Plus Ça Change

Goes to 11…

Another day, another product announcement. Sigh. Since we live in the best of all possible worlds, new bike products must be unfettered goods (pun intended). But Shimano’s latest announcement, the new “2021”—really 2022 since you won’t be able to get them until later this year—Dura Ace and Ultegra road groups are sorely testing my faith in the ultimate goodness of God (or at least Leibniz). I’m sure lots of cyclists who can afford to buy bikes with either of these groups will be giddy with delight at their effortless shifting and smooth-as-butter disc brakes. However the announcement left me less than pleased due to three developments, two overtly mentioned and the other not so. The first is that these groupsets are electronic only: no more mechanical shifting. Perhaps that makes sense for Dura Ace since it is mainstay of professional road racing. But Ultegra is more of a bread-and-butter group for the rest of us, especially since Dura Ace prices seem to be going up relentlessly. Online pundits are bemoaning this loss and I would too except that in my experience maintaining a Di2 system has been less work. Cable actuated shifting systems aren’t a whole lot of work in this era but e-systems are even less work! And the less time I have to spend fiddling with a shifter, the more time I have to eat bonbons. What I don’t care about Di2 is the price. Mechanical shifting is fine and it’s a lot cheaper: the Ultegra Di2 groupset now costs as much as Dura Ace did just a few years ago.

The second is that Shimano will no longer be developing rim brakes. You will be able to get new 2022 rim brakes but they are the same old brakes with just a different date stamped on them. The writing is clearly on the wall: Shimano thinks there’s no money to be made in better rim brakes. So they’re now on death row with the execution date not yet announced. If you want Shimano rim brakes on some future bike—like in four or five years—they’re not going to have “Dura Ace” or “Ultegra” on them, more likely “Tiagra” or “Sora”. They’ll probably work just fine but they’ll be heavier, look a bit unrefined, and come with Shimano’s best cheap-ass brake pads. Maybe that will be the time to switch to ee brakes. (But the price: ouch!)

I’m not going to bore you with more rim vs. disc brake polemics. I use them both and both function fine. I like disc brakes when I’m riding in the wet—what, you don’t ride in the rain??—and they allow me to run fatter tires. But I also use “medium reach” rim brakes (what are called medium reach these days used to be the standard size back in the day) with bigger tires and they work pretty well although I really can’t run a tire wider than about 35mm. I like rim brakes because they’re about three-quarters of a pound lighter and are way easier to maintain and adjust. That’s important for DIY mechanics and as I get older I’ve not only gotten crustier but also more impatient with bike repairs that take me more than a half-hour to complete, preferably less than 15 minutes. If you always take your bike to a shop, then it doesn’t make much difference except to your wallet. In any case rim brakes are headed the same direction as spoon brakes regardless of how I feel: the boneyard. On the other hand given how expensive Dura Ace has become it’s soon to be out of reach anyway, so having Tiagra rim brakes is probably going to be just fine along with Tiagra everything else.

The third development flew under the radar. Now that Shimano road groups are going 12-speed, it no longer will be making a cassette with anything other than an 11-tooth small cog. With 11-speed you could get a Shimano cassette with a 12-tooth small cog; when Shimano groups were 9-speed, you could even get a 13-tooth cog. Going to 11 only is a move that SRAM made when it started making groupsets: it never offered a cassette with anything other than an 11. At the time I thought that was stupid and I still do. Most of us use whatever cassettes come with the bike, and being stuck with an 11-tooth cog is realistically no more than a minor inconvenience. I had never used a cassette with an 11-tooth cog until I bought a bike with a compact chainset. My previous experience was a 9-speed bike with a compact chainset; it came with a 12-cog and I thought that was plenty. Did you know that a 50×11 is just about the same gear development as a 53×12? It’s plenty big. The only time I used a gear that big was on some descents, and as I get older I’m less inclined to go ridiculously fast downhill. When I was “fast”—yes, that was quite a while ago—my top gear was a 53×13, which is less quite a bit less than a 50×11, and I rarely used it and I would still go downhill at 40+ mph. In other words, you don’t need a 50×11 to go downhill fast. All you need is stupid bravery and knowing how to tuck. So 11- or 12-tooth cogs are like vestigial organs I just don’t need or use. And I suspect that is true for the vast majority of recreational cyclists.

What I do like—and appreciate more and more as I get older and creakier—is having lots of gears in the middle of the cassette, where I ride a lot, rather than tiny cogs that I almost never use. With the new Shimano groups I’m just getting more of the same: cogs I don’t need. Oh well.

Finally, one other change caught me eye, which is the chainrings offered. The “standard” 53×39 chainset is gone replaced by a new 54×40. That is a damn big ring! Who do you know runs a 54-tooth chainring? Only Pro Tour cyclists and some oddball time trialists. Everyday cyclists need a 54 like a hole in the head. FYI a 54×11 is 133 gear-inches. All I can say is: wow. But hold on there just a minute! At some point Shimano is going to have to produce a 12-speed “junior” cassette. Junior racers (under age 18) have gearing capped at no smaller than a 14-tooth cog. It’s easy to imagine a great 12-speed cassette starting at 14 and giving something close to my ideal set of ratios. How about a 14-15-16-17-18-19-20-22-24-27-30-34? This would have a lot of useful gears in the middle, an excellent low gear, and a reasonable top gear of 54×14 = 104 gear-inches. Sign me up!