The advantages of ditching mechanical shifting and going electronic

Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM have all offered electronic shifting for several years, and FSA has recently joined them. With complete electronic-shift bikes costing from around £2,400,  should you be thinking about making the move?

Let's take a look at the advantages.

Check out our Shimano Dura-Ace R9150 Di2 review here

Improved shifts

How much more precise than mechanical shifts can electronic shifts be? Well, with a mechanical system, if you push the lever to move from one chainring to the other the front mech performs the same every time. With an electronic system the front mech acts slightly differently depending on the sprocket you’re in at the time. 

Take SRAM’s eTap system. When you move from the small chainring to the big chainring, the cage overshifts slightly to help the chain make the jump. Then a fraction of a second later, once the chain is up there, the cage moves back inboard to its standard position.

SRAM RED eTap FD.jpg

When you’re shifting from the big chainring to the small chainring, the cage moves inboard in two stages. First, it shifts just enough to move the chain down. Then a fraction of a second later, once the chain is down on the inner ring, it moves a little further across. Doing things this way avoids the possibility of the chain coming off the inside of the small chainring.

The extent to which these two things happen depends on the sprocket that you’re in at the time. Say you have the chain on the small chainring and one of the larger sprockets and you want to change to the large chainring. The rear mech lets the front mech know that it needs to overshift more than it would if the chain was further outboard on one of the smaller sprockets. 

The bottom line is that you get excellent shifting even under load.

Read our SRAM Red eTap review

"Dura-Ace or Ultegra Di2 electronic gear shifting moves the chain exactly where it needs to be through a programmed front or rear derailleur position," says Shimano.

"The science behind it is truly incredible and also programmable to your specific shifting preference [see below]. You make a command and the system responds accurately every time. In a race situation the reliability and the confidence it inspires can mean the difference between making a break or not."

Quicker shifting

If you want to shift right across the cassette with a mechanical shift system, you need to press the lever more than once (different systems require different numbers of presses). With both Campagnolo EPS and Shimano Di2 you can shift from one side of the cassette to the other when you press and hold the lever in. It’s just a little bit easier.

CH-EPS-cambio-2015.jpg

Campagnolo claims that, “[EPS rear derailleur] shift times are now 25% faster that than the mechanical rear derailleur (taking just 0.352 seconds to swap sprockets)”.

Check out our reviews of Shimano Ultegra Di2.

You can customise the shifting

With Shimano Di2 you can customise the shifting speed and the number of gears the system will shift when you press and hold the lever. You can also swap the functions of the upshift lever and the downshift lever, and even the functions of the left lever and the right lever.  

Campagnolo's MyCampy app  allows you to customise shifter function in an EPS system. 

MyCampy_MySession_web_close.jpg

No chain rub

Once a Shimano Di2 or Campagnolo EPS system is set up correctly, no matter what sprocket you are in you never need to adjust the position of the front mech to prevent the chain rubbing on the front mech’s side plates because it is done automatically. 

Trek Madone 9 series - front mech

After you shift the rear derailleur you’ll sometimes hear a whirr as the front mech moves slightly to take account of the chain’s new position, the idea being to improve efficiency and reduce wear. 

SRAM says this isn’t necessary with its eTap system because there’s no danger of chainrub no matter which chainring/sprocket combo you’re using.

Read our SRAM Red eTap First Ride. 

Simple operation

Changing gear with an electronic system requires a far shorter lever movement than with the mechanical equivalents. You’re really just pressing a button, never needing to sweep a lever across.

CH-EPS-Ergopower-2015.jpg

Moving the levers on a mechanical system is hardly the trickiest operation in the world, but it can be a bit of a reach if you want to shift across the entire range available to you. Things are just a little simpler with electronic systems.

SRAM RED eTap Shifter.jpg

With SRAM’s eTap system the lever on one shifter performs upshifts, the lever on the other shifter performs downshifts, and you push them both at the same time to shift between chainrings. It’s a really simple system to use, even if you’re wearing big gloves or mittens in cold weather.

Multiple shift position options

On a road bike with Shimano or SRAM electronic shifting you usually change gear via the combined brake and gear shifters, a lot like you would with a mechanical system, but you can add satellite shifters elsewhere on your handlebar to make it slightly easier to change gear in certain situations, especially when racing.

