Article en français ici.
Cycling made simpler
In the words of JFK, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”.
As a cyclist who rides every day I couldn’t agree more. Bicycles remain for me a pleasant, sustainable, and efficient means of transportation.
As a product designer however, I can’t help but to notice that simple pleasure JFK alludes to is sometimes not that “simple”. A bike can sometimes be more a source of frustration when used improperly or when mechanical complexity stands between a rider and their bike.
For instance, incorrectly adjusted gears, derailing chains, squeaky brakes, or just simply lack of brakes are inconveniences all too frequent.
Innovation in any category should aim to enhance the user’s experience while keeping the technology as straight-forward as possible.
And bicycles are a category where there’s still a lot of innovation to be done. Specifically, innovations that benefit not just the performance-seeking elite riders, but everyday riders who prefer that simple pleasure of a ride or commuting to work.
Few affordable innovations
No innovations from bicycle and component manufacturers?
Of course there are plenty, but they are targeted mostly toward performance in the mid and high-end segments.
As a result, we see very little in the way of innovation for entry-level bikes at less than $600.
A simple comparison of entry-level bikes in 2016 with an equivalent bike from 20 years ago shows very little evolution.
A sales associate summed-it up to me recently (regarding bikes under $600):
“It’s been 30 years and I’m still selling the same bike…”
Switching gears: intuitive?
The standard bicycle gearing setup of chainrings in front and cogs in the rear is seldom intuitive to a first-time rider. Even to more experienced cyclists, the mechanics of a bicycle’s transmission can remain pretty obscure. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see cyclists riding with their chain crossed between the wrong gears, resulting in noise, chain-jamming, or derailleur damage.
It’s understandable how this combo of poor user experience and lack of understanding can lead to frustration. On top of that, a quick look through any bike manual yields very little clarity to the topic.
And on the marketing side, we continue to see false-advertising of “24 speed” bicycles, where only 13 speed are actually useful.
The 11-remaining gears correspond to redundant combinations or cross-chaining.
Simplify cycling practice
In response to these observations, Synchrobox has been designed to remove all ambiguity from gear-shifting. With Synchrobox, a rider no longer has to think about which gear to select or be bothered by what their derailleurs are doing.
This system allows riders to shift both front and rear derailleurs in a synchronized manner with a single action.
Synchrobox is designed for bikes that have 3 chainrings in front and 7, 8 or 9 speeds in the rear (the configuration of most bikes under $600).
By not having to worry about what the gears are doing, the rider is free to enjoy the simple pleasure of the ride.
With Synchrobox there is only one shifter.
By rotating the shifter, the system automatically adjusts the front and rear gears to choose the optimal combo.
By turning the command as if you would accelerate, the Synchrobox increases the gear ratio (front gears up / rear cogs down) and thus the speed (if you keep the same pedaling cadence) :
By shifting as you decelerate, Synchrobox reduces the gear ratio accordingly :
With an optimized shifting map, Synchrobox automatically selects the useful speeds among all possible combinations to offer a smooth and continuous gear ratio progression.
Magenta: chainrings (front gears)
Green: cogs (rear gears)
Grey: redundant or inappropriate gear combinations (cross-chaining)
Design emphasis was placed on reducing the number of mechanical parts in an effort to limit possible failure points and make the system as reliable as possible.
On top of that, Synchrobox is 100% mechanical, so it has no electronics and requires no batteries.
Pleasure & Safety
With an intuitive system like Synchrobox there is no need to concentrate on choosing the right gear combination, and one can instead focus on enjoying the ride.
Safety concerns are further minimized, with no more looking down at the cranks to check which gear is engaged, or trying to see why the derailleur is making noise.
Suggested retail price of a complete Synchrobox setup was approx 99€ (includes Synchrobox, shifter, and grips). For comparison, a standard non-synchronized system like Shimano Acera can cost north of 115€.
As for competition, the only other system that offers gear synchronization is the Shimano XTR Di2, with its Synchronized Shift option.It’s worth noting that in contrast to Synchrobox’s minimalist mechanical system, the XTR Di2 offers an impressive technical solution which uses electric motors in both derailleurs, a battery, and is driven by a customized embedded-electronic system. The technical complexity of Di2 comes at a price which can exceed $ 2000 depending on the retailer. Reserved for elite cyclists, and riders with cash to burn.
Whereas the synchronization problematic is the same, the 2 different approaches have led to diametrically opposed technical solutions.
I led the development and production scale-up of this product when I was working for Ixow, an equipment manufacturer dedicated to supply innovative solutions that simplify the use of bicycle.
I’m currently located in the San Francisco Bay Area where I work for Spanner Product Development.
My LinkedIn page.