My High Tech Road Bike: The 2021 Edition

Let’s face it. 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year. And 2021 isn’t exactly going any better. One thing that has kept me sane during all of this was riding my bike. Now most of this has been done indoors as per this article that I wrote. But I also went outdoors a few times last year when I felt comfortable doing so. In the hopes of a better 2021 in terms of riding my bike, I decided to make significant upgrades to my 2017 Giant Propel which has had a couple of upgrades since I bought it which now firmly puts the bike into the high tech realm. Let’s start with a look at the bike:

The bike doesn’t exactly look any different. But there are significant differences. I upgraded to a Shimano Ulterga 8050 Di2 drivetrain. These components are not only newer than the ones that came with the bike, but they utilize Shimano’s Di2 technology which in true Shimano tradition, is technology direct from the pro cyclists that use their components in races like the Tour De France. You can find out more about that here. But here’s the Readers Digest version of what Di2 is.

Traditional bike transmissions use braided metal cables to shift gears. The problem with using braided metal cables is that they stretch over time. That means that a bike starts out shifting gears perfectly. But over time that shifting starts to become less precise. What that means is that if you’re in the heat of a race, you may mis-shift at that crucial moment. And you have to make sure that you replace the cables every year or so. Perhaps even more frequently if you ride a lot if you want top shelf shifting. Now to be fair, lots of bikes every year get sold with cable based shifting systems. And they work fine for lots of people as it’s an affordable system that as long as you maintain it, you’re fine. But in the age of races like the Tour De France which covers thousands of miles being won by as little as a 8 second margin, that’s not good enough for pro cyclists who want every advantage that they can get. Thus pros started to demand consistent reliable shifting from component companies like Shimano.

Enter Di2.

Di2 stands for “Digital Integrated Intelligence” which Shimano’s version of electronic shifting. DI2 gives you instant, accurate, lighting-fast shifts the first and every time at the push of a button. This is true even in the most extreme conditions. For example, you can change gear even under heavy load while climbing or accelerating in the final sprint for the finish line. Neither of those are things that you absolutely cannot do with cable based shifting. Di2 started to appear on race bikes in 2009 via Shimano’s top end Dura Ace groupset (and then brought to Shimano’s Ulterga groupset two years later) and was quickly adopted by pro teams that use components by Shimano. I make the distinction of “that use components by Shimano” because Shimano only sponsors three or four teams at the top level of the sport. The rest who use their components have to pay for them. Albeit at a discount. Nevertheless, the introduction of Di2 forced other component companies to come out with their own electronic shifting systems or be left behind. Though it looks like Shimano might have won that war as 13 of the 19 teams at the top level of the sport use Shimano components. Read into that what you will. These days, you can’t find a race bike at top level races without electronic shifting. But performance like this doesn’t come cheap. A system like this adds as much as $1000 to $2000 to the cost of a new bike. And if you want to retrofit a bike with this tech like I did, it will likely cost you something north of $2000 plus labor.

Let’s look at the components in play with Di2:

This is the Shimano Ulterga 8050 rear derailleur. It looks like a normal derailleur. But the cable that is connected to the derailleur is carrying power and instructions to allow it to shift gears. At the back of the derailleur you can also see a highly precise motor that does the shifting.

This is the Shimano Ulterga 8050 front derailleur. At the top of the derailleur is a motor that a shifts the front gears. If you are wondering where the cable is that powers this derailleur, it’s hidden from view.

This is the wireless module that transmits over Bluetooth and a fitness hardware wireless standard called ANT+. This allows me to not only connect to things like my Garmin Edge 830 cyclocomputer for it to tell me things like what gear I am in, or to give me alerts about the health of the Di2 System via ANT+, but I can use my iPhone along with an app called ETube Project to connect to the system via Bluetooth, do maintenance, and upgrade the firmware of the computers that drive the system. Now you’ll note that I said “computers” when I talked about updating the firmware. That’s because every component is a computer system on its own that work collectively to give you the best riding experience possible.