Shimano offers its Climbing Shifter that you can fix to the top section of your handlebar.

Lampre Merida's Merida Scultura 2013 11.jpg

It also has a Sprinter Shifter that you can fit to the drops. 

Focus Izalco SRAM eTap  - 17.jpg

SRAM’s eTap system has satellite shifters called Blips that you can position anywhere on the handlebar.

You can change gear on a time trial bike while standing

If you’re riding a time trial/triathlon bike with mechanical shifting, the shift levers will be positioned at the front of the aero extensions where they’re easy to access when you’re in your aero position. That means you can’t change gear when you’re riding out of the saddle with your hands on the base bar. 

With an electronic system, you can have shifters on the aero extensions and on the base bar, so it’s easy to change gear if you’re out of the saddle when climbing or coming out of a tight corner.

Canyon Speedmax CF 9.0 SL - bar end shifter

Read our Campagnolo EPS First Ride from way back when it was first launched. 

There’s minimal maintenance

SRAM RED eTap RD.jpg

With an electronic system there’s very little routine maintenance and you’ll never need to replace a cable. Little, if any, tuning is required after the initial set-up.

Even that initial setup is very easy with SRAM’s eTap system. It’s wireless so there’s no need to route cables through your frameset.

Mechanical shifting has been working fine for many, many years and it will continue to do so, and it’s considerably cheaper than an electronic setup. If you don’t find the benefits we’ve listed above compelling enough to convince you to change to electronic, no component manufacturer is going to stop offering mechanical shifting any time soon.

SRAM RED eTap Charger.jpg

One of the most frequent objections to going electronic is the possibility of running out of charge mid-ride. That’s unlikely to happen unless you really don’t concentrate. You’ll get hundreds of miles between charges on every electronic shift system, and plenty of warning that you’re low on juice. 

Even if the battery does go flat, you can manually put the chain into the gear you want and ride home singlespeed.

Of course, you don’t need to make the switch to electronic shifting.

"You can also get precise, fast and accurate shifting from Dura-Ace, Ultegra or 105 mechanical gears," says Shimano. "In this sense, as well as making a command – ie pushing the lever – you also operate the system by pulling or releasing a cable.

"There's a certain art to setting up your drivetrain manually to get this level of efficiency. A lot of riders prefer to know how to operate every individual component within their drivetrain, which is easier with a mechanical system.

"With each type of shifting having its merits, the question is whether you want to command your drive train through the push of a button, or to physically operate it using a lever. Perhaps the answer is to have both depending on the particulars of your ride."

Most people we know who have tried electronic shifting for a significant period of time want to stick with it, but the choice is yours.

Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.

100 comments

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ch [188 posts] 2 years ago
1 like

 

advantages : no dropped chains or failed shifts

 

disadvantages: chain can break if you shift while not pedalling 

 

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shay cycles [411 posts] 2 years ago
1 like

Most of the people who are less than impressed haven't tried the electronic system.

I have however tried it Di2 on a Pinnarello test bike and in fairness it did work quite well and the little tweak on the front changer when changing cogs at the back was quite cool.

But I wasn't impressed enough to feel it worth the bother. In fact when I was back on my vintage road bike for another circuit with a colleague using the Di2 it felt fine and certainly my gear changes were as slick as my riding companion on the Di2. Bearing in mind that my setup was 30 years old with an 8 speed cassette and no indexing and Simplex retro friction downtube levers that is saying something. Trimming the front was something we just learned to do and I still happily change either mech with either hand.

Of course 30 year old technology isn't for everyone as you have to learn the technique so modern indexed systems are actually great. The Di2 however offered very little advantage over my cable operated Sora system on my tourer and I have no problem tweaking and trimming on that either.

If I were racing I would still, as I used to, go for the best quality robust and reliable system I could find (in the old days that was a mixture of Campag Record and Shimano Dura-Ace) but I certainly wouldn't go electronic.

Why? simple really - unneccesary complexity and reliance on a power source.

Avatar
ch [188 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
shay cycles wrote:

 Bearing in mind that my setup was 30 years old with an 8 speed cassette and no indexing and Simplex retro friction downtube levers that is saying something. Trimming the front was something we just learned to do and I still happily change either mech with either hand.Of course 30 year old technology isn't for everyone as you have to learn the technique so modern indexed systems are actually great.

