2011 Tech review pt 1: The year electronic shifting really arrived

Shimano and Campag launched new technology – it's a taste of the future

by Mat Brett   December 29, 2011  

Ultegra Di2 test ride transmission in action.jpg

2011 was the year that electronic shifting proved it was here to stay. Probably. Previously, we had just Shimano’s Dura-Ace Di2, highly visible in the pro peloton but without much of a presence in the wider marketplace (and older readers might remember Mavic’s long gone Zap/Mektronic efforts). But back in June Shimano revealed that they would be reinventing Di2 in a considerably cheaper Ultegra format and late in the year Campagnolo showed the world their two new EPS systems.

Ultegra Di2 is just arriving in the shops now and it has created tons of interest largely because it’s just about affordable to a lot of people. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not cheap but as an example, Canyon’s Ultimate AL 9.0 Di2 LTD comes as a complete bike with Ultegra electronic shifting for £1,939. If you’d told us a year ago that you’d be able to get a Di2-equipped bike for under two grand, we’d have smiled sympathetically and offered you a stiff drink.

That’s an extreme example. Most Ultegra Di2 bikes are £3,000-and-something but you get the idea… the electronic technology has started to trickle down. Although it’s still confined to the upper tiers, we definitely get the feeling that it’s no longer a curiosity but a permanent addition to the cycling world.

Talk of trickle down technology is only partly true, actually, because Shimano largely reinvented Di2 for the Ultegra format. Although it looks pretty similar to the Dura-Ace version, it’s very different and the two systems aren’t compatible – you can’t use Ultegra shifters with Dura-Ace mechs.

What they do share is an ease of shifting. You just touch the upshift or downshift button rather than swing it. Okay, shifting is hardly the most difficult action in the world to begin with, but with Di2 it’s just that little bit easier. You get instant, faultless shifts every time.

Another benefit is the auto-trim on the front mech. In other words, when you shift across the cassette, the front mech adjusts itself automatically to avoid any chain rub. Again, that’s not the biggest advantage in the world but… incremental gains and all that.

If you’re worried about running out of juice halfway through a hilly ride and being stuck in a big gear – which is what seems to concern everyone – don’t be. You only have to recharge the battery about once every 1,000 miles. Surely anyone can manage that. And the battery is good for up to 500 recharges… so 500,000 miles! Your knees are going to wear out before the battery.

Italy’s Campagnolo have jumped on the electronic shifting train too, shocking us by revealing not one but two electronic groupsets: Super Record EPS and Record EPS. Controversial. We weren’t expecting that.

Spain’s Team Movistar have been using Campagnolo’s electronic shifting in the pro peloton all year so we already knew that it was going to work, but what we didn’t know is just how well. So Dave and I headed out to Campag’s Vicenza HQ in November to try their system out and absolutely loved it.

The shift buttons are really easy to push whether you’re resting your hands on the drops or the hoods; we found them easier to operate than Campag’s mechanical shifters. Another big benefit is that it’s super-easy to perform multiple shifts across the cassette with EPS. Rather than tapping the button several times as you do with Shimano, you just press and hold. We never put the stopwatch on it but Campag reckon it takes 1.5secs to move across the entire cassette.

EPS has a similar auto-trim feature to Di2. Once set up correctly, the front mech will move automatically when you shift across the cassette to avoid chain rub.

Best of all, the quality of the shifts is spot on every time. When shifting from the small chainring to the large chainring, for example, the system overshifts very slightly to move the chain up and then backs off to the correct position. It also varies the force of the shift according to the sprocket you’re in. It’s very clever stuff.

Just to allay your fears, Campag say this system works 1m underwater which means it should cope just fine even with the amount of rain we get in the UK. And if the worst happens and you do manage to break it out on the road, you can manually put it into the gear you want and it’ll stay put.

The only real problem as far as we can tell is that electronic shifting still has a slight weight penalty over a mechanical equivalent. We get the feeling that in five years’ time we’ll be looking back at today’s batteries in the same way that we look back at early mobile phones: “Look at the size of that! How did we ever manage?” But who knows?

Oh, and there’s the price, of course. Although Di2 has become more affordable with the Ultegra incarnation, EPS is going to be expensive. Okay, more expensive. Don’t expect much change out of… Actually, don’t expect much change at all. Campag haven’t released prices yet but we’d speculate that you’re looking at £3,000-£3,500 for the Super-Record groupset and maybe £2,000-£2,500 for Record, something like that.

So, electronic shifting isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination but new technology rarely is. The point is that of the world’s three big groupset manufacturers, Shimano and Campag each have two electronic options on offer, and that’s a lot of momentum. And we already kind of know (unoffically) that Shimano are launching an 11-speed Dura-Ace Di2 group next year. It’s just SRAM who haven’t gone electric. Like Bob Dylan, they will eventually. And although you might not know it yet, chances are that one day you will too.

