By Ian Austen

New York Times News Service

ORDINO, Andorra — The introduction of electronics into the human-powered sport of cycling has been both embraced and targeted for extinction by the sport’s establishment.

Cycling’s current leading villains are hidden buttons on bikes equipped with wireless connections to operate tiny electric motors hidden in cranks and wheels. Both the French government and the International Cycling Union are making a significant show of force against what has come to be known as electronic doping.

No one in the sport, however, has any complaints about the electronic devices that now track the riders during the Tour de France, generate vast amounts of data on their performances and, for the first time this year, provide live television images from their bikes.

SRAM, a Chicago-based bicycle parts maker, has added another one to the mix this year. Shimano, the bike industry giant from Japan, and Campagnolo, the venerable Italian company, have both long offered cyclists electronic gear-shifting systems. But SRAM’s new offering, Red eTap, effectively turns bikes into tiny networks that allow shifting that is both wireless and electronic.

Getting there proved more complex than the company expected — it was a process of more than five years.

Now the company has to convince cyclists that having something like a miniature Wi-Fi network on their bikes to change gears is a useful innovation.

Scott McLaughlin, SRAM’s drivetrain director, acknowledged that he was not all that keen about any kind of electronic shifting when the company first turned its mind to it.

“I’ve been bike racing for 30 years, and when we started talking about this project, I wasn’t the least bit interested or excited about the product,” he said. “But I’ve become a believer and hope never to ride a mechanical bike again.”

As is the case in the general marketplace, Shimano’s products dominate the Tour de France. Of the 22 teams at the race, 17 shift their gears with its Dura Ace derailleurs. Only two teams, AG2R from France and Katusha from Russia, use Red eTap.

After years of sponsorship, Shimano’s first Tour de France victory did not come until 1999. (Although, like all of Lance Armstrong’s wins, it has since been erased from the official records.)

The company introduced a series of innovations. First it moved shifting from tiny levers on the bike frame to spring-loaded devices inside the break levers, allowing riders to change gears and keep their hands on the handlebars. Then, in 2009, it brought out the first commercially successful electronic shifting system, Dura Ace Di2.

As a latecomer to electronics, SRAM needed something to distinguish itself. One obvious weakness with both Shimano’s and Campagnolo’s systems was the wires connecting the shift levers, the derailleurs and a battery. They must be threaded through tiny internal channels on carbon fiber frames. For bike manufacturers, the often tricky process increased assembly times and, thus, cost.

But using wireless for shifting has a dark past. In 1999, Mavic, a prominent France-based wheel-maker, introduced a wireless, electronic gear-changing system known as Mektronic. It was widely seen as a spectacular technology and marketing failure.

Despite wireless advances since then, SRAM quickly discovered that off-the-shelf wireless systems were not up to the job. With Bluetooth, for example, there was too great a time lag. Other systems strained batteries.

As a result, SRAM was left to come up with a wireless system of its own.

“It was a big, big job, and it took a while,” said Ron Ritzler, another drivetrain executive at the company.

While SRAM’s engineers worked on that and other puzzles, like cutting power use to improve battery life and waterproofing, designers at the company reconsidered how shifting might work once freed from physical connections.

Brian Jordan, the company’s advanced development manager, said that led them to meet with a company that designs cockpits for fighter jets.

On a bike used in road stages at the Tour de France, both the Shimano and Campagnolo systems mimic their mechanical counterparts. The left lever shifts the derailleur at the crank, and the right lever shifts the rear derailleur across the 11 sprockets on the hub. Both levers are split in two to control each of the directions the chain can be shifted.

SRAM’s novelty was to make the right-hand lever shift the rear derailleur only to bigger sprockets — giving riders an easier-to-pedal gear. Most of the time, the left lever also works on the rear derailleur, handling shifts to smaller sprockets and thus making for a more difficult-to-pedal gear ratio. The front derailleur shifts by moving both levers simultaneously.

“We’re asking the riders to manage two shifters instead of four,” said Brad Menna, SRAM’s manager for road bike products.

In a sense, that is a return to the old days of two small levers mounted on the frame. But in the conservative world of road cycling, breaking the left-right divide for controlling the two derailleurs verges on heresy.

Given that one of the cardinal rules in professional cycling is to not speak ill of a sponsor’s products, getting a candid assessment of eTap from riders and mechanics at the Tour de France is impossible. But reviews in the cycling press have generally been positive.

The derailleurs, shifters, their batteries and other accessories currently sell for about $1,600 to $1,700 in the United States, well beyond the reach of even many hard-core cyclists. But like Shimano, SRAM is likely to introduce less expensive, slightly heavier versions over time.

Calvin Jones, the director of education at Park Tool in St. Paul, Minnesota, the world’s leading maker of bicycle tools, said SRAM’s system would save bike manufacturers time and provide even larger gains for independent shops.

But he lamented that like all developments in shifting, it is another step in dumbing down the process.

“When you look at Shimano’s history in shifting, they’re always trying to take shifting away from the customer,” he said. “It was once a skill you had to learn. With electronic, if you push that button or I push that button, it’s always the same.”

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