Monday, October 20, 2014

Never Think About Shifting Again

You could have predicted it. In fact, back in January, I did. With the availability of electronic shifting systems, like Shimano's Di2, I said it was only a matter of time before somebody made fully automatic shifting a reality.

The prototype computer that makes BioShift work.
(from Baron Biosystems).
Enter BioShift, from Baron Biosystems -- an "intelligent gearing system" for bicycles. By combining the capabilities of Shimano's Di2 electronic shifting system with data from Ant+ power meters, heart rate sensors, and speed and cadence sensors, and using a complex computerized algorithm, the Bioshift is supposed to choose the optimal gear for the rider and the conditions at every moment.

"We did extensive regression analysis of ride data to establish the correct gearing needed at all cycling intensity levels," said Armando Mastracci of Baron BioSystems.

The makers claim that automatic shifting will be a benefit to novice and recreational cyclists, who "will enjoy the freedom of just pedaling without having to worry about choosing the right gear." To be honest, I really don't believe that the inability to choose the "optimal" gear for every condition is the thing that keeps people from riding bikes, or from enjoying them.

Likewise, the makers believe that competitive cyclists, especially triathletes, will benefit because "BioShift chooses the gear that enables the desired power to be delivered with the least amount of effort, even as the athlete fatigues."

That's right -- a fatigued triathlete apparently cannot choose the right gear. Even staying on the bike at all is a challenge. Then again, much video evidence exists to say that having automatic shifting won't necessarily help them, either.

The BioShift system can apparently also be configured in different ways to aid training. Different modes include "fixed cadence mode, fixed heart rate mode, as well as fixed power mode." In other words, for training, if someone wants to keep their power output at a certain level throughout their ride, the system will apparently keep the rider in the gear that will make that possible.

Lastly, the company claims that BioShift operates transparently with the Di2 electronic shifting system, and can be enabled or disabled at the touch of a button. What a relief, because otherwise I can imagine lots of shifting-disabled cyclists calling for mercy rides home when this automatic system quits working.

I suppose the next step is when the gearing can be selected remotely -- by a rider's coach, for example. With wireless capability, it is already technically possible. And I'd be willing to bet that somebody's working on a system that will make it happen. Then just imagine the fun that could be had by somebody who could hack into the system to take over the shifting of someone else's bike.

One thing I will never understand is what makes anyone think that shifting gears is such a chore, or so confusing that we need to have a computer to do it for us? Are riders really incapable of learning how to shift gears -- so much so that even push-button electronic shifting is too much to master? Maybe it's just because most of my bikes have no more than 14 speeds, but I'm just not seeing this as a great breakthrough.

As far as making shifting easier for novices, the same basic argument was made for indexed shifting back in the 80s, then for integrated brake/shift levers in the 90s -- that shifting was so difficult, so complex, that novices just couldn't get the hang of it. "Gear fear" was supposedly keeping people from riding. Yet with all these "advances" in shifting technology, we have not seen huge numbers of people suddenly start riding bikes. Sales of bikes climb and fall, but the number of actual riders hasn't really grown significantly -- and there are just as many unridden bikes in basements and garages as ever, regardless of what kinds of shifting systems they have.

But beyond that, while a traditional shifting system, like friction, or even indexed downtube or bar-end levers might take a little time to master, it's not as though a person can't become at least competent after only a few rides (if even that long). The beauty of them is that such traditional systems themselves are actually very simple -- there is so little to go wrong. Electronic systems and this new "automatic" BioShift, on the other hand, are seriously complicated systems designed to "simplify" an action that really isn't as difficult as some would have us believe. Which means that they probably won't be able to keep them in stock.


  1. You say, "One thing I will never understand is what makes anyone think that shifting gears is such a chore, or so confusing that we need to have a computer to do it for us?"

    I tend to agree, but just about all North American motorists wouldn't. Almost all cars sold here are automatics because that's what consumers want. That's because cars are a necessity for most people, whereas riding a bike is still a form of recreation or sport, not so much everyday transportation. Maybe if gasoline prices rose to where operating a car was only an option for a few wealthy individuals and riding bikes became the norm, we would see bicycles with automatic shifting and maybe training wheels, since people now are just too lazy to learn new skills.

