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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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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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One of  fastest riders in my club uses a mechanical 8 speed cassette, downtube shifters, ally rims, no computer and he is over 60. I would like to go as well as him!

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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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One of  fastest riders in my club uses a mechanical 8 speed cassette, downtube shifters, ally rims, no computer and he is over 60. I would like to go as well as him!

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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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One of  fastest riders in my club uses a mechanical 8 speed cassette, downtube shifters, ally rims, no computer and he is over 60. I would like to go as well as him!

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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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ch wrote:
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.

All the more reason to buy those wheels now then you can PROVE to the wife the savings are better using the same logic as shoe & handbag purchases. Personaly I am not good enough or fast enough to bother with electronic toys but a nice set of light free rolling wheels will help.

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David Arthur @d... [953 posts] 1 year ago
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WashoutWheeler wrote:

. Personaly I am not good enough or fast enough to bother with electronic toys but a nice set of light free rolling wheels will help.

 

Do you need to be either of those things to justify electronic toys?

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froze [113 posts] 1 year ago
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Electronic has minimal maintenance?  hmmm, will maybe that's because the home mechanic doesn't know how to fix it?  What's considered minimal? battery has to be replaced every 2 to 3 years?  And some people only got a year out one; and the battery costs around $120, lets compare that to mechanical, what gets replaced with those? the cables, how often, some do it every season but mine typically lasts 5 to 8 years, how much does cable cost? $25 for top of the line cables.  Firmware upgrades needed on electronics not on mechanical, and a lot of people get upgrade issues after they did it.  Mechanical can go out of adjustment and supposedly electronic won't but I heard that did happen a lot of times in the TdF, and , but regardless I've have a lot of mechanical derailleur systems and they rarely go out of adjustment.  What else does maintenance mean? Some say the gears and chains don't wear out, that's not true, they wear out the same and have to be replaced.  What about maintaining the battery charge?  there is no need for that with mechanical.  And of course the battery won't work at sub freezing temps.

Shifting under load?  I hear this all the time which strikes me as odd because I use to ride mountains of So California and found a friction derailleur back in the day called Suntour Superbe Tech that could shift under massive load, while it did sounded like something broke because it would shift with a bang under load when it shifted it was simply shifting fast and nothing broke, I also had mid and high end SIS that would do the same thing, my most modern 105 briftor system does as well as it should since it's nothing but an SIS system with the shifters moved to the brake levers.

The only real advantage that I found significant with electronic shifting is how fast the front derailleur shifts, no mechanical system ever worked well for the front, but now that may be negated with manufactures slowly doing away with the front derailluer.  

Cost? of course the electronic is going to be more expensive but who cares? if you can afford it then it doesn't matter.

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hawkinspeter [3848 posts] 1 year ago
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Daddylonglegs wrote:

Chris Boardman described electronic shifting as 'a solution looking for a problem' and I'm inclined to agree. Face it, most of the advantages of electronic shifting make very little or no difference to the actual speed of most people's bike rides. Virtually all the performance advantages of electronic shifting will only make a difference to closely matched professionals who might be looking for fractions of a second in races, the results of which are often the difference between gaining or losing next year's contract and income. For these men and women - who, crucially, don't own their bikes - there is no cost to consider. When the stuff breaks they give it back of throw it away.

I think if we're honest, the only thing most people like about electronic shifting isn't the fact that it could mean a fraction of a second career-defining stage win in the Giro, (or even the the local amateur club crit), but that it offers lots of extra, hugely expensive and mostly superfluos gadgets and features. Most of these we will never properly benefit from and some of us, as is the way of these things, may even never get to work properly anyway.

I think if you're into cycling for the long term, electronic transmissions could prove even more expensive than they first appear. For me, and probably many others on this forum, a key feature of running several bikes over many years (thirty in my case) is the building and rebuilding of machines and the mixing, maintaining and re-using of parts. For me this is an important part of owning, maintaining and riding and racing bicycles. It's efficient and hugely satisfying.

For tiny and mostly irrelevent gains, I see the development of electronic transmissions as a threat to cycling not a benefit, with its emphasis on non-user-seviceable parts and built-in obsolesence  and with servicing and repairs and their attendant costs entirely in the control of the manufacturers.

I agree with some of that. I certainly don't see any performance benefit with electronic shifting except for the few times that ordinary shifting doesn't work as well as it should (e.g. cable stretch; not adjusted correctly etc). The main benefit, as I see it, is it makes riding a little bit more fun (transformer noises!).

The prices will undoubtedly come down as other manufacturers get involved and provide a bit of competition and as the tech trickles down into cheaper groupsets. To be honest, I don't see the proprietary tech as being too much of an issue apart from cost of parts as it's quite easy to replace cables/batteries/shifters as needed without having to go to a shop. I've been quite happily performing firmware upgrades just using the usb interface/charger that you get with a Di2 system without having to pay £150 for the diagnostic thingamijig. As you can easily add a bluetooth/ANT interface, it doesn't really make much difference that the wire protocols aren't open.

I really can't see standard shifters going away anytime soon due to the sheer number of existing bikes and the cheapness of modern manufacturing.

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Daddylonglegs [34 posts] 1 year ago
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Chris Boardman described electronic shifting as 'a solution looking for a problem' and I'm inclined to agree. Face it, most of the advantages of electronic shifting make very little or no difference to the actual speed of most people's bike rides. Virtually all the performance advantages of electronic shifting will only make a difference to closely matched professionals who might be looking for fractions of a second in races, the results of which can be the difference between gaining or losing next year's contract and income. For these men and women - who, crucially, don't own their bikes - there is no cost to consider. When the stuff breaks they give it back or throw it away.

I think if we're honest, the only thing most people like about electronic shifting isn't the fact that it could mean a fraction of a second career-defining stage win in the Giro, (or even the the local amateur club crit), but that it offers lots of extra, hugely expensive and mostly superfluous gadgets and features. Most of these we will never properly benefit from and some of us, as is the way of these things, may even never get to work properly anyway.

I think if you're into cycling for the long term, electronic transmissions could prove even more expensive than they first appear. For me, and probably many others on this forum, a key feature of running several bikes over many years (three decades in my case) is the building and rebuilding of machines and the mixing, maintaining and re-using of parts. For me this is an important part of owning, maintaining and riding and racing bicycles. It's efficient and hugely satisfying.

For tiny and mostly irrelevent gains, I see the development of electronic transmissions as a threat to cycling, not a benefit, with its emphasis on non-user-seviceable parts and built-in obsolesence  and with servicing and repairs and their attendant costs