You are here

Innovation in High Gear

Published December 30, 2011

More electronics, 11-speed coming to road, while SRAM stays true to mechanical

By Matt Wiebe and Nicole Formosa

TAICHUNG, Taiwan—Top-end road bikes for model year 2013 will be spiffed up by new drivetrain innovations working their way through the product pipeline.

On tap for Shimano is an 11-speed cassette for mechanical and electronic Dura-Ace groups and a reworked version of Dura-Ace Di2 that uses the modular wiring system on Ultegra Di2, according to technical documents provided to OEMs in early December. That would close Shimano’s cog gap to Campagnolo, which led the way with 11-speed in 2009.

With Campagnolo’s recent release of its Electronic Power Shift drivetrain and higher-than-anticipated demand for Shimano’s Di2—particularly at the Ultegra level—battery-powered shifting will show up on more high-end road bikes in 2013.
So where does that leave SRAM?

“We are not deaf to the buzz of electric shifting, but it adds complexity and about a half-pound of weight. With only one season of Di2, it remains to be seen if this initial fascination with the technology will continue. If it does, we can offer electric as well,” SRAM president Stan Day said shortly after Taichung Bike Week, a late November OEM show where some vendors questioned SRAM’s absence from the electronic shifting market.

Since SRAM’s orders for road components continue to grow, it’s too risky for the company to play me-too and launch electric just to have electric, he added.
“Why add a battery and motor to do what your fingers can do so easily? At some point is complexity always better?” Day asks.

Day sees SRAM carving out a different niche—simple, lightweight and elegant mechanical drivetrains, and the company is continuing to innovate along those lines. SRAM is planning an overhauled version of its top-of-the-line Red group in 2013 and sticking with a 10-speed cassette. It will debut the new, lighter Red next month, and has been teasing it with a short video posted on the company’s website since early December.

Day notes that sales of SRAM’s road groups have slowed since their initial launch, but this is expected as the sales growth of a new group is strongest right after introduction and then stabilizes. And he points out that the company has not lost Red spec to electronic groups for 2013, something confirmed by suppliers.

“Electric drivetrains are expensive components, and I am not convinced they will replace mechanical drivetrains so quickly,” said Bob Margevicius, executive vice president of product development at Specialized.

Campagnolo’s Record EPS will be priced in line with Dura-Ace Di2, with Super Record positioned at the ultra-high end. Even Ultegra Di2 is expensive and sells in relatively low volume compared with the overall road market. Demand for Ultegra Di2 has far outstripped supply, but it’s too early to tell whether it’s actually growing the market or cannibalizing sales from high-end mechanical groupsets, said Dave Lawrence, Shimano’s senior product manager for bike.

While Shimano and bike suppliers initially underestimated the retail demand for Ultegra Di2, it’s unclear whether suppliers are scaling back on mechanical orders in lieu of higher forecasts for Di2, he said.

“There’s a chance that they’ll do less mechanical. We’re still seeing people hedging their bets until they get a clear picture of the price point at which Ultegra Di2 will sell. I think the first impression has been that the Ultegra Di2 will win out,” he said.
While Dura-Ace Di2 has been stronger on the aftermarket side with build kits, Ultegra Di2 is expected to be more of an OEM product, opening up electronic shifting to a wider range of riders.

A fourth component supplier, Full Speed Ahead, continues to work on its long-anticipated 11-speed groupset, but company executives at Taichung Bike Week still did not want to put a timeline on a product introduction.

The other piece of road bike’s future, hydraulic disc brakes and 135-millimeter wide hubs, may not show up on retail floors for at least another year.

“130-millimeter spacing is here for a while, as it is the standard for road. Changing to 135 would require new chainline requirements for cranksets as well as new tooling for frames. It isn’t an overnight change,” said Dave Koesel, Felt’s road brand and product manager.

No one believes the industry will stop at 11 speeds, so to make room for future cogs on the drive side, and room for rotors on the non-drive side, wider hubs are inevitable.

Neither Shimano nor Campagnolo’s new groups hint at any hub or braking change, though Shimano is rumored to have some type of road disc in
Lawrence was mum on Shimano’s plans for a road disc brake, but validated the industry’s need for the technological advancement.

“The trend is there and the need is there, especially for cyclocross, but some issues still need to be worked out. On the racing side, weight is going to continue to be an issue as well as all the pieces that need to come with it—the wheels, the frames need to be designed around it,” he said.

In the meantime, TRP’s Parabox, a hydraulic disc brake system that integrates with cable levers, is receiving quite a bit of attention. Lance Larrabee, TRP’s marketing director, says he will supply at least 10 road bikes with hydraulic brakes, compared with the 20 disc-equipped cyclocross bikes he is working on for 2013.

“From what I know I don’t think there is going to be a big move to road discs, but I think most everyone wants to have at least one model in the line pretty quickly,” Larrabee said.

Reynolds Cycling rushed to finish its carbon Assault CX cyclocross disc wheels prior to Taichung Bike Week early last month to fulfill supplier requests.

“It’s clear discs are going to have a big impact in cyclocross, but we are also getting interest in spec’ing this wheel for road bikes, so I know road disc is coming a little faster than I expected,” said Len Cabaltera, Reynolds Cycling’s international sales and marketing manager.

Join the Conversation