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The advantages of ditching mechanical shifting and going electronic

Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM have all offered electronic shifting for several years, FSA has recently joined them, and SRAM just updated its eTap system to 12-speed and launched a less expensive Force eTap. 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 electronic systems 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. SRAM's first Red eTap system didn't have the ability to customise the shifting, but the two new AXS 12-speed groups can be customised via a smartphone app.

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 frame.

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.

109 comments

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part_robot [304 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Went from two years with Di2 back to mech. One too many failures on Di2 that required ridiculously expensive diagnosing, servicing and parts and the bike off the road for a week at a time... none of which is possible if you're anywhere away from a big city when abroad. If a mech cable breaks I take out the cranks, thread a new wire through and I'm back on the road in 20mins. The Dura Ace 9100 mechanical is so damn good, I don't miss it one bit. I won't be going back to Di2 on my main bike unless I'm racing.

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tugglesthegreat [125 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

No chain rub no matter what!  I'm sold?

How much, need to be cheaper for me to convert. 

Also, won't the front mech be obsolete soon!?

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alansmurphy [2245 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
tugglesthegreat wrote:

 

Also, won't the front mech be obsolete soon!?

 

No 

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part_robot [304 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
tugglesthegreat wrote:

No chain rub no matter what!  I'm sold?

I have zero chain rub in any combination on my mechanical 9100. No idea if I've done something special but that's how it us.

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crazy-legs [1112 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
robthehungrymonkey wrote:

I don't ride it to be quicker (it isn't), but because it makes my riding more enjoyable. It annoys me this "only buy nice kit if you race/are amazing" attitude.

Same here - TBH I wouldn't use Di2 for racing as I'm a) not good enough, I just race for a bit of fun and b) more likely to be involved in a crash which would be extremely expensive! I'm just a hobby racer, it's an enjoyable way of spending a few Sundays a year (certainly not "regularly") and I don't have a team car behind me with £30,000 of spare kit on board so I'll race what is cheap and easily repairable.

But for general riding, top end kit is amazing. It feels better all round and that makes my ride more enjoyable. For really long days out, it's nicer to be on a light, stiff, efficient carbon frame with powerful easily modulated disc brakes and effortless Di2 than it is to be on "lower end" kit.

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grmtylr [7 posts] 1 year ago
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How are people finding etap from a reliability point of view?

I'm looking at building up a new bike and I really fancy trying etap on it but don’t fancy getting something that’s likely to let me down either miles away from home or on an early morning commute!

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bobbypuk [79 posts] 1 year ago
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I don't see the benefits. No chain rub? Just last week I didn't need a front mech.

I  read road.cc every week and I'm on my third groupset this year from following their recommendations.

 

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peted76 [1496 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I just like the little 'whirrr' sound it makes.. makes me think of Transformers.... Autobots, change gear!

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kil0ran [1558 posts] 1 year ago
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part_robot wrote:
tugglesthegreat wrote:

No chain rub no matter what!  I'm sold?

I have zero chain rub in any combination on my mechanical 9100. No idea if I've done something special but that's how it us.

Ditto - on both Tiagra and 105 setups. Just need to remember to use the trim function properly. Which works perfectly if you set the mech up following the Shimano DM and have a barrel adjuster in the front mech cable

 

 

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smithy [4 posts] 1 year ago
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LarryDavidJr wrote:
Gizmo_ wrote:

Right now my dream bike is a naked titanium frame with discs,  hydro pipes routed internally and wireless eTap.  Nothing to spoil the frame at all.

Smug alert - Thats exactly what I've finished building this week ! 

Why don't you just get a titanium track bike then?  3

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hawkinspeter [3847 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
peted76 wrote:

I just like the little 'whirrr' sound it makes.. makes me think of Transformers.... Autobots, change gear!

This is the primary reason for me.

I just think Di2 is a bit of luxury - it's like having a butler change your gears for you.

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Jimnm [319 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I’m sure all the new upto date bike tech is an improvement, however it’s a personal choice. Each to his/her own. If you area racer then fine. If you are a top racer then you don’t have to buy any of it as bikes are provided by your team.

It keeps the bike industry going forward. They have to make profits and what better way is there to sell sophisticated tech at high  prices and large profit margins  to Joe public. Just my take on all of this. 

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Jimnm [319 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I’m sure all the new upto date bike tech is an improvement, however it’s a personal choice. Each to his/her own. If you area racer then fine. If you are a top racer then you don’t have to buy any of it as bikes are provided by your team.

It keeps the bike industry going forward. They have to make profits and what better way is there to sell sophisticated tech at high  prices and large profit margins  to Joe public. Just my take on all of this. 

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BaselGooner [4 posts] 1 year ago
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I'm definitely in the "once you go Di2 you never go back" camp for so many reasons, ease of use, no cable stretch (riding bike for 2 years - NO adjustments ever ahd to be made), battery life now is superb (3 charges in 2 years at 10k km per year). However, I'm lucky enough to be able to afford a Di2 bike but as with most tech the cost will come down, electronic shifting will eventually be on lower spec bikes.

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Watty650 [8 posts] 1 year ago
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I've just moved from Di2 back to mechanical, basically becuase i didn't trust the electronic system. i worried that if i transported my bike to an event that i'd get there & the battery could have drained in the back of the car, or been damaged on the bike rack, so i stopped using the bike.

I also couldn't really tell much difference and not think the Di2 version is a bit of a gimic to get the unwary to upgrade & spend more money. 

Would like to try the wireless version though, but i maight wait a bit for it to settle down & reduce in price.

 

 

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700c [1267 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

This is all well and good until it goes wrong and you get stuck in 11t and can't shift any more. Not all of us have the legs of Rigoberto Uran!

