Electronic Devices Introduce New Headaches To Cycling
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Electronic Devices Introduce New Headaches To Cycling

Jun 03, 2023

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I bricked a brand new $5,500 e-bike before I rode it a single inch

Even after nearly three decades at this job, new bike day is still as exciting for me as it was when I got my first new bike as a kid. What changed, however, is the proliferation of electronic parts and devices that are now part of the everyday ride experience. And as I was reminded, those electronics introduce new and confounding issues that can stymie your ride.

Recently, the FedEx driver dropped off a brand new e-mountain bike at my house for review. After building the bike and finishing the suspension setup and cockpit adjustments, I embarked on the process—which I undertake with all relevant test bikes, devices, and parts—of checking to be sure all electronics components are up to date with the latest firmware.

If you’re riding with electronic devices, you cannot avoid bugs. But you can limit bugs’ ability to ruin your rides with a few simple steps.>> Never let a battery sit in a completely discharged state for any length of time.>> Only apply updates in a controlled environment, such as your home.>> Only update when there are no pressing time constraints.>> Wait a couple of weeks before applying non-critical firmware updates.

The Canyon Torque:ON CF 8 I received has a Shimano EP8 motor, so I fired up Shimano's eTube app on my iPhone to check for updates. As soon as I paired the app with the bike, the app flagged a firmware update for the motor. Before starting the update process, I ensured the bike's battery had a decent charge, and that my iPhone battery was charged as well (and I plugged my iPhone into a wall charger just to be safe).

With those things addressed, I started the update and the app dutifully reminded me not to interrupt the update procedure. Seeing that the update would take a while, I left my phone near the Canyon and moved to other projects in my garage.

After about 10 minutes or so, I checked in on the update and saw that the Canyon's display was off, and my iPhone screen was dark. I woke the iPhone and was immediately greeted by a pop-up in the Shimano app stating that the update process was interrupted.

Uh oh.

I powered on the Canyon, but it would only get as far as lighting up the drive system's display with the Shimano logo before shutting down.

Uh oh, again.

For the next 10 minutes, I tried restarting the app and the bike, disconnecting the e-bike battery, and anything else I could think of to get the bike to power up or the app to connect to the bike. No dice: The brand-new $5,500 Canyon was bricked before I even installed my pedals.

Today, our drivetrains, our bikes, and our cycling computers can be rendered inoperable by a wonky update or buggy firmware. That is not something that can happen to a bicycle with downtube shifters and friction shifting.

While it is a more common occurrence today due to the sheer number of electronic devices incorporated into bicycles, riders schooled in cycling tech history know that bugs accompany almost every electronic advancement that comes to bicycles.

Mavic's Zap (1992, wired electronic rear shifting) and Mektronic (1999, wireless electronic rear shifting) predated Shimano's first-generation wired Di2 (2009) and SRAM's wireless eTap (2016) by a decade and a half.

Today we recognize both systems as forward-looking, but bugs were the ultimate demise of both. While Zap was less buggy than Mektronic (electronic interference could cause Mektronic system to shift on its own), it still suffered from short battery life, and it had a reputation for being as reliable as the Lucas electronics in a 1970s British automobile.

The most recent iterations of Shimano's Di2, SRAM's AXS, and Campagnolo's electronic shifting systems are devoid of the kind of giant bugs that made riding with Zap and Mektronic a roll of the dice. "Will it shift when I want? Will it shift when I don't want?" Anything was possible.

But while modern electronic shifting systems are far superior to Mavic's, they still have bugs. The proof lies in firmware release notes: Here are SRAM's AXS firmware release notes and here are Shimano's.

Yet while electronics usher a new age of bugs, mechanical components are not free of bugs, even if not typically referred to as such. SRAM's first generation Red (2007) front derailleur had a too-flexible cage that hindered shifting and Shimano's Dura-Ace 7900 (1998)—the first with shifter housing that ran under the bar tape—had shifting issues caused by housing friction. And Campagnolo (oh, Campy) has given us mechanical systems with intransigent gremlins that could seemingly only be cured with ritual sacrifice.

My experience with the Canyon Torque:ON was far from the only recent electronic system failure to hit Bicycling's staff.

In the case of the Canyon, I needed to take the bike to a shop that had Shimano's eTube professional software—which only runs on Windows computers—and Shimano's SM-PCE02 PC Linkage Device. After physically connecting to the bike with the linkage device, I was able to overwrite the motor's firmware—a process that took about 10 minutes. Once done, the Canyon was ready to ride.

Senior photographer Trevor Raab shared a story similar to my experience with the Canyon. His issue occurred when he attempted to use the Shimano eTube app to wirelessly update his 12-speed Shimano Ultegra Di2 drivetrain's firmware. "The rear derailleur updated fine then it just stopped halfway through the front derailleur update," he explained. "Then it kept giving me a pop-up about recovering firmware on the unit and failing."

Ultimately, Trevor recovered the update by connecting his drivetrain to Shimano's eTube app running on an iPad. "It is all good," he said, "For now."

In another case, a firmware update caused a ripple effect on other features of an e-bike. Since the Fuel EXe's TQ motor system does not allow the user to install over-the-air updates, our test bike required a firmware update by a Trek dealer to enable compatibility with the bike's range extender battery pack.

Soon after, when a colleague attempted to take the bike for a ride, we discovered a problem with the Fuel EXe's drivetrain. Though the e-bike drive system worked, the rear derailleur (which previously worked fine) no longer shifted when connected to the bike's main battery via Trek's proprietary extension cord. Yet, the derailleur functioned as expected with a standard AXS battery installed.

