Automatic Shift Bikes Slow to Catch On

For those who never quite shift into a lower gear in time for steep hills or who have greased their hands too many times linking up popped chains, manufacturers are offering a system to make cycling simpler.

Here's what's required: Hop on, pedal, steer.

"[For] anyone who has complained, 'I can't even shift this thing,' this is the perfect bike," says Josh Woodbury, spokesman for Shimano, the Japan-based bicycle part company.

Three years ago Shimano began marketing what they call Digital Integrated Intelligence technology — a handlebar-mounted, computerized unit that decides when you need to shift and does it for you.

Also entering the automatic "comfort bike" market is Browning SmartShift. The Washington-based Browning family, better known as gun-makers, has developed a similar automatic shifting system with a unique gear transmission that they claim is superior to Shimano's since it can shift under a heavy load without derailing.

For the Gear-Fearful

Both are higher-tech versions of a mechanical automatic shift system that has been available in the Autobike and LandRider models since the late-1980s. Critics have said the old mechanical models gave auto shift bicycles a bad name when early versions proved unreliable. (Michael Gamstetter, editor of Bicycle Retailer News, called the early Autobike model "a piece of junk.")

But so far the computerized shifting systems have won good reviews. The systems monitor the road speed of the bike and calculate when it's time to shift to keep a rider's cadence steady. Their target customers aren't high-powered Lance Armstrong-types, but mainly casual cyclists who feel overwhelmed by manual shifts.

"More experienced cyclists want to be able to select their own gears the way someone driving a Ferrari might prefer a stick over an automatic," says Carson Stanwood, another spokesman for Shimano. "But my mother is 72 and she adores this bike."

One key dilemma, however, is price. Casual bikers — the targeted customers — are less likely to spend a lot of money on their bicycles and these systems aren't cheap, at least not yet.

Raleigh, Giant and Bianchi bicycles equipped with the 3 to 7-speed Shimano shift systems cost between $400-$600. Seven-speed cycles with the Browning system, including the Grisley Metropole, cost about $800.

Woodbury reports that the Shimano-equipped automatic bikes are selling fairly well in bicycle-oriented Europe, but sales remain sluggish in the United States.

"Frankly, it hasn't been a huge success," he says.

Marc Browning, of Browning's SmartShift, thinks it's just a matter of time.

"People aren't really aware these systems exist," Browning says. "We're just at the start."

Smart Systems

The technology behind the Shimano and Browning systems both monitor road speed, calculated from signals generated by a spoke-mounted magnet passing a sensor. The Shimano system then offers four options: manual shifting mode and automatic mode in one of three speeds, slow, normal and fast. The rider can select any level with the press of a button and battery assisted front and rear derailleurs shift accordingly.

Browning's SmartShift also lets riders select manual mode or they can adjust the automatic shift to any cadence level by pressing up or down buttons. The system's computer then remembers its rider's preferred rate and starts there the next time they get on the bicycle.

SmartShift also features a transmission system that keeps the chain on its ring at all times. Rather than derailing from the chain ring to change gears, the chain is guided to other gears by a mechanism that slides from one gear to the next even under a full pressure load.

"It's a radical departure from the derailleur," says Peter Grisley of Grisley Bicycles in Salt Lake City, Utah. "You can be pedaling up a steep hill, the bike will shift and the chain stays put."

Grisley calls his Browning-equipped bike a "perfect commuter" tool. Browning says he envisions aging baby boomers might take quickly to the automatic shift bikes since they have the financial means and will demand high comfort and ease from their bicycles as they grow older.

But Grisley, Shimano and Browning are facing a slumped bicycle market.

Selling Bikes: An Uphill Struggle

"The bicycle industry has had some rough times in the last few years," says Glen Dowell, a bicycle business researcher and assistant professor of business management at the University of Notre Dame. "Sales have declined steadily. "There's a greater variety of bicycles fighting for smaller sales."

Dowell explains the mountain bike craze boosted bike sales in the 1980s and 1990s, as did the rough riding races of the X-games in the mid-1990s. But the novelty of both have since worn off and sales have declined in the United States.

Gamstetter, editor of Bicycle Retailer News, points out, anyone trying to sell bikes to new kinds of customers in the United States, also faces a bigger issue: A lack of infrastructure.

Most U.S. roads lack safe travel lanes for cyclists and few offices provide secure places for employees to lock up their bikes or showers for employees to use once they arrive at work. Until more support systems are in place, Gamstetter says, it will be hard to entice new people to try casual cycling or pedaling to work.

"We're up against the S.U.V.," says Gamstetter. "Culturally, the bike scene in the United States has a long way to go."