Casualties in the modern-day road bike arms race?

Where is road cycling as a discipline supported by its equipment? Unfortunately, given where we are now, I am approaching 2022 worried about what the sport is turning into.


The one prevailing design fad that characterizes almost all big-name brands’ road bikes is what lengths they’ve gone to hide the cables and/or hydraulic brake hoses on them.

Sure, it’s clean and aerodynamic, but…
…Heaven help you if you wrench on your own bikes. Or if you’re a bike mechanic.
Photo credit: Deda/

This to me is one of the very last obvious “marginal gains” people are chasing – and it’s also one that’s got a very tangible sense of diminishing returns. Sure, hiding all the remaining dangly bits into handlebars and stems contributes to cockpit cleanliness and aerodynamic gains, but the implementations I’ve seen almost invariably give ease of maintenance a huge slap in the face. When the time comes to replace the headsets on these bikes, or have to adjust your position after a bike fit, you and/or your mechanic will have a pretty tough time of it, especially if the cables and/or brake hoses thread themselves through the inside of the headset bearings.

Granted, some companies are doing a better job of it, and to its credit, component manufacturer FSA has taken strides in making such integration attainable and less proprietary. For bikepackers, too, hiding cables and/or brake hoses means vastly simplified mounting of a handlebar bag – a legitimate versatility boon. Personally, as a bloke who maintains his own bikes, I don’t want it. Internal cable routing can already be quite the headache as it is.


One of the biggest stories in 2021 was Shimano introducing Dura-Ace R9200 and Ultegra R8100 simultaneously. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, the headline was both groupsets’ drastic shift to electronic shifting only, with wireless shift levers controlling a wired-up arrangement of rear derailleur, Di2 battery, and front derailleur. The two groupsets’ move to 12-speed cassettes was a comparative afterthought – that’s how big a deal this is. It’s easy to see that SRAM’s success with its wireless AXS road groupsets since 2015 has forced Shimano’s hand in this direction.

Electronic shifting only.

This is also Shimano (sneakily) cleaning out unprofitable product. For a long time, the sales of mechanical Dura-Ace have been steadily eaten away by electronic Ultegra Di2, sold for the same price. The simultaneous launch of new Dura-Ace and Ultegra also suggests that enthusiasts or even pros that may lack the funds or parts supply for going “all Dura-Ace” can simply swap in the missing parts for Ultegra ones and still have performance parity.

But doing away with mechanical Ultegra entirely? That was abrupt – more so than most expect. It means fans of shifting without batteries have third-tier 105 as the “best” cable-shifted groupset from the Osaka giant.

And I suppose that’s fair. Cycling media punters have done blind tests comparing the feel and action of mechanical Dura-Ace, Ultegra, and 105, and come across baffled with the much closer results than expected. Indeed, much of the differentiation between them simply comes down to materials and weight. That high level of mechanical refinement may also be a sign that Shimano is running out of areas for potential iterative improvement on the traditional derailleur drivetrain for road bikes.

Really not a fan of how heavily sponsored GCN is nowadays, but this was a good blind comparison test video.

While not a total paradigm shift currently, I’m not sure the migration away from shift cables is a good thing. For all of electronic shifting’s many benefits, there’s still something to be said about some aspects of our increasingly connected world having freedom from batteries.


Have you seen just how expensive road bikes have become? It’s preposterous.

Even more eyebrow-raising is how the high purchase price of a road bike these days doesn’t necessarily equate to better quality. The fracturing steerer tube on the Specialized Tarmac SL7, the fretting seatposts and failing handlebars on the third-generation Canyon Aeroad… This is downright offensive.

I’ll let more knowledgeable souls do the talking as these issues have been beaten to death in 2021.


What do I think is the panacea for this appalling state of events? Curiously, it’s gravel bikes.

A 2021 Giant Revolt Advanced Pro 1 gravel bike.
High purchase price aside, I think bikes like these are one good way to go.

There are hyper-expensive gravel bikes, sure, but there are more attainable models available too. More importantly, because bike manufacturers have to account for the rougher, tougher expected lives of these machines, they’ve exercised the kind of engineering restraint that’s summed up in the phrase “leave things well enough alone.” Gravel bikes are largely easier to maintain, offer more adjustment range of fit to their riders, and much more resistant to unproven weight-weenie innovation that could put a dent in their reliability records.

A Giant Defy Advanced 2 endurance bike from 2016.
A reminder of tamer times in the world of drop-bar bikes.

Once upon a time, endurance road bikes were all the rage. If you wanted a road bike, but didn’t have enough flexibility of spine or tolerance of nervous, darty handling, these machines were your jam – especially for long days in the saddle, where their more relaxed, docile geometry meant you could just pedal the miles away. I’d argue gravel bikes are a logical extension of their fundamental concept, while introducing even more versatility. There is naught wrong with running a gravel bike with slick road bike tires, but the added frame clearance means you can run knobbier rubber should you want or need to.

One downside to the wholesale trade of endurance road bikes for gravel bikes is that the latter may be too heavy or overbuilt for someone who just wants to ride on the road. That is fair, but it also comes at a time where riding off the asphalt and away from cars is a much more appealing proposition.

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