Sunday, May 8, 2011

Are you Ready for Hydraulic Shifting?


Do you find yourself replacing shifter cables on a regular basis due to riding in muddy conditions?  Are you tired of cable stretch?  Frayed ends?  Pinch points?  These may all be a thing of the past.  A high end German component company, Acros, has produced a small batch of hydraulic shifters - right and left shifters, front and rear derailleurs, and all the hoses filled with mineral oil.  Acros displayed their completely sealed product, the A-GE system, at the Sea Otter Classic last month and it has drawn plenty of attention.  You can find plenty of articles discussing the A-GE system on many sites such as Pinkbike, Bike Radar, Bike Mag and Bike Rumor.  I am by no means any sort of subject matter expert so I will simply give you the gist of what all these sites are reporting.

Dream the Design
This is not the first attempt at a hydraulic system and this isn't even Acros' design.  These hydraulic shifters originally appeared at Eurobike in 2006 as designed by Christophe Muthers as 5-rot.  Due to limited resources, Muthers was unable to get the idea to production on his own.  Muthers approached Acros in 2009 to complete the product where Muthers was hired on the R&D team.  With some minor redesigns, the hydraulic shifting system was reborn.

Benefits

The first benefit is in the shifting ability.  Without cables and wires, the A-GE system promises silky smooth shifting that should not change over time due to the sealed hydraulics.  But what about fade, as you experience with hydraulic brakes?  Because shifters don't face heat cycles as you would see with brakes, this shouldn't be a concern.  Actually, it is predicted that, barring a epic fail of the sealed system, these hydraulics may last indefinitely. 

Okay, improved shifting is fine, but running hydraulics must present a weight penalty?  Well, according to Acros, the A-GE system is 150g lighter than SRAM's XX and 175g lighter than Shimano's XTR.  This claim includes all shifters, derailleurs, cables and housing.  Impressive. 

Pricing

Of course, with all these added benefits over XX and XTR, there should be a hefty price tag.  You wouldn't be incorrect - it is anticipated that for a cool $2,000 USD you can have your own A-GE system.  What?  Too steep?  Ya, no doubt.  Keep in mind this is the first run and at production level of 250, the price seems to be reasonable, all things considered.  Once the A-GE system goes into large scale production, expect the price to drop.  Once there is market saturation, the price will come down even further.  Still, even after the price hits the bottom, you have to expect that these will still cost quite a bit more than XX or XTR if you are getting better shifting at a lower weight. 

What Does the Future Hold?

This is a huge step in technology.  Similar to when hydraulic brakes entered the market, expect a few other companies to jump on board and drive each other to create improvements and push the price down.  Hopefully there will be some entry to mid level offerings that are a bit more wallet friendly.  Still, it will be a few years before these become a fixture on the Alberta racing circuit, even if there is a more 'mid level' offering for those of us who have to buy our own parts.

It will be interesting to see how far behind the 'big boys' SRAM and Shimano are on this movement.  In 2006, Shimano published a patent for hydraulic shifting mechanisms.  It would have seemed like a natural fit to introduce them to the dual control levers, but since Shimano dropped their dual control line for 2011, that seems like the least likely scenario at this point.  If the user feedback from users on the A-GE system is positive, expect the race to be on for SRAM and Shimano.

This still doesn't address my concerns with rear derailleurs and the long cage that can bend or snap off with minimal impact.  Perhaps Shimano and SRAM are focusing on internal gearing such as the Alfine rear hub or the Hammershmidt crankset?  Both require further improvements but if you were running one of these component giants, where would you want to focus your R&D?  Internal gearing or hydraulic shifting?

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