Can We Please Stop Ruining Bike Races With Electronic Shifting?

Jul 2 2013

I’m not going to claim impartiality here—if nothing else, I think electronic shifting is massively over-priced. I’ve never ridden it—I hear it shifts well and smoothly and precisely and is super-cool, and I have no reason to dispute that. But similarly, I think there’s no counter-argument to the fact that when it doesn’t shift, you are completely boned.

Goss and Greipel and bikes that don't work

The body posture conveys as much information as the drivetrains.


The photos above are cropped from the highest-def screencap I could find—a 1080i .ts files, no compression beyond what occurs prior to transmission. I can’t see exactly what’s wrong with Greipel’s and Goss’ bikes, but what I can see is a droopy chain—as in probably off the chainrings—and rear mechs that seem more or less intact—that is, not on the ground or above the chainstay.

As far as I can tell, this is the classic mode of failure for electronic shifting. The front derailleur has two programmed shift actions—one to go up, one to go down. Unlike conventional shifters, where a cable always pulls against the tension of derailleur spring, there isn’t an option to half-shift in an attempt to jimmy the chain back into place. When you’re off, you’re off. This is a fact not in dispute.

That said, one report claims Greipel’s mechanical on Sunday was a rear derailleur “smashed to bits…in the big crash that took Greipel out of the running”. This is at least partially inaccurate—he survived that big tumble, and pedaled on for several k before appearing mysteriously at the back, bike rendered non-functional in a very familiar way.


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I’ve posted a chopper shot of what I believe to be Goss’ bike failure above. Obviously, you can’t see the chain, and honestly, I can’t even prove it’s him. But inside the final 500m an Orica-GreenEdge rider is jockeying for position, with a teammate (probably Impey) behind him him, then just stops pedaling and stands to coast, leaving the teammate with a huge gap to close. Robbie McEwen claims Goss crashed, and I guess maybe it’s possible, but only if he went down after his bike stopped working.

It’s beginning to feel a little creepy. Consensus is that electronic shifting is still a work in progress—nearly a year after noting its problems last summer, Inner Ring reported on a rash of misfires from this spring. But rather than improve (or better yet—remove) the parts, earlier this week, we got two not-quite-right stories about incidents of likely electronic shifting failures that had a definite impact on how the final results played out. I’m sure it’s all just innocent misunderstanding—on their part or on mine—but I wouldn’t want anyone get any ideas.

So before this devolves to petty subterfuge, let’s all of us—media, marketers, brand managers, riders, directors—just sit down and agree like grown-ups that pros should absolutely have the no-pressure-option of using mechanical shifting. With Greipel on Campy and Goss on Shimano, no one company will take a PR hit.

Everyone’s heard the buzz about the awesome, super-precise shifting produced by electronic levers—and the fondo set is already totally into it. But by taking away the option of historically reliable front shifting, all anyone is doing is making the high-profile failures more obvious—and alienating serious amateur racers in the process.

Let’s be honest—if watching your rider taking a win on legacy gear is a bigger marketing bummer than watching him pout at the side of the road when the latest and greatest fails, your brand’s got bigger problems a front derailleur.

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18 Responses to “Can We Please Stop Ruining Bike Races With Electronic Shifting?”

  1. resultsboy July 2, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    Goss definitely crashed due to some kind of mechanical. You can see it in the far, far background when the camera switches to the view from the finish line in the sprint. You can see Goss trying to control a bike that won’t roll — it looks exactly like what happens when a rolled tubie jams in the chainstay and suddenly the back wheel is locked at 30mph. Obviously it wasn’t a tubular issue, but something was definitely jammed on the bike.

  2. Rob July 2, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Goss crashed in rather spectacular fashion with 500m to go after clipping the barrier on the inside of the corner, damaging the bike. You can see the feet of the medics walking up to check he is okay.

    Greipel’s derailleur may have been damaged in the crash then exploded further down the road when he put some load into it. Not saying your point is without merit, just that these two incidents aren’t the best illustration of it.

    • cosmo July 2, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      Goss’ crash is caused by something on his bike locking up before hitting the barrier. Could be a lot of things, including a chain jam.

      Greipel makes it through the crash unscathed, toward the barriers in the center of the road. But it doesn’t take much to wreck a derailleur.

