Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Colorado Mountain Road Test - SRAM eTap Electronic Shifting


So, this post will be a bit unusual. I did a Colorado mountain ride with my friend Pete recently that wasn’t quite epic or disastrous enough to warrant its own post. (For epic click here; for disastrous click here.) Meanwhile, I’ve long wanted to blog about electronic shifting, but I’m not sure I care enough about it to devote a whole post to that, either. So here’s a combo: while telling you about a not-quite-epic ride, I’ll share my firsthand experience with top-end electronic shifting. If you care about neither, read on anyway, because I’ll cover food and booze too.

Executive summary

Fun ride, even though my rental bike’s SRAM Red eTap bit the wax tadpole.

Short version

Our pre-ride carbo-load dinner was exquisite. I rented a very high-end bicycle from a good shop. This bike had electronic shifting, which I was hoping to have some trouble with so I could bag on it, which I’m predisposed to do anyway. I did have some trouble, which proves that at least this brand of top-end electronic shifting is still a pointless expenditure. The ride was fun, hard, and involved a gorgeous dirt road. It wasn’t that epic, though, which is my friend Pete’s fault.

Long version

If you know me well, you know I’ll all about fast cars, fly women, and gold chains. Hmmm. Maybe that’s not quite right. I guess more accurately I’m all about fast bikes, fine literature, and saving money.  And when I go to Boulder, I’m all about time-honored traditions like eating pasta at The Gondolier and suffering through long bike rides. Here’s my plate at the Gondo:

Look, I know some wiseguy among you is going to say, “Those noodles are too thick and ropey and don’t appear to be made of semolina flour.” That may be true, but damn it, that’s not the point. These were good enough for me as a teenager when I went every week for all-u-can-eat, and they’re good enough now. Trust me, I know from good pasta.

And look at that beer! Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA, one of my very favorite beers. (Before I conceived of this post, I snapped this photo for Beck’sting purposes, to make my pals jealous.)

That’s Pete in the background. He’s my favorite biking pal because he’s way faster than I am but doesn’t seem to hold it against me. He also susses out all the cool routes that invariably feature gobs of climbing and remote dirt roads.

For my rental bike I went to University Bicycles, affectionately known as UBikes, which is arguably the best shop in Boulder (though I also like Vecchio’s Bicicletteria quite a lot). Now, you might not know this, but Boulder is considered a very bike-y place. “Best shop in Boulder” is kind of like being “best brothel in Amsterdam.” (I’m actually not that wild about the comparison I just made, but I don’t have time to go fix it.) Anyway, one cool thing about UBikes is their collection of very cool old bikes like this one.

When I was 13 my friend Nico (also 13) loaned me, for about a year, a Cinelli road frame of similar vintage.  When I think back to how advanced Nico and I were, compared to the current crop of ho-hum teens, I start to sound like an old person.

Last time I rented a bike from UBikes for an epic ride, I waited too long and got a real pile of crap. This time I planned ahead and, almost two hours before the shop opened, reserved a Specialized Tarmac via their website. I got to the shop about ten minutes after they opened and they’d already put on the Look pedals I requested. As the salesman helped adjust the saddle for me, he sent another guy upstairs to “get the batteries.” Batteries? Huh? Oh, wow, this bike sported SRAM eTap electronic shifting! It works like this: there are only two buttons, one per lever. To get a smaller rear cog you tap the right. For a bigger cog you tap the left. To change chainrings you tap both buttons at once.

Is electronic shifting cool? No. I can say that now that I’ve tried it. I have always been tempted to say that without even trying it (kind of like how I can confidently say heroin isn’t cool even though I haven’t tried it, either), but until now I figured I better hold my tongue. Now I’ve tried it and, as I’ll get into later, it’s not foolproof (which of course it needs to be to have any benefit over traditional shifting).

Empirical arguments aside, I will now walk you through why electronic shifting is lame in principle. First, let’s ask the question, what makes a racing bike good? Number one, the bike has got to look cool. Number two, the bike has to go fast. Let’s evaluate eTap on that basis.

Does it look cool? No. Here’s proof.

That Cinelli I showed you a bit ago? That looked cool. Those SRAM derailleurs? With the big hunks of plastic-y material sticking off of them? Those don’t look cool. They look really bad. Now, I know aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, but that doesn’t mean there’s no right or wrong. If you like the look of these derailleurs you are either delusional or have no taste, and I no more respect your opinion than if you said plastic ketchup bottles look better than glass.

Now, speed is another matter. My Giant road bike might not look better than that old Cinelli I had, but overall the Giant is better because it’s faster. That is, the Giant will get me up hills faster, given the same power applied to the pedals, because it’s lighter than the late ‘60s Cinelli. Now, here’s how the whole “is it faster?” question applies to electronic shifting.

