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FSA WE drivetrain: 5 questions, answered

Dan Cavallari has more info on FSA's drivetrain that has become the talk of Eurobike.

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FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany (VN) — It’s the big story at Eurobike: a new wireless drivetrain … sort of. I stopped by the FSA booth to get the skinny on the new WE drivetrain, which sends a wireless signal from the shifters to the derailleurs. The front and rear derailleur, however, are connected via wires to a battery hidden in the seatpost. It’s a curious system that’s been in development for several years now, and while it’s now plastered all over the Internet, questions remain. Here are a few of those questions, and the answers you’ve been looking for.

Why did it take so long for the WE drivetrain to hit the market?

We’ve spotted it on pro bikes for a couple of years now, though it still hasn’t made its race debut. What gives? For starters, FSA had the same problem that SRAM had when developing eTap: Existing drivetrain manufacturers who were already in the electronic shifting game hold most of the patents concerning electronic shifting technology. FSA had to navigate that minefield, but unlike SRAM, FSA had to do it without the benefit of a long history of mechanical drivetrains. In other words, SRAM already had the drivetrain know-how, while FSA had to develop that as they went. All while navigating the patent landscape. It was no small feat, which explains the lengthy delay and testing period.

Why are there wires on the wireless system?

The simple answer is, once again, patents. FSA had to find a new way to make its system work, and the WE design is certainly unique. But according to FSA, the wired system has another advantage: a much longer battery life. Because the battery is tucked away in the seatpost, FSA could create a bigger battery for the system. No word on how long, exactly, that big battery will last, but you can expect battery life to vary depending on how often you ride, how often you shift, and in what conditions you ride, much like SRAM, Shimano, and Campagnolo battery life.

How does it compare to Di2, EPS, and eTap?

In terms of performance, it’s hard to say. So far, we’ve only seen the drivetrain on show bikes here at Eurobike, so we haven’t gotten any riding time on it. Even the show bikes were disabled so you can’t test-shift. (I just heard a rumor that there are a few demo bikes to ride, so I’ll go see if I can get my hands on one!)

But this is a promising system that’s designed to compete with the best. FSA has hit all the right notes with it: an intuitive shifting layout, a light system (2,090 grams, right around a full Dura-Ace system and a bit heavier than eTap), comfortable hoods, and precise shifts.

There are, however, a few things still missing: FSA is in the process of developing a disc-brake version (SRAM released eTap hydro on day one of Eurobike) but it isn’t yet available. FSA reps say it should be available in the spring, but that wasn’t definite.

Sprinter and climber buttons are also conspicuously missing, but again, FSA reps assured us those are in development and on the way, along with TT shifters.

Look for the drivetrain to be used on Astana, Cofidis, and Direct Energie training bikes in 2017; the pros will be testing those sprinter and climber buttons, along with the TT shifters and hydro levers.

Like most electronic systems, WE is just too expensive for me. Will this technology trickle down?

The WE drivetrain will be available for purchase in the spring of 2017 and will be priced comparably to other top-of-the-line electronic drivetrains on the market. If that’s too rich for your blood, you’re in luck because FSA plans to develop trickle-down options in the near future. The company hasn’t released a specific date, but it sounds like it’s a priority to develop more affordable systems in the very near future.

Great, I’ve got answers to those nagging questions! Now, how does it all work?

We’ve all heard of ANT+; well, WE uses ANT, but it’s not plus. Yep, regular ol’ ANT. Did you even know there was a regular ANT? Me neither. Apparently, ANT is customizable, so FSA could create an encrypted signal that is exclusive to FSA. SRAM sought a similar solution, but it developed Airea, its own proprietary signal, instead.

There are small batteries in each shifter (the ubiquitous CR2032 battery), and those should last a year or more. The battery for the derailleurs is hidden in the seatpost, and wires run to each derailleur. To adjust the derailleurs, you shift into the sixth gear on the rear derailleur, press a button on the front derailleur to enter SET mode, and then use the shift paddles to adjust accordingly.

Once that’s done, you’re ready to ride. There are shift paddles tucked behind each brake lever, and the exact shift functions are customizable using FSA’s app. You can also customize the power/standby modes using the app. To understand how the shift buttons work, envision a balance board (basically, a skateboard deck that you balance on a cylinder at the center point of the board). The shift paddle is fixed in its center, and you press the top or the bottom of the paddle to shift in either direction. It’s pretty intuitive once you play with it for a minute or two.