The rise of automatic shifting, integrated computers, lights, power meters, and radar has made us wonder: How much is too much?
I just discovered that the latest road bike components on the market are smarter than I am. Five months ago, Allied Cycles shipped me one of the first test models of its All Road, and though I loved the frame of this carbon shapeshifter from day one, I didn’t comprehend the potential of its components until recently.
The bike’s Dura Ace R9170 Di2 group set—Shimano’s first-ever, top-level road components with dedicated hydraulic disc brakes—get some improvements over past iterations: the shifters have been pared down to match the size and ergonomics of the mechanical group set; the new Shadow-style rear derailleur allows for a wider gear range, with an 11-30 cassette; the weight difference between them and the mechanical group has narrowed to a mere six ounces; and the aesthetics are sleeker. Nice but negligible evolution, I thought.
Then last week, Shimano invited me to its Boulder, Colorado, offices for a deep-dive into these new components. It’s there that I learned what this group set is really capable of.
The secret is in the digital integration: not only does 9170 operate seamlessly with Shimano’s premier power meter, the R9100P, it pairs and runs wirelessly with an array of head units and peripherals, including lights. Viewed as a whole, the system looks like a complete platform that, for the first time, approaches the holistic intelligence of a car. Though still in its early phases, this is the future of bikes, where computer, components, and lights work as one to improve the ride.
The key to the whole grandiose system is a nondescript, thumbnail-sized plastic box called the D-Fly that costs $93 and lets Di2 communicate wirelessly using both ANT+ and Bluetooth. All the Di2 parts (minus the power meter) are still wired together using Shimano’s E-tubes, but the D-Fly snaps inconspicuously into that line to enable the system to communicate to a smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android), as well as to a range of head units and lights.
For the demonstration, Shimano teamed up with Garmin to provide the company’s latest computer, the Edge 1030 ($600), which gets a bigger screen and longer battery life (20 hours) than the previous edition, a new interface, and trick new capabilities including crash detection to alert family if you go down. This computer functions as the control center for the Di2 system. Garmin also provided a pair of ANT+-enabled lights, the 800-lumen Varia UT800 Smart Headlight ($150) and the 16-lumen Rearview Radar ($200). Shimano also subbed out my crank with its new power-equipped model.
All of these bits and pieces are impressive on their own, but it’s the networking of the group, and the way they interact with Di2, that makes them especially interesting. Turn on the Garmin, wake up the Di2 group by pressing one of the shift buttons, and the system comes to life, with lights, components, and power meter all networking to the head unit. In addition to the usual metrics and mapping, the Edge displays real-time battery power for all the onboard devices, except the power meter, as well as gearing information for Di2.
From here, you can configure shifting however you want, though I opted to retain the standard pattern: rear derailleur on the right, front on the left. I did play with the new Syncro Shift, which debuted on Shimano's XTR Di2 M9050 group and cedes various degrees of shifting control to a programmable algorithm. So, for example, in Semi Sync mode, when you shift the front derailleur, the rear derailleur shifts up or down automatically (in pre-set gear increments of your choosing) to ease the transition. In Auto Sync, you shift only the rear derailleur, and the system takes care of front derailleur duties to achieve the best gear ratios and avoid cross-chaining. Switching between the two modes and standard, where you’re in complete control, is as simple as a push of the button on the junction box, which now lives neatly inside a bar-end plug.
To help with navigation, the new slimmed-down Dual Control Levers get a new button on the crown of the shifter, beneath the rubber hood. (The button was present on 9070 shifters, but most people didn’t realize it because it had no purpose yet.) As with the shift buttons, these are programmable, meaning you can pick and choose tasks for each of six buttons to suit your preferences. I set the left top button to control the Garmin—a single short push cycles through my data screens, while a long push starts and stops my current activity. I linked the right top button to the lights, with a long hold to turn them on and off and a short one to cycle between solid mode and blinking.
Perhaps most groundbreaking is the Rearview Radar, which senses cars up to 153 yards behind you. When a car comes in range, the edges of the 1030 screen glow red, and a dot depicting the vehicle appears on the rear right-hand side of the screen and moves forward toward a dot that depicts you at the front of the display. Once the car has passed, the edges glow green, then return to neutral gray. The radar can register up to eight cars at once, and it displays a red dot for fast-moving vehicles. Meanwhile, the taillight increases intensity as cars approach. This is awesome safety technology, and it could get even better if Garmin adds the turn-signal functionality, operable from those Di2 hoods, that it already uses on its Smart Taillights.
I found that, on the bike, all that technology works seamlessly. Using data from the 1030 (speed, light sensor), the headlight automatically adjusts its power and beam. The rear light picks up vehicles and warns you of them on screen. The derailleurs automatically pick the optimal ratios as you shift. All of that data displays in real time on the head unit screen. And I was able to scroll through my pages and change turn settings on and off without my hands ever leaving the shifters. It’s reminiscent of a modern car, where you can control all the critical vehicle functions from a few buttons on the steering wheel. (Unfortunately, in my opinion, Garmin has made it possible to receive texts on the head unit screen too, raising the specter of distracted driving for cyclists.)
I’m sure many cyclists will balk at the technology. And, of course, the price for this setup runs more than many complete bikes (though there are less expensive compatible computers and lights). But having seen the possibilities and used the technology, I am convinced that this system will become a standard part of every bike I buy in the future.
Adoption of these advances will take time, and they won’t become pervasive until prices drop. But just like disc brakes on mountain bikes (and increasingly road) or power steering and windows on cars, technological advances that improve the experience will inevitably win out. As good as technology for bikes is getting, the day when lights and GPS and integrated electronic shifting—and who knows what else—are built into every bicycle is coming sooner than we can imagine.