Essay: On the Future of Cycling Shifting
(2016) Ask any Formula One fan in the 90’s where they saw the racing’s technology headed, few would have pegged the carbon rocket ships of this generation. Fans were too busy being romanced by Ayrton Senna who manipulated the car around tracks, not the other way around. A strong portion of each lap, a nineties Formula One driver would expect to have his shifting hand off the wheel to go up or down the gearbox. Factor in the thousand-horsepower engine spinning 19,000 rpms behind him, and it was more of a rodeo than study in control.
At some point in the progression of Formula One constructors decided to put the shifter at the fingertips of the driver. Flappy paddles had arrived. One human element was removed from the racing experience. The casual Formula One fan may be forgiven for thinking this simplified driving a race car.
But then, quietly, Formula One progressed the shifting technology. Steering wheels, like the one featured above from the Sauber team, cost about $50,000. Just the steering wheel. With a price tag as high as that the driver should expect the wheel to shift the car. And wouldn't you know, that's exactly what happened. Now the cars are - dare I say it - automatic. Naturally the driver can override and shift manually, but that reverts back to the flappy paddle. To simplify the process, the engineers drop information into the car's computer regarding the specific track, the weather, the temperature, and a whole host of other variables. Formula One drivers no longer manipulate the gearbox. Judging by the steering wheel, I'm sure it's because they have quite a bit to do in other areas. A study of today's Formula One steering wheel, one could become over stimulated and take a nap from all that information.
On a recent ride with a friend, we talked about the future of cycling, specifically shifting. With the countryside peloton looking for something new and inspirational out of cycling, shifting beyond the current electronic offerings could be just the target.
Long time Tour de France founder and promoter, Henri Desgrange, insisted cyclists complete the Grand Buckle around France through sheer leg power. He reluctantly allowed derailleurs in the peloton toward the end of his governorship. His successor immediately allowed the use of front and rear derailleurs as well as multiple gears in professional cycling; the sport has never been the same.
My developing point is this, if shifting was so sacrilegious under Desgrange, just how much change could happen to infuriate people? The cycling diehards eventually got over the multiple gears situation and embraced the progressive movement of bike technology. New routes were introduced with the availability of multiple gears. If adding a couple cogs could be gotten over, then what about the future views of computerized shifting in cycling?
On the aforementioned ride I suggested this future of cycling: A rider goes to a location and has his/ her riding style measured by a computer. The rider is tested over a variation of simulated terrains until the computer learns the riding style. The rider is then handed a program to upload to the bike's electronics. The bike will forever shift into the optimal gear under researched conditions without ever needing the human element. Gone with steel frames would be the three-beat sound of shifting, click-hiss-clunk.
Much like in Formula One, the rider (or team directors for that matter) could simply slide any chip into the derailleur to change the gearing combinations. With how much information can be stored on today’s devices, suggesting a chip could handle an entire Tour de France stage’s-worth of individualized shifting programs isn’t too impressive. Imagine just how incensed Henri Desgrange would be if he lived to see a moment some online writer suggested computerized digital shifting. It would probably be the same disappointed face all those Formula One fans made in the nineties when the cars began to shift themselves.
I plan to laugh at all of this years from now.
Cover photo was lifted from an article on wired.com and can be found here.