Thinking a loose connection was the culprit, I took apart the EXe and inspected the extension cord's wiring. I reached out to Trek for troubleshooting help after seeing no obvious issue. My Trek contact suggested a potential reason for the failure.

"There was an issue at one point, maybe it has returned, within the TQ firmware update where the [virtual] switch to turn on/off the power to the auxiliary box was flipped automatically off after a firmware update," my Trek contact explained. They added, "Once you completed the update you had to make sure to turn the switch back on so the extension cord would work. This is something that can only be done with the TQ dealer software, unfortunately."

We haven't had an opportunity to bring the EXe back to the dealer to plug into the TQ software and resolve the issue. If we really wanted to ride the EXe, we could remove the extension cord—though only after tearing apart the bike somewhat—and run the SRAM AXS rear derailleur off a battery pack. But that doesn't solve the problem of the bike not functioning as it should nor of the issue of a firmware update breaking one of a $14,000 bike's features.

Electronics drivetrains are here to stay. Especially at the high end, and increasingly the mid-range and lower, bikes have electronic shifting. And the major drivetrain brands intimate that electronic is the path for the foreseeable future.

Tara Seplavy, our deputy editor, bricked her SRAM Force AXS shifter when the shifter's battery died during a firmware update. Her saga starts with a crash during a course pre-ride while riding a bike equipped with SRAM AXS components. "At Charm City CX, I crashed in course recon," she said. Needing to adjust her rear derailleur pre-race, Tara pulled up the AXS app (to micro-adjust the derailleur trim) and connected the drivetrain. "The app said I had a shifter update," she explained. "I mindlessly hit ‘accept’, but my shifter battery was very low, and the battery died mid-update."

Tara ended up swapping in the coin battery from her bike's power meter so the shifter had enough juice. But the shifter still needed to update since it already started the process. "I made it to the line with moments to spare," she added.

Electronic and connected devices aren't only in our e-bike motors and drivetrains. Many riders use electronic devices to track their rides, heart rate, power, and more. We ride with radar systems to alert us to cars approaching from behind and cameras to capture our best moments on the trails (or drivers misbehaving). Crash sensors can call for help if we’re incapacitated, while live tracking features let others know where we are. There are electronically controlled suspension and dropper posts. Some e-bikes even have electronically controlled ABS braking systems. And it's rare to see a rider without a smartphone in their pocket.

These devices are, for many riders, now a normal part of the ride experience. I rarely ride a drop bar bike without a GPS cycling computer, heart rate monitor, power meter, and a smartphone. It's so ingrained in my usual ride experience that I feel at sea if I’m riding without one of those gizmos.

Like many riders, I use these devices because they enhance the experience and provide helpful service or information. But they can also have bugs or other issues that render them, and perhaps a bicycle, non- or only partially functional, which is frustrating at best and life-threatening at worst.

On a recent ride, Tara also locked up her Hammerhead Karoo 2 cycling computer when trying to apply a firmware update during a mid-ride break. This bricking moment was less pressure-packed but still annoying.

"I was at a coffee stop on a ride. My computer shut off while I was waiting for food," she explained. "When I restarted the device, a pop-up said I had an update. So, I clicked ‘ok’ since I was eating and had time to kill. And then it bricked and wouldn't restart."

Luckily for Tara, after she plugged her Karoo 2 into the USB-C charger, the device restarted and finished the download.

A more worrying situation arose for me recently after plugging in my Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt (V2). While I've used this same device for many months (and plugged it into the same charger almost every time) before a recent ride I noticed that the charging cable wouldn't disconnect easily. Once I got the cable-free, I inspected the charging port and it was deformed from partially melted plastic. The unit functions and charges as normal, so I'm a bit bewildered. And so is Wahoo who requested the unit back for inspection.

I don't have any magical solutions or ways to prevent borked updates or bugs from bricking your drivetrain or e-bike. So long as there are electronics, there will be bugs. Updating firmware can cause problems and introduce new bugs, but also add important new features and fix bugs. We know it is tempting to avoid updating parts that seem to be working fine, but that can also lead to unfortunate surprises at inopportune moments.

My best advice is to only do updates in a controlled environment, such as your home, and when there are no pressing time constraints such as a looming race start. You can also wait a couple of weeks before applying non-critical firmware updates and let those who like to live on the bleeding edge find bugs before they ruin your ride.

You can also, while it is still possible, opt for a mechanical-shift drivetrain. Campagnolo still makes several mechanical-shifting groups (and even rim brake options). Or you can ride without any electronic devices. You’ll lose what they bring to the experience and the features and services they offer, but you’ll never need to worry about a firmware bug ruining your ride again.

A gear editor for his entire career, Matt's journey to becoming a leading cycling tech journalist started in 1995, and he's been at it ever since; likely riding more cycling equipment than anyone on the planet along the way. Previous to his time with Bicycling, Matt worked in bike shops as a service manager, mechanic, and sales person. Based in Durango, Colorado, he enjoys riding and testing any and all kinds of bikes, so you’re just as likely to see him on a road bike dressed in Lycra at a Tuesday night worlds ride as you are to find him dressed in a full face helmet and pads riding a bike park on an enduro bike. He doesn't race often, but he's game for anything; having entered road races, criteriums, trials competitions, dual slalom, downhill races, enduros, stage races, short track, time trials, and gran fondos. Next up on his to-do list: a multi day bikepacking trip, and an e-bike race.

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