I’ve heard dying described as “Slow at first, then all at once.” The Shimano Ultegra equipped aluminum road bike with rim brakes, and mechanical shifting is dead.
I’m not surprised it is dead. I watched it slowly dying. Rim brakes faded from brands’ road bike offerings, while SRAM and Shimano—the two largest suppliers of road bike groups—are obviously more dedicated to electronic shifting than to mechanical. Though high-performance aluminum frames had a brief renaissance, carbon frames continue to move downmarket (I hope less-expensive carbon frames are not due to exploitive labor).
But while I wasn’t surprised it happened, I was still shocked this week when I did a bit of online searching and discovered that, all at once, this great kind of bike was virtually erased from existence.
The Shimano Ultegra equipped aluminum road bike with rim brakes, and mechanical shifting was the perfect intersection of performance, reliability, value, and durability. Exemplified by Cannondale’s CAAD series, it was a great race bike for the privateer or student athlete. An outstanding high-performance race-style bike for riders who didn’t want to spend huge money on the latest carbon race frame, a top-of-the-line build, or the ever-changing definition of ultimate performance.
Aluminum bikes were responsive, fast, and reasonably light. You could bang them around a bit, pile them in the back of a hatchback, and road trip to crits; knowing they’d be good to go when you arrived. They were easy to service and repair, and got even better when upgraded with a nice set of carbon wheels. They wore dents and scratches proudly; evidence of challenging rides and moments of determination turned into cherished memories.
It was just a few years ago that the production high-performance aluminum frame had a bit of a renaissance. There was the Jamis Icon, Specialized Allez Sprint, Trek Emonda ALR, Giant TCR SLR, and, of course, Cannondale’s CAAD. Responsive, great riding, and reasonably priced bikes that typically offered more value and performance than a similarly priced carbon bike. But now, some of those frames are gone, most aren’t available with rim brakes anymore. Surely, it won’t be long before any mid-priced aluminum frames that still exist is equipped with electronic shifting drivetrains.
Like the murder on the Orient Express, many drove their knife into this victim’s body.
I’ve said that disc brakes are better than rim brakes and that electronic shifting is better than mechanical shifting. I’ve also praised many carbon bikes (and many carbon bikes with electronic shifting and disc brakes); some of them are the best bikes I’ve ever ridden.
Shimano and SRAM are guilty too. It’s clear they see disc brakes and electronic shifting as the path forward, and that’s where they’re throwing their development dollars. I can promise you it won’t be long before everything they offer from their mid-range and up will effectively be electronic shifting only and disc only.
Most wheel makers don’t see a future for rim brakes. Every wheel manufacturer with which I have recently spoken has said they’ve stopped development on rim brake wheels. They’ll sell their current rim-brake products if it makes sense to do so—and it may not make sense for much longer.
Then, there are the brands that make or design frames. Have you tried to find a production aluminum frame—custom builders can still make you an aluminum rim brake frame—compatible with rim brakes and mechanical shifting recently? I spent some time digging around this week, and it’s rough. The only option I found from a mainstream brand is a Trek Emonda ALR frameset. Other than that, a few boutique/small batch options currently exist—Stoemper, Vynl, Bowman, Standert, Low—though availability is limited, and I have my doubts about these frames’ futures.
Even expanding my search to include production frames made from other materials wasn’t very fruitful. The lone bright spot; I am delighted to report that Moots still makes a rim brake version of its legendary road frame. Other than that, I stumbled across the odd Motobecane, Ritchey, or closeout Masi here or there, but, again, I have my doubts about how much longer they might exist. When I tried to call in one of the few intriguing rim brake/mechanical shift frames I found for review, I was told, “[We’re] reticent to doing anything on it as the bike hasn’t been updated in years, meaning it has really dated clearance. More importantly, it will soon be replaced [by a new version with] modern clearances and updated geometry. And it will be disc only.”
