Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Shifted: Mountain Biking with Shimano Di2 Electronic Shifting

Last fall I picked up a 2018 Scott Spark 900 Premium that came stock with Shimano’s XT Di2 electronic shifting.

I’ll cut to the chase. I put about 500 miles onto the bike before switching to mechanical shifting.

The bottom line: I lacked confidence in the system.

Nothing happened, I don’t have an epic fail story to share. I’m not a Di2 hater, I don’t think it’s bad.

The story really was: I couldn’t sleep at night.

This was the wrong bike in my quiver for this technology, in my mind.

Di2 presented too high a risk for failure, too high a cost in price and time for repair, and meanwhile I did not experience a significant enough performance gain given those risks.

I’m not riding some disaster-proof metal tank. I’m on an all-carbon frame, carbon wheels, tubeless tires, etc. Any of these components could fail too in their effort to improve performance and reduce weight, and they too could leave me in a bad spot if they fail and could cost a lot to replace. Yet, they’re all less likely to fail; they may be expensive to replace or they may not but regardless they are all easy to replace; and given all of that they provide enough of a performance advantage that far outweighs whatever their potential failure risks are.


Why not this bike?

To be clear, what I was most concerned about happening, never happened.

I tested this bike for its first 500 miles mostly in California, and riding trail systems close to home in Anchorage. The bike only went on one backcountry ride in Alaska with Di2.

That first 400 miles I put on in Cali was a nice honeymoon for this bike, but it’s place in the quiver is as follows: high-mileage weekend backcountry adventure stead, endurance racing bike, and Lower 48 bike vacation bike.

For an important point of reference: I retired my previous bike in this category after 3 seasons with 4,264 miles (GPS logged, not estimated).

During the summer, I will regularly put in 75-125 miles of backcountry trail riding in a single week on this bike.

The emphasis here is on backcountry.

The trails are point-to-points, lack regular trail maintenance, sport heavy brush, and provide no end of opportunities to do things to your bike you just shouldn’t do.

More, Alaska’s summers are short. Heavy winter snows, late springs, fast-growing vegetation, and early fall rains can all conspire to further shorten the riding season.

Missing even one weekend of riding up here may mean not riding a trail at all, all season. You can’t control the environment, so, missing a weekend because of mechanical failure is not an option. Period.

What became very clear to me, was that, this system was going to fail.

No, not because it’s electronic per se, but because drivetrains are the most failure-prone part of any mountain bike.

Derailleurs get ripped off by mishaps with brush and rocks, shifter paddles get snapped off in crashes. It’s just part of life for mountain bikes, no matter where you ride.

While the electronic components of the drivetrain have been thoroughly vetted and tested by pros for a half decade who put their equipment through far more severe conditions than I, the electronics too are certainly bound to fail in some way in their own right.

While one may easily conjure the “electronic failure nightmare” of a severed wire, shorted junction box, fried shifting motor, or dead battery, 15 miles from the trail head, the reality is, the failures of the electronic components present no greater adversity in the immediate situation than any other mechanical failure on any other part of the bike. They do add a few more “fail points” perhaps, but at what likelihood, I can’t say.

It doesn’t matter though, electronic or mechanical, you’re still in the same boat: you’ve got a compromised drive train and have to limp out or start jogging.

I’ve been there, done that, and will certainly have to do it again.

If all I was trying to avoid was a catastrophic mechanical in the backcountry, I’d ride a single speed and blow out my knees instead.

The nightmare of a catastrophic mechanical with Di2, at least in my mind, starts when you get back to civilization.

If you rip off your 11 speed mechanical Shimano derail while out on a ride, or any other part of your mechanical drivetrain for that matter, good news: if you want to ride tomorrow, every shop in North America has the replacement parts, in stock.

It might be from a different groupset, it might be more than you want to pay, but you can buy it and install it yourself in an hour or so.

Got Di2? You are likely in for another kind of slog.

