In 2009, one of the most important products ever created took cycling by storm. It signaled the beginning of a new era, unlocking the door for electronic integration of frame and components, integration that raced and won on the biggest stages in the world, and under some of the biggest names in the peloton. Shimano’s Di2 launched the electronic revolution.
Except it didn’t.

Words: Ben Edwards
Images: Russ Lamoureux & Mavic

Shimano was beaten to the punch, and badly. Shimano was simply following a path blazed by another, many years ago. Launched 16 years before Di2, Mavic’s Zap was raced across Europe, from cobbled classics to Grand Tours—and had some huge success.

It was a rider nicknamed “the Professor” that secured Zap’s biggest results: Tour de France yellow jerseys after victories in the prologue in both ’94 and ’97. The rider was Chris Boardman, renowned for his analytical and scientific approach to racing and training. Today he is responsible for the technical supremacy of the British track program, as well as the man behind Boardman Bikes. This technical passion and know-how made him the perfect rider to put Zap through its paces in the pro ranks.

“The Zap system was both very crude and elegantly simple. There was a small toggle switch glued to the back of a standard break lever and a remote button that could be put either on the tops of the bars or on a pair of tri-bars for TT events.”

Boardman continues: “All elements of the system were hard-wire linked. The beauty of Zap was that electricity wasn’t used to shift the gears, the battery only had to send a signal to the rear mechanism where a solenoid engaged the jockey-wheel and the rider’s pedaling action changed the gear. This meant, unlike today’s systems, the battery only had to be tiny and could be stored in a bar end.”

And much like today’s systems it could only shift one gear up or down the rear cassette at a time—occasionally an issue for the recreational rider at a stop light.   The few times it became a concern for Chris were during considerably more critical moments.

“You couldn’t flick through several sprockets at once, however this was rarely a hindrance. This was most evident in some Belgian classics, where the peloton battered down a major road at 70kph then suddenly swung right up a steep, narrow, climb requiring the need for the big sprockets instantly whilst hardly pedaling. This was however a very specific and rare occurrence.”

Perhaps most surprising about such a revolutionary and innovative product was its reliability; remember this was still 10 years before the first iPod.

“I experienced very few failures; probably, over an eight-year period, on a par with the amount of failures a pro would expect with standard gears. But when it failed, it failed like all electronic things: completely. I’d still use it now if I had some.”

During his career, Chris had some notable incidents with the system; some comic, some stressful. During a time trial at the Dauphine his mechanic failed to screw the battery cap down securely, letting the spring loaded battery compartment launch the entire battery pack from the handle bars like a shotgun and into the street during the event. A failure prior to the ’96 Olympic games time trial was less of a laughing matter.

“A special frame had been made with all the wires running inside the frame. It worked perfectly all week in the run up to the event … and then failed one hour before the start. The mechanic somehow got back to the Olympic village, through security and back to the start area in time to cut off the old system and simply tape the replacement to the outside, with the wire now crossing open space to the break lever!”

As cool under pressure as always, Chris ran the jury-rigged Zap to a bronze medal, behind the Spanish duo of Miguel Indurain and Abraham Olano.

In 1999, Mavic revamped the system and renamed it Mektronic. Much of the operation was identical; it still only shifted the rear electronically and relied on the rider’s power to actually move the chain with electronics simply activating solenoids. The major changes consisted of an aesthetic redesign, the move to wireless derailleur control and an integrated computer that displayed the gear you were in. Mavic encrypted the radio frequencies to rule out accidental or nefarious instigation of shifts. While touted as a major step forward, the results on the road didn’t match the marketing.

“When Mavic invested hugely to develop the system into “Mektronic” it wasn’t even a giant leap sideways, it was backwards. The switch to wireless required more batteries, increased its size and complexity and also reduced its reliability.”

The promise of Zap was left unfulfilled by Mektronic. While many early adopters became instant and passionate fans, a few issues kept it from gaining the wide acceptance that would have been necessary to truly succeed. The first was a limited take up of chain slack by the rear derailleur due to the sliding post Mavic used to resist the tension created by chain torque as it initiated a shift. The narrow gear ranges most pros rode meant this was an issue they were unlikely to encounter, but the wider market certainly needed them and found a drop off in performance.

Another Mektronic issue directly related to the move to wireless was the timing of shifts. They could take anywhere from .5 to 2 seconds. There was no way for the rider to control this, and Mavic had no fix. But perhaps the most interesting and slightly surreal issue was the interference riders experienced from radar guns. If your ride happened to take you by a highway patrol speed trap you could expect your Mektronic to stop functioning completely. Only once you had passed the radar gun and reset the system could you expect it to begin working again.

Shimano Di2, and presumably the new Campagnolo electronic, learned an enormous amount from the initial work Mavic did. The performance of Di2 is absolutely superlative, and while it may have a few idiosyncrasies, a compelling argument can be made that it is the pinnacle of shifting systems. It would not be without the trailblazing work of Mavic.

Again, it is Zap’s premiere rider, Chris Boardman, that offers the best perspective:
“I used the system for the entire eight years of my pro career and was happy to do so. It’s worth noting though that no electronic system today passes the performance test. Does this piece of equipment actually make me any faster? Having said that, it wasn’t a hindrance, so I was happy to use it.”

Mavic has never been a company to shy away from a new idea. Whether pioneering the aero bicycle wheel in 1973, developing the clincher rim, or creating electronic shifting, Mavic has continually pushed forward. This means they occasionally end up answering the question no one asked. Some of the resulting products work and enter the cycling mainstream and some are lost to history, but all of them help to move our sport forward.

From Issue 05.