible PR disasters like Alex Zulle’s rear gear changing of it’s own volition during a Vuelta time trial, did it no favours and eventually it faded-away.
These two Shimano mechs were feverishly trying to get the new electronic system mounted to one of the Rabo-bikes after K-B-K – without the prying eyes of the press. They shoed us away right after we got nosey.
But it’s back, gruppo giants Campagnolo and Shimano both had electronic set-ups on display at the recent Het Volk/Kuurne weekend. Predictor/Lotto and Cofidis had riders racing with the Campagnolo gears whilst Rabobank had two velos on display after Kuurne, sporting the Shimano ensemble. Both Campag and Shimano have taken things further than Mavic did, by introducing motor-driven front mechs.
Faster shifting starts here: The shift lever & paddle look like regular Campy, but the lever is noticeably shorter than the cable actuated version.
The Campag transmission looked closer to a production set-up than their Japanese rivals. The Shimano gears had the look of “one-off” prototypes fresh from a machine shop and in-line with company policy eschewed carbon. Campag on the other hand continue to embrace the “wonder-stuff”. Despite this, the Shimano battery-pack definitely looked sleeker to our eyes, time will tell if Campag’s bulky number, located just below the down tube bottle cage will shrink once full production is achieved.
[ Tech Ed.: That said, "sleek" may not equal better / longer performance, and battery life, strong / level power output and recharge time might be better served and worth the added grams that come with a larger energy source.]
Not even that slick carbon-camo finish could hide the new Campagnolo electric shifters from our camera…
But enough of our musings, let’s talk to one of the first kids on the block to get his legs into this newest of toys – Predictor/Lotto strong-man, Bert Roesems:
Pez: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Bert, can you tell us why you were chosen to test the gears?
Bert: There’s a good relationship between my team and Campagnolo so they selected us as one of the squads to test the new gears. They said they wanted someone who is ‘into’ equipment and who would analyse and feed-back; our Director Sportiv, Herman Frison immediately thought of me.
The carbonized Campy rear derailleur looked rather ‘moto’…
While the Shimano rear derailleur looked decidedly ‘proto’.
Pez: What are the advantages over normal, cable-operated gears?
Bert: Perhaps the biggest one concerns the front mechanism; in the Northern Classics, when you crest a ‘berg’ it’s vital to get back up the gears as quickly as possible because it’s always fast over the top. With the electronic front mech, you can be down as low as 50 or 60 revs, hit the button and within half a rev you are on the big ring, there’s no ‘grating’ or hesitation – it’s instant. The rear change is very, very quick, it’s not like manual gears, there is no delay whatsoever. If you have cold hands or you are nervous or under pressure, you don’t have to worry about how hard to push the lever – just touch the button and you are in the gear you want. If you want to change even six gears then just tap the button six times and it’s done – instant.
The battery pack sits under the front bottle cage.
The Shimano system’s battery pack looks smaller, but how long it lasts is anybody’s guess (unless you know someone at the Big S). The guys at Shimano confirmed the obvious – the system is in development. (Ie: We may or may not ever see it in production.)
Bert: The only thing I would say is that the battery pack isn’t small, apart from that, I can’t think of anything.
Pez: How long have you been trialling it?
Bert: Campagnolo came to our pre-season training camp in Italy to measure-up my Ridley Noah, they had to manufacture an adaptor plate for fitting the front changer. They fitted the gears to my bike at the Tour of the Algarve and I rode the last three stages there before Het Volk and Kuurne. Campagnolo wanted to test them on the cobbles but it was important we made sure everything worked properly first; they didn’t want any problems in front of all those TV cameras at Het Volk!
Pez: How do they work when the ‘heat’ is on?
Bert: Perfectly, there’s much less chance of making a mistake with a change. Changes are immediate and you don’t have to ease-back on the pressure on the pedals during the change so it makes for a much more fluid style of riding, even under pressure. Like I said, if you want to go up six or seven cogs, then just tap the shift button that number of times and it happens.
Pez: The problems that helped finish Mavic’s mechs were unreliability in the wet and poor battery-life, can you comment on those aspects please?
Bert: One of the stages in the Algarve was very wet and Het Volk too had rain and a lot of wet roads – I experienced no problems. As far as battery-life goes, I started Het Volk with a fully-charged battery and at the finish the indicator showed I still had 85% charge left. Another advantage that the Campagnolo rear mechanism has over the Mavic one is that the gear is pretty-much the same size as a normal gear; the Mavic gear projected well-out from the rear end and was prone to damage in a crash.
Bert Roesems: Former Belgian TT champ, self-admitted techno-geek, and Campy electric product tester in action at Het Volk.
Pez: How about weight?
Bert: It’s not an issue for the Northern Classics, the bike is no heavier than it would be with SRM cranks or a Powertap hub.
Pez: Would you be happy for it to be on your Ridley permanently?
Bert: Yeah, I would be happy with that, it looks like I’ll be riding all the Classics and it would be good to have it for all of them.
Pez: Any jokes about it from other riders?
Bert: No, none at all, but I’ve had a lot of interest from other riders – asking similar questions to the ones you have just asked.
Pez: Many thanks, Bert and good luck at Paris – Nice.
Whether either of these electric systems are destined for market, or just part of the annual ‘you can look but you’ll never get’ marketing fizz, only time will tell – we’ll keep our eyes peeled for you.