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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Tech News – March 9, 2006

Edited by John Stevenson

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Electronic Dura-Ace shifter
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
What gear am I in?
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
The business end
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
The rear derailleur
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
The front derailleur
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
The battery
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)
A new pedal design
Photo ©: Makoto Ayano
(Click for larger image)

The empire strikes back

By John Stevenson

We can tell you almost exactly nothing about these pics, snapped by Japanese photographer Makoto Ayano in the Gerolsteiner pits at Paris-Nice yesterday, but it's pretty obvious what they are: prototypes of an electronically-controlled Dura-Ace group. In this case, on what appears to be Ronny Scholz' bike.

Of course, the fact that we have no concrete information at all isn't going to stop us indulging in a minor frenzy of speculation. It's no secret that Shimano's revenues were down slightly in 2005 and the company is feeling the pressure when it comes to speccing on 2007 bikes - especially from SRAM.

Shimano's profits were also down in 2005, and by a larger percentage than its revenues. That's not necessarily a symptom of reduced sales though. Shimano has always spent a significant proportion of its revenue on product development. It has three new mountain bike groups lined up for 2007 - an all-new XTR about which all anyone from Shimano is saying is "there will be lots of options" - and facelifted incarnations of Deore XT and Deore LX.

From these pics it looks like Shimano is also spending money on another avenue of research and development. The 2007 XTR is reliably rumoured to have lots of carbon fiber and we'd be surprised if it doesn't have ten sprockets in back. But that's not enough to absorb a few million in R&D: an all-electronic version of Dura-Ace just might be.

Shimano is playing catch-up here to a certain extent, but getting an electronic shifting system out ASAP might allow it to leapfrog the competition. Campagnolo has had an electronic shifting system in development for several years, and prototypes keep popping up at major races. SRAM's Force road group, slated to become available to the proverbial rest of us toward the end of this year, is claimed to be lighter than Dura-Ace in key areas such as the brake/shift levers. A criticism long leveled at Shimano by Campagnolo fans is that the gear cable routing on Shimano's STI Dual Control units is messy compared to Campagnolo's under-the-bar-tape set-up. Electronic Dura-Ace could answer all those criticisms.

Of course, first, Shimano has to get the system developed to a state where it can be sold, and it's clear from these images that there's a way to go yet. (And Campagnolo's Piero Da Rin admitted last year that the biggest hurdle with Campagnolo's electronic system is getting it "beautiful".)

That said, the brake/shifter lever looks pretty close to a finished item. A switch behind the brake lever effects the shift, and an LCD indicator on the lever tells you which gear you're in - that might be overkill for a pro road group, though.

Aside from a somewhat lumpy housing, the rear derailleur also looks good to go. The parts that clearly still need work are the front derailleur and the battery housing, which are also the components that Campagnolo seemed to have most trouble making elegant. An electronic front derailleur needs a big solenoid to yoink the chain from ring to ring, and you have to put it somewhere. Ditto the battery, which Shimano has mounted on the front derailleur. That's one fewer mounting point needed for all the parts, but the implementation here is hardly pretty.

When we run stories on electronic shifting systems, readers often ask "why bother?" and that's a good question. An advantage of well-implemented shift-by-wire would be that it would completely remove human error from the shifting process. However tired and uncoordinated you are at the end of a race, you'll still be able to shift. Whether that's a sufficiently compelling advantage to put up with having to remember to change the batteries every few months remains to be seen, but it looks pretty certain that both Campagnolo and Shimano are going to give us a chance to find out.


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Makoto Ayano/www.cyclingtime.com

  • Electronic Dura-Ace shifter looks almost naked without the familiar sideways hinge to actuate the shift. But replacing levers with switches should allow Shimano to shed quite a few grams.
  • What gear am I in? We have to wonder how this will go down in the pro peloton, but for recreational riders it could be a very welcome featrure.
  • The business end - a switch under the brakle lever blade takes care of shifting duties.
  • The rear derailleur just has a fairly small additional housing for the solenoid.
  • Top entry wiring and adjuster screws round the back in Shimano's traditional out-of-harm's-way location
  • The front derailleur is the least 'polished' of these protos, but theplacement of the battery next to it indicates Shimano is trying to keep things as neat as possible.
  • The battery - like Campagnolo's Electric prototypes, this system still has, shall we say - tidiness issues.
  • A plastic housing hides and protects the front derailleur mechanism.
  • A new pedal design with a larger platform was also spotted on Ronny Scholz's bike.

Images by John Padfield

  • Riis’ Cervelo was fitted with SRAM Force shifters, derailleurs, and carbon crankset. The “Force” logo is silkscreened right on the shifters, too, suggesting that this may be an actual production kit as the group name was heretofore a highly guarded bit of info.
  • Bjarne Riis was spotted at Team CSC’s spring training camp in Solvang, CA, presumably testing SRAM’s new Force road group. Other CSC riders were clearly on team-issue Shimano Dura-Ace kit.

CSC on SRAM for '07?

By James Huang

Bjarne Riis
Photo ©: John Padfield
(Click for larger image)
Riis’ Cervelo was fitted with SRAM Force
Photo ©: John Padfield
(Click for larger image)

The CSC team and its director, Bjarne Riis, recently held their spring training camp down in sunny Solvang, CA. In addition to giving their bodies a workout, the team was also putting some new gear through its paces as well. Riis was spotted rolling with a full complement of SRAM's new road gear on his Cervelo, including the new DoubleTap shifters, front and rear derailleurs, and carbon crankset, while the bulk of CSC's team riders were running their typical team-issue Shimano and FSA kit. Moreover, Riis' kit looked to be a full-blown production version with the previously unseen 'Force' group moniker emblazoned on the carbon brake lever.

Neither SRAM, Shimano, nor Team CSC have made any official announcement regarding a change in sponsorship, but such a switch wouldn't come as much of a surprise. Riis and the CSC boys have established themselves as pioneers in the realm of new equipment and would likely have no qualms about jumping on brand-new gear, and SRAM had previously made it quite clear that it was looking for a ProTour team to use the new equipment.

With equipment sponsorship from SRAM would also likely come a commitment of cash, and that would also be more than a bit useful to Riis' squad. Riis has often said that CSC struggles to match the financial muscle of some other ProTour outfits while SRAM currently seems to have deep pockets thanks to an enormous wave in sales with huge hits in their drivetrain and suspension divisions. Meanwhile Shimano's cycling division recently reported double-digit percentage decreases in both revenues and profits for 2005.

Feel the Force

SRAM for its part has just issued a press release trumpeting the first outing of its road group on the bike of Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada rider Ben Jacques-Mayne at the Tour of California. As well as confirming the 'Force' name, SRAM has released some weights for the new parts, with a claim of 307g for the integrated brake/shift levers. To save you looking them up, Shimano's Dura-Ace Dual Control units are 420g/pr while Campagnolo's Record Ergopower shifters tip the scales at 324g.