Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Friday, March 13, 2009

First Ride -- Shimano 7970 Di2

Electric. Shifters.

This has been tried before, you're right, but I'm too new to the sport to remember all of that Mektronic business.

So, when I see the blueshirts pull out a LaPierre with a funky-looking brick behind the front derailleur, I had to go investigate. Yes, that's Alex, with this prototype of the mouthful that Shimano calls "Dura Ace 7970 Di2." It's for real this time, ladies and gentlemen. Both Big S and Campagnolo have been developing electric groups for the past several years, but Shimano bit the bullet first and put theirs on the market.

On sale soon at a high-end bicycle shop near you, Di2 will cost you something like $3,000 for the basic 4-piece group -- that's STI shifters, both derailleurs, plus a battery and charger. On top of that, you'll need a crank, chain, and brakes, which Shimano STRONGLY recommends using Dura-Ace 7900 parts for. Expect bikes with this complete group to cost 5-figure amounts without too much trouble.

What do you get for that kind of coin? What's the benefit?

The short version is this: The front derailleur is effortless and perfect.

A few years ago, I did one of my first races, on a rolling course near Bellingham, WA, and I had it in my gung-ho mind that I was going to attack at a certain portion of the course. We were starting a big climb, and a guy a couple of rows in front of me started to accelerate, and I shifted into my big ring to go over the top.

Except, that's not what I did. Instead, I slowed too much and powered the chain over the side of the big ring. I wasn't slick enough to get it going before my rapidly diminishing momentum faded, so I had to climb off, throw the chain back on, and chase. I had the same level of suffering, but rather than off the front of the pack, I was off the back chasing.

All commentary about my skill notwithstanding, this would not have happened on Di2. The front derailleur is the most complicated part of this system, and as far as I could tell simply could not drop the chain. Seriously, this thing has laser alignment. Lasers, folks!

Even my two laps around the parking lot showed me the magic, and unbiased sources confirm it’s the same under full load up a gnarly hill. You can still shift.

We had a technical Q&A session with the Shimano dudes, and I asked them everything I could think of that would foul this up. Of course, everyone asks how long a charge of the battery lasts, and it’s not like a light where you recharge the thing daily. One zap a week ought to be fine. If you lose, wear out, or destroy yours, it’s also the only part of the system that “does not say Dura-Ace on it,” meaning it’s produced under contract, carries a 1-year warranty, and costs a relatively reasonable $99.99.

How about fitting the battery to smaller frames? Sure, you get a bottle-cage lifter that allows you that flexibility, and Alex said they had also gotten several other positions on the seat tube area to work fine.

What if the computer goes wonky on you? It won’t, but if you don’t believe me, you can hit this control button on your bars, and recalibrate the thing if you like.

Want to run your front shifter on your right hand? Can do.

What if you crash that $900 rear derailleur? Well, of course, it’s not indestructible, but the derailleur senses impact and retracts to the top of the cogs, making at least, um, crash-resistant.

Now, how about if you’re installing the wiring, or putting the bike on the car, and you cut the wiring harness? That, sir, is a $300 mistake you’ll only make once. Still, I wish they’d found a way to make the wiring harness more affordable. Shimano replied that perhaps as quantities went up, price would go down some, but they also advised that compatible frames will be able to run the wires completely internally, minimizing chances of damage.

As a guy who has loaded his bike into a van with 20 other bikes countless times, I’d be more than a little concerned about that one! Wireless is a no-go at least for now, though, because of higher battery drain and risk of cross-talk in the peloton causing exciting things to happen.

When riding the stuff, the way that you really notice that you’re riding electric is the mouse-click effort required to shift. On the front, this is a really big deal – no more high effort, long-travel sweep while trying to climb. The rear doesn’t feature a multiple shift feature, but you can rattle ‘em off as fast as you can touch the button. Automatic trim on the front derailleur means one can run fully cross-chained as much as you like, though I suppose it’d wear the chain faster.

Instead of thwacking, rifle-bolt shift sounds, the rear derailleur makes a quick “zzzzziiip,” like pulling down a zipper quickly. It feels more natural than I expected, though I mistakenly tried to move the brake lever to shift, like all other Shimano designs. On Di2, the shifters are both small buttons behind the brake levers, which only operate the brakes.

Two laps around the lot, and several chances to make Di2 foul up a shift all failed. It’s solid stuff.

In short, will I buy it? Right now, probably not.

Cost notwithstanding, though, given the choice, would I race on Di2? Absolutely. No questions asked.

That’s pretty impressive.


  • At 12:19 PM , Blogger Stoked said...

    I got to ride a LaPierre with this set up a couple weeks ago. (1) It would be super easy to shift by mistake, like when you sneeze or bump the shifter when you're moving your hand to do something else. (2) The battery life is a definite downer, especially since it's so variable depending on weather. And $99 to replace is pricey. Plus there's the still-questioned health risk of setting yourself in the middle of yet another electromagnetic field when you're out to do something "healthful." But it definitely has its "sweet" elements!

  • At 12:26 PM , Blogger Argentius said...

    Agreed on easy shifting, you can't really rest your fingers on the buttons.

    You mean battery life as in time before you have to buy, versus how long a charge lasts?

    I'm not worried about the second, based on what I've seen, and while I'd rather not be a new one, I'm more scared about crashing the $930 shifters. Yoikes!


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