Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shifting - Back to the Future - Part 1

We are pretty fortunate to work in a bike shop.  Each day people come in with a need or a dream and we work with them in various ways to meet one or both.  Sometimes it is correcting a bike fit issue, meeting a goal of weight loss, improved health, nutrition, the joy of recreation or reducing a carbon footprint - all through cycling.  Regardless of the reason, we enjoy helping people with something we all love.  Once in a while, a particular customer or project becomes personal.  One such project started as a pretty simple conversation of an uncompleted ride under deplorable conditions and turned into a fulfilling project.

Rick Matthews is a local racer who rides for Baddlands Cycling Club.  He is a very strong rider with an exemplary work ethic who has blown by me as if I was standing still out on the road.  Rick has always been an outdoor stud and was in an accident back in 1981 where the mast on a Catamaran he was moving contacted a high voltage electrical line. In the resulting electrocution he lost most of his left arm and his right hand damaged with limited feeling, flexibility and range of motion.  In the years since, he made a remarkable recovery and returned to his lifestyle of an outdoor stud.  He wears a prosthetic limb (a very sharp carbon fiber 2x2 weave) on his left arm that terminates in a split hook and has about 5% of what is considered normal function in his right hand.

The past few years he has been training and racing on a slightly modified Cervelo Soloist with all the braking and shifting on the right side of the handle bars.  We are fortunate in that he frequents our shop and trusts us to repair and maintain his bike.  Last summer, he stopped in to pick up a repair and started the conversation that led to this unique project.

Rick was describing riding the 2010 STOKR in western Montana and how day-long freezing rain and snow forced him to abandon the ride before the finish.  Not because it was miserable (which is why I would have abandoned) but because the cold was affecting his right hand for gripping, shifting and braking to the point of it becoming a safety issue.  He was not whining or complaining, just describing the effect on his riding.

For days after I kept thinking about our conversation and whether we could find a shifting system that would improve the safety and function of Rick's bike with his unique needs of having everything accessible on the right side of the handle bars. We had already developed the fit services for Two Wheel Transit around the concept that bicycles should be adapted to their rider rather that making the rider adapt to the bike.  Why couldn't we extend that philosophy to shifting as well? One day I slipped and hit my head in the bathroom while hanging a clock and it finally dawned on me that the capabilities of Shimano Di2 Electronic Shifting System would allow Rick to shift both derailleurs by pressing switches rather than moving levers - all with no more pressure than it takes to click a computer mouse.  Adapting this shifting system for Rick would merely be an extension of the shop's bike fitting services.

The more I researched, the more I was convinced Di2 would be the ticket.  My view of the value of technology is always through the lens of whether it improves safety, accessibility or quality of life - otherwise who cares?  In this case Di2 would achieve all 3 (a technological trifecta) by putting the shifting exactly where easiest to reach and remove the mechanical aspect with the use of electric switches. 

At first glance, Di2 equipment looks very much like regular Dura Ace with the exception of a battery, and wires in place of shifting cables.  Shifting is accomplished by moving a paddle behind either brake lever or moving either of the brake levers inward depending whether shifting front/rear, or up/ down.  

On closer inspection there are now switches which require far less pressure and movement to accomplish the same shifts.  On a regular system the movement or throw required to shift was measured in centimeters.  With Di2 the throw is no more than a couple of millimeters and at far lower forces. Shifts are accomplished with powerful electric motors located in each derailleur.  Think of it in terms of the effort of manually opening a garage door versus pressing the button and having an electric garage door opener raise the door. This would give Rick the ability to shift the rear derailleur quickly and accurately despite compromised strength, flexibility and feeling in his right hand.

The stock configuration would be a benefit for his rear shifting but the issue of front shifting still remained.  Shimano provided a possible solution with its design of the remote shifting switch.  This switch can be placed almost anywhere on the handlebars and controls either the front or rear derailluer based on which brake lever it is plugged into.

The next step was to find a way to make it happen.  Stay tuned for Part 2 for the rest of the story.

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