It wasn't long ago that the only power we needed on rides was whatever it took to push on the pedals. These days, however, strain gages measure our efforts, electrodes detect our heartbeats, electrons tell our derailleurs what to do, accelerometers adjust our suspension, and our movements are tracked by satellites. And of course, let's not forgot smartphones that keep us within arm's reach 24/7.
Is it too much?
For many of us, cycling is one of the last havens from the chaos of the modern world – just hop on your bike and pedal away your worries. In the saddle and on the open road or quiet singletrack, you're shielded from traffic, from the Internet, from that irritating IT guy who's constantly yelling at you for touching your screen. It's bliss on two wheels.
Some might argue that the march of technology is tarnishing that purity – that feeling of near-flying as we gracefully roll across the ground, and the connectedness we feel between man and machine.
All around us, more and more riders are more focused on smashing someone's Strava KOM than taking in the sights and sounds around them. That blissful stretch of swoopy singletrack is marred by yet another text message. The curious euphoria of fresh, glass-smooth pavement and a perfect tailwind is overshadowed by maintaining your coach's prescribed target on your power meter.
Those complications sometimes don't go away even after you've returned home, either. Just like everything else on your bike, those electronic gadgets need maintenance – and occasionally repair. At best, batteries need to be recharged or replaced from time to time. At worst, you've suffered an 'electrical' and are frustrated to no end trying to track down any variety of electronic gremlins that you can neither see nor feel.
As the saying goes, keep it simple, stupid.
Then again, all of this electronic wizardry exists for a reason, and when it's all working properly, much of it is pretty damned awesome.
Once they're properly set up, electronic drivetrains literally don't have to be touched again save for recharging the battery a few times a year, and they really do shift better than mechanical systems. Accurate power meters give us the most useful metric for gauging fitness we've ever had. Like it or not, Strava is subconsciously pushing its users to be fitter and faster, even when they're riding alone. And GPS has allowed more previously undiscovered routes to be shared with more users – and accurately followed – than anything else previously available.
That all being said, I'm also apprehensive that all this electronic gadgetry could become the default. All of that may be improving the bicycle from a purely technical standpoint but there will always be a segment of the market that insists on maintaining that visceral and tactile feel that comes with a more traditional setup.
By all means, the industry should push the boundaries of how much we can integrate electronics into bicycles. After all, there are limits to what purely mechanical systems can do. But just as dual-clutch transmissions in cars might actually be faster on paper, there are lots of folks (like me!) who still like to row the gears themselves.
Thankfully, we're currently inundated with a mountain of good hardware choices on both sides of the aisle so no one should feel forced to stray one way or the other, regardless of what the hype machine tells you. There are absolutely days when I make sure to power up before heading out because I do actually want to know my power output, I do want to see my exact route after I've returned home, and I do want my shifting to just flat-out work – tactile feedback or not.
But there are plenty of other days when the only thing I want to do is hop on my townie and pedal around aimlessly with no computer, no heart rate monitor, no power meter, no phone – and no worries – in sight.
Happy New Year, everyone. Here's to a great 2013, an even better 2014, and lots of great bike rides – electrified or not – to come.