The way I understand it, pushing a button to initiate a wireless gear change is like squirting ketchup out of a plastic bottle: the signal travels between shifter and derailleur in a straight line.
My understanding, of course, is based less on electronic engineering and more on a healthy regard for the care and handling of processed tomato products.
Nonetheless, moving a lever to shift gears is an entirely different matter: the force is transmitted through a twisted-strand cable constrained within a multi-curved space defined by frame builder, component maker, mechanic, and finally, when distorted by the application of human power, rider.
This cooperative space, inclusive and complex, mechanical and maddening, remains worthy of exploration.
For one thing, it can be explored.
Mechanical systems exist outside the binary, go/no-go world of the electronic.
They’re all hardware—no firmware updates, no batteries—and immune from electromagnetic pulse weapons, for those keeping score at home.
If you’re on a budget, mechanical drivetrains remain the value play. So keep your bike in cables and pop an extra Keith Haring into the pain cave.
If you like options, mechanical’s your jam. You can grease a cable so it slides more predictably inside a housing. You can run a cable without a housing and increase shifting accuracy in that way. You can connect a lever directly to a derailleur and shift gears without a cable at all.
You can fight friction and win. Or if you prefer friction shifting over the indexed variety, embrace it.
If you’re predisposed toward design, you can work to make mechanical drivetrains easier to assemble, maintain and service.
Someone needs to.
Most of all, you can learn to fix your stuff and engage with the physical universe. You can push and pull. You can witness cause and effect out in the open, well beyond the closed realm of the electron.
Don’t get me wrong: wireless shifting is amazing, moving the derailleur the same precise amount, time after time. And if you’re more about riding and less about tinkering, wireless is downright fantastic.
But the mechanical still exists; still has its benefits, its pleasures.
So while we’re floating around this particular bend in the river of time, we might contemplate the virtues of the mechanical drivetrain a bit longer before channeling all that came before—all that brought us to this moment—into a battery-powered squirt gun.
Ed. note: This is an expansion of a 16incheswestofpeoria Instagram post.
I actually had similar, but much simpler thoughts to these after recently getting help learning how to adjust my shifting cables and then being shown by you those new fangled bikes you’re discussing here. This should be submitted to a bike magazine. Incredible post, Sam.
Very kind. Thanks for reading.