Mektronic and the Electronic Revolution

The migration to electronic transmissions in cycling is inevitable. Cables have lots of inherent problems; they stretch, rust, break, and get clogged in their housings. Worse, they are part of an imprecise mechanical system that requires constant maintenance and adjustment, and one that can by design only work perfectly in one gear and gets progressively worse the further you get from that “perfect” gear. In short, cable shifting sucks, and it will eventually go the way of friction-shifting.

The obvious solution is the electronic drive-train; once adjusted, an electronic system should need little further adjustment or maintenance since there are no cables to stretch, and it should work equally well in all gears because an electronic system should be able to set the chain perfectly regardless of the derailleur's position with respect to the cog in the cassette. The only problem with electronic shifting is that it takes human control out of the system, which makes it suck even more than cable shifting.

When Mavic released their Mektronic groupo, I jumped on it like a pothead jumps on a bag of Doritos. Sadly, I very quickly became disenchanted with the system. For starters, it would only shift the rear derailleur electronically; the front was operated by an enormous cast-iron lever that looked like it was forged in the middle ages by a monkey with one eye.  I felt like an executioner on the gallows pulling the lever every time I shifted from the big to little ring.

Unfortunately for Mavic, the front shifting was the best part of the system. The Huangism “Press and Forget” was coined to describe the process for shifting. This was supposed to mean that you didn't have to think about shifting once you pressed the button to shift; the “reliable” system would deliver a perfect shift for you without you having to worry about it. What it really meant was that it had a mind of it's own. Every time I would press the little yellow button to shift, I sent myself on an emotional roller coaster ride as I waited to see what would happen.

On the good shifts, a second or two would go by and then it would shift. On the averages shifts, it would not do anything for a little while and then shift at a surprising time, like right when you gave up and got out of the saddle to power over the hill you had intended to downshift shift for. On the bad shifts, it would just never shift or shift without the button being pressed.

It got worse when riding close to a radio tower where radio frequencies were strong. (Mektronic was wireless and functioned using radio frequencies.) There was a television broad-cast tower on one of my routes, and on several occasions, riding by the tower would cause the whole system to reset and stop working at all. It was like the Mavic version of the Blue Screen of Death. That said, not shifting was much better than the cases where it would shift without input. The worst experience I had was on a group ride out by the airport in Minneapolis when the derailleur shifted from the 12 to the 23 in a single instant because some guy in the control tower spilled his coffee on the switchboard or something, causing the chain to snap and me nearly crashing as the group sprinted for a yellow sign.

Another problem with Mektronic was it's gargantuan size. The levers were too long and were banned by the UCI as they offered a non-regulation aerodynamic hand position (the unfortunate pro teams who were sponsored by Mavic raced an even uglier stubby version of these levers). The derailleur was enormous, with a bulbous extension to accommodate the ratchet pushrod that provided the shifting mechanism and which was prone to snagging other items around the bunch like wheels and rider's feet. In a crash during a crit, I tore off my derailleur hanger when my bike hit the deck.

Eventually, I abandoned ship and moved back to a good old fashioned Dura-Ace 7701 drivetrain. There's something very comforting about knowing that a steel cable is running between my shifter and my derailleur; I don't know about you but if I need to shift, I really can't be bothered with waiting for a derailleur which was apparently programmed by a disgruntled software engineer from Microsoft to decide if it's going to go ahead and shift or not. But maybe that's just me.

Electronic shifting faded into the background as Shimano and Campagnolo quietly worked on prototypes over the past decade. Campagnolo and Shimano were both slated to release their fully electronic groupos last Fall, but Campy eventually decided against putting the expensive set into production due to the economic climate at the time. Shimano, on the other hand, did release their version despite a whopping $3250.00 for the derailleurs, shifters, and batteries. A complete groupo runs upwards of $4500-$5000.

On the plus side, it appears that Shimano has actually designed a good system. Aside from it being a bit expensive, all reviews and stories point to this being a really reliable and effective system. The system is wired, so outside interference is limited. The front derailleur is electronic and, provided it is set up properly, will reportedly never drop your chain. Shifts are lightening-quick and reliable. The system self-feathers the chain, running silently in every gear. Even 'Cross racers are using it in the the mud and crud.