  3. resultsboy July 2, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    You can see it at 11:20 into this video:
    http://www.rtbf.be/video/detail_le-final-chaotique-de-la-1ere-etape?id=1835714

  4. Q July 2, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    I’ve been thinking this for a while. I remember more than once in the last two years seeing riders have to stop during a TT due to what appeared to be a dropped chain or jammed front derailleur. I don’t know whether electronic shifting has a higher or lower failure rate than mechanical, but even if it fails less frequently, the cost of failure is clearly higher with electronic shifting because you nearly always will have to get off your bike, which makes it the last thing a professional should want on a racing bike, and especially on a TT bike. It’s like automatic transmissions in cars: a great feature for the average driver, but not ideal for Formula 1. The component manufacturers need to find a way to market this to the Gran Fondo crowd without forcing it on the pros.

  5. el serracho July 2, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    yes, because maybe this could possibly be an example of theoretical failure. it all makes sense now. the illuminati.

  6. Tim July 2, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    This vague speculation on slight misinformation and shallow observation makes for a very compelling read. Thanks!

  7. Tinea Pedis July 2, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Nibali ran mechanical Campag throughout the entire Giro, never heard anyone at Astana having an issue with his choice.

    Just saying.

  8. Matt July 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Now when Andy Shleck in the Tour a few years ago dropped his chain on a Sram Red drivetrain. Cantador attacked got a time gap winning his the Tour. If Andy was on electronic that would have never happened. The pictures you show are of sprinters that put out over 1500 watts, 95% of cyclist can not do that. Electric works, I do not own it but have put miles and on it and work on bikes with it.

  9. john July 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Greipel’s derailler was ripped off completly as he caused the big crash by going through a too small gap as shown on eurosport live and goss had his front wheel damaged by spokes being ripped out and that causing his crash as reported by him on the same live tv show so get your facts straight and stop trying to fit facts to your theory

  10. Skippy July 3, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    With the problems at the Giro , why are the Teams continuing?

    THe SPONSORS have decided ! WE GIVE , we can take , attitude persists , even though the Sponsor Reps , may be aware that the racers have misgivings !

    Whilst i do not buy my equipment , i would be reluctant to ride the routes of the Grand Tours , with Electronic !

    Then again , i do not understand this new equipment , but when my 9 speed Ultegra STI Levers failed on Corsica , No Team has anything other than electronic AND the shops have long ago discarded their oLD Stock .

    As you see my right hand continually fiddle in the warm weather , hope like me that i can reach a smaller cog without losing too much speed . Thinking of taking up fishing , since that was what the STI lever is in principle ?

  11. Mike July 3, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    Like he said, Greipels rear mech was completely ripped off. Not sure about the other guy.
    I do agree that electronic is over priced and leaves you no option if the battery or something else fails.
    I’ve never ridden them either. But if you write this, you may actually want to have examples of failures.

  12. a. kruse July 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    After five years on SRAM Mechanical and about ten on Shimano mechanical, followed by this season & last on Ultegra Di2, I have no f*cking clue what you’re talking about. You really have to define exactly what types of issues you’re referring to, because failing to do so doesn’t result in apples-to-apples comparisons.

    You can break a shifter or snap a cable on a mechanical system and be no less f*cked than a lot of maladies on electronic. In fact – you could even be more screwed in some scenarios.

    Plus, you have no data to suggest that electronic fails more frequently than mechanical.

    So, I’m calling bullshiat on this article in its entirety.

  13. The Dude July 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I think Cadel Evans during this past Giro may agree with you Cosmo, alot.

  14. richard mclamore July 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    in the greipel foto–it appears as tho the rear mech’s gone–BUT that foto was taken way down the road from the crash he caused, so if the rear mech was ripped off in the crash, how’d he get so far?

    as for the front mech problem, i read cosmo as arguing that an electronic front mech can’t gently “sweep” the chain back on if the chain overshifts–possibly being worse if it goes over the 53 than if it dumps down to the bb from the 39? i.e. the very strength of the motor slams the chain against the chainring and makes the problem worse?

  15. Duane July 8, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    I’m just not seeing electronic as a problem. Bikes have moving parts and sometimes they fail, but I see no evidence that electronic is less reliable.

  16. Jacob July 12, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    Greipel doesn’t ride EPS.

  17. James Liu July 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    But what about Garmin? Didn’t they drop a sponsorship from SRAM a couple years ago only to buy Shimano Di2 because that’s what the riders wanted? It’s one thing to blame sponsors for forcing teams to put riders on electric. But the Garmin put money where their mouth was, and a generation later, they’re still on Di2.

    And it seems they’re still buying their gruppos. Remember early this season when they were still mostly on ten speed stuff?

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