Woman riding a Specialized Turbo Vedo bike

Shifting Trends II: The Integration of Electronics in Bicycles

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The basic structure of bicycles doesn’t seem to change much. They still have two wheels, a seat, and a pair of handlebars. They still have cranks, pedals, and a chain-driven rear wheel, just as they did in the late 1800’s, when the penny farthing was replaced by the dwarf safety.

And if those names just sound like characters in a Victorian fantasy novel, allow me to explain. As you may know, original bicyclesor penny farthings as they were calledhad a comically large front wheel, because the chain drive system hadn’t been incorporated into bicycles by then. Its unwieldy shape made the penny farthing impractical and difficult to ride, which put a damper on its success. But soon, the chain drive was adapted to the rear wheel, and a much more manageable bicycleone with two equal-sized wheelswas created. This modern incarnation was called the dwarf safety, and aside from the fact that it lacked a seat tube, its likeness can still be seen in the bikes of today.

The Winds of Change

But now, 130 years later, big changes appear to be on the horizon for bikes yet again. One of the developments that looms large in the bike world today is the way electronics are becoming integrated into the modern bicycle. Wireless electronic drivetrains are factoring prominently into high-performance bikes, helmets are sending out emergency help signals after detecting impacts, and battery-powered motors are allowing us to sprint up hills.

At least on a surface level, these seem like positive changes. They make our bikes more precise and efficient, and can even make our rides safer. When we look at the technological advancements of the world at large, it seems naive to think that bikes would remain unaffected by technology while it revolutionizes nearly every other industry in the world. That said, these changes beg the question: How much technology can you add to a bicycle before it becomes something else altogether?

The Evolution of Electronic Shifting

One of the first ways tech was implemented with bikes was the drivetrain. Campagnolo and Shimano were both researching electronic shifting in the early 2000’s, but it was Shimano who eventually premiered the first production electronic shifting system, Di2, in 2009. While it was revolutionary and exotic, the first generation Di2 was also problematic. For starters, it wasn’t entirely waterproof, had no manual override option (i.e. If you run out of battery while on a ride, you’re out of luck), and was actually quite heavy compared to mechanical systems.

These factors led many riders to remain skeptical of Di2. But in the last 10 years, tech has come a long way, and electronic shifting systems are no exception. With the latest generation of Di2, and the release of systems like SRAM’s AXS and RED eTap systems, electronic drivetrains have made huge strides forward. They offer hyper-precise alignment and calibration, and make shifting effortless and exceedingly responsive. These systems eliminate cable friction and reduce chain rub, giving the bike a smooth, efficient feel. And while they remain the most expensive groups on the market, like all technology, they become more affordable each year as production is streamlined.

Tech Meets Suspension

After drivetrains, suspension was next to receive the tech treatment. Fox recently released the Live Valve suspension system, which uses electronic sensors to make adjustments to your suspension at a rate of 1000 times per second. This allows the bike to resist and absorb impacts appropriately, and smoothens the overall riding experience. Powered by a small frame-mounted battery, Live Valve takes only three milliseconds to make an adjustment, giving your suspension an adaptive feel that changes in real time.

Even in their early incarnations, these electronic components seem to be improving the efficiency and control of bikes. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess where tech will take the performance of components in the future. But the bike industry also has other applications in mind for this type of technology.

Focusing on Safety

Following in the footsteps of avalanche rescue beacons, Specialized recently created a device called ANGi (Angular and G-force indicator), a miniature sensor which is integrated into many of their new helmets.

Containing a gyroscope and an accelerometer with a dust and waterproof outer shell, ANGi is designed to detect violent impacts as they occur. When the system notices a potentially dangerous impact, it starts a timer via bluetooth using a smartphone app. If the rider fails to recover from the crash and deactivate the timer, a text message with GPS coordinates will be sent to the rider’s pre-selected emergency contacts.

These developments in safety technology make for exciting times in the bike world. There’s no doubt that these type of devices could have a massively positive impact on the consequences of crashing, and riding with a higher degree of safety is something every rider can appreciate.

The Impact of E-Bikes

The most profound effect technology has had on bicycles, though, is in the category of e-bikes. Since batteries have gotten lighter, motors have become more efficient, and braking power has increased, the e-bike has become an increasingly viable option for those who need more than just pedal power. Many major bike brands now offer production e-bike models, and are enjoying the swell in popularity. Especially suitable among bike commuters, the e-bike offers a convenient compromise between a motorcycle and a bicycle. Commuter e-bikes dramatically reduce the rider’s energy output, while still being free to navigate bike paths, sidewalks, and other areas off limits to street-legal, motorized vehicles.

Electric motors are also opening up new avenues for mountain bikers. The e-mountain bike takes the struggle out of the climb, and allows riders to charge trails at higher speeds. This has quickly become a point of contention among traditional mountain bikers, who see e-bikes as being an impediment on the integrity of their trails, and the safety of the people who ride them. Many mountain bike trails are also zoned specifically for non-motorized vehicle recreation. Despite e-bikes not being as powerful as motorcycles, they are still considered motorized forms of transportation. Therefore, the discussion isn’t merely philosophical, but concerns legal precedent as well. 

As a response, some riding areas have designated the use of their trails to either mountain bikes or e-bikes, easing the tension by keeping the two clashing sects apart. For this reason, it’s recommended that if you plan to take your e-bike out on a trail, always make sure it’s permitted beforehand. As it stands, e-bikes are not allowed on any mountain biking singletrack trails in Park City. You can ride your e-bike on the Rail Trail, the McLeod Creek Trail, the Millennium Trail, the McPolin Farm Trail, and some other paved and gravel bike paths in the local area. This gives both mountain bikers and e-bikers plenty of space to ride and explore. 

With technology permeating the bicycle industry in myriad ways, bikes are in constant flux. It’s almost strange to go more than a month or two without some radical new development hitting the market. The way we ride our bikes is becoming more efficient, faster, and hopefully safer as well. And while these new changes may be disheartening to some of the die-hard, old-school riders, the simple fact is bikes aren’t going anywhere. As long as there’s contraptions with wheels and pedals, there will be people riding them.

Jeff Walker, content writer, jans.com

Shifting Trends is our latest blog series covering recent changes and developments in the bicycle industry. This is the second in the five-part series. Click here to read the first post, and check back next month for our third installment.

Image courtesy of Specialized.