Here’s a look a the ETube Project screen on my iPhone:

This app which is available for iOS and Android gives complete control over the system. If doing things wirelessly bothers you, the charging cable that comes with the system can also be connected via USB to a PC (Macs need not apply as there is no Mac version) to do the same thing.

This is the junction box that allows you to charge the system, connect it to a PC, and put the system into a mode where you can connect to it via ETube Project wirelessly. It also allows you to change type of gear shifting that the system will do on the fly:

  • Manual mode – Indicated by solid red/green leds. This is traditional, full-manual shifting.
  • Shift mode 1 (S1) – Indicated by both red and green leds flashing twice. The default S1 mode is semi-synchro which automatically shift the rear derailleur when you shift the front derailleur.
  • Shift mode 2 (S2) – Red and green leds flash three times. By default this is full-synchro and this automatically shifts the front derailleur as you shift the rear derailleur.

You can also customize the shifting using the ETube Project software even further. Right now, I have set up as Shift Mode 1 as that’s what works with me. In my case, I have it set up to compensate by 2 gears when I shift the front derailleur. But I may experiment with Shift Mode 2 at some point. The one thing that I will note is that it is far easier to tweak the system via the ETube app than it is via the button on the junction box.

You can also do the following with the button on the junction box:

  • Press-and-hold the button for 0.5 seconds to enter Bluetooth LE connection mode
  • Press-and-hold the button for 2 seconds or more to enter adjustment mode
  • Press-and-hold the button for 5 seconds or more to trigger rear derailleur crash protection reset. Crash protection disables the motor for the rear derailleur in the event of a crash to protect the rear derailleur.

You can also check the battery status:

  • Green for two seconds: 100% battery
  • Blinking green five times: 75% – 50% battery
  • Red for two seconds: 50% – 25% battery
  • Blinking red five times: 25% – 0% charge left

When the charge does get very low, your front derailleur will stop shifting first, leaving you with the rear derailleur only to get you home. Thus you won’t be left totally in the lurch by a low battery. The flip side of that is that a charge can last 2500-3000km, depending on how often you shift and how you shift. So it is entirely possible that you will only need to charge the battery a coupe of times a year.

The shift and brake levers are different from cable based systems. In cable based systems, the entire brake lever moves in two sections. Here the entire brake lever is static. There’s two switches on the bottom half of the brake lever that have different tactile feels so you can tell them apart. At the top of the brake lever, there’s a hidden button that allows you custom program it to do functions like act as an extra shift button, or control other devices like a Garmin cyclocomputer. In my case, I’ve done the latter. What you don’t see in any of these pictures is the battery which is in the seat post, and all the wiring that connects everything together which runs through the frame.

Setting up a system like this isn’t exactly a trivial task. Especially if it’s a retrofit as was the case with me as you have to remove components and string the cabling together and put the new parts on. It took the guys at Chain Reaction Bicycles a day an a half to wire this all up and get it working. Kudos to them for getting this done far quicker than I expected. If you want to see how it’s done, check out this video of the race bike belonging to cycling star Mikel Landa being built. Now while I do admit that this is a bike being built from scratch, you will see all the wiring go into the bike and you will also get video of the system being programmed via the ETube app.

So, what do I think of this setup? Well, I haven’t had a chance to road test this due to the crappy weather in Toronto and our latest lockdown. But I did test it in a couple of races on Zwift this weekend. The best way I can describe the shifting performance is that it’s like driving a car with a dual clutch transmission. Shifts are lightning fast and incredibly smooth. Far smoother and faster than any cable based shifting system that I have used. And the syncho-shifting functionality is really useful as it helps me to keep my pedaling RPMs up when shifting to a significantly lower or significantly higher gear. So far I am very pleased with this setup.

If the world stops ending this summer, this upgrade will be something that will significantly increase my riding pleasure as I basically have a brand new race bike. I am happy that I did this upgrade and I look forward to riding my bike a lot this summer outdoors. If I can.

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