Even living in an outdoorsy and bike-crazy town like Anchorage, there are only a handful of cyclists with electronic drivetrains. So, unless you have the replacement part personally on-hand, you’re very likely out of luck. Most in-town shops will doubtfully carry the spare parts in stock. They can of course order the part for you, but it won’t arrive for a week, and you’ll likely pay full price.

You can go online and order the part yourself and get it shipped overnight or 2nd-day, but of course you also pay the premium shipping cost.

While you’re online shopping for that replacement part, you will of course note that every Di2 component costs more than $100. The same mechanical component may cost anywhere from $30 to $75.

Also, depending on what the repair is, you may or may not be able to do the replacement yourself. Di2 is not a simple system. If you can’t install the replacement part yourself, you’re likely still going to need to get your bike in the que at the shop.

So, ya, you obviously had a bummer of a ride this weekend due to the drivetrain failure, but there’s also still a good chance your bike will still be out of commission for next weekend.

Whenever you do get it up and running again, you will have likely paid a lot for that repair…a lot more than you would have for the same issue on a mechanical system.

Here’s scenario 2.

I’m on a bike vacation, and, bang-snap! A shift paddle breaks; or the derail gets ripped off.

If I’m near a major metro area, I may actually be OK, perhaps even in better shape than I would be at home, and will find a shop that can replace the Di2 part – again, for a pretty penny, especially when I have to pay a bribe to get my bike worked on ASAP so I can continue my trip.

If I’m in the middle of nowhere -- often where I like to take my MTB vacations -- I can almost assure you, the local bike shop does not have the Di2 part.

I easily foresaw this playing out for me, and then foresaw having to plead with said local shop to unceremoniously rip off the Di2 and replace it with whatever drivetrain they had in stock, paying full price and maybe that bribe too, just so I could finish out the trip. That, or go running and hiking for the rest of the week while my friends all shred.

When I described this scenario/nightmare to a good friend who spends several weeks every year bike vacationing around the US, he said: “Ya, I’d carry an entire spare groupset if I was you.”

No thanks!

So, ya, it did not take too many nights of tossing and turning on these possibilities before I assembled the replacement mechanical shifters and derails online for a grand total cost of $200, or the equivalent of less than 1.75 Di2 components, and had my shop carefully remove the Di2, and re-install the mechanical parts.

I can’t say I ever looked back on that decisions, and since that time, I’ve put 1700+ miles on the bike mostly here in Alaska, as well as Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.


But, as I said, none of my nightmare scenarios actually happened. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and dreading it. I knew failure was imminent, I just did not know how, or when, and I wanted more control over what happened afterward.

From a basic performance standpoint, I liked the way electronic shifting felt. It was fast, smooth, and crisp. I loved that there were no cables to clog with mud and dust, no barrel swivels to adjust, no half shifts and ghost shifts. I liked the synchro shifting for 2x, and being able to simply hold a shifter to get multiple shifts.

I would not hesitate to use electronic shifting on a different bike such as my road bike or hard tail, maybe even a snowbike? Those bikes however, never go far from home, and won’t break my heart if they are out of commission for a week or two.

Electronic makes a lot of sense on bikes in general, and maybe one day it will on this particular bike.

I definitely want to see electronic shifting succeed too. In this day and age of technology, mechanical shifting is archaic. Lousy shifting is something that should be eradicated like an ancient disease.

If electronic does catch on, I think there is a possibility to wholly re-visit the layout and design of the cockpit of modern mountain bikes. What if shifters no longer had to be levers and triggers? How small could they get? How could we redesign dropper and lock out levers, and might those too soon be controlled by teeny motors? Who knows?

I will say that I’m most hopeful for wireless systems such as SRAM’s Eagle eTap. Avoiding an intermediary junction box, wiring harness, and battery, seem like no brainers from a maintenance and re4liability standpoint, though I assume that cost and parts availability issues will remain issues well into the next decade. I guess we will see.

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