  2. Cars.
    Started with "3 on a the tree" in a Rambler American in 1965.
    Stayed with standard shifts until 2008. Many different cars (MG, Fiat, Plymouth, Saabs, Audi, Honda, BMW).
    Got a "double clutch 6-speed automatic" in our Audi A3.
    Never going back to a standard.

    Ride a 1974 Italian made frame with Campagnolo Nouvo Record grupo. I love the feel of the shifters.
    But, will probably get a new bike in the next year.

    1. I have what might be the same double clutch automatic in my VW Jetta (pretty similar car to the A3, under the skin) -- First automatic I've had in 20+ years, but I still prefer the manual shift.

  3. Shifting doesn't keep people from riding bicycles. They don't ride because of the physical effort required. I don't normally go on bike path rides with recreational riders; I prefer road rides. However, this past weekend I joined a church group for a leisurely ride of 19 miles round trip along a local bike path. The ride out was largely coasting and the trip back required almost no shifting but one person said that the next time she might use her electric bike because of the climbing.

    1. This is likely why so many of the new "innovations" at the big trade shows are more and more electric bikes.

  4. Big Bike Business thrives on innovations - useful or useless. Good bicycles are almost a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, so they have to invent new things people will think they need.

    I've had many manual cars, as well as automatics. Automatics are good (IMO) for people who find driving a chore (or a challenge) like commuters. Certainly I've often missed auto shifting when stuck in some endless traffic jam. But no automatic I've eve owned could see a large hill looming (and so hold the gear) or downshift as a corner or slope appeared - they always lag my ability to predict. No doubt Google can fix that in the future, but in the meantime, I still find a manual car more involving and rewarding to drive.

    But down-tube shifters, which I have on several classic bikes, are not my preference. That's because I am quite tall. I ride a 60/62cm frame. That means the top tube (along with the seat, and bars) is quite a bit higher than on a "normal" size frame, but the shifters are way down there on the down tube - much further away. It's not that I can't reach them, but it unbalances me on the bike as I have to lean forward. I have no such issues on a flatbar bike with MTB-style shifting or with brifters. IMO, brifters have been a great invention - what's not to like?

    1. You like a manual shift car for the same reason I do. With a manual, I always shift in anticipation, not reaction. The one I drive now has the ability to "manually" select when to shift, but it's not the same.

      You have a good reason to like brifters. They work well for you. I use them (I prefer the chunky feel of the Campy versions myself), but I find I don't like them any better than a good set of bar-end shifters. Thanks for the comments!

  5. I am also quite tall. All of my bikes are 64cm ( 25" for the mountain bike) and really, those are smaller than I would get, were I to have my preference. (66/68 cm bikes are much harder to come by in the vintage market.) As such, I can totally understand your lack of enthusiasm over downtube shifters. I can use them, but it's a bit uncomfortable to bend that far over if you're in traffic, or some other situation that requires attention. Any bike passing through my stable usually gets bar-ends or stem shifters put on fairly quickly.
    My one experiment with "brifters" has recently come to an end after two years, and they are currently listed on the 'Bay. I didn't hate them, but they seemed awful "fiddly" to keep the shifting where I like it... this versus all of my other bikes being friction and requiring little to no maintenance once they're dialed-in. I found myself not necessarily wanting to ride that bike, because the shifting always irritated me. To be fair, it also is my only 10speed bike, so I always felt like I needed to be shifting, or something. I can't handle that kind of pressure!

    To the point of this particular blog entry: I just don't get it. Why are people working so hard to make bikes not bike-like anymore? It baffles me.


  6. I was racing my bikes at a high level through all the new shifter changes. I was fortunate enough to get some pre-production Dura-Ace STI for a new Schwinn Paramount I was putting together. These replaced the indexed bar-ends I had been using. These were really a huge step forward. The ability I had to shift during an all out sprint was the equivalent of cheating when no one else had that same advantage.