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The simplicity and appeal of the cable-operated drivetrain

Wires and now radio signals may threaten to make gear cables obsolete, but I still love that simple mechanical connection between mind, spirit and bike.

Always on

I’m not averse to technological advance. It’s fantastic that development of the bicycle has resulted in better reliability, the opportunity to build a ridiculously lightweight machine, well under the UCI 6.8kg threshold, and GPS devices that allow you to track your every heartbeat, related to specific points on your ride.  But the Luddite in me adores the simplicity and purity of the cable-operated drivetrain.

Plugged in

At work I generally use a computer to assist me with most of my daily operations (gone are the days of parallel motion drawing boards, squares and French curves); my smartphone keeps me in touch whenever I’m out of the office and emails can even be accessed when I’m on holiday (don’t do this, for the love of humanity, don’t do it). 

At home, there’s an iPad, a computer, and, yeah, my phone is still there too, just in case I want to check what weather I’ll be suffering on the following day’s ride, or see what the train times are for tomorrow's meeting. The TV has more channels than could ever capture my interest; the smart TV beams film, music or TV series rentals into the living room at the push of a button. It’s a wonder we’re not all wearing homemade foil helmets.

But out on the bike it’s just me, my legs and some metal parts controlled by steel cables that have changed relatively little since 1949 when Campagnolo introduced the first parallelogram rear derailleur.  Okay, GPS devices let you look at what your heart rate is doing, chart your physical state at every point along your ride and now even allow you to be followed live online, but we’ll gloss over that: they can be left at home.

Simplicity

And that mechanical simplicity is the appeal of cycling. Control comes from the connection between the derailleur and the rider’s hand via a 1.1mm diameter cable, determining whether you need to push harder or allowing you to give the pedals an easier time. 

 

It’s quiet; nobody’s ringing. Twitter, Facebook, the endless expanse of the internet is beyond your reach. You’re rolling along to the sound of tyres on asphalt, the mechanical click of a shifter as you select a different gear ratio, the gentle whirr of a crisp drivetrain. That feeling is hard to describe: it forms part of the escapism that cycling offers. 

There's nothing I love more than borrowing my dad's 1970's Sun Solo and pootling along, loving the five-speed block and downtube shifters. No battery is going to let me down, most mechanicals can be fixed with multitool (some things will require one of those extensively equipped pocket workshops), it’s just me and a collection of parts that have been working in a similar manner for the last 70 years.


A bike, some cables and the open road.

Gone electric

The uproar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Dylan went electric still sparks outrage among some of his fans. They didn’t like it, they still don’t like it.  Others accepted it, loved it and moved on. It didn’t devalue his pre-amplified days. He was exploring new ways to do the same thing that he was doing previously.  And that’s where electronic shifting is taking us.  Some will always hate it, some will never use it, some are already out and out converts, some covet it for their next purchase. 

I’ve never tried it, but by all accounts, I reckon if I did it would be the beginning of the end of my commitment to the mechanical simplicity of cycling. 

But maybe it wouldn’t. The appeal of a bike with down tube shifting remains, even though my bikes use modern integrated shifters.  Electronic shifting, in wireless form or otherwise, will remain the preserve of high end machinery for some time to come, but it will filter down eventually and there will come a day when it’s going to grace many bikes on the shop floor of your friendly local bike shop. 

Even so, I have a feeling that even if it’s on an “old" carbon bike from the early 2000’s in the back of the shed, there’s always going to be a place for the humble cable on our bicycles.

37 comments

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workhard [397 posts] 2 years ago
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"But out on the bike it’s just me, my legs and some metal parts controlled by steel cables that have changed relatively little since 1949 when Campagnolo introduced the first parallelogram rear derailleur."

Think you'll find the bowden cables that work your gears, and brakes, pre-date the first Campag mech by at least half a century.

Victorian technology. Just like the safety bicycle.

But nothing is broken so why fix it unless you're a Cat 1 or above!

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Al__S [1018 posts] 2 years ago
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Ooh, Glendevon!

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jmaccelari [240 posts] 2 years ago
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I, for one, will be glad to see the back of gear cables - especially on MTBs (when electronic shifting gets there). The next big thing will be the obsolescence of the rear derailleur by some internal gearing (like Honda had on their DH bikes). The combination of the two will be awesome: no more cr@ppy gear changes even in the worst conditions! No more kinked cables, no more rusted cables, no more replacing of cable housing that's full of water and/or mud!

The sooner these two disappear the better!

But then, like the old VW Beetle, there will always be the nostalgic value to them for those sunny days...

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harman_mogul [224 posts] 2 years ago
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How about no cable, and no freewheel? Works for some!

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SamShaw [265 posts] 2 years ago
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Al__S wrote:

Ooh, Glendevon!

Well spotted - 8am on a perfect winter's morning!

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neildmoss [290 posts] 2 years ago
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It's the "Range Anxiety" that battery operated systems bring with them that puts me off electric shifting.

I don't want to be stuck 30 miles from home because I forgot to plug my bike in the day before.