I think you have extended the debate to include whether more than an 8 speed cassette is really necessary.  I think you should only consider the 11-speed manual vs electric case.

I imagine e a 10 or 11  shifting w/out indexing would be more diffcult than 8 sp shifting w/out indexing.

 

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shay cycles [411 posts] 2 years ago
1 like
ch wrote:

I think you have extended the debate to include whether more than an 8 speed cassette is really necessary.  I think you should only consider the 11-speed manual vs electric case.

I imagine e a 10 or 11  shifting w/out indexing would be more diffcult than 8 sp shifting w/out indexing.

I'm not suggesting people would choose a non-indexed system over indexed but pointing out that the newer technology tends to offer marginal benefit. Those marginal benefits always also comes with some drawbacks which may also be marginal of course.

E.G. (old) clearly indexing offers benefits in terms of easy of gear shift - the drawback was apparent if you popped in a wheel with different sproket spacing.

E.G. (modern) electronic shifting has benefits expressed in the article - the drawbacks are needing electricity and a more complex, less robust mechanism (motors and electronics where a simple set of springs and pivots would suffice)

Avatar
BBB [486 posts] 2 years ago
3 likes

Most of people understand the benefits of electronic shifting but at the current prices it's nothing more than just a toy for people with high disposable income.
It also makes a very poor long term investment as components will be becoming quickly obsolete (not repairable/servicable) at least in case of Shimano.
The article/feature should be more critical and objective.

For anyone who truly enjoys riding it makes little difference how the gears are changed. Some people really spend too much time thinking about equipment.

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ch [188 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
BBB wrote:

Most of people understand the benefits of electronic shifting but at the current prices it's nothing more than just a toy for people with high disposable income. It also makes a very poor long term investment as components will be becoming quickly obsolete (not repairable/servicable) at least in case of Shimano. ...

I'm happily using 10-speed mechanical indexed, components of which are cheap due to the advent of 11-speed.  So I catch your drift.  But at some future time, IF I were to "upgrade" to 11-speed, I'd have to compare a pricey 11-speed mechanical shifter-derailleur setup to the comparable electronic setup.  In terms of price - they are both expensive.  In terms of maintenance and performance - taking into account reports from actual riders I know personally about how their electronic shifter systems are holding up and how they perform - again the adjustment is automatic, haven't heard yet of the motors burning out, but obviously battery lifetime and time to empty are a bottleneck.

Oh yes - no cable fray.  Even though I try to replace the cables "in time" - I've been caught out a half dozen times - usually in the middle of a long hilly ride.

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daviddb [136 posts] 2 years ago
1 like
PaulBox wrote:

 

I'm not professional

I haven't got all the gear

I have got a little bit of an idea.

I like progress, new technology etc.

I just don't want to upset you...

[/quote]

 

Plus 1

Avatar
Daipink [9 posts] 2 years ago
3 likes

I can give you over 400 reasons why you shouldn't! A quick check on Chain Reaction Cycles website shows Ultegra Di2 is over £420 dearer than mechanical. Invest the difference in a better set of wheels for a much more effective performance enhancement.

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ch [188 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
Daipink wrote:

I can give you over 400 reasons why you shouldn't! A quick check on Chain Reaction Cycles website shows Ultegra Di2 is over £420 dearer than mechanical. Invest the difference in a better set of wheels for a much more effective performance enhancement.

 

Over time this price difference will diminish.  Also, you never know when a bargain might appear, e.g., a good deal on a used bike with electronic shifting (actually happened to my friend).

I'm in no rush.

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bumble [22 posts] 2 years ago
3 likes

Hopefully, Shimano will now concentrate on chasing the big-spenders, tempting them with ever shinier, more expensive electronic groupsets, and they'll stop buggering around with the real star of the line-up; Sora.

(cheap parts, reliable shifting - thanks to the long cablepull, equally spaced chainring bolts, optional triple, etc.)

 

 

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Boss Hogg [135 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes

"Why you should switch to electronic shifting" - well, we shouldn't switch to anything. Why is the media trying to make us buy stuff? I ride a hydro disc brake road bike (and love it) but I am telling no one, they "should" switch to disc brakes. Product marketing is legitimate but better left to the companies who sell their products.