(The SRAM Red eTap rear derailleur weighs 239 grams; the SRAM Red traditional weighs 178 grams. The levers weigh about the same between the two types. Etc.)

I guess it could be argued that eTap is better because it’s more foolproof and/or more pleasurable to use. I’ll get to that later.

Just in case you give a shit, here’s the bike I rented.

Great bike. It rode really well … stiff, comfortable, handled well. My only complaint is that it seemed a bit heavier than my Giant. Hmm, I wonder why.

The saddle was pretty comfortable too, which was a relief. You just never know with a rental bike.

I have to question Specialized’s normally spot-on branding here, though. I mean, Toupé? Are you kidding me? Look, marketing guys: since you evidently didn’t grasp this, “Toupé” is one letter away from, and pronounced exactly the same as, toupée, the artificial hairpiece that insecure men wear, which is a front-runner for the most embarrassing product a man could buy. There’s a reason slapstick comedies so often feature a man’s humiliation at having his toupée  blow away or getting it snatched off his head. Given the prevalence of baldness amoung MAMILs (hardly the most glamorous ambassadors of the sport), this is astonishingly reckless branding. If they came out with a women’s version, would they call it the Merkin?

Since I seem to be finding fault with everything, I might as well complain that the helmet UBikes loaned me didn’t have a vent setup that gave me any way to stash my sunglasses. This really surprised me, since every helmet I’ve had in the last 20 years has had sunglasses-friendly vents. But thanks to the Toupé saddle, problem solved!

I finally understand why so many modern saddles have that giant hole in them. (By the way, the above picture provides the only photo evidence that I was actually on this ride. Look closely and you can almost tell what club I ride for.)

But enough about the gear and culture. It’s time to hit the open road! Here’s where we rode, starting from Pete’s house in Golden.

The reason this ride was so short is that although Pete and I both had the day off, he had a noon conference call. I already gave him a hard time about this, but you should pile on. E-mail me your scathing gibes and I’ll pass them along.

We started out by riding up Lookout Road, featured in the US Pro Challenge and, more recently, Phil Gaimon’s successful bid for the new Strava record. We didn’t end up going as fast as Phil. I guess we forgot to hammer. Oh well. We ride Lookout in less than twice Phil’s time, which isn’t bad.

If you’re looking for an open road, Colorado is a good place to start.

I don’t have a whole lot of photos of this ride because I forgot to bring my camera. Fortunately—check this out!—my phone has a camera built in! That sure came in handy.

There was a wonderful section of brand-new bike path for a ways. Then, after another climb, I helped Pete get a new personal record on the Floyd Hill descent. (Actually, we weren’t even thinking about trying to go fast, much less doing anything on Strava. And lest you think we’re daredevils, this was only good for 144th place.)

Alongside the road were some buffalo, or “buffler” in mountain-man parlance. I’m sure these creatures are more majestic when they’re not all fenced in.

The pedaling was hard. After Lookout we braved another Category 2 climb a bit over 7 miles long, taking us to about 8,700 feet above sea level.  That may not sound like much, but I donated blood recently. Also, I’m not very strong to begin with.

Okay, let’s get back to that shifting. First impression? Kind of nifty. It didn’t take long to get used to it (though a couple times, near intersections, I tapped the wrong button.) Once I got used to it, and the novelty wore off, I realized it’s not as fun as traditional shifting. I enjoy mechanisms. After all, we’re messing about with PCs, tablets, phones, and other electronic interfaces all day long. As more and more technologies are designed to be idiot-proof and as automated as possible, what’s left for us to do? I miss the stick shift on my old Volvo. Driving a stick is more fun than letting the car decide when to shift. (And operating the clutch of my old car was more fun than using Geartronic, the so-called “manumatic” transmission of my current Volvo.)

What’s wrong with today’s wealthy cyclists that they don’t want cable-type shifters, especially considering how good they’ve gotten? Why do all these dentists and stockbrokers enjoy being coddled with pushbuttons?

So much for eTap being more fun. So does it shift faster? No. Rear shifting has been practically instantaneous for many years so there is scant room for improvement there. And when shifting the front with eTap, there’s a tiny delay when you tap both buttons before you hear this little whirring noise and the motorized front derailleur moves the chain. Granted, this delay is unimportant; the main factor in response time was never in the lever to begin with—it’s dragging that chain up to the big ring, or nudging it to the little one without letting it fall. The SRAM red front derailleur does just fine, but no better than high-end cable-type front derailleurs.

The last chance for eTap to prove itself superior would be in the “foolproof” department. This is hard to test, of course.  I will concede that cable-type front shifting isn’t perfect; everybody throws his chain once in a while. That being said, one ride on eTap without a missed front shift wouldn’t mean anything. I might go weeks or months, maybe a year or more, without my bike’s front derailleur screwing up. So my only hope for hitting the trifecta—ugly, heavy, non-foolproof—would be eTap happening to screw up within the narrow timespan of my four-hour ride.

