Tuesday, September 6, 2016

More Wireless - This Time From FSA

There's another new entry in the electronic shifting sweepstakes - this time, a wireless group from FSA: the K-Force WE, which I assume stands for "wireless electronic." It is the company's first full road component group.

Nowadays, the challenge of introducing a new drivetrain component group isn't in designing a system that shifts quickly and precisely (that's been pretty well nailed since about 1986), but rather, in how to come up with a new design without infringing somebody else's patents. With a front and rear derailleur to operate, and a pair of control levers on the handlebars, how many different ways are there, in practicality, to activate the shifts? I guess FSA managed to come up with something that works enough like Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM to be familiar to users, but different enough to avoid patent infringement. That in itself is probably the single most noteworthy achievement of the group.

The brake/shift controller is available in two sizes for smaller or larger hands (Retrogrouch admits it's a nice touch). The shifting is controlled by a pair of buttons on the side of each lever - upper and lower. The buttons are fully programmable for upshifts or downshifts - user's choice. It can all be set up with an app on the user's smartphone. The derailleur is flat-black and includes lots of molded carbon/plastic. In style, it reminds me a little of the old SunTour Superbe Tech, but thicker, chunkier, and rendered in ugly black plastic instead of lovely buffed and polished aluminum.
The rear derailleur operates differently than most in that it doesn't actually use a typical parallelogram mechanism for movement. Instead, it is all gear driven.

The front derailleur is also gear-driven, using a rack-and-pinion mechanism. That giant tumor sprouting from the top of it is the brain for the entire system. Wireless signals for the shifting commands go through the front unit, and are then transferred to the rear. It uses ANT and ANT+ protocols.

In order to centrally manage power usage, the entire system utilizes a single 7.4 Li-ion battery that is supposed to be installed inside the seat post. There are light-up indicators on the front derailleur unit to display how much juice is left, or one can check with the smartphone app. The company claims a range of 5000km for the main battery. The shift levers have their own separate batteries - one coin-type battery each, which FSA says should be replaced about once per year regardless of miles.

The brakes are a pretty complicated-looking dual-pivot design, but they do have the advantage (compared to a lot of other high-end road brakes) of having a 50mm reach, so 28mm tires might actually fit under them, assuming such "huge" tires fit within the bike's frame, which is not guaranteed. No, I'm not actually impressed. I'm being nice.
The hollow-arm carbon crank has a lot of that Japanese Manga/AnimĂ© styling that's so common in bike components today, and it takes some cues from Shimano and Campagnolo with its 4-bolt chainring design. I doubt the chainrings are interchangeable with anybody else's, though, because chainring compatibility is a thing of the past.

Having yet another electronic component group makes it more and more likely that that days of traditional cable-operated systems are numbered. How long before battery-free bikes are relegated only to the bottom rungs of any company's lineup? A few years? A decade?

I guess the best thing about a traditional battery-free system is that they'll work reliably for years and years, which is great for retrogrouches like us. I mean - once you reach a certain level of "obsolescence" you become unaffected by obsolescence. Inoculated resistance, in other words. When cyclists stop feeling compelled to keep chasing the latest and greatest - constantly upgrading for miniscule "improvements" and planned obsolescence, we reach a point where we just ride the bike in peace. It's almost like obtaining a state of cycling zen.

19 comments:

  1. Let the electronic wars begin!

    Those brakes are hideous. Looks like they just ripped off the painfully awful to set up, and horrible functionality, Zero Gravity brakes so many weight weenies use.

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  2. "Inoculated resistance": I love it.

    As you point out, if we're not seduced by "the latest", we don't have to worry about obsolescence. Also: Our "retro" (or, at least, simple) stuff is less likely to break down than all of the complicated stuff that's being pushed on cyclists.

    As for those new FSA components: They're some of the ugliest I've seen. Worse, I simply don't see the point of any of them.

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  3. i can't wait for the next video of yet another frustrated racing cyclist throwing his non-functioning machine over the guardrail.

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  4. "How long before battery-free bikes are relegated only to the bottom rungs of any company's lineup? A few years? A decade?"

    The best solution to this question is to immediately give up all hope whatsoever for the future and ride only fixed drivetrains. Actually, I have one bike (out of 4) with derailleurs, the other 3 being fixies, and while this one is all retro and friction (3X9, Silver BES and 74XX Dura Ace derailleurs f and r), still I am always surprised and annoyed at the additional finicking it needs to get things set up properly. I can't imagine the augmentation of hassle with 11 (have they got to 12 yet?) and batteries.

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    1. If only Fixies were free of this.

      If we're talking about new bikes here(we are talking about new bikes, right?) try finding a new fixed gear bike with a standard threaded BB, a threaded headset, good quality wheels with servicable hubs and a Q;factor that resembles a track bike more than a MTB. It's tough and getting tougher.

      When the electronic content of a new bicycle reaches past shifting(as long as there's a battery they'll find other jobs for it) and includes some further integration(built in cameras for traffic/accident data, selfies and "Edits", and cheaper integrated powermeters etc.) it will inevitably move to fixies, BMX and Leisure bikes and everything else as soon as it's cost effective. It's cheap to include but justifies a higher price. You'd be mightily tempted to do it yourself if you were trying to sell you some bikes. You can buy one and just gouge it's little digital eyeballs out but you're still going to have to pay for it.

