While I hate reading platitudes in bike equipment reviews like, “This is a game changer” or “best (insert whatever here) ever”, this best describes how I feel about the Shimano Ultegra DI2 electronic shifting. Like most people who first heard about using batteries to run bicycle drivetrains, especially mountain bikers, I was incredulous about the benefits versus the detriments of such a system. In a traditional sense, one of the many beautiful aspects of cycling is that it is free from technological constraints, yet ironically, we yearn year to year for the newest innovations from the industry so we can ride lighter, faster and more efficient bikes. Bikes basically have looked the same for a hundred years, yet it is packed full of modern engineering and manufacturing, so when the idea of electronic drivetrains came to light, the misoneists went on a hysterical rant whilst fondling their Garmin and updating their Strava.
After having many discussions with fellow cyclists about the positives and negatives of the DI2 system, I decided that the best way to settle the dispute was for me to actually buy a bike with such a system and test it out in a single sample size experiment. While I was eager to try out the new DI2 XTR system for mountain bikes, it was unavailable at the time. But, when the opportunity for me to obtain a cyclocross bike with Ultegra DI2, hydraulic disc brakes and carbon frame and fork came up from Opus, I immediately took it. To be honest, I have been eyeing this bike all summer as I was impressed that such a well built bike was a stock option considering that Devinci and Rocky Mountain seemed to be going with a conservative build within their cross lineup.
Out of the box, the Opus Stelle 1.0 had the looks that immediately made people look for adjectives which would describe an ugly baby: Unique, interesting or whatever. Well, whatever the looks or lack there of, I was more excited about the battery, modules and robotic noises of the electronic system. All you have to do to get the system working is to plug it in just like any other computerized toy in the house via its USB connector that plugs into the module placed underneath the stem. That’s it. I started to push the buttons and the derailleurs simply started to move. I didn’t have to connect it to the computer and program it like The Matrix, although with the Shimano software, which I have not bothered to download, you can adjust all the settings your heart desires. I find that I’d rather live in ignorance and just enjoy the simple pleasures of button shifting.
The buttons corresponded exactly like the mechanical system where the right shifter controls the rear derailleur and the left controls the front, so the system was very intuitive from the start if you are familiar with the mechanical system (You can totally change the button functions if you want to, but I don’t know why) Once riding, the system was essentially fluid and precise, just like advertised. A click of whatever button you press, the system just moves the chain to where it’s supposed to go, and I know it sounds obvious, but there has been many times where I tried to shift and it didn’t do what it was suppose to do. The brilliance is in the front shifting, the bane of my existence. I hated its poor reliability and performance. I can’t tell you how many times I looked down in vain as the front derailleur refused to move that chain up or down on the desired ring. With one easy push of a button, the front derailleur moved that chain up or down with stoic authority. I would guess that the DI2 shifting will add to our need for immediate gratification, but I will not feel guilty about enjoying the expedience of bicycle shifting.
After racing half the ABA cyclocross season so far, I think I put the system through a solid enough testing session. The results have been a resounding positive experience with no dropped chains, missed shifts or even delayed shifts. I had to only charge my battery once during the 6 weeks of riding, and that includes commuting, training and racing. I haven’t found any negatives in having an electronic system so far, and I’m sure something will come up as nothing is infallible, but even so, the positives will far exceed the negatives. Bring on the wireless electronic systems and the brain chips.