With the debut last year of Shimano's new Dura Ace Di2 electronic shifting system, it seems cyclists have stepped back to watch the latest schoolyard fight between industry giants. The technology has been around for 20 years, but only recently had the technology allowed a viable product to reach the market. In the past few years we've seen incremental changes in shifting technology: Rather than making the 10 cog cassette better, Campy jacked it up to 11 and SRAM has received raves for its double tap system for customized efficient shifting.
With the Di2, Shimano took the "solution in search of a problem" approach and they did it in spades. When it was first introduced the skeptics gathered round to wait for the first mis-shift or chain slip. When that didn't happen they then surmised that once the dust settled from the announcement, it would short out the system. That didn't happen either. As more professionals have been given the Di2 the more Shimano has proven the strength of the technology with clean, crisp, accurate and reliable shifting. The Di2 system has even made it into the cyclocross scene where it performed flawlessly while caked in mud as documented by the Velonews article below.
Even the "connoisseur" cyclist has to choke on his vomit and admit that the system seems to be working and working well. I had the opportunity to try it on a Colnago C50 a couple months back and the chain immediately shifted from cog to cog. Efficient.
With the technology proving itself in the field, the issue ... ahem... shifts from purely an issue of technology into the realm of cycling philosophy. Sure, there will still be those who will live or die with Campy for its Italian pedigree or hate Shimano for its lack of rebuildability or its ubiquitousness. But I imagine both Campagnolo and SRAM have a similar system in the works and eventually the technology will trickle down to the lower gruppos and electronic shifting will be the next STI lever.
The professionals don't really have room to choose and will race whatever their sponsors tell them to race and it will trickle down to all the wannabe professionals, poseurs, wannabes, those racing out from inside a mid-life crisis... basically anyone who wants to have what the pros use regardless and have the money to buy it.
For those of us who have a choice, the philosophy of what cycling means becomes an integral part of the equation.
Is cycling simply about physical performance on a bike? Does it matter how we ride as long as the legs are pumping at the pedals or does the joy of cycling come from learning the skill to pull off smooth and effective shifts in different situations under strain and exhausted. Is there anything to the skill of tuning and knowing one's bike? Is there something about being fully involved that adds to the experience? I keep thinking of the opening sequence of the classic documentary, A Sunday In Hell and how much care the cyclist puts into his steed. He knows every inch of the bike and cared for it like a soldier cares for his rifle.
Is this like the difference between manual and automatic cars (I know you still choose when to shift on Di2)? I like manual because I feel like I am "driving" the car, but manual allows me to worry less in city situations and starting at a stoplight on a wet hill. Does the Di2 take anything away from the riding experience that will make all bikes feel like they operate the same?
I just don't know.