Gear: Bicycles shift into high-tech mode

The latest technology is helping ease the ride for bicyclists with such elements as electric shifting and gloves that ease touch-screen dialing.

The "retro-grouch" — that hard-core traditionalist cyclist who was riding before it was cool and grew to hate the carbon fiber frames, heart rate monitors and other technological advances that swept the bike world in the last two decades — is a dying breed. The final high-tech nail in his coffin may be the items in this column. How good is this stuff? It makes pedaling a bike so irresistibly better, easier and faster that it might make no sense to be retro — or grouchy — anymore.

Electrifying shifts

Shimano Ultegra Di2 electric shifting: A lower-cost version of Shimano's groundbreaking, 4-year-old Dura-Ace Di2 system, popular among the pros for its precise, instant gear shifts at the push of a button. Ultegra Di2 (digital integrated intelligence) will appear this year on about 25 bikes priced from $4,000 to $6,000, half that of Dura-Ace models. An Ultegra Di2 kit ($1,600) can be fitted to any bike with a 10-speed cassette. The Di2, similar in weight to a mechanical system, includes two brake-lever shifters, a front and rear derailleur, a frame-mounted rechargeable 7.4-volt lithium-ion battery rated to 100 hours per charge and waterproof electric wires.

Likes: A significant performance upgrade over mechanical shifting that works perfectly every time, greatly reducing effort and anxiety during shifting. With a light touch on the two buttons (an upshifter and a downshifter) built into the grips of each brake lever, you hear a pleasing electric hum and no chain/teeth scraping as it changes one gear at a time; a rapid series of taps moves several gears. In a hilly, 90-minute ride, I could not make it mis-shift or drop a chain. Simultaneous front and rear shifts are handled seamlessly, even under high torque. By eliminating cables and reducing chain and gear wear, Di2 also reduces maintenance, even when paired with Rotor and other non-Shimano elliptical chain rings. The add-n 20-speed Ultegra system is less than 900 grams, about on par with a mechanical system, depending on bike size. The battery has a claimed 1,000 miles per charge, a full charge takes 90 minutes and a 10-minute charge will handle a century ride. An AC wall-mount power cord is included.

Dislikes: None, although it is pricey. It probably will appear on much cheaper bikes in several years.

Price: $1,600 (does not include bike-shop installation fee). (877) 577-0600; http://www.shimano.com.

Credit: Roy M. Wallack, For the Los Angeles Times

Touch-screen gloves

Specialized Element WireTap cycling gloves: The first cycling-specific glove designed for normal operation of touch-screen devices. Silver-embedded threads sewn into the tips of the thumbs and index fingers transfer heat and provide enough of a human touch to activate the touch-screen surfaces.

Likes: No more taking your gloves off to answer your cellphone and zoom in on GPS maps — so greater convenience, safety and speed. These full-finger gloves are must-haves for cold weather riding, given the explosion of smartphones, iPhone cycling apps and new touch-screen cycling computers. I smoothly scrolled, tapped, navigated and pinch-zoomed my way through websites, phone calls and applications with only minor clunkiness. Even careful typing and swipe movements were mostly accurate. Left-handers will appreciate that WireTap threads are on both gloves. Other features include a Gore Windstopper exterior for warmth, two lumps of padding at the heel of the hand to minimize ulnar-nerve pressure and hand numbness, a water-resistant leather palm, a snug slip-on cuff and reflective piping.

Dislikes: My teenage son cried for more flexibility at the glove's finger joints to keep his index digit from tiring during text-messaging marathons.

Price: $54.99. (408) 779-6229; http://www.specialized.com.

Credit: 4iiii Innovations

Eyes on the road

4iiii Sportiiiis: A "heads-up" display system on a cyclist's or runner's sunglasses that provides heart rate and other performance data via a series of colored LEDs and audible cues. The Sportiiiis (pronounced "Sport Eyes") is a small, 1-ounce rectangle (13/4 by 5/8 by 5/16 inches) that houses a speaker, a programming/on-off button and USB port. Attached is a 3 by 3/16-inch bendable rubberized boom embedded with LEDs; you mold it into the lower right-hand corner of your glasses, where it blinks as you work out.

Likes: It works great, is fun to use and is easy to program. It's liberating to not have to look at your wristwatch or handlebars for data — and certainly safer. In fact, 4iiii President Ian Andes came up with this idea after he tripped during a run while glancing at his heart rate watch. I liked the constant reminder of how I was doing via the colored flashing lights in the corner of my eye (which you can ignore when looking straight ahead) and the electronic female voice telling me I was below, above or on target, like a tiny coach at my ear. Example: I set my target heart rate zone of 135 to 150, and the LEDs would flash orange as the voice said "below target — 133 bpm." If I sped up to a pulse of 148, the LED would flash green and I'd hear "on target — 148 bpm." Setting the desired zones, as well as light brightness, voice volume and status reminder intervals, is simple. You can get an instant verbal status report by tapping the unit on the side. My pre-production unit had only a heart rate function, but the product now for sale also includes settable ranges for pace, cadence and power. All the workout data are downloadable.

Dislikes: If you like to run or ride at night and want your data, you'll have to do it in sunglasses or with the unit attached to a visor.

Price: $200, $250 including heart rate belt. (800) 218-3095; http://www.4iiii.com.

Credit: Gyrobike

Kiddie ride

Gyrobike Gyrowheel: Special front wheel for first-time child riders with an internal, rechargeable battery-powered gyro inside; its rapid spinning enhances stability by simulating high-speed movement at a low speed. This theoretically helps the child stay upright longer and fall less, providing the confidence to ride without the dependence and stigma of training wheels.

Likes: Kids can learn to ride at an earlier age, with less trial-and-error falling. It has cool lights and sounds, and is simple to operate. To install, replace the regular wheel with the Gyrowheel and then fire up the gyro by clicking a button on the wheel — press one, two or three times for progressively enhanced levels of stability. In theory, when the child begins to wobble, the Gyrowheel helps restabilize the bike. Note: I have not personally tested this product on a child or myself, but I became convinced it would work after watching a riderless Gyrobike roll 50 feet in a straight line at low speed. Videos of young children comfortably learning how to ride with it seem genuine.

Dislikes: Expensive in comparison to standard Costco kiddie bikes.

Price: $99 (12-inch); $119 (16-inch); $179 (bike). (888) 489-9790; http://www.thegyrobike.com.

Wallack is the author of Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100 and Barefoot Running Step by Step. roywallack@aol.com

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