I'm anxiously awaiting my first opportunity to try it out. Accepting donations now.

[dmalbum path=”/ Galleries/[email protected]/Mektronic/”/]


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44 Replies to “Mektronic and the Electronic Revolution”

  1. Nice write up on the old Mavic system – didn’t realize it worked, ah – so well. Great pic of busted off hanger and derailed chain. Ouch.

    When it comes to electronic shifting, I’m claiming to be Amish and shunning all items that require a battery. Yeah, I’ve read the reviews – all postive, none negative (Ha! Get it?) – as well they should be considering the cost.

    I’m afraid to even demo it, what if I like it? I wanted to hate carbon fiber frames, now ride one myself. Even if I bagged my Amish ways, no chance of me affording Electro-Robot shifting anyway.

    Ride on – with gummed up cables and all….

  2. the front was operated by an enormous cast-iron lever that looked like it was forged in the middle ages by a monkey with one eye

    I don’t know much about the world but I knew back then the French were not the people to suss out electronic shifting. Perhaps not the Italians either, theirs will work in a capricious way and never on Sunday.
    Leave this to Shimano.

    Frank you are a brave man to wade into Mavic’s world. I’ve owned a French bike, I’ve moved on. And I F’ing love my Campy “go-buttons.” It’s like two sticks of butter, one on each side of my handlebars. Someone will have to pry them out out of my cold dead hands.

    Check out my new avatar…bitches

  3. @Dan O
    I have to say, I am a man for my Campy these days. Even as we speak, I’m formulating my plan to justify moving all my Shimano bikes to Campy. I think test-driving Di2 is a really bad idea. I’ll hold out for Campy to drop their version.

    So I say, not having ridden it. The guys at the shop keep saying they’re upgrading. I’ll have to test theirs out. As you say, what if I like it??

  4. @john
    “Go Buttons”. Those Ergo levers are go buttons. Michelle’s two main road bikes are Campy, and now my R3 is, too. That system is so much more intuitive than the STI lever. I’ll ride my Shimano all winter and then simply tune a Campy bike and the whole next ride, I’m pushing on my imaginary Go Buttons.

    Oh, and for those of you who don’t know how to hack Avatars, here’s John’s new Avatar:

    What the fuck is that goddamn thing? In a word: Awesome.

  5. That has to be the most elegant, finely engineered, ergonomic looking shift lever ever made. Really though, it looks more out of place on frank’s Bianchi than the wig does on john’s dog. I want an avatar btw.

    It may be time for some Frankisms as well. I’m thinking “one eyed monkey” and “pothead jumping for a bag of doritos”.

    I’ll take the other non-Amish stance (I was thinking for what the opposite of Amish was and all I could come up with was non-Amish because everyone else is non-Amish if they’re not Amish) and say I’d like to try the Di2. No way in hell I’ve got $4k to spend on a grouppo so even if it gives me a foot massage I aint buying it.

    I’m taking CC up on they’re screaming BMC Team Machine SLT 01 deal for a frame and fork next week. I’ll throw my ultegra on their for now but sometime I think I’ll “take the leap” to SRAM red.

  6. jeebus it’s early. just re-read my post. i gotta pay more attention to grammar, spelling, and sytax.

  7. @Marko
    I have to admit I’m totally torn. I have to try it. I have to know how it is. I am also terrified that I’ll love it. I also want to get moving on my dream project of building up an old steel frame with delta brakes and down tube shifters like this or this. It’s very confusing in here. I think the only solution is Rule #12.

    You know what’s funny? Those in the know know that “Frankism” would be pronounced “Frankism” and not “Frankism”.

    You and everyone else in the world can have an Avatar. This blog (and many other WordPress blogs) uses Gravatar for displaying Avatars in comment feeds. Head on over and sign up, and you too can have an creepy-ass picture like John has. Try not to use anything NSFW, though. No boobs or plastic wheels.

  8. @Dan O
    More on the Amish thing; let me ask you this: would you choose a steel sword or a lightsaber? I would go for the lightsaber, but I’d be nostalgic about swords and still want one.