I did like the 'less maintenance' point in the article lol - yeah that's because none of us can tinker with these systems to fix them when they go wrong

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hawkinspeter [3847 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Di2 could definitely do with a manual override for when the system breaks/runs out of juice.

I managed to trash my Di2 by trapping the left shifter cable in the stem clamp and tightening up before noticing. For some reason (short circuit?) it appeared to damage the battery, so after I'd replaced the squished cable, the battery wasn't able to keep charge for more than 2 days. Obviously, the first time that I noticed this was on a Monday morning when the whole system was completely dead, so I had to get around on my newly converted single speed.

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Legs_Eleven_Wor... [707 posts] 1 year ago
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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.

My Giant Defy Advanced 3 rattles like a fucker when I'm on it.  The shop says it's the cables that go into the down tube just behind the fork.  But they seem powerless to stop it.  

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Daveyraveygravey [697 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Shame on you Roadcc for pushing this shit.  It isn't free, so any advantages of an electronic system are negated BY THE COST! At least a grand.  I could buy a whole road bike and whole mtb for that which would give years of perfectly good service.  I could go secondhand and buy a fantastic road bike and fantastic mtb for that.  Or I could just ride more sensibly and get fitter on the bikes I have. Stop pushing these micro benefits so ex golfers have something more to brag about...

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srchar [1474 posts] 1 year ago
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Tried the first iteration of Ultegra di2. Once I got over the initial "shiny new toy" feeling, I found that I really didn't like it. Mechanical Chorus feels better to me. Electronic shifting is not for everyone.

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Mungecrundle [1524 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

To follow up on my post of 2 years ago, my Di2 is still operating flawlessly. I still don't need it, but I still appreciate it on every ride.

Not that I have the slightest desire to change my bike, but if I did for some reason have to buy another top end transmission, and certainly if I was building the bike, then I would go wireless.

Main benefit to me is the shear effortlessness of changing gear, especially towards the end of a ride when my hands are cold and tired.

Only criticism would be that the battery must be unnecessarily large and therefore heavier than it needs to be as I only have to charge it every 1000 miles or so.

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kil0ran [1558 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Continue to be perfectly happy with mechanical shifting on the 5 bikes in the family. Admittedly one is a SRAM hub gear that I wouldn't have a clue about how to adjust (I'm guessing it's just tweaking on the cable tension like any other system). Taught my son how to use the barrel adjuster to get his rear shifting working, that was a pretty cool moment. There's something very rewarding about fine-tuning a precise mechanical system that appears to be highly complicated. 

Still tempted by eTap, but they need to bring it down to Rival level before I'll seriously consider it.

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fukawitribe [2837 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
700c wrote:

This is all well and good until it goes wrong and you get stuck in 11t and can't shift any more. Not all of us have the legs of Rigoberto Uran!

If the battery runs out on EPS, I believe you can decouple the rear mech and just put the chain on whatever cog you want (Ride Back Home) - don't know Di2 has something similar, but if it barfed due to battery drain rather than a fault then it looks like you would have had to ignore an enormous amount of warnings and opportunities to select a suitable gear.

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MoutonDeMontagne [148 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Switched to Etap recently when I replaced my old mechanical worn out groupset. It's utterly brilliant. A doddle to set up, shifts perfectly,  no chain rub in any gear, no missed shifts, no cable stretch, silent and on the whole, just lovely.

Do I really need it? No. Would I take it back and go back to mechanical? Hell no! Converted to Electronic? Yes. However, if I wasn't fortunate enought to be able to have it, would I feel I was losing out by sticking with mechanical? Nope. 

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surly_by_name [570 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Have Etap on one bike, SRAM mechanical (bits of Red/Force/RIval) on other bikes in the stable.

I like Etap, have had no problems with it at all in 2+ years of use and probably will stick with it on "best" bike in future. But not sure difference in use to well maintained high end SRAM (and I assume Shimano) mechanical is all that much. So IMO you spend a lot of cash for not a lot of performance benefit. Doesn't mean you shouldn't do it if you want to spend your cash in that way but the difference is pretty marginal (which is probably to be expected). 

Reluctant to shift (excuse the pun) to more economical Shimano stuff because, well, wires. Also, I've never used Shimano (used Campag forever until I switched to SRAM about a decade ago) and on the few occasions I have ridden a Di2 equipped Shimano bike I estimate I have shifted in the wrong direction approx. 40% of the time. I imagine you get used to it after a while.

Specifically on Etap: would be ideal if they brought out a slightly cheaper Force version of etap, a la Ultegra Di2. Love the blips (remote shifters) on the tops/under bar tape for shifting when climbing/on dodgy surfaces when you are on tops. Another benefit to Etap is ease of removing rear mech for travel (reduces risk of mech hanger getting bent).

 

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SculturaD [62 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

If you're paying for the upgrade Road.cc they I'll take it.
Otherwise, way too expensive.

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SculturaD [62 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

If you're paying for the upgrade Road.cc then I'll take it.
Otherwise, it is still way too expensive.

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check12 [295 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Change to wireless because I just must have another thing that needs charging, I can’t fix myself and will stop working after you upgrade the software about 2 months after the warranty runs out. 

Simplify yo’ life, keep cables. 

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jlebrech [69 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

up down flappy paddles and a 3x10, 4x9, 5x5 or whatever makes the most sense from a weight perspective.

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jlebrech [69 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
bumble wrote:

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.)

 

 

 

Sora Di3 Triple, flappy paddle up, flappy paddle down. semi mech. maybe just have the di2 actuate the cable from the hoods.

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