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Shimano’s latest prototypes are racing the Tour

The year is barely half over, but it's already been a busy one from a technical perspective. Campagnolo finally dropped the square taper for Ultra Torque, one of the smartest outboard-bearing, two-piece, bottom-bracket-and-crank combinations in the industry. And SRAM has sent its Force group to its first Tour de France while unveiling a premium performance group called Red. What about Shimano, you ask? Well, they’ve been busy, too. The company’s updated carbon wheels blossomed in spring, and an electric group and a prototype carbon crank appeared at the Dauphiné Libéré. All of these

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By Matt Pacocha

Shimano’s prototype carbon crank

Photo: Matt Pacocha

The year is barely half over, but it’s already been a busy one from a technical perspective. Campagnolo finally dropped the square taper for Ultra Torque, one of the smartest outboard-bearing, two-piece, bottom-bracket-and-crank combinations in the industry. And SRAM has sent its Force group to its first Tour de France while unveiling a premium performance group called Red.

It relies on the same system as the 2007 XTR crank, and has a tapered Octalink spline

It relies on the same system as the 2007 XTR crank, and has a tapered Octalink spline

Photo: Matt Pacocha

What about Shimano, you ask? Well, they’ve been busy, too. The company’s updated carbon wheels blossomed in spring, and an electric group and a prototype carbon crank appeared at the Dauphiné Libéré. All of these components have gone on to start the Tour, which is where VeloNews got a look at them.

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The non-drive arm is tapered and has a threaded adjustment knob

The non-drive arm is tapered and has a threaded adjustment knob

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Many of them were in the hands of the Gerolsteiner squad, whose sporting director, Hans Holczer, runs a bike shop in Germany that’s something of a retail development school for Shimano engineers.

“It’s something that some of our engineers don’t have,” said Kozo Shimano, senior executive for corporate advocacy, who was in London for the prologue. “So in their mind they may know something is better, but the question is if it’s better on the shop floor or in the back room. So that’s why we use his shop, to learn about the retail environment. He’s a big fan of Shimano, and he’s been very close to our European office.”

6. It looks sharp mounted up

6. It looks sharp mounted up

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Gerolsteiner mechanic Rajen Murugayan took us through the team’s new toys. He had opinions about everything — once the Tour’s over, he will give Shimano’s engineers a full report. In the meantime, he gave us a sneak preview.

The carbon crank — which is more of a carbon “look” enclosing what’s probably a hollow aluminum core — is lighter but harder to work on, Murugayan said.

The non-drive arm, mounted and adjusted

The non-drive arm, mounted and adjusted

Photo: Matt Pacocha

“It’s 55 grams lighter than the normal one. It’s Octalink, not like the current 10-speed version. You need a crank jack to get it off. It screws into the arm and you unscrew the screw inside so that the crank pulls out.”

In contrast, the new WH-7805 wheels, available in both shallow and deep rim profiles, are easier to work on, if not quite as stiff.

The right lever’s indicator window

Photo: Matt Pacocha

“Last year we had a meeting with Shimano and we were asking them to put the nipple on the outside, but with the classic hub. The classic hub is stiffer,” he said. “We said it would be easier to work on, because you don’t have to take off the tire to adjust it. If you have two or three wheels that need to be straightened in a race and you have to take off the tire, maybe it might not be dry in the morning. If the nipple is on the outside you can adjust it.”

The electric group “works good,” Murugayan said. “You set it up one time and you don’t have to adjust it. It’s a little bit heavier, but not so much.”

The left lever

The left lever

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Shimano was almost as candid with his responses to questions about the new parts.

“[The wheels] are an evolution of the ones currently being sold,” he said. “They’re slightly improved but they’re based on the evolution of the product. There is a different hub design, different cosmetics and things like that, but the rim contour is basically the same.”

14. The battery pack

14. The battery pack

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Neither the cranks nor the electric group are ready for prime time. If the electric group is ready by December, Shimano said, then it will be in shops by 2009 — maybe. Many a Shimano prototype never reaches the market for one reason or another: It’s too expensive or too difficult to produce; it’s not practical; dealers can’t work with it; the ProTour teams hate it.

“There are all these things that can trip up a product along the way, so getting the ProTour guys to use it is just one of the many hurdles that you have to get a product to market,” Shimano said.

16. The rear derailleur

16. The rear derailleur

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Nevertheless, the electric group’s action is breathtaking and much more refined than the look of the components would lead you to believe. But is it faster than manual shifting? That’s a matter of perception, according to Holzer and Shimano, who have debated the issue.

“If you time it with a stopwatch it’s faster,” Shimano said. “But human perception is that it’s slower because you push a button and wait as opposed to shifting mechanically, when your brain says, ‘I’m going to move my fingers and shift,’ so you’re moving throughout the process. Your body is doing something.”

Shimano’s new WH-7805 wheel with silver bladed spokes

Photo: Matt Pacocha

Whether our bodies will have a chance to do something with the new gear also remains a matter of perception — which means we’ll just have to wait and see.

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