Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Old Man, New Tech, Part 1: STI

One bad thing about being a cheap curmudgeon who no longer works in a bike shop is that I very rarely get to fondle all the new toys on the market. I read about them, sure, but my own fleet is (for the most part) stuck in a time warp out of the mid/late-90s, those halcyon days when anodized colors were cool and a 10-speed was a 70s dumpster relic, not an entire cassette and/or fodder for a "sweet fixie conversion."

Last Fall, however, I did a bit of a fleet shakeup here at The Cycle World Headquarters (you can read about it in the aptly-named post Fleet Shakeup at The Cycle World Headquarters) where I cast asunder my main retro-ish ride for a new Raleigh Clubman (a bit of a retro-ish ride in itself, but bear with me). As a result, I find myself adjusting to technologies that your average club-ride-Fred has taken for granted for over a decade. I'm like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer of bike tech.

One of the newfangled gadgets I'm learning on the Clubbie is the mystical STI shifter. Yes, I know, STI has been around since Rick Astley's pop chart heyday. I told you, I'm a Luddite geezer:

Gratuitous frontal cockpit shot.

The Clubster comes with Tiagra 9-speed and a Tiagra compact double up front. Just how curmudgeonly am I? I actually went hunting for the 2011 model because it only has a 9-speed cassette instead of 2012 Tiagra's 10-speed. And, gol-durn-it-all (that's curmudgeon-speak for "surprisingly"), I actually like it... with just a few reservations.

Shifting the rear is about as brainless as a shifting system gets. Push brake lever in, get an easier gear. Push inner lever, get a harder gear. The action is light but precise. You can grab a bunch of gears going lower, but higher is one at a time (though the action is quick enough to make this a theoretical quibble for me). Like a lot of Shimano stuff, the ergonomics are just ridiculously well done, so my hand is nicely supported and the buttons sit right where I'd expect them. I could do without the weird pointy-bulbous "Bullet Train" aesthetics of the front of the shifter, but oh well.

Front shifting is a bit less intuitive, though. Part of this can be attributed to the compact double; a 16-tooth jump (from 34 to 50 and vice-versa) is quite the leap, even with sculpted chainrings. The bigger issue is Shimano's continued insistence that front shifters have to index. Uh, why? It's a double. You got high, you got low. If you can't tell the two apart without a click, you might consider a less-challenging hobby (like "napping"). The workaround on this shifter is a trim position just inboard of the big-ring click... so I usually end up shifting across the entire travel to really lock it in on the big ring, then tapping the downshift button to find that trim spot and quiet chain rub.

Oh, and there are optical gear displays. I am contractually obligated to loathe these, but under duress, I will admit that I look at them sometimes. Sue me.

One thing I can't speak to yet -- and one major concern of the Cantankerous, Curmudgeonly Chorus -- is the long-term durability of STI. Since Tiagra is not exactly top-o-the-heap, I'll be interested to see how it holds up over the long haul. Right now, I only have about 400 fair-weather miles on these shifters, so I'll have to report back. I don't subscribe to the Chicken Little school of, "Tiny, fragile parts! No friction option!" If a shifter fails catastrophically (and really, how often does that happen?), you deal. Get off the bike, find one good gear by hand (like in days of yore), and keep riding.

So, low-miles impression: The ergonomics have sucked me in, the mechanicals  work like Shimano (maybe not perfect, but predictable and effective), and the jury's still out on reliability. We'll see after a few more digits tick over on the odometer. 


Anonymous said...

oh my... I do share your culture shock! Speaking as a guy who transitioned from beautiful lugged steel bikes equipped with 6 speed freewheels to a carbon fiber recumbent, 9 speed indexing, and SPD's, I understand the foreign feeling of the new stuff (as well as the shocked looks of friends when they see you on the new ride). I just told them that hell had frozen over. :-)

The new stuff seems to work, although it is rather insistent that you change derailleur cables every year or two, instead of every decade or two. Other than that, it's not so bad. At least you can buy spare parts at the average bike shop.

Overall, I'm not sure that the new stuff is great, but at least I'm sure that the carbon fiber frame hasn't broken or rusted. Can't complain about that, eh?

Steve in Peoria

Steve Fuller said...

I have about 3 years running 10 speed 105 STI on my La Cruz over a few thousand miles. I'm using a DA short cage derailer in the back. The front shifter broke after about 500 miles, but it was replaced under warranty. Other than that, they've been trouble free. I agree on the downshifts. I've been running either a 46/34 or 48/34 on the front and the downshifts are loud and seem akin to just dropping the chain and praying.

I still prefer the Campy Chorus shifters I had on another bike. Trimming the front mech so it didn't rub was a lot easier, and shifting to a smaller cog was a lot quicker.