Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Mine goes to 11"???????

So, the buzz is all over the 'net now...


Campagnolo, the venerable and venerated Italian bicycle component maker is introducing drivetrains with ELEVEN sprockets in back. And of course, there are rumors Shimano is going to do the same.

Okay, those of you that believe that in bicycle gearing, more is better, and latest is greatest, you may as well tune out now, because I'm going to voice opinions you don't want to hear.

Maybe... just maybe... for a serious, competitive cyclist... like a professional racer... the extra two or three "gears" (depending on whether you have 2 or 3 chain rings up front) might prove a help for precisely tuning your gear ratio to your most efficient pedaling cadence. But that's only going to make a real, perceivable difference if you really know enough about your cadence and such to take advantage of the tiny difference it might make. Generally, every time the industry has added a sprocket, they've used it to fill in the middle ranges, not add a higher or lower gear. And all adding to the middle does, as I said, is arguably allow you to stay in a more nearly "optimal" cadence range. Assuming you know what that is for YOU, for every possible circumstance.

Then there's the matter of duplication. EVERY derailleur based drive train has, out of the many possible gear ratios, some ratios that are duplicated by different combinations of rear sprocket and front chain ring. Adding a sprocket doesn't solve that problem, so in reality, instead of going from 30 possible useful gears to 33 (a debatable improvement), you're going from maybe 26 or 27 distinct gears to maybe 29 or 30, tops. And that's being generous... if you figure in "near duplicates" it's even worse.

Again, maybe the gains work out for a professional, or even a very high level amateur racer. But look at the story linked above... Campy is releasing the 11 cog system in the top three component groups... which, in addition to the racers out there, squarely targets a LOT of the "enthusiasts" out there. Now tell me, what does a recreational rider, no matter how enthusiastic, gain from the additonal sprocket, in real value? I'm at a loss to come up with a good argument for this "feature" for such riders, and I can name a few arguments against.

First, given that they've made the choice to design the 11 cogs to fit in the same space as the previous max of 10 (which fit in the same space as the previous 9, which fit in the same space as the previous 8), the spacing between sprockets has to shrink. Which means the chain has to be narrower. Which means, for a given material and construction, it will be weaker. But of course, to counter that, the manufacturers will hopefully use some combination of stronger materials and stronger construction... as they did when they made the jump from 9 to 10, or so they say. Okay, that's great... but it also means an increase in cost for the components due to the higher strength. This is already shown in the difference in cost between an 8 speed chain (at our shop, typically $12 for a good, if basic one) and a 9 ($22, for a similar quality), and a 10 (haven't priced it lately, but around $40). And of course, you pay more for the sprocket cluster too. And the shifters. And the derailleurs. All to get a tiny, debatable improvement, that I can't believe is of any real, practical value to a non-competitive cyclist, or even a competitive cyclist at all but the top levels.

But folks will buy it, mark my word. Why? Well, first of all because most of the bikes that would have previously been made with 10 speeds will now be made with 11, and those are the bikes the "enthusiast" buys. Second, because, well, as Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap said "the numbers all go to eleven". More is perceived as better, especially in the bike world.

The irony is, that outside of the high end enthusiasts, the majority of recreational riders don't use, and don't know how to use, the gear ranges they have. I can't tell you how many bikes I've worked on or seen where it was abundantly clear that the owner rarely if ever shifts gears. In particular, now that virtually all derailleur bikes are equipped with three chain rings up front, you'd think folks would be overjoyed at having 21, 24, 27, or even 30 "gears" to ease their riding. The truth is, most of them rarely shift out of the middle chain ring, making their 21 speed into a 7, 24 into an 8, etc. And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I'd rather see the bike companies simplify everyone's lives by simply omitting the third, and possibly even the second chain ring. Or better yet, for many folks, the durability and low maintenance of an internal gear hub mechanism makes a world of sense.

But we can't seem to sell that to folks. "It's only got 8 speeds? Why should I buy that when I can get this one that has 21?" Or, in other words... "it goes to eleven!"

Crazy world. At the risk of sounding like a codger, I remember when all the excitement was about "10 speeds"... and we meant FIVE sprockets in back and TWO chain rings in front... "who could possibly want more gears?" we used to think.

Hmmmm... who knew?

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