Always on—the plight of the humble gear cable

The simplicity and appeal of the cable-operated drivetrain

by SamShaw   May 16, 2014  

Sun Solo

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.

38 user comments

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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.

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

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posted by Gizmo_ [814 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:04

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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.

All Campag

posted by Flying Scot [522 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:11

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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.

posted by drmatthewhardy [303 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:17

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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

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [283 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:41

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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!

Twitter: @velosam

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posted by SamShaw [252 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:47

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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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posted by Username [51 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:50

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Some people just love old obsolete stuff.
Which means that as Di2 does become mainstream and price has dropped a lot, there will be some mighty cheap cable deraillieurs going.

Airzound

posted by Airzound [273 posts]
16th May 2014 - 13:52

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WiFLiWiFi

posted by Nick T [790 posts]
16th May 2014 - 14:12

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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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posted by Simon E [1941 posts]
16th May 2014 - 14:25

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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.

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

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posted by Gizmo_ [814 posts]
16th May 2014 - 14:42

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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.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [660 posts]
16th May 2014 - 17:50

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

Binky

posted by davebinks [125 posts]
16th May 2014 - 18:52

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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.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [660 posts]
16th May 2014 - 20:06

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And the best bit? Shimano electronic gears default to 53 x 11 if the battery fails. Spirit of the V!!

posted by drmatthewhardy [303 posts]
16th May 2014 - 23:41

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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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posted by Dr.Galactus [18 posts]
17th May 2014 - 1:53

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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...

The entropy of the universe increases constantly. Carpe diem.

posted by noether [50 posts]
17th May 2014 - 5:57

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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.

posted by Initialised [114 posts]
19th May 2014 - 1:01

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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.

posted by Matt eaton [395 posts]
19th May 2014 - 11:04

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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.

posted by Gordy748 [83 posts]
20th May 2014 - 14:40

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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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posted by fukawitribe [359 posts]
20th May 2014 - 15:00

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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 Party

posted by Al'76 [126 posts]
20th May 2014 - 22:22

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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

My crash - 5/31/14 (a little blood but nothing nsfw) https://imgur.com/a/Aafht

Skilled Strava Sniper

posted by ezra421 [7 posts]
21st May 2014 - 18:55

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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

posted by Scrufftie [23 posts]
23rd May 2014 - 12:02

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The Glendevon road is okay but it's nothing next to the road up and over to Dunning, if my memory is correct. That downhill to Dunning runs for about 3 hours!

posted by vbvb [231 posts]
2nd June 2014 - 20:30

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I just got back from a short tour on a 14-speed Rohloff equipped tandem. Does that count as internal gearing? And I've seen mention of electric shifters for Rohloffs (though I can't quite see the point, personally).

Robert

posted by Grumpy Bob [14 posts]
5th June 2014 - 13:06

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This has the potential to free me and all the other reluctant roadside (pub side) mechanics from the infuriating drudgery of having to adjust the gears on the bikes of other people who do not properly maintain their steeds. You know the ones, the ones who are far too busy with work to drop their bike off at the shop and get it sorted, the ones who bitch and moan about not being able to keep up because of gear issues, the ones who buy the most recent and expensive kit but never learn how it works. Thank you for this marvellous invention that means when the batteries go flat the must have show off's will have no other option than to wait roadside for their grumpy wives to rescue them while the real men, get on with the business of riding and drinking! Real men do not need electronic gear shifting, hip hip hoooo *ucking ray.

posted by BigglesMeister [16 posts]
7th June 2014 - 15:10

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personally i dont see electronic shifting ever completely replacing mechanical shifting just like cd's/mp3 hasn't completely replaced vinyl records

some people will just always prefer mechanical shifting

now i run shimano di2 on both my road bikes and i dont think id ever go back to mechanical shifting on a roadbike (my only other geared bike is a 1992 hardrock mtb)

di2 has no fuss, once its set up thats it, works in all weather (-10 and snowing to pissing with rain and being submerged in deep puddles)

as for the argument that what if i forget to charge the battery

1. the front mech will stop working first, the rear will carry on going for quite a few more shifts (like 50+)

2. the control box has a battery indicator, hold down the shift button for two secs and it displays the battery power, easy thing to check when you do your pre ride bike check/get your gear ready for your ride, a full charge is good for over 1500 miles so u only need to charge 2-3 times a year

3. if you are a complete tool/muppet and manage to fully flatten the battery then the drivetrain will just stay in the pre selected gear, so you can ride it home quite easily (campag u can disengage the mech and select the gear u want)

4.the battery only takes 1.5 hours to fully charge and if your that worried buy a spare for under £50

i commute around 5k a year using di2 plus i do another 2-3k on my nice di2 bike

ive been using di2 since 2012 so im very experienced with the system and i love it!

i have run the system down fully to see what would happen and even then when it wont shift if u dont try to shift for 5 mins you get limited shift back for around 4-5 shifts allowing u to select a better gear to get back home

the whole "if the battery runs out im stranded" argument is a pretty poor one in my eyes

hoping to upgrade to super record eps soon so will have a good play with that system too!

posted by kev-s [32 posts]
16th June 2014 - 16:06

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Several years ago my bike computer stopped working Sad

I've never got around to replacing it, and I now just enjoy the freedom of the road and buzzing of my hub as I swish down the hills.

I feel back in touch with myself, I'm not stressing about average speed, heart rates or anything else, just enjoying the effort and sensations as the scenery rushes past.

Cycling is an amazing way to get around Smile

Endorphines going up and adrenaline going down, who needs drugs?

posted by banzicyclist2 [208 posts]
7th July 2014 - 19:59

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My carbon road bike, I installed Di2 on there. It's great. I was always adjusting my ultegra gears, and sometimes they'd let me down on a gear change; not what you want sprinting away from the lights ahead of cars!
I have a boardman MTB with SRAM X0 group set. No issues there. When there was chaos on the roads due to snow, I quickly changed the tyres to the fattest I had, and had great fun passing the stuck traffic, got to my important appointment and back on time.
I like Di2 because it allows me to be efficient and consistent. I don't need that for messing around in the park with the kids.
I've always liked bikes, and things always change. It's all good. However If I decided to cycle around the world, I wouldn't do if on a di2 equipped bike. Just common sense really.

posted by ronin [127 posts]
29th July 2014 - 20:34

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I think the Government should cancel all new road building and transfer the money saved to the 'road maintenance' budget, specifically that allocated to local councils rather than to centrally-funded trunk roads. Our minor roads - those best for cycling - are a disgrace and certainly reduce the pleasure of cycling. Nobody wants to commute with the bump-bump-bump of many of our roads. Why should they?

And for Government to every now and then announce a new allocation for 'fixing potholes' is hardly a strategic road maintenance programme (how many potholes does it take to make a road?). Let's get back to the continental standard of road building and maybe enjoy their level of cycle usage.

Of course, separate cycle lanes (properly surfaced) are much better but not always possible.

posted by davidk [1 posts]
7th August 2014 - 15:24

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