Why integration isn't the solution to all of life's problems
Just because something looks simpler, it doesn't always mean it actually is
This week I’ve been messing around with Di2. Actually, messing around isn’t really the way to put it, I suppose the technical term would be that I’ve been installing Di2 on a bike.
Despite having more bits to install than on a mechanical groupset, getting Di2 up and running is pretty easy and, in fact, how hard the task is has far more to do with the complexity of the internal routing of your frameset than the components themselves – but that’s a discussion for a different day.
Anyway, the point is that setting up the bike should be simple. No matter what drivetrain you’re running, the rear derailleur goes on its hanger, the front derailleur attaches to the seat tube, shifters go on the bars and brakes need to stop the wheels. As an aside, If you're going to mess one bit up don’t let it be the brakes, those are always worth checking twice. You might laugh, but I know a guy who once forgot to reattach his front brake after some maintenance and ended up going through a hedge at the bottom of a hill. Not smart.
I love messing around with my bike. I bought my Ridley Helium frameset less than a year ago and I’ve already stripped and re-mounted groupsets three times. Sure, that’s partly because testing kit is my job, but it’s also got something to do with the fact that I just can’t leave the thing alone. I think I have a problem. The only solution is for someone to come over and secretly superglue all the components to my frame (please don’t do that).
Things, however, are changing. Last week I had a chance to have a hands on look at the new Scott Foil and seeing next generation bikes in the flesh makes you realise two things. Firstly, the latest aero super bikes are amazingly clean setups. The Foil is actually one of the ‘messier’ ones, as the cables are visible between the base of the stem and down tube while bikes like Specialized's new Venge ViAS and the Trek Madone 9 have their cables hidden completely. It really is impressive.
But sadly, that look comes with a huge sacrifice in simplicity. And I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea that if I bought a new Trek Madone I’d need a Trek engineer to put the integrated handlebar system together for me (not that I can afford one, of course which solves that problem quite nicely). If you fancy hours of swearing trying to route those cables, be my guest. In the mean time I’ll be the guy out riding on his ‘old-fashioned’ bike. It’s a fantastic design if you have a pro mechanic to put it together and maintain it for you.
For me, part of the beauty of cycling has been the fact that anyone can look after a bike from the comfort of their garage. Or kitchen if, like my dad did back in the ‘70s, you decide to dismantle it there. Although when he met my mother that practice was stopped rather quickly because, shockingly, nice as bike grease is on bikes, it’s not a great salad dressing. But the point is that when something goes wrong you can sort it out yourself.
Right now, we’re doing okay. Only a few bikes right at the top end, aimed pretty much at pro riders, have this huge degree of integration so it’s not a problem. But where are we going to be in, say, five years from now? Five years ago most low end bikes didn't have internal cable routing but now you can buy bikes for a grand that have everything routed through the frame. It might look amazing but even that makes life harder, especially if you have to cable the bike yourself for the first setup. Believe me, it can be frustrating.
And don't even get me started on integrated brakes. Almost universally, integrated brake solutions just aren’t as good as their traditional cousins. You can tell me all you want about how aero your bike is and how good it looks, but if the brakes aren’t that great, I’m not interested. Making a super aero bike designed to go faster than ever before and equipping it with less efficient brakes has to be the definition of madness. You’ll ride faster but stop slower. Deal? Didn’t think so. And that’s not even taking into account how much of a pain they are to adjust.
The point isn’t that modern, integrated bikes are rubbish, because they’re clearly not. They’re the very pinnacle of what bike engineers can currently achieve. It’s not the integration that’s the problem, it’s the complexity that that integration adds. If you want to route everything internally, make that routing easy to navigate and ideally without creating a whole host of proprietary tools for the job as well.
Basically, what I’m saying is that in the name of progress compromises often have to be made, and one of those is the ability to easily maintain the bike yourself. So if you really want a next gen super bike make sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for. And, for your own sanity, find someone who can show you how to set it all up.