Thursday, September 5, 2013

Shifting Gears: the Learning Curve and Upgrade Fever

In my Sept. 3rd post (Retro Friction - Part One) I closed with a question about the downsides to friction shifters as opposed to the indexed, integrated, and electronic shifting systems of today. I pointed out that with friction shift levers, "fast and precise shifting is a matter of user skill, but I don't really accept that as a downside. Lots of things require skill and practice, and we usually respect that, so why should being really skilled on a bike be different?" I thought that my statement might warrant further explanation.

Back when indexed shifting was first sweeping the bike industry, I remember one of the arguments for it was that shifting with friction levers was too difficult for beginners. In my Aug. 30 post (Retrogrouch -- Origin of the Species) I referred to Fred Zahradnik's 1990 article Techies Unite! from Bicycling Magazine -- the one in which he coined the term "Retrogrouch." Here's a quote from that article: "It's easy for experienced riders to forget how difficult it is for beginners to shift a friction system. Gear fear has intimidated many people right out of the sport. By contrast, push-and-click systems let them ride out of the showroom with confidence. Smooth shifting under power, a recent innovation, is something even the most advanced rider can appreciate." Similar arguments are being made today for the latest must-have trend, electronic shifting. Thing is, I didn't accept that argument back then, and I don't accept it now.

As I said, lots of things require skill and practice. Creating art. Playing a musical instrument. Even cooking. People who are just starting out don't expect to have the skills of seasoned practitioners. But that reality doesn't keep them from trying or enjoying those activities. For example, I play the guitar. I didn't even attempt to learn to play the guitar (or any instrument, for that matter) until I was nearly 30 years old. And of course, I decided right from the beginning that I wanted to learn "fingerstyle" guitar (think of Paul Simon's The Boxer, for instance) which is much more intricate and painstaking than simple strumming. Starting out, it was slightly intimidating. Could I get my left and right hands to do such different and intricate things simultaneously? I found that I could. After a few months of lessons, and a lot of practice, I became fairly proficient. The challenge of it kept me going, and the desire to get better motivated me, and I continually got better. Years later, I'm quite good at it, and yet there is still more to learn, and more room for improvement. The challenge and the desire for mastery doesn't make it less enjoyable -- it makes it MORE enjoyable.

Now compare cycling to other sports. Few people on the local public golf course, or even at the expensive country club for that matter, have the skills to play on the PGA tour. But for some reason, it doesn't stop them from golfing. Few people playing basketball with their buddies at the local YMCA have the skills of LeBron James. But they still enjoy playing the game. My throwing, hitting, and catching skills wouldn't get me a spot on the local little league baseball team, much less anything approaching a professional ball club, yet I can still enjoy throwing a baseball around with my kids or my friends. All sports involve a certain amount of skill and conditioning. With practice we can improve our skills and performance. For a lot of us, that challenge and the desire to improve is what motivates us. It doesn't discourage us. We can enjoy it even if we aren't perfect, and we build personal satisfaction from seeing our improvement gains.

Cycling is an equipment-centered sport. Manufacturers recognize that if they want to keep making money and expanding business in a market base that isn't expanding that greatly, then they have to continually update and "improve" their equipment to keep the buying pressure on the existing market. They have to convince existing owners that their "old" equipment (which might only be a couple of years old) is no good anymore and the "new" equipment makes their "old" equipment obsolete. It's upgrade fever. And the marketing claims are all about how much better the new equipment is. The latest technological breakthrough! It will instantly make you perform like the pros you admire so much! The hype would have us believe that we don't need to practice or train to develop and improve -- we can have it all instantly.

Golf is another equipment-centric sport. Can't golf without clubs. Evidenced by the commercials aired during any golf tournament, it seems that golf is caught in the same upgrade fever that cycling is. Titanium and carbon fiber are everywhere. Advanced technology golf balls supposedly fly farther, more accurately. The latest club technology instantly makes you a better golfer, or so says the marketing hype. If one of the manufacturers could create a club that instantly gave everyone the drive and accuracy of a PGA pro (and some of the advertising hype stops just short of making those very claims), people would line up to buy it. But in golf, the skills are still important. And one only improves them by practice. And practice comes through playing more golf -- which is where the enjoyment should come from. For a player without the skills, the promised gains that come with the latest-technology clubs and balls will only carry them so far if anywhere. In other words, if I can't golf worth a damn, the latest clubs won't transform my game. But if someone enjoys playing golf, they can enjoy it whether they're playing with old-tech steel/wood/iron clubs or with the latest carbon/titanium wonders.

Here's another thing about my analogy with golf. In actuality I don't very often play golf. I don't really enjoy golf that much. And it isn't because I don't have the latest wonder-clubs. Having them wouldn't make me enjoy it more (and no, this truth does not hurt my analogy -- in fact, it only helps it -- keep reading). Cycling is really no different. The need to shift gears, or the perceived complexity of shifting is not what keeps non-riders from riding bikes. I doubt many, if any, people stay away from a bike for that reason. And I doubt that constantly changing technology is converting huge numbers of people into cyclists.

Ultimately, though, in all the discussion about the hyped benefits of this year's big breakthrough that renders last year's big breakthrough obsolete, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that shifting gears on a bike -- even with an old-style friction system -- simply isn't that difficult. Friction shifting, especially, is very forgiving. Slightly over-shift or under-shift the exact gear you want? No big deal. Is the chain making noise on the cog because the derailleur's not lined up exactly right? Easy fix. Dial it back a little. All better. Is the cable tension a little off? Not even an issue. And there's virtually no such thing as mismatched shifters/derailleurs/cogs, etc. So when you get down to it, how big can the improvements truly be from one system to another? How much do we gain between friction and indexed shifters, between stand-alone indexed levers and integrated brifters? Between cable-operated brifters and electronically controlled ones? And are those incremental gains worth the added complexity that comes with each new breakthrough? Are they worth the compatibility issues and the costs of upgrade fever?

We have choices -- between super simple, inexpensive systems that take slightly more skill from the rider, or super complex, expensive systems that require only slightly less skill. It's not even a question of one approach being superior to another -- they're just different. But as for us Retrogrouches, you know which one we'll choose.

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