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Interbike Trends: Integration over emotion

For years, the bike industry has trended toward integrated componentry. In the last few years, it seems to have reached a tipping point.

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Are we too emotionally tied to individual components?

My first car was a 1987 Nissan Sentra that I spent more time disassembling and reassembling than actually driving. I did that out of necessity — being poor, I would contend, is really the mother of invention — but also simply because I could: There was little in the way of complex systems. Everything was mechanical.

Fast forward to today’s cars and everything is computerized. Where once I could pull out a carburetor, there sits a fuel injection system completely operated by a computer. Cars have gotten immensely complex, and they now require special skills, and tools, to work on.

Sound a bit like today’s bikes?

Go ahead, try to swap out the handlebar on your new aero bike in under an hour. First, you’ll have to pull out all your cables and hoses. Is there some sort of external steerer tube? Proprietary spacers? Bikes have become more complicated, and you’ll probably have a hard time working on modern models in your home garage. But perhaps that’s a good thing: It means engineers now design bicycles as systems rather than a collection of individual components. If your end goal is to go fast, this technological integration trend does you a great service.

Yes, I understand (perhaps better than most) that much of the charm of working on one’s bicycle involves the process of selecting parts, swapping parts out, and building “Frankenbikes.” That will certainly never change. There’s a reason the repair books call it “Zen and the art.”

But from a pure performance standpoint (read: race bikes), perhaps it’s time to embrace the complexity of modern bikes. Take, for example, one of the most commonly-swapped components: your stem. What could you possibly gain from saying goodbye to a separate stem and handlebar and embracing an integrated system? For starters, there’s likely an aerodynamic gain. Since round tube shapes are the enemy of aerodynamic performance, you’d be eliminating a source of drag. That’s why Cervelo’s redesigned S5 (launched Monday) includes a stem that looks like the Starship Enterprise. It’s all about tiny gains that add up to big gains.

Integration isn’t just a roadie thing, either. It’s happening in the mountain bike world with suspension systems and peripheral controls, such as Fox’s Live Valve system, which was perhaps one of the biggest stories at Interbike this year. No longer are your fork and rear shock working independently of each other; now they work together to enhance the ride.

Even component manufacturers are getting into the integration game. Lezyne, for example, showed off its Connect Drive light system — a front and rear light controlled by a wireless, handlebar-mounted controller. And just a few booths over at Interbike, Wahoo and Pioneer announced their partnership, integrating Pioneer’s power meter capabilities with Wahoo’s head unit display. These types of integration are obviously less about speed or comfort, and more about merging technologies that make your ride better (assuming, of course, such integrations are considered successful).

With heaps of integration comes heaps of cash, mostly flowing out of your wallet. While you could have bought a top of the line race bike for a couple grand a decade ago, you’ll probably need to take out a second mortgage to afford what the pros ride. This requires a change of mindset, too: In order to get race-ready performance a decade ago, top of the line components were your only option. Today, even second and third tier components are vastly better performers than the top of the line stuff from a decade ago. If you’re tied to Dura-Ace, you’re either a pro, a wealthy person who doesn’t mind spending more for the very best, or very concerned with how you look on the group ride. Ultegra and 105, in other words, will save you tons of cash and outperform Dura-Ace of yesteryear.

That said, whether integration and high-end componentry are worth it ultimately boils down to how you enjoy your bicycle. That hasn’t changed over the years, and it’s a decision only you can make. We’re fortunate to live in a time when Specialized and Trek have the Venge and Madone respectively, while more traditional builders like Ritchey, Surly, Salsa, Mosaic, Rock Lobster, and the rest can make you a steel bike with a 1 1/8-inch head tube, and perhaps even a stem to match.

The only thing more exciting than integration is options.