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Deja vu: Ideas before their time

By Neal Rogers, Caley Fretz, Lennard Zinn & Logan VonBokel • Published
Before there was Di2 and EPS, there was Zap. Photos: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews

Let us pretend that inspiration is a solid, palpable thing every bit as real as the magazine in your hands. Tiny atomic kernels of the stuff, equal parts red-hot daring and cool-blue pragmatism, buzz idly through space, seemingly random and directionless, but resolute in their pursuit of the ideal mind in which to embed themselves. Most often they miss — think Betamax and Biopace — but every so often, through some miracle of happenstance, they hit the right brain at the right time.

These fragments don’t provide the flashes of brilliance so popular in Hollywood movies. What they do provide, however, are brief moments of clarity that are needed in order to bring years of abstract toil and tedium into the realm of the feasible. While they are inevitably attracted to a certain type of mind, their arrival is not always perfectly timed.

For an idea to return, it must first have departed — whether through neglect or outright rejection. And while it would seem that any idea worth bringing back to life would have been worth keeping around in the first place, that isn’t always so. Innovation is born of the spadework of its inventor, and the persistent shoveling of other inventors in the same field at the same time.

It must fall in line with existing technology and with the current needs of the consumer at whom it is aimed, while also exceeding the expectations of both. Should inspiration strike too early, or too late, an idea will burn out, no matter its brilliance.

The following pages are dedicated to sparks of inspiration that have returned, offering deja vu moments. Conceived years ago, dismissed or forgotten, they have been re-engineered and repurposed from their origins to fit into the modern world. They were ideas before their time; but their time has come.

Electronic shifting

The lure is undeniable. Changing gears on your bike with the same effort it takes to change the channel on a television — who wouldn’t want that? It would put an end to long evenings in a dimly lit garage snaking new cables through thin housing.
Given the allure, it’s not surprising that the industry’s keen minds have spent well over 20 years trying to perfect electronic shifting.

Early efforts came well before the modern servomotor and advanced lithium ion batteries. They melded electronic and analog and, frankly, didn’t really work.

The first spark of inspiration came in 1984, striking Bruce Browning, grandson of the mind that bore the Colt 45 and numerous other famous firearms. Browning tinkered and fiddled, aiming to improve on the shoddy front shifting that was unavoidable at the time. As his project began to bear fruit, component giant SunTour came calling, and the system became Browning Electronic AccuShift Transmission. The associated acronym, BEAST, was a perfect parallel for a mechanism both powerful enough to shift front chainrings under full load and prone to untamable failure.

The electronic front shifting operated like a railroad switch, with the chain taking the place of the train. A hinged section of the chainrings would move inwards, pick up or drop off the chain, and then return to its normal position. The astonishingly high cost of the system, and aforementioned spotty reliability, killed the BEAST before it ever had a chance to strut its stuff.

Within the next decade, Mavic took two separate swings, introducing its wired Zap drivetrain at the 1992 Tour de France and then the wireless Mektronic in 1999. For both versions, the French company applied electronics to only the rear derailleur, using a ratcheting push rod design and deriving shift power from the movement of the chain itself — a necessity given the poor battery technology of the time.

That bit of brilliance was also the system’s downfall, as shift speed correlated with chain speed and the design resulted in exceptionally poor chain retention. The ill-fated attempt at making the system wireless resulted in ghost shifts caused by interference. Coupled with hoods so large that the UCI banned them, citing a rule prohibiting extra hand positions, Mektronic was assured an early demise.

Had they been manufactured with modern motors and batteries, there’s no reason to believe the ingenuity displayed by Mavic’s engineers wouldn’t have translated into a stellar drivetrain. The ideas were, once again, conceived a bit early for proper execution. What-ifs aside, the history books will tell the tale of Shimano’s 7970 Dura-Ace Di2 group (pictured) as the first to hit the mark, falling as close to shifting perfection as the world had seen when it arrived in 2009. Di2’s wired transmission removed the spotty reliability of Mektronic. Powerful and precise motors are used in both the front and rear derailleurs so every push of the button results in near-perfect movement, and the front derailleur can be shifted easily under pedaling load. Small, advanced batteries keep the system going for thousands of miles, and keep the weight in line with high-end mechanical groups. The downsides are few and far between, limited mostly to ergonomic preferences and, of course, cost.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the tinkering minds at Campagnolo had been working to bring electronics to their bicycle transmission since before Mavic’s strikeouts were ever introduced: Campagnolo EPS is the fruit of a development cycle that began in 1992. The Italians’ exorbitantly priced but exquisitely beautiful EPS groups are not without the company’s trademark quirkiness — understanding an arbitrary series of timed button pushes and colored blinking lights is required simply to adjust the group — but the performance still matches and, sometimes, exceeds the brilliance of Di2. Front shifting is similarly powerful and the 11-speed rear derailleur offers outrageous levels of precision, just as Di2 does, but Campagnolo went with a similar button feel and hood ergonomics to its regular mechanical groups. That means a firmer click, more affirmative in response than the rather soft Di2 buttons, and the ability to dump an entire cassette worth of gears with a single, prolonged push.

Given the introduction of less expensive electronic options in Campagnolo’s Athena EPS and Shimano’s Ultegra Di2, with even cheaper options on the way, there is no question that battery-powered shifting has dismissed its checkered past. Even though there will be a place for mechanical groups for a long time to come, electronic is the future. For that, we can thank the early inspiration, early tinkering, and early mistakes made by those who came before.

Power outage

Mavic’s original Zap (rear derailleur shown) and Mektronic (shifter shown) groupsets each had fatal flaws, largely because engineers lacked access to the advanced electronics technology we have today. Both systems used a rear derailleur that derived shift power from chain movement, resulting in slow shifts at low cadences and poor chain retention. Mektronic made an ill-fated attempt at wireless transmission but was doomed by spotty reliability and wireless interference. —NEAL ROGERS, CALEY FRETZ & LOGAN VONBOKEL

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