The handlebar shifters were always mushy, never crisp. It was explained to me that the sloppiness was the result of the longer cable. Downtube shifters have a shorter cable so they’re snappier. Being a stupid mule, I accepted this explanation, since it was prattled by people who knew so much more than I did, i.e. people who could change out a cassette or tape their own handlebars.
In September I got a ‘cross bike and it came with SRAM stuff. When you go from one long-owned brand to a new one, especially shifters, it causes you to break out in hives. “SRAM!! Oh, wow…can I really do this?”
I could, and did.
SRAM v. Shim
The SRAM stuff had one really nice feature–gigantic shifter paddles that were easy to reach and easy to push. The SRAM stuff had another really nice feature–it was much sharper than the sloppy seconds Shimano.
But it had one killer downside, too. It hated upshifting under a load, and upshifting on a road bike is what it’s all about. You know what I mean. You’re flailing up the Switchbacks as Craig and John Hall and Danny Heeley and Dan Cobley and Stathis the Wily Greek and the kindly old lady with the basket in front are riding you off their wheel, and you madly try to upshift, mistakenly thinking that the problem is the gear rather than your puny legs, feeble heart, and teacup lungs.
This is when you need to upshift, no questions asked, and it needs to be right every single time. Shimano understood this when it designed its stuff, because for all the sag and droop it never mis-shifted with pressure on the pedal going uphill.
Don’t think. Just click. Or as the Nissan ad says, SHIFT. Or a I say, SHIFT_er.
After a few thousand miles of SRAM-ming it on the road, I found that however much smoother and solid and quick the SRAM stuff was, once you started trying to shift uphill or under a big pedal load, it shifted reluctantly, or worse, it did that thing and made that sound I’d forgotten even existed: The sound of grinding gears.
Money can’t buy you love, but it can apparently buy you the perfect shift
One fine day, however, Shimano corrected all aspects of its infamous mush with the introduction of electronic shifting. Now it was just as perfect and effortless as the transmission in your car. You touched the button and boom–you got a perfect shift every single time.
What’s that? You don’t have $4k to spend on your bike’s transmission? Sucks to be you.
And so it sucked to be me, as I fiddled along with my recalcitrant upshifting SRAM, dreaming of the day when I could retire, cash out my IRA, and use the entire thing to buy my dream gruppo, the perfectly shifting Shimano Di2.
Then one day while climbing Via del Monte and trying to upshift a chain that was covered in dirt and sand and old lube and slathered with bad memories of my BWR recon ride the day before, all the while cursing a bit at the reluctance of the derailleur to quickly and cleanly do its job, a thought occurred to me. “What if I do what we used to do in the old days?”
You know, the days when shifting was a skill?
Oh, you don’t?
Let me explain.
When shifting was a skill
Time was when bicycle chains didn’t shift themselves and hop all over the place at your beck and call. In fact, they obeyed Newton’s Law of Chains: A chain at rest will not upshift unless you know what the hell you’re doing.
There were lots of ways to know you had a wanker in the group, and not just because he was wearing tennis shoes with his toeclips. You knew because he couldn’t shift properly. Yep, that’s right. Shifting up a cog, especially under a load, took lots and lots of practice.
Even the best stuff made, the awesomely incredibly drool-inducing Campy Record that we actually saved up for and that no one ever, ever, ever put on his very first road bike, required you to slightly ease up on the stroke between noon and two o’clock in the pedal rotation when going up a gear. And since easing up meant slowing down, the art of the shift lay in relaxing the bare minimum to coax the chain up onto the next cog. Slow down just enough to shift and don’t relent one fraction of a pedal push more than necessary.
When you were in deep dookey and you had to hop up two or even three cogs, the differences in ability became more pronounced. Wankers would grind and clank and mash their chain between the cogs, and true flailers would throw the chain and tip over. Part of riding a bike, and absolutely part of racing a bike, meant mastery over the chain.
Push just right and fiddle with your Sixth Sense
If there was an art to relaxing pressure on the pedal in order to sweet talk the chain to upshift, it required a sixth sense when it came to finding the right cog. It took thousands and zillions of shifts to know exactly how much and how far to push or pull the shifter in order to get it smack on the cog you were seeking. Once on the cog, it often took a micro adjustment or two to get rid of the slight rattle and buzz.
This little memory lane trip as I thrashed up Via del Monte brought back the other things we actually had to learn through flail and error, things like getting your foot into the toeclip, getting the groove in your cleat over the edge of pedal before cinching the strap, reaching down to cinch the strap just enough to be tight but not so much that the other four toenails also turned black and fell off, loosening the strap prior to coming to the stop sign or stoplight you would probably run anyway, all those things that you learned rather than had gifted to you in the form of some magical invention or mechanical improvement that took out or at least greatly reduced the flailing curve but that also made idiots the equal of pros in many respects without having to pay anything except money.
As I hit the stop sign (and stopped, of course), I clicked the upshift paddle, and ever so slightly, every so Campy Record-ish, ever so old school, relaxed a tad between twelve and two.
She shifted smoother and with less resistance than a forefinger poked into the smooth top of a newly opened jar of Skippy. It was magical. All this fine piece of post-space age equipment had needed was a bit of old school finesse in order to perform to perfection.
Tired as I was, I eagerly awaited the little bump before Granvira Altamira. It rose up. Relax. Shift. On the money, to the penny.
I got home and sat down to the dinner table. “Why are you grinning like that?” she asked.
“Yes. Ear to ear.”
I thoughtfully chewed, then swallowed my food. “I’m smiling because…”