      There's nothing intrinsic about a Fixed Gear bike that will prevent it. In fact, they're particularly attractive candidates for this treatment as soon as the technology is manageable by someone wanting to make a quick Kickstarter buck off the demographic who thinks Fixies will be Cool and Hip again with some "cutting edge" technology(although Specializard is going to be breathing down their neck if they dawdle).

      Try finding a Car without digital capabilities, a Refrigerator without a microprocessor, a Push Lawnmower, a cookie without a chip.

      It's inevitable.

      Spindizzy

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    2. Actually push lawnmowers are pretty easy to find and buy.

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  5. I've been looking for a proper definition for today's bikes styling and you got it perfectly calling them Japanese manga/anime bikes... thanks

    Wagner

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  6. A friend of mine just gave me an old Raleigh Roadster. I guess in some ways it must be the antithesis of these manga/anime bikes as you call them (love that term by the way, please don't mind if I borrow it). It's 45 lbs of all steel, cottered crank goodness. Nothing on it works very well, exactly like the day it left the factory. However it will continue to work in mediocre fashion in perpetuity. I wouldn't want it as my daily driver but it is entertaining to ride around on Sunday afternoons. It would be a good bike to weather out the collapse of civilisation because most every thing on it can be fixed with a hammer and adjustable wrench. It's hopelessly outdated but today's bikes could learn a thing or two from the old Roadster.

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    1. True, but you can get a Gazelle dutch bike with the same reliability but actually work well. Still heavy tough.

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  7. That whole set-up is quite ugly, to be frank.
    'Tis a shame that it's getting to the point that you won't be able to ride a bike without charging batteries and bringing along your phone.

    Wolf.

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  8. Unfortunately, we retrogrouches can only rest in peace until something wears out or needs replacing. The range of decent 27x1 1/4 tyres becomes ever more limited, and the same goes for freewheels (not cassettes) and chainrings - none of these last for ever.

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    1. That's why I have been amassing a nice collection of 6 and 7 speed freewheels in my favorite gear ranges. 6s tend to be available for a little cheaper than 7s, but they tend to be more or less interchangeable -- that is, a bike that will take 6s should also be able to take 7s. I also have a few 5s for the real old-timers that only have 120mm spacing in the back. When I find freewheels, either NOS, or showing virtually no sign of use, I buy 'em.

      27" tires are getting harder to find - which is why I've converted most of my 27" wheels to 700c

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    2. Brooks,

      I think my ideal bike would have 6 or 7 speeds. I really don't see the point of more, but I've always been old-fashioned and like practicality and reliability rather than the latest tech. The only options I see though are old freewheels or the Grand Bois 120mm spaced cassette hub, which is expensive. I'd collect some 6 speed freewheels for the future, but I started riding around 2000 and I don't know much about freewheels. Can you say more about what to look for in an old freewheel or what models are good? Also, is ebay the best source? If you don't want to post this as it will make your costs go up, I understand. You can always email me. ;)

      Thanks and thank you for the great site,

      Jon

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    3. The Grand Bois 120mm hub is probably really nice, but there are much cheaper options out there that take regular old freewheels. It isn't hard to find sets of pre-built wheels with modern sealed-bearing hubs and nice-quality rims, spaced for 126mm, for as little as $150 per pair. And if necessary, it is really easy to reduce the width on them down to 120mm (any decent bike shop should be able to do it - remove 5mm worth of spacers, cut down the axle, and slightly re-dish the wheel).

      As far as freewheels go, you can't go wrong with old SunTour or Shimano units from the '80s. There are still 6 and 7s freewheels being made today with the Shimano name on them, and they are super cheap (about $20 or so) but I think the newer ones are mostly made in China and may not be as good as the older ones, at least as far as the internal workings go, like bearings and pawls.

      I've found NOS Shimano freewheels for as little as $45 on eBay - which is probably more than they sold for when new, but less than what a lot of current-model cassettes cost. NOS SunTour units tend to go for more (I've seen prices well over $100, but I won't pay anywhere close to that much -- I watch for bargains).

      If buying used ones, I want to see good clear close-up photos of the teeth. I look for ones that have nice, crisp edges on the teeth all the way around, with very little evidence of wear from a chain.

      Being clean-looking isn't necessarily a good indicator in and of itself, since obviously anyone can clean the grease and gunk off a freewheel before photographing it, but if it's covered in a thick layer of grime, I skip them regardless of how cheap they might be, since the grime can hide the evidence of wear.

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    4. If you're building a wheelset for an old timer Velo-Orange has a 126mm spaced high flanged hub for thread on freewheels. The finish is quite nice and the bearings are very good. They also have the matching front hub. I just built a set with them a few months back and have been very happy with them.

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    5. Thank you for the help on the freewheels. Now I just need to stock up on a few and hide them from my wife!

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  9. I think electric scooters make great sense.Electric bicycles? Nuts. Electric scooters are practical. They can offer some wether protection (all the cool people in Paris have "skirts" on their scooters in winter) they have secure storage space and adding a big battery down low improves stability.

    And if this new electronic tech is inevitable,why aren't all bikes on Biopace rings? Some technologies catch on, and others, no matter how hard manufacturers push - just wither and die.

    Electronic/electric shifting makes very good sense. Probably not the Rube Goldberg Frankenshift stuff we have now - which just bodges a motor onto the existing old tech - but some sort of internal gear hub with electric selection would be wonderful and very adaptable. Look at the mess the otherwise-excellent Rohloff hubs use for shifting (and the various even-worse attempts by others to improve things).

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