Automatic Shifting for the People? Changing Cycling one Shift at a Time.

I’ve been riding for the past two or three weeks in eastern¬†Massachusetts and while the locals tell me it’s not hilly, for someone coming from southern Louisiana I beg to differ. Mostly I’ve been riding in Myles Standish State Forest, which gets me anywhere between 900 and 1,200 feet of climbing over a 25 mile ride. What eastern Massachusetts lacks in long mountain climbs it makes up for in short punchy climbs that often have short stretches of 10% grades (up and down). The takeaway, it’s the kind of road riding that rewards momentum and smart shifting to maintain it or to take advantage of the quick grade changes.

And that takes me to electronic shifting. I have it and like it despite having been a bit of retro grouch before getting it. (Disclaimer, I rode thumb shifters on my mountain bike well into the late 90s and only made the switch when the guys from GripShift (now SRAM) pried the thumb shifters from my cold but not quite dead hands.) Riding where the terrain requires frequent shifting and frequent double shifts, I’ve grown even fonder of Di2. Shimano was at the forefront of bring electronic shifting to the market and they are pushing the horizon–perhaps in directions that will change cycling and what makes a cyclist a cyclist.

The big change in electronic shifting isn’t SRAM’s wireless system (and it’s innovative, don’t get me wrong), but rather Shimano’s Di2 Synchro Shift. It has the potential to change cycling in ways that wireless shifting doesn’t. Leonard Zinn has a great explanation over at VeloNews of how S2–full Synchro Shift mode works. Basically, it manages rear upshifts and downshifts by a cog or two based on what the rider does with the front chain ring–upshifting a few cogs when the rider shifts from the big ring to the small. As I’ve been refining my riding (and thus shifting) in the up and down terrain of eastern Massachusetts–and missing or getting the shift just a bit wrong, the idea of having a system that keeps me from being over or under geared is intriguing. Of course, it takes some of the challenge out of cycling (and what’s the fun without the challenge?). But then, would we find new challenges?

What really got me thinking is that if electronic systems can make such decisions now, what does the near future hold?

  • How far away are we from systems that auto shift based on some combination of cadence, power, heart rate, wind speed, and elevation?
  • How will such systems impact events like time trials in which a cyclist or coach could program shifts given the course or the cyclist’s fitness?
  • Or a hilly up and down road race course where the system analyzes the rider’s effort, the conditions, etc. and makes the shift to keep the cyclist in the ideal HR or power band?
  • What about a route the rider has ridden a lot or pre-ridden as part of race prep? Will shifting systems be able to learn a rider’s tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses and compensate for them through shifting patterns?

On one level such innovation may change cycling in ways that takes some of the challenge and skill out of the sport and turn cycling into even more of a fitness centric sport than it is now. On another level such innovation may open up the sport (you’d be surprised by how many new and casual cyclists find shifting a black box). And for recreational cyclists or commuters or those cyclists who face physical challenges, such automatic shifting could be a great boon and open cycling up to even more people–or make some para cyclists more competitive than they are now.

Mindfulness; The Soul of Cycling

I did a dumb thing.

The other day, after a week or so of hearing my bottom bracket creak every now and then, I rushed through repacking the bearings with grease. I didn’t take time to put the bike in the work stand. Instead I left the bike in the hanging storage stand. I didn’t clean the work area and gather all the tools and supplies. Instead I rushed through and tried to work in the clutter of the bike storage room–the room that at the end of the semester and in full on shoulder season has too many pairs of gloves, toe warmers, head coverings, etc. scattered around. I wasn’t mindful.

Olof P. Nelson and trainer
Olof P. Nelson and trainer

And because I wasn’t mindful, I botched the job in big and small ways. First the small. I didn’t take the time to make sure the grease gun had plenty of grease in it. As a result I probably didn’t get a full grease purge on my Chris King bottom bracket. And because I didn’t take the time to put the bike in the work stand and to make sure I had uncluttered workspace, I made a bigger mistake.

 

Because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing I made a big mistake: I forgot to install one of the plastic bushings or spacers required to run the Chris King BB86 bottom bracket with Shimano cranks. Yep. And I knew something was wrong when I put it all back together, but because I wasn’t mindful, I let it go. I let the strange free play and tightness of the bottom bracket go. I tried the quick fix of loosing it bit. It kind of worked. I was in a hurry. I had other things on my mind and was looking towards a goal rather than being in the moment.

Because I wasn’t mindful, my bottom bracket made a weird moaning noise at the start of the Sunday Hammers ride. And then if felt weird; tight and then eventually loose. Then if my pedal stroke was off, it felt loose.

Today, I took the time to investigate. I was more mindful. I made sure I had all the tools. I made sure the grease gun was refilled. And that’s when I noticed what I feared; I had forgotten to install on of the plastic sleeves. But because I had done the original job in a cluttered space and wasn’t mindful, I wasn’t sure if I could find the sleeve. Was it wrapped up in a rag that was in the trash sitting out on the curb? Was it lost somewhere on the floor? Luckily for me, the sleeve was on the floor. Hopefully, despite the odd metallic smell the good folks at Chris King over engineered the bearings to compensate for my lack of mindfulness. I put some fresh grease in the bearings. I reinstalled and adjusted everything, but then I was worried about the gritty feel. Was it the bearings? The chain?

Because this time I was being mindful I took the chain off. The gritty feel was the chain. I soaked it. Brushed it. And then, I stopped being mindful. The girlfriend came home. Rather than being mindful with her–of giving her the time she deserves, I tried to split my attention between her and the final step of rinsing the chain. The result? I poured the quick link down the drain. Panic. Luckily, she was more mindful than me and urged me to use the drain trap rather than panicking and going the bike shop.

So, mindfulness. Cycling is about mindfulness. As Padrig over at Red Kite Prayer wrote a few weeks ago, group riding, any riding is about different kinds of mindfulness. A few weeks ago on a Saturday ride, a newer rider went down. He had just come off the front. We had another new rider with us. We went over a bump which for all of old hands was a known thing. Someone slowed just enough. Wheels touched. And someone went down. It’s easy to blame the guy at the back. But I bet there was a lot of non-mindfulness to go around that morning. Sometimes it takes us focusing on the moment. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us to focus on the moment. Sometimes the universe reminds us to be mindful.

Cycling demands mindfulness. Not suffering. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of our equipment. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the road, of the weather, of the traffic. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the others in the pack–mindful of the people we ride with. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the traditions of the ride, of the group, and of the area. And that’s why I love cycling. Because in a world that pulls me out of mindfulness, cycling pulls me into mindfulness. Sometimes cycling does it through suffering. Sometimes cycling does it through a¬†well functioning paceline. Sometimes it does it through the sublime sunrise, or the lifting fog, or the play of light through the trees. Sometimes it does it with the horrible sound of metal, carbon, and flesh hitting the pavement. Sometimes it does it with the smiles and looks of mutual gratitude at the end of a ride. No matter how it does it, cycling always reminds me of the importance of mindfulness.