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Biggus-Dickkus [46 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
enigmaman wrote:

Agree that wireless is the future.  In the same way that concealed cables quickly became the norm.  Give it a few years and all the wired systems will look horribly dated and Shimano/Campag will make a shedload in selling their new wireless ranges.

 

Funny that on the tour this year every team was running Shimano Di2...

I wouldn't be surprised if SRAM don't drop the eTap system at some point.

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Biggus-Dickkus [46 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
enigmaman wrote:

Agree that wireless is the future.  In the same way that concealed cables quickly became the norm.  Give it a few years and all the wired systems will look horribly dated and Shimano/Campag will make a shedload in selling their new wireless ranges.

Funny that on the tour this year every team was running Shimano Di2...

I wouldn't be surprised if SRAM don't drop the eTap system at some point.

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Biggus-Dickkus [46 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Don't get me wrong I am a Di2 fan and have 3 bikes all ftted with Ultegra Di2. However when purchasing my last bike (SuperSix Evo) I rode both versions: mechanical and electronic Ultegra groupsets and the bike with mechanical shifting was noticably lighter...

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Redvee [410 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

I want Etap Hydro but two things stopping that happening. Finding stock and the cash, other than that it's all systems go enlightened

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BlindFreddy [15 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Wired is passe because its an invitation to sealing problems and it looks bad. Wifi is the future but until as Sram has some competition, people will be a shy of going this route. In the meantime Sram will understandably exploit early adopters to recoup development costs and effectively beta test the technology. However with wifi competition from the laggards at Shimano and Compagnolo, prices will come down and performance and reliability only improve further. At that time lots of ordinary people will go electronic - me included.

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therevokid [1023 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

i've di2 on my Mason and love the "almost" fit and forget .... once setup it's

check the charge once a month and ride. any weather, any conditions, any time

martini like  1

Not sure about the shape of some of the hoods so looking longingly at the

etap hydro but as a couple of others have said .... no cash for that kind

of "splurge"  1

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HLaB [241 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

When its more affordable perhaps but tha fraction of second improvement doesn't do it for me VfM wise at the moment. 

I suppose the batteries are improving but I've seen too many riders have to abandon due to flat batteries before the ride even starts, that thought doesn't do it for me either  7

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ricardito [35 posts] 11 months ago
4 likes

I like my tech as much as the next person, but somehow when it comes to bikes I like the idea that they are something that any Victorian engineer could look and understand (notwithstanding that some parts, such as derailleurs, were invented later). Just an irrational aesthetic notion, I know...

Or perhaps it's just that I've had enough struggles with electronic devices and their susceptibility to battery failure, firmware updates that brick them, or just the phase of the moon, and bicycles provide an escape from them...

Perhaps I'd feel differently if I thought that mechanical shifting was a problem urgently in need of a solution  3

Avatar
MarkiMark [82 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

Had a go on a mate's Ultegra Di2 and ended up unimpressed. I use Campag Potenza and gear shifts are superb, can't see the point in electronic. But then again I'm the sort of person who believes cables should be externally routed, and enjoys the occasional tweak of the barrel adjuster to make shifts that little bit more perfect.

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simonmb [658 posts] 11 months ago
5 likes

Can we expect an article "Why you should stick with mechanical shifting"? There are surely as many valid points to be made.

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kev-s [307 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Ive run Shimano Di2 for over 6 years now in the following forms

Ultegra 6700, Ultegra 6800, Dura ace 7900, Dura ace 9000 and along with the disc brake versions of Ultegra 6800 and Dura ace 9000 Di2

 

All were used in all weathers including commuting to work (5000 miles a year) in all weathers including snow

 

All were absolutley faultless, great shifting everytime, i was a complete convert and not willing to go back to mechanical shifting and rim brakes

 

Yet my current bike has Campag super record mechanical and rim brakes and i absolutley love it!!!

 

Di2 is great but there's nothing like the feel of a mechanical groupset to me, yes it can be less smooth than Di2 and need a little more maintaince but for feedback and feeling you cant beat it

 

Im only gripe with mechanical shifting after having Di2 for so long is having to trim the front mech! 

 

 

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iandusud [105 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Personally I don't want electronic shifting but I like the technology and totally understand anyone who wants to use it. However when Shimano brought out Di2 my immediate reaction was that they had dropped the ball with a wired system and said so at the time. In this day and age all electronic devices communicate wirelessly. Also the system is so vulnerable to a wire getting damaged. I wasn't in the least surprised when Sram came out with a wireless system, it's the only way to go. 