    Ultimately, I think that’s what electronic shifting would be like.

  9. frank : It’s actually half of a Transformer:

    Earily it resembles the Darth Vader version of John’s avatar. Scroll back and forth really quickly between the two pics to get the full effect.

  10. @Frank

    Oh yeah – the Campy stuff is super nice. If I was building up the dream bike, it be Campy equipped.

    Steel sword or lightsaber? Being Amish, I wouldn’t know what a lightsaber was – so I’d go for the steel sword.

    Plus, the steel sword could be put to use on the farm – decapitating chickens, cutting weeds, stirring paint – all kinds of uses….

  11. @frank

    BTW the slurpee bike is absolutely gorgeous. I love that old picture of Bobke slogging through the trenches of Roubaix on that thing. The orange Molteni one is fantastic as well. About a month ago there were a few of the orange Molteni ones floating around ebay. Supposedly NOS that some dude refurbished. The price was right but it seemed suspect to me. I say build one up dude. The only thing as cool would be a new steel Pegoretti.

  12. @Marko
    It’s a pity the BIANCHI INFINITO is not on sale at CC, it gives me considerable Carbone.

    When I had my old Peugeot PX-10 repainted I had it done in that orange Molteni-Merckx color because it looks so beautiful. And when I did upgrade the french beast, the Merckx frames were just showing up in the States and I came very close to buying one but I went local instead and was happy I did.

    Frank, I have a perfectly preserved (aging in my garage) virgin 1982 pair of Mavic tubular rims(GP4??) if you want to build wheels for sew-ups for your retro bike. There must be many old steel vintage frames about for cheap. A good sandblasting and repainting, schwing! I tried to make my own decals with laser jet printer on decal paper to go on bike before the clear coat, it’s possible.

  13. @Dan O
    I see your point, but lightsabers are good for all that too, plus they’re self-cauterizing for less of a mess.

    When we were building our bikes up, 11 speed groups were just being released and so stores were dropping prices on 10 speed. Since we already had some 10 speed sets – in addition to me finding the 11 speed groupo design really ugly – we opted for two 10 speed sets. I watched the value of the Pound drop until it hit really low and bought two sets from Total Cycling for $2200 total. A steal.

    I’ll never go back, either. That stuff is amazing.

  14. @Marko
    Isn’t that incredible? My dad once offered to buy me a Molteni frame as a gift and I passed on it. Stupid. I can’t justify the project right now, but it is definitely my dream to build up a bike like that. They are works of art.

  15. @john
    Do you have pictures of the Peugeot? I have to see this. I need a Peugot jersey, too. The real one. The white-with-black-checkers one.

    I might have to take you up on those rims. Perfect for riding on the stones, too, you know.

  16. @frank
    Unfortunately no, well, I do in film slide format buried in a three ring binder in a crawl space a few thousand miles away. I gots to hire that one eyed monkey to scan all my slides into digital format.

    I love the back and white checker Peugeot Jersey. There are good photos (which I also can’t find) of Sean Yates in his chubbier days in that jersey but the jersey is available here

  17. That link was rubbish. Try thisand a person can get it in a 6XL!?? That is just wrong. You are cut off if you order a 6XL jersey. Curling for you, tubby.

    My repainted peugeot was rubbish too as I asked the painter (he was rubbish) to make it a pearlescent orange (like the De Rosa pearlescent pink, mmmmmm) and it came back as a lighter orange, not at all the ass kicking Merckx orange and it lacked any decals so it was just a heavy french weird orange bike. Repainting is trouble unless you have the decals to make it sing.

  18. Team Sky comin on strong and starting to wrack up some wins. Flecha wins Hetloop Omm Neuwsvolk or whatever the fuck. A spanish hardman? Rare breed.

  19. @Marko
    Flecha is the best and I’m glad he won but am I the only one hoping SKY implodes? Maybe that is too strong, how about sucks? They are the New York Yankees of cycling. Jaguar team cars will be comfortable to climb into for their abandoning riders.

  20. @john

    Flecha is the best and I’m glad he won but am I the only one hoping SKY implodes? riders.