Boy, I'm getting too old....

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laterrehaute [25 posts] 2 years ago
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SRAM Wireless. Now wouldn't it be fun to hack that and play havoc with the peleton.

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abudhabiChris [692 posts] 2 years ago
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My objection to electric shifting is that it undermines the whole principle of riding a bike.

A bicycle is a human powered vehicle. Once you introduce electric shifting you've replaced human power with external power. It's not a bike any more.

In a race that could be the difference between someone so badly affected by cold they aren't able to change gear and someone who is strong enough or hard enough to do it - the difference between winning and losing perhaps.

Why is there a difference between that and some form of power assistance to my wheels or chain? No that's ridiculous you say, it's a clear line.

But what if it was power that I had produced from braking, or from excess power on flats and descents which was stored, the way KERS works in F1 racing. It's my power, I'm just using it later.

I think the UCI should never have approved it. It's wrong. I'm not luddite - I have a power meter, bike computer and all that stuff, but none of it helps me actually ride the bike.

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jollygoodvelo [1410 posts] 2 years ago
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abudhabiChris wrote:

A bicycle is a human powered vehicle. Once you introduce electric shifting you've replaced human power with external power. It's not a bike any more.

I agree that KERS and similar systems have no place in cycling. But this part is just complete poppycock.

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Flying Scot [918 posts] 2 years ago
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I too think its step too far and over complicates the basic function of the machine.

One of my frames is so old it was built for a rod front changer as they hadn't invited cables yet.

Lets face it, bicycles are a mature technology and we are really only farting about with tiny changes and almost everything has a negative effect as well as positive.

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matthewn5 [760 posts] 2 years ago
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I agree with abudhabiChris. By introducing systems to a bike that are powered by a battery we are losing the direct relationship between man and machine.

I don't mind if others use them, good luck to them. But I like that direct feel, the ability to fix on the go, and the simplicity.

I also have an old downtube shifter bike in the collection, agree, it's a joy to ride.

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Simmo72 [603 posts] 2 years ago
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Good article

Each to their own but unlike clipless pedals or other great inventions, I cant recall ever going on a ride and thinking damn, I wish I had electronic shifting. That's my measure and until that changes I'll be cabled up.

Lets not forgot the worse case scenario.
Hitting the deck drive side (isn't it always the way) is bad enough and costly. hitting the desk drive side with electronic shifting = national debt of uganda

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SamShaw [265 posts] 2 years ago
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Electronic shifting can have great benefits too - I read about one well known frame builder who now runs Di2 due to arthritis - I'm all for it if it enables someone to ride who otherwise would find it difficult. Who knows, any of us could need it for the same reason some day!

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Username [178 posts] 2 years ago
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There's nothing I love more than borrowing my dad's 1970's Sun Solo and pootling along, loving the five-speed block and downtube shifters.

I can understand that. I get the same simple mechanical pleasure from using my dad's 1953 Leica camera. Nothing electric in it, no batteries to die, no contacts to fail; it just keeps soldiering on.

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Nick T [913 posts] 2 years ago
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WiFLiWiFi

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Simon E [2681 posts] 2 years ago
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I get the same simple mechanical pleasure from using my dad's 1953 Leica camera. Nothing electric in it, no batteries to die, no contacts to fail; it just keeps soldiering on.

I think this is more apt than Sam's example of Bob Dylan. A Leica is an engineering masterpiece; nothing superfluous but everything necessary.

Many days I think of building a 'simpler' bike for everyday use - skinny metal frame with downtube shifters, old-style brake levers, rat-trap pedals & toe clips... I wouldn't dare go as far as singlespeed or fixed (some of the rides I do are a bit too hilly for me to try that) but I enjoy the simplication and the idea of 'less to go wrong'.

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jollygoodvelo [1410 posts] 2 years ago
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SamShaw wrote:

Electronic shifting can have great benefits too - I read about one well known frame builder who now runs Di2 due to arthritis - I'm all for it if it enables someone to ride who otherwise would find it difficult. Who knows, any of us could need it for the same reason some day!

Valid point. Since my accident last year it is slightly awkward for me to push the left-hand shifter to go up to the big ring. Electric solves this.

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FluffyKittenofT... [1191 posts] 2 years ago
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Unless you are talking about professional racing (where the governing bodies presumably can agree whatever slightly-abitrary rules about equipment that they wish) I don't get the philosophical objections about direct relationships between man and machine. I don't really care, and in any case whether its mechanical or electronic its still physics! Its not magic.

The practical objection seems more to the point to me - one more thing where batteries going flat could ruin your day. For that reason alone I think I'd rather stick with mechanical cables.

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davebinks [149 posts] 2 years ago
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Electronic shifting is using pre-stored energy, and that the rider didn't even produce!

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FluffyKittenofT... [1191 posts] 2 years ago
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davebinks wrote:

Electronic shifting is using pre-stored energy, and that the rider didn't even produce!

Well, yes, but why is that so significant?