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stub [19 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

I run Ultegra 6800 Di2 on one bike and mechanical 105 5800 on the other.

The rear shift on 105 is really light and very close to Di2 in my opinion, but...

Setup is much easier. In my experience mechanical front mechs are total dogs to set up and get absolutely perfect (admittedly I've only used Shimano ones of various vintages).  I even bought the newest FD-5801 that is supposed to have a super light action and no need for the long arm that hits my mudguard. After an hour I'm still yet to have it functioning nicely. Di2 means no frayed cables in the front mech or trying to pull the cables as tight as possible and still finding them too slack. Neither of my mechnical bikes have barrel adjusters (hence the purchase of the FD5801 which has barrel adjustment on the mech itself).

Shift is close between the two but Di2 does allow me to change up the cassette rapidly when going uphill out of the saddle at full effort (when I realise I'm in the wrong gear). That isn't something I'd even attempt on mechanical (I wouldn't be able to even operate the lever fully when out of the saddle). Front shift is miles cleaner, and no need to trim is something I totally take for granted and irritates me on mechanical when I go back. The semi synchro shift on Di2 is a really nice touch, dropping up or down the cassette on a front shift as appropriate to minimise the impact. It's so seamless I only ride in that mode.

I appreciate there is a massive cost disparity and 105 mechanical is damn good for how little it costs, but the Di2 bike is much less maintenance, no cable stretching, and works perfectly every single time.

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kil0ran [1122 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

I've gone back from Di2 Ultegra to mixed 105/Tiagra groups on both my bikes. Both built and set up by me and I'm very happy with the shift performance. Way back up the comments I said that Di2 was easier to setup for the home mechanic but having done two mechanical shifting bikes now I'm not so sure. Maybe I've been lucky but I've had no issues setting up the front mechs - 105 on one bike, Tiagra 4700 on the other. By doing it I now completely get the way that mechanical shifting works and in particular the importance of good barrel adjusters, the correct ferrules, and clean runs. Quite satisfying mastering something that a lot of people see as a black art and it also means I'm far less scared about tinkering with the shift to get it absolutely perfect.

If you're having trouble setting up a Shimano front mech just get the official Shimano Dealer manual. The steps are different to the various online guides from the likes of Park & Art's Cyclery but if you follow them you'll get your mech in the ballpark and can then tune it with the barrel adjuster. Pay close attention to the trim positions in particular, as the non-Shimano guides don't usually cover this and can lead you astray.

Having set up both there is now very little difference in shift performance between Tiagra & 105. Where 105 wins is lightness of chainset and braking performance. Likewise Ultegra - lighter components and only slightly better shifting at the rear, particularly now that the low profile front mech has appeared at 105 level.

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SculturaD [51 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

It's not that we should use, run electronic shifters, it's the ruddy exorbitant sky high prices thatare demanded for electronic shifting. Bring the end costs down dramatically and more would be able to afford threat up.
As it stands at present, their costs are Looney Tunes.

Avatar
SculturaD [51 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

It's not that we should use, run electronic shifters, it's the ruddy exorbitant sky high prices that are demanded for electronic shifting. Bring the end costs down dramatically and more would be able to afford threat up.
As it stands at present, their costs are Looney Tunes.

Avatar
SculturaD [51 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

It's not that we should use, run electronic shifters, it's the ruddy exorbitant sky high prices that are demanded for electronic shifting. Bring the end costs down dramatically and more would be able to afford threat up.
As it stands at present, their costs are Looney Tunes.

Avatar
SculturaD [51 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

It's not that we should use, run electronic shifters, it's the ruddy exorbitant sky high prices that are demanded for electronic shifting. Bring the end costs down dramatically and more would be able to afford threat up.
As it stands at present, their costs are Looney Tunes.

Avatar
Miller [149 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

I'm a Campag EPS user. I love EPS, it just works, and it's fun to use. Entry cost was a bit more than mid-range mechanical but I took advantage of sales, ebay, s/h etc. My EPS kit has been very reliable, it's been drenched with rain on a few occasions to no ill-effect. The mechs are solidly built, the cables are well sealed, the shifting is impeccable. I can see why people would wish the parts to be cheaper but they are really well made.

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