    The yankees analogy is good. Add Rupert Murdoch and it gets darker. For me SKy represents the parts being larger than the whole. I like a lot of the riders on that team but shouldn’t cycling teams have to slog it out and build themselves for a couple years instead of being automatic tour contenders? Oh, you could probably replace Yankees with Radioshack. Let’s face it, it’s huge business and Sky is shifting the paradigm even further.

  21. john :!??!*#@#!&&! MF’er. Another link that didn’t show up. HTML. I’m an egit. My point was, this jersey is available at I’m done here. caio.

    Cool site. I want the Brooklyn and Z jerseys but am holding out for the velominati kit.

  22. @Marko and @john

    Sorry, Flecha is a tool and definitely not a hardman. Anyone with that stupid of a victory salute deserves to be sanctioned for High Douchery. Hopefully now that he has his semi-classic win out of the way early, he will be out of form by the cobbled week and will not cause any more race-deciding crashes.

    I am with you guys as far as SKY goes. Anyone can throw a massive pile of money at the wall and build a good team; how about doing it the Saxo way and building riders up from scratch? Pisses me off.

    Oh, and Brad Wiggins can go fuck himself. And get a fucking haircut, you’re not a member of the Beetles.

    Sweet-looking kit, though.

  23. @frank

    Oh, and Brad Wiggins can go fuck himself. And get a fucking haircut, you’re not a member of the Beetles.
    Sweet-looking kit, though.

    C’mon man, Wiggo was the darling of the tour last year. From GT zero to hero in three easy stages. I support him just for the plain fact that he’s another strong rider who could have a go of it. I don’t want to see another Bert coronation any more than another Lance coronation. Other than those two and one Schleck what is there? Poor old Cadel, now fookin way. As for the haircut, I agree. It’s sort of that nerdy trackstar rockets into cycling fame makeover. I’d say he’s taking his fashion template from Thom Yorke more than Lennon and McCartney though.

    And dude, you got a case of the Mondays today or what. That was a tirade.

  24. @Marko
    Ha!! Case of the Mooon-days.

    This thing with Brad jumping to SKY got under my skin. It’s not so much that he wants to move to a team in his home country and be a key player in that movement – I can totally get that – but it’s more the attitude towards Garmin. Vaughters picked up an overweight track rider who’s GT record amounted to little more than breaking down in tears on the roadside when the bunch wouldn’t chase him down during his day-long solo breakaway.

    JT saw potential, picked him up, nourished him, and showed him great devotion and commitment. The way I was raised, you should have some respect for that kind of thing and have some dignity in how your interact and communicate with your team. Even if that means he did the right thing to jump ship, he owed Garmin the respect to do that with more dignity than he did. It’s not in what he did, it’s in how he did it.

    I agree with you though in terms of GT hopeful, although I am skeptical that he can repeat. We’ll have to see. He’s a tall boy, too, which is all the more reason to like him, but he’ll have to win me over again (like he did last year during the Tour).

    As for Cuntador, I think he’ll be a smaller force without Bruyneel and company. I think he hugely overestimated his own contribution to his success. As much as I dislike Pharmstrong, at least he valued his teammates and understood their contribution to his phenomenal streak.

  25. @frank

    Seriously? You’re kidding right? You still have those cd’s I burned you way back when, surely on an ipod now though. Best band of the last 20 years.

  26. @Marko
    Oh, yeah. The CD’s are gone. I also retired my stone tablet. All iPod, baby. Well, either iPod or vinyl, which still kicks the most ass by far.

    I love those guys. I thought they were from Illinois or something. Jesus. I’m an imp.

  27. @john
    That site is sweet, dude. I have to ask: how can an organization as cool as the AIS have a jersey that is this ugly?

    I mean, I would rather walk around with a giant butt crack on my chest than be seen wearing that.

  28. @sthilzy


    Is this worth it on auction site?


    I only just saw this but I’d pay that much for the crank, which I think is the most beautiful (if crack-prone) set ever built. The Mektronik you sell to my dad for at least the price of the whole auction as he loves the stuff to pieces, and I have to say that somehow on his bikes, it works amazingly well.

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