The 'human-powered' issue matters for practical reasons only, as far as I'm concerned. That is, less pollution both locally and globally, less road-space, less mass hence less danger, and more exercise for the traveller. Its not a religious thing where the use of _any_ stored power somehow contaminates the whole!

I don't see that battery-powered gears really affects the main issue very much, any more than battery-powered lights. Its quite a small proportion of the energy-expedenditure, and causes no local (street-level) pollution at all.

However, I wouldn't want to be reliant on batteries for the bike to function, for purely practical reasons.

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matthewn5 [760 posts] 2 years ago
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And the best bit? Shimano electronic gears default to 53 x 11 if the battery fails. Spirit of the V!!

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Dr.Galactus [18 posts] 2 years ago
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abudhabiChris wrote:

My objection to electric shifting is that it undermines the whole principle of riding a bike.

A bicycle is a human powered vehicle. Once you introduce electric shifting you've replaced human power with external power. It's not a bike any more.

Charge the shifters with a dynamo, problem solved?

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noether [96 posts] 2 years ago
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Remember the slide ruler? Or seen the soroban being used in shops all over Japan (at least in the 70s)? These completely mechanical calculators provided real gymnastics for the mind and should be reintroduced at elementary schools before youths "upgrade" to electronic ones; if well taught, they are actually fun to use.

The parallel does not extend to cycling. I too love the concept of all mechanical - my 4 bikes are - but I am a true believer in cycling as a solution for urban mass transport and pollution. Here, electronics will deliver by convincing the chain & lube & all things mechanical adverse to take the step. Check the rise and rise of the pedelec in Holland and Germany. And here we sportive cyclists play a humble role by paying for high end electronics so that they can trickle down a few generations later. But I am still not up to it...

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Initialised [304 posts] 2 years ago
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Dr.Galactus wrote:
abudhabiChris wrote:

My objection to electric shifting is that it undermines the whole principle of riding a bike.

A bicycle is a human powered vehicle. Once you introduce electric shifting you've replaced human power with external power. It's not a bike any more.

Charge the shifters with a dynamo, problem solved?

Once this tech is mature and power consumption is down to a trickle of microwatts all you'll need is a small solar cell with battery back up on the shifters and a generator hooked up to the top jockey wheel on the rear to charge both derailers. Use capacitors rather than batteries to store the charge, less of an aging effect especially if you over spec a little.

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Matt eaton [742 posts] 2 years ago
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Electronic shifting seems like technology for technology's sake in my opinion.

If I'm ever let down by my drivetrain it is invariably because of a problem with a derailier, not with a cable. It's usually due to the derailier being full of mud and grass but bashing/bending derailiers or hangers is also a bit of a weak point (I should add at this point that my geared bike is for CX and I'm also drawing on the experience of friends with MTBs).

Electronic shifting may have benefits for world-class pros, but for us mere mortals it seems like more trouble than its worth. If any part of the conventional shifting system needs to be engineered out its the fragile and muck-afflicted derailiers themselves.

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Gordy748 [110 posts] 2 years ago
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I don't have an issue with electronic shifting, but the price kills me. Athena EPS or Super Record wired? Simple choice, that.

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fukawitribe [1681 posts] 2 years ago
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Matt eaton wrote:

Electronic shifting seems like technology for technology's sake in my opinion.

...

Electronic shifting may have benefits for world-class pros, but for us mere mortals it seems like more trouble than its worth.

Funnily enough, some of the potential advantages of electronic shifting - simplifying shifting patterns, programmable / sequential shifting, self-adjusting mechs - could be of great help to precisely those mortals who want to know nothing much more about a bike than which end goes first. There is greater complexity, but electronic drive systems are hardly un-reliable now - and a lot of folk would use an LBS anyway - so if the price comes down to nearer affordable whilst still being reliable I say bring it on for all.

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Al'76 [110 posts] 2 years ago
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I'm still running mechanical, and probably will be for some time, but can't help but feel attracted to the idea of fault free shifting every time and consistently perfect indexing as there is no cable stretch etc. but, really these are just conveniences. Nice conveniences, but conveniences.
I have a friend who was a plumber; he had to stop plumbing due to problems with his hands but, due to recent technological advances, he is still riding his bicycle  36

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ezra421 [7 posts] 2 years ago
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cables fray and brake. to keep your electronic shifting working well, you have to charge it every few thousand miles. same with your derailleur cables. maintenance is maintenance, just on different parts and if you dont take care of your bike, you will get stranded at some point

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Scrufftie [104 posts] 2 years ago
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There will always be some who like draw a line at an arbitrary point in time and say 'this represents perfection for me, I want no more technology, no more developments'. They will then pour a lot of energy into justifying why they're right.

It's the same with cameras, cars, hi-fi, music, art...........

For me, it's easier to be flexible and accept technology I want/can afford for some of the time and leave the wooden rims, toe clips and woolen jerseys for special occasions.

Useful, reliable technology will tend to endure and other developments will not stand the test of time. Thankfully, Mavic's alloy rims replaced wood and endured otherwise 'Muckoff' would be producing linseed oil

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