Bend in the Road: Suffering an electrical

We’ve all had mechanicals. Here's a new type of breakdown

About halfway into the rain-soaked Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York, my electronic front derailleur stopped working. Then, after some intermittent issues, the back jammed also. I had suffered an ‘electrical.’

Virtually all of us who ride bikes have had a mechanical: a tire punctures, a chain falls off or breaks, or a derailleur won’t shift correctly. Something on our bike mechanically falters or fails. Now, as more of us are riding with electronic gadgets and components, a new category of problem has arrived, the electrical.

GPS units can jam up, lose signals or run out of juice. Cycle computers can pick up other riders’ heart rate signals. Power meters’ calibrations can get wonky, and their batteries can die. And now, with Shimano’s Di2 and Campagnolo’s EPS electronic systems, high-end bikes with 22 gears can be rendered singlespeeds.

Rainy day blues

At the Gran Fondo New York, Campagnolo graciously loaned me a Colnago equipped with the gorgeous Record EPS electronic group on which to test their new Bora Ultra 35 tubular wheels.

The morning of the event, I rode 10 miles to the start in a light rain. The Colnago C59 had internal routing for the derailleur wires, but the battery itself was mounted under the down tube just in front of the bottom bracket. As the event got underway, the light rain turned into a steady drenching that lasted all five hours of the race.

Around mile 50 of the 105-mile event, the front derailleur stopped shifting. Twice the system seemed to reset, moving the front derailleur the full way in, then the full way out, jamming the chain in the process, before eventually settling on the full-in setting.

Then the rear began stuttering — it would shift sometimes, but not others — before going out completely. I tried to reboot the system by pressing various combinations on the mode buttons, and by reinserting the magnet key into the battery. Nothing. I spoke with Campaganolo’s technical support by phone, and together we tried a few similar things, including detaching the cables, blowing on the connections and reattaching. Nothing. So I rode the rest of the gran fondo on a singlespeed.

Electricity can be a beautiful thing on the bike, but it does add complexity

My colleagues in the UK have experienced at least one similar failure with Shimano’s Di2 system in extended rain. Cycling Plus technical editor Warren Rossiter, who had a Di2 drivetrain suddenly freeze up, liberally applied Dura-Ace grease to his Di2 junctions at Shimano’s instruction and has had no further problems. I have been riding Di2 9000 and 9070 for a few thousand miles without a water-induced hitch, but I typically ride in much drier conditions than my British friends. Similarly, I have put a few hundred miles on an Athena EPS group without issue – and none of the other media or Campagnolo staffers at the Gran Fondo New York had a problem with the EPS in the rain.

Speaking of Di2, I have had the Shimano battery die on me twice when out on the road. This type of electrical is obviously self-induced. The most recent was when riding over to a local race. As it’s designed to do, the front stopped shifting but the rear continued to work (for an estimated 100 or more shifts). Luckily, I was still close to home so I flipped it and grabbed another battery. How embarrassing would that have been, I thought, if the battery had died mid-race?

At the Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York, three of us in the media experienced various electricals with our GPS units. The Garmin 800 screen on Neal Rogers’ (Velo Magazine) bike started showing random tables a few hours into the sopping ride. Dillon Clapp’s (Road Magazine) Garmin 500 cut out parts of the route with dropped GPS connections. And in the final miles of the day, my Magellan Switch Up just switched itself off, out of juice, after being on from 5am to 1pm.

These things happen – but can you fix it roadside?

The thing is, mechanicals happen – especially with lightweight gear. Who among us hasn’t had something fail on a ride?

Some mechanicals are induced by wear, some by operator error, some by a combination of the two. Chains snap, handlebars slip after particularly hard bumps, derailleurs come out of adjustment. And sometimes, as with flat tires, it’s just dumb luck.

But a fundamental difference between mechanicals and electricals may be our ability as riders to fix them on the road. Many mechanicals can be addressed roadside if you are armed with the tools and the know-how. We can replace or patch inner tubes, repair a broken chain, tweak derailleurs, retighten bolts.

There certainly are mechanicals that cannot be adequately fixed on the road. During the Campagnolo Gran Fondo, fellow rider Kate Veronneau snapped off the shift lever on her SRAM Rival right shifter. Not much to do there but ride it in. Or, in her case, race it in – for a third-place finish, no less!

Conversely, the most basic electrical – running out of juice – can often be avoided by simply remembering to charge your device or replace the battery regularly.

I really do love some of the current electrical gear – from the luxury Di2 and EPS groups to the free Strava iPhone app and many things in between. But if and when these things fail on the road, I am usually as equipped as a monkey with a rock to remedy the problem. As such, I can’t give you solutions for when you experience data loss, a short-circuit or a computer error. But I can give you the terminology – you just suffered an electrical.

Bend in the Road is a new column by Ben Delaney, who has been writing professionally about bikes for 15 years, and riding and racing them very much nonprofessionally for much longer. Follow him on Twitter at @ben_delaney or Strava at ben-delaney.

Delaney is BikeRadar's US editor in chief

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