There's not much to do in East Porirua at 10am on a Monday. The choices are: go the the RSA and drink, or go to the RSA and sit in on a Shimano Workshop Update course. Not ones to drink before at least 11, we checked out what the Shimano guys had in store for a bunch of Wellington region bike shop mechanics on this fine sunny morning, while the Diggers enjoyed a cleansing ale or two before lunch.
Under the watchful eye of a kind of creepy mannequin dressed in Army jacket (but strangely, no shirt, socks or shoes) the assembled throng got a thorough refresher course on how to deal with mechanical problems, customer service and the best ways to deal with them, all the while thinking "when do we get to play with the Di2?"
It must have been around 2001 when I first attended one of these courses in Sydney, and the man at the helm then and still today, Shimano Product Manager René van Rijn, has been running them from 1997. So as you'd expect, he knows his stuff. I thought I knew how to adjust derailleurs back then, but the method René showed us that day has stuck with me ever since. He's still teaching old dogs new tricks, and with the advancements in componentry and technology in all the years he's been imparting his knowledge, he's had to learn a few along the way too. His expertise with all things Shimano (and a lot not) is without peer, and the course is designed to keep even the best wrenches up to date and on top of their game.
Like how to deal with modifications to a drivetrain that's been designed to work as a unit. Here, René manages to not badmouth an aftermarket range-expander cog while meticulously explaining how to actually make it work. Mechanics can bring in their own bikes or particularly troublesome machines from the workshop and get them diagnosed step by step with René's input. It's a long-time method of the workshops and is a proven successful formula. I was even re-acquainted with a busted Zee derailleur I'd sent back to him, now in use as an example of how muppets break things.
This man is Shimano in New Zealand. Buying, selling, servicing, warranty—chances are if there's something Shimano on your bike, René had something to do with it being there. René has trained over 900 new mechanics in the training courses since 1997, about 60 new ones a year as well as 100 or more updating their credentials. The Wellington stop was the fifth of a seven-city tour.
The thing that we in particular wanted to see was the new XTR in the flesh, and especially the electronic Di2 group. There's still not much of this stuff getting around, so the shop guys got a welcome heads-up on the new parts and a crash course in electronics.
What have roadies ever done for us? Well, they've spent years being guinea pigs for electronic shifting, and now that it's reached the dirt we can be thankful for their efforts as this stuff is going to change the way we ride, yet again. Yeah, we've heard it/said it before, but just as we never thought rear suspension would catch on, the early naysayers will once again be proven wrong when this technology trickles down to lower price points.
This is what a modern mechanic's spares box might soon look like. Despite appearances, the Di2 system is pretty straightforward to set up and operate, even for someone who struggles to send a text on a smartphone.
Senior tutor Darrell Koenig shows me the Di2 program that lets attending mechanics set up a shifting system, diagnose and customise different configurations for the front/rear shifting. If I could explain it better I would, but needless to say it's a brilliant hands-on way to get up to speed with the new tech (and a lot of fun to play around with!) Darrell has been doing this nearly as long as René and attended one of his first courses in '98. Experience counts, and these guys have got it in spades.
The E-Tube Project system runs the setup and diagnostics of the Di2 gearing. You can set up a single shifter to run both front and rear derailleurs and program when the front shifts in relation to the rear, among other cool things. Electronic suspension components can also be run through here.
The 'trickle-down effect' is on its way for Di2, and Darrell predicts that electronic shifting at lower price points will be made available to the public in the next few years. And like disc brakes or dropper posts, he predicts that it will be a must-have and once you've tried it you'll never go back.
The attending mechanics got to set up some shifting setting configurations and play with system functions on the laptops, but we had to resist the lure of an afternoon of beers and electronics (they don't mix) and get back to the office. The Shimano courses are still an important and beneficial concept for new and experienced mechanics, and if your LBS has a certified Shimano wrench in residence you're in good hands. Every time I've been to one I've learned something new (even if I was a mere observer on this occasion). And you get cake. We'll be back.