In some corners of the mountain bike world there seems to be an electronic arms race, a quest to stick as many batteries on a bike as possible. The recently released Trek Rail
is a prime example. It’s an eMTB, so the big battery in the downtube is to be expected – that’s not the issue here. It’s the addition of the AXS battery in the derailleur and dropper post, the battery on each wheel to monitor tire pressure, plus the battery in the fork and shock (also to monitor pressure) that has me scratching my head. Does a bike really need eight batteries, not including the one that actually powers it? Are the performance gains really worth the extra complication and cost? So far I’m not convinced.
To me, it feels like electronic bits, especially wireless ones, are being launched in a haphazard, almost gimmicky way. From where I’m sitting, it’s hard to envision what the end result will be, other than a bike with enough blinking lights and display panels to make an air traffic controller jealous. Before I go any further, I should stress that, despite harboring some Luddite-ish tendencies, I’m not totally opposed to some
electronic inventions making their way into mountain biking. It's part of my job to test and evaluate the latest products, and these days it seems like many of them require an app and a wall outlet. The addition of electronics does have the potential to improve the mountain biking experience, at least in some cases, it just needs to be done for a valid reason, rather than just trying to add another line to the list of features.
My favorite rides are the ones where the bike fades into the background, allowing me to concentrate on the trail ahead and to enjoy the sensation of the world turning into a blur on either side. I've said it before, but there’s something magical about those moments of flow, the times when the countless daily distractions are pushed aside, replaced by a state of sustained bliss that’s the ultimate goal of nearly every athletic endeavor.
The thing is, I find it a lot harder to achieve that flow when my ears are being bombarded by the ‘bzzzt bzzzt
’ of servos moving a derailleur or switching shock modes, or when there’s a bright screen and a bunch of blinking lights flashing at me during the ride. Now, if a bike has a motor I can cut it a little more slack in the decibel distraction department, but I still want it as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.
With the flood gates open, there’s no turning back the wave of electronic gadgetry that's on the way from SRAM, Shimano, Fox, and others, but there are a few tenets I’d like to see adhered to before things get even more out of control. No blinking lights unless absolutely necessary.
If a component has a battery or air pressure indicator, that little LED shouldn’t light up unless a button is pushed - there should be a way to totally deactivate the lights that announce to the world that you have fancy electronics on your bike. I want to be able to focus on the trail, rather than having some LED flashing intermittently to let me know that yes, my fork still has air in it, or that my fork has switched modes. To be fair, many electronic components do have 'Dark Mode' options or the ability to dim the screen, but enough of them don't that this is worth a mention.Wires should be well protected.
Wireless everything is all the rage, but I actually don't mind wires when they make sense. Wires can mean that there are fewer batteries to charge or replace, which I fully support. What I do mind is when those wires are barely protected, the equivalent of dangling strands of overcooked angel hair pasta from various parts of a bike and hoping they survive a ride. The wire itself can be thin, it's the sheath protecting it that should be more robust and able to survive a crash or two. App free is the way to be.
The less time I need to spend staring at my phone the better, especially if I'm out on a ride. Using an app to change settings on an electronic component should be an option rather than a requirement whenever possible – nobody likes to waste precious ride time waiting for Bluetooth components to pair on the side of the trail. RockShox's new Flight Attendant system does a pretty good job of not needing the app once it's set up, which is a good thing because the AXS app can be very frustrating when all of the components don't want to show up and play nicely together.
My rant isn’t aimed at any one company in particular, either. Yes, SRAM is currently rolling out the most battery powered components, but it’s only a matter of time before Shimano releases their newest drivetrain, and I’m willing to bet it’s got a battery and a blinking light or two, and probably some really skinny wires.
Will there be a day when drivetrain and suspension components that don't need batteries are only available for the lowest-end components? Possibly, but I don't think that's going to be any time soon – the simplicity and low cost of traditional cable-actuated components is really, really hard to beat. When it comes to suspension, I'm sure that more electronically controlled options are going to emerge. However, given how good modern suspension and bike kinematics have gotten it's going to need to be something really special to convince riders that adding batteries and buttons is worth the extra cash.
There are places where I can see the benefits of adding electronics, as long as they're seamlessly integrated and don't add much weight or complication. For instance, the concept of a simple, wireless, electronic lockout makes a lot of sense. A tiny blip button that firmed up the suspension in an instant, and then unlocked it with another touch could come in handy on a long travel enduro bike, especially one with a fairly active suspension design. There were hints that something like this was being tested on the World Cup DH circuit this year, and it's a concept that appeals to me more than relying on sensors and algorithms to try and pick the right settings.
I can also see integrated telemetry, something like what Mondraker is doing with their MIND system, catching on with riders who want to be sure that their suspension is set up perfectly, at least according to a computer. That's not really something that would make me pick one bike over another, as it goes against the whole 'as few batteries as possible' theme I've got going on here, although I understand the appeal. At the same time, setting up suspension properly isn't exactly rocket science, and it's far from the dark art that it's all too often made out to be.
Realistically, I'm just waiting for a 200mm dropper post that goes down by itself with the push of a button. I think that'll help me put some of my electronic skepticism to the side, at least until I forget to charge its battery.