About 2/3 of the way into the ride, all the planets lined up. Pete and I reached a point where a steep downhill led right into a steep climb, and I wanted to keep as much momentum as possible. This meant big-ringing it until the very last second and then going for the little chainring. What a perfect testing ground for electronic shifting! You can see where we were, about 43 miles into the ride:

I bombed the downhill (leaving a bit of a gap between me and Pete so maybe I could surge by him triumphantly) and tapped the two buttons at just the right moment. And guess what? The fricking chain fell off! And here’s the really weird part: it came off the right side, as if it had overshot the big ring (which it had already been in) instead of the little one. WTF!?

Now, a defender of this eTap technology might be tempted to blame the rider. But that’s silly; there should be no way to get it to mis-shift. But wait, you might say, what if I had accidentally hit the two buttons twice instead of once? Well, I suppose it’s possible I did that, but electronics should be “smart” enough  to handle this kind of user error. That is, the system should ignore a second click if it comes a fraction of a second after the first one, since obviously nobody would want to shift onto the small chainring and right back to the large. Besides, I’m not a klutz—on an old Schwinn I had with no front derailleur (it had broken off) I used to shift by hand—so I’m 99.9% sure I tapped those buttons just once.

I will continue to play the devil’s advocate and entertain the possibility that the derailleur was poorly adjusted. But remember, this was a ~$6000 rental bike that gets tuned up after every ride. It was built and maintained by arguably the top bike shop in a bicycle mecca. If UBikes can’t get it right, clearly the tolerances of this system are too tight—i.e., it’s literally too high-maintenance—to be practical. I for one would not want to own a bike with such finicky shifting (if adjustment is indeed the problem).

Pete, looking back and seeing that I’d thrown my chain, said, “See you back in Golden,” and rode off. Now, when you throw you chain off the big ring on cable-type drivetrains, it’s easy enough to get it back going again—you click the little lever on the left side to move the front derailleur left, then lift up the back of the bike so the rear wheel is off the ground, give the cranks a turn or two, and you’re back in business. It is the same process every  time so you do it without having to really think. But what would I do here? I had no idea why the bike had mis-shifted, and therefore no idea what chainring the front derailleur thought it was in. I had to look closely at the derailleur before double-tapping again, so the failure of eTap was compounded.

In the final analysis, eTap absolutely does not shift faster, nor is it easier or more enjoyable to shift, nor is it (more) foolproof. To my great delight, electronic shifting turns out to be even shittier than I’d imagined.

To those of you who shelled out a lot of money for electronic shifting: don’t feel bad. I’m not trying to bag on you. It’s your bike and your business and you can still feel good about choosing electronic, and I would never expect you to second-guess your choice based on my brief experience with it. But your derailleurs are butt-ugly and your bike is heavy.

Our third major climb, Douglas Mountain Drive, is a Category 2, mostly dirt, with an average pitch of 9%. Very scenic as well.

Some of the sights were more amusing than beautiful. For example, this one:

What’s amusing about that, you ask? Well, look a little closer:

There are grills on both the upper and lower decks! Why would that be? Maybe it’s in case members of the family can’t get along. “Just for that, I’m going to barbecue tonight, and you’re not invited!” / “Okay, fine, I’ll go downstairs and have my own barbecue! I don’t need you!”

What a glorious early evening climb this was. Being dirt, and steep, it didn’t let us climb out of the saddle much. We settled in for some really nice suffering and an even nicer view.

Of course I couldn’t snap any more photos once the descending began. With the exception of a mile-long climb I don’t even remember, it was all downhill, for 15 miles, back to Pete’s place. Fittingly, my tale ends as it began: with a beer.


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  1. Dana, I can say one thing in defense of the eTap design. If to change chain rings one must "tap" both buttons, the control is strictly binary, it either shifts to the big ring or it shifts to the little, there is no in between, i.e. no way to accommodate a triple. So that's progress! (I suppose one could hold the buttons to go to a bigger ring and tap to go to a smaller, but that seems quite complicated and might be difficult to remember when one is oxygen deprived.)

    By the way, your link to your home-made pasta article, "I know from good pasta." at first seemed like a typo ("I know some good pasta?"), yet it also felt like a trap for poorly-educated, non-English majors like myself. It must be some branch of the English language I know nothing about. Care to explain?

    1. Yeah, I wonder about how they'd handle a triple. Seems like electronic shifting would appeal to many a (wealthy) novice, who might also want that triple.

      "I know from good pasta" is a figure of speech, not a typo. The idea is that I know good pasta from bad. Here's a fairly helpful essay on this construction: