Wednesday, December 21, 2011

STI: Shifting My Own Paradigm

Forgive me for that post title. I'm a recovering graduate student.

The funny thing about my new bike is that if you look past the steel frame/fork, the retro paint job, and the Brooks saddle, it's actually the most modern bike I've owned in this century. For instance, it has the weird elephant-proboscis Shimano two-piece crank on an oversized hollow spindle where all my prior rides sported traditional crankarms on traditional square-taper spindles. Can I honestly say that I feel the dramatic leaping-forward burst of efficiency that this (reportedly) stiffer setup claims to provide? Uh, no. But of course, I have the horsepower of two heavily-sedated gerbils, so maybe I'm just not using the stuff to its potential.

Where I do notice a difference, however, is in the cockpit. This is my first STI-equipped bike ever (I dabbled in integrated road shifting in the 90s, but I was a Campy Ergo snob back then). Bear in mind that I only have about 50 miles on the stuff so far (which, for the record, is 9-speed Tiagra), but with that caveat, here are a few first impressions:
  • Dang, that is some light shifting action. With winter gloves on, I can hardly feel the clicks. So far, this is neither good nor bad, just a big change from the extremely tactile CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! of my previous 8-speed bar end shifters.
  • It's going to take me a while to warm up to the overall bulbosity of the lever bodies (and the big loops of exposed cable housing) from an aesthetic standpoint, but gosh, those chubby things do feel good under my hands.
  • Optical gear displays? Really? Pardon my snobbishness, but is this really need-to know information? The front shifter (a double) is on one of two rings, and it's right down there between my feet. Sure, the rear has nine choices, but chains in 2011 can pretty much run across all of them regardless of chainring choice. I guess I should be glad that they're now integrated into the lever rather than a blob grafted into the cable run.
  • Regarding that front shifter, I'm finding that a shift from the small ring to the big is usually a two-step affair... jam it all the way up, then tap the downshift to back off to the "trim" position. Sort of annoying but not awful. It does make me wish that Shimano would abandon front indexing once and for all, though -- a friction front STI would be heavenly.
  • I do, however, applaud Shimano for including easy-to-use reach adjusters with the levers, though (and I applaud the guys at Skunk River Cycles for recognizing that someone might want them included with their owner's manual instead of just tossing them out). These custom-fit rubbery shims pop into the space where the lever opens, making its "resting" position slightly closer to the bar -- a very simple, easy to use solution. I haven't tried them yet, but I plan to, having inherited my father's stumpy fingers.
Now, before my retro-Luddite buds (who -- almost to a person -- suggested that I swap these abominations out for downtube shifters immediately) move away from me on the Group W bench, I will say that I have some reservations about running a very complicated shifter that should probably come with a "no user serviceable parts inside" sticker. Still, retro pals, let's take an honest, objective look at STI for a second. It's been around for what, over 20 years now? It's been in some of the toughest professional races in the world (tended by professional mechanics, yes, but still). Even more compelling, it's trickled down to the ranks of amateur bike-abusers, cross-country tourists, RAGBRAI yahoos, you name it... yet I don't see the warranty boxes overflowing at the LBS.

I may just be justifying my purchase (guilty), and I may sing a different tune the day these things fail me in the middle of nowhere. But for now, I'm trying my darndedest to keep an open mind. We'll see when the mileage tally on these goes from 50 to 500... or 5,000.


Scott Loveless said...

Regarding Campy snobbery, I do believe that their front brifter is a friction dealy. A Jtek shiftmate for the rear should even things out. You didn't need that extra money anyway.

(Please note that I did not take the bait and insist you ditch that brifter crap for down tube shifters. You should, but I didn't say anything.)

Anonymous said...

Re: optical gear displays... considering that Tiagra is intended for neophytes, it's not unreasonable to provide this feature. Honestly, it's not a bad thing to have regardless. On my 'bents, there's no way I can sneak a peak at what the rear derailleur is doing, so I like to have the gear indicator on the SRAM twist shifters.

The other 'bent has Paul Thumbies, so I can pretty much know what gear it is in just by touch. This is the bike I use for night commuting, and I do enjoy being able to read my gear selection by Braille (the same as with friction shifters).

I haven't used brifters, so I can't offer much input. I think the biggest question is how long they will last, and how big of a shock it will be when you see the price for new ones!

So how do the brifters do when wearing heavy gloves?

Steve in Peoria

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Scott -- you are indeed correct, Campy fronts are a ratchety quasi-friction... and my (limited) experience is that 9-speed is the one magical moment where Campy and Shimano lucked into cross-brand compatibility. But even without the Jtek, it's more coin that I want to drop.

Steve -- I'll grant you an indulgence for optical displays on your mutant bikes. :-) Re: heavy gloves, I was wearing insulated wool with rubber grippy surfaces, and the only thing that bugged me was that delicate up-and-back double-shift trim on the front shifter. No issues on the rear.

Steve Fuller said...

I've been running 105 STI's on my La Cruz for 2.5 years now. First year included many many miles of mixed pavement and gravel riding. I had Campy Chorus with a JTek shiftmate on my Paramount at the same time.

Given the opportunity, I would probably switch the La Cruz over to Campy. The downshifting action on the 105's is a heavy *thunk* rather than a nice smooth shift. The front Shimano units are also a lot more difficult to trim than the Chorus shifters as well. I also preferred the cleaner look of having the cables run under the bar tape. The front 105 shifter quit working after 3 months of use, but my shop swapped it out for me under warranty.

The 105's seemed to fit my hands a bit more comfortably as it seems the bodies are a bit wider and longer.

I'll be interested in seeing how you feel after a few more miles of use. We need to get together for a ride sometime soon since the weather is nice.