I expect the same will happen to most of the remaining rim brake compatible frames still available. I am also confident it won’t be long until those frames are also provisioned only for electronic shifting. Soon, all but the lowest-end production frames will be disc brake and electronic shift compatible only. Even if a company makes a high-performance aluminum (or really any material) frame compatible with rim brakes and a mechanical-shift drivetrain, there are no longer components to hang on it; well, except Campy…for now.
Bicycle frame and parts brands make what they can sell. They develop new stuff based on where your dollars are spent. Despite many loud voices screaming that bike brands are shoving new things down our throats that cyclists don’t want or need, they see what’s selling (and not selling), and the analytics tells them what web pages you’re looking at most. My company knows, with great detail, what stories you read and what subjects towards which you gravitate , so I’m encouraged to swarm the topics you’ve shown us you like. It is almost impossible, in 2021, to claim with any authority that consumer brands are making things you don’t want or that the media is writing about things you don’t care about. There’s just too much good data—collected from your actions—guiding us. And most of the signals point bike brands and media companies to more disc brakes, more electronic shifting, and more carbon frames.
In some enthusiast car circles, there’s a joke of sorts about a “brown diesel manual station wagon.” It comes up a lot as car brands roll out their latest SUVs. The commentariat complains about how it’s another tall and awkward handling, fuel gobbling, space inefficient, boring to drive, and almost universally monochrome vehicle they don’t want. What they do want, they say, is a station wagon with a diesel engine and manual transmission in a nice practical brown color. The problem is, they only say they want it: When it comes time to buy a car, they buy something else. Or some people do buy that station wagon, but not enough to make it worth the effort to continue to produce them.
I hear a lot of riders complain about carbon frames, electronic shifting, and disc brakes. The trouble is a lot more riders buy carbon frames, disc brakes, and electronic shifting. The aluminum road bike with mechanical shifting and rim brakes might now be our brown diesel manual station wagon.
If you don’t like it, I can tell you how to solve it: buy things. If you and—this is the vital part—enough other people buy metal and not carbon, rim brakes and not disc brakes, mechanical shifting and not electronic, then their future existence may be secured.
Thank Tullio above, Campagnolo still offers four groups (Super Record, Record, Chorus, Centaur) in a mechanical shift and rim brake variant. Campagnolo also looks like it will soon be the only company offering disc brake groups with mechanical shifting—Ekar, Super Record, Record, Chorus.
Let me say this very clearly and very strongly: if you want mechanical shift and rim brake options to continue to exist, buy Campagnolo. Hell, if you want mid-to-high-end mechanical shifting to exist FULL STOP, buy Campagnolo. Anachronistic as they may be, they’re not dumb, and they can’t ignore market demands. If enough people buy a Campy Chorus rim brake/mechanical shift group, SRAM and Shimano will change course.
Buy a Vynl, Standert, or Bowman: Buy that Trek Emonda ALR rim brake frame. Your dollars will make them pay attention; your dollars will guide what products they offer in the future; your dollars might bring back Cannondale’s CAAD and the Specialized Allez Sprint for rim brakes, two great bikes that have quietly disappeared from their brands’ websites.
My hope is the aluminum road bike with rim brakes, and mechanical shifting becomes like the (mid to high end) mountain bike hardtail. That’s a once-popular bike category declared dead more times than I can count. And, while it never be dominant like it once was, hardtails—good ones—still exist, and companies still put occasional energy into refreshing and improving their options. Because riders don’t just say they want them: they buy them
My fear is that we will see the end of an entire class of road bikes: good, reliable, high-performance road bikes that are reasonably priced and easy to service. My fear is rim brakes and mechanical shifting will forever be relegated to “cheap” bikes; that aluminum goes the way of steel, becoming either a really low-end or boutique, custom frame material.
If it is the end of the aluminum bike with Ultegra mechanical shifting and rim brakes, I believe it is because it was their time. That, though I had great affection for this kind of bike, not enough other riders saw the value in it—or they saw greater value in other options—for it to continue. I hope to walk into a shop one day and see a brand-new Cannondale CAAD14 with an all-new Ultegra mechanical shifting system and rim brakes. But if that day never comes, it will be because there weren’t enough other people who wanted what I wanted. I may not like it, but I must be okay with it.
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