 

10 user comments

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Bob Dylan, nice analogy.. although he did go off the boil somewhat round the 80's/early 90's. back on form now though apparently, but ive not heard his latest records. i still like the six string folky stuff... looks like i'll always be tied to cables and pulleys then. hmmmm.

Big Grin

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posted by Fringe [1078 posts]
29th December 2011 - 12:52

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And there's nothing wrong with that, Fringe. Either your acoustic six-string or the Bowden cable to your gear mech. As we speak, cyclists too numerous to mention will be uttering the immortal words "over my dead body" and swearing never to sully their machines with the dead weight of Lithium-Ion. Give it another 20 years and the hipsters will be 'discovering' mechanical gears again. I wonder what their trousers and facial hair will look like by then?

posted by nick_rearden [857 posts]
29th December 2011 - 13:14

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I do wonder whether this is coming in at precisely the wrong time for the manufacturers.

5 years ago, we'd all have been snapping it up on 0% finance and talking up the (tiny) performance advantages on our Sunday club runs.

In the early stages of a long period of everyone feeling rather poor I've got a creeping suspicion that for all but the very serious performance-oriented buyers this may be the point at which the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vengeance.

Personally at least I'm not saying "over my dead body will I put a battery on my bike", but "over my dead body will I spend a month's wages on a set of gears for no material benefit". And almost everyone will know someone who's still using mechanical shifting and remains far faster than the only guy they know who splashed out for electrics.

It'll be just too easy to talk ourselves out of it.

Unless the major manufacturers come up with a way of ensuring that all their credible high-end bikes are electic of course. With hydraulic discs...

Cool

posted by BigDummy [258 posts]
29th December 2011 - 16:18

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BigDummy wrote:
...And almost everyone will know someone who's still using mechanical shifting and remains far faster than the only guy they know who splashed out for electrics.

i must admit this is what stops me buying a fair few 'high end' bike bits (well that and hard cash). fancy shiffting, ultra lightweight wheels, bling shoes etc etc..dont need 'em for a 3 hour pootle round the local hills on a sunday morning..would be nice mind, but no dont think i'll go there. disc brakes though, that i will pay for.

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posted by Fringe [1078 posts]
29th December 2011 - 16:56

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"500,000 miles! Your knees are going to wear out before the battery."
Only if you plan on riding 150,000 ks or so for the next 3 years.
Presumably the battery is Li-ion or similar, in which case in real world usage you will probably be buying a new one in 3 years or so.
Frankly this seems to me the most utterly pointless bike technology in a long time.
Its funny the UCI is set to control the size of water bottles, but has, for the first time, allowed bikes that are dependent on a power source.

posted by imaca [39 posts]
29th December 2011 - 22:46

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Hopefully Campag will follow Shimano's lead and the tech will trickle down to Chorus and Athena maybe.

posted by jarderich [78 posts]
29th December 2011 - 23:20

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The word on the street is Athena EPS for 2013 but not Chorus Thinking

posted by Sven Nijs [20 posts]
2nd January 2012 - 5:57

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Sven Nijs wrote:
The word on the street is Athena EPS for 2013 but not Chorus Thinking

Odd that and I'd put money on it being the other way round. Athena is the groupset with the shiny aluminium parts that appeal to retro lovers. Or maybe they're thinking of reintroducing aluminium cranks and gears at Chorus level thereby refocusing the pricier (than Athena) group as THE option for the custom steel/titanium anti-carbon NAHBS crowd. It would make sense to give the high precision custom folks the lovely Ultra Torque bottom bracket?

posted by nick_rearden [857 posts]
2nd January 2012 - 12:59

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If I was spending two to three grand on a new bike and I could go electronic for an extra couple of hundred it would be a serious temptation.

But one of my dream bikes is skinny steel tubes with chrome lugs, quill stem and, yes, non-indexed shifters on the down tube. Do you remember the pleasure of reaching out to fling the lever all the way forward into fifth (fifth!) at the top of a hill?

Noli porcum linguere

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posted by captain_slog [245 posts]
2nd January 2012 - 14:32

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The thing I hate most about electronic shifting is how bad it makes me feel for disliking the idea... I am an engineer, and I love technology, but I just can't get past the fact that today my bike is entirely powered by me, and putting an external power source on it just doesn't sit right. So now I want a micro-alternator to power it, please.

I'm riding the 2013 Giro d'Italia for charity! Check it out and follow my progress live at www.tourletour.com

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posted by Tour Le Tour [91 posts]
5th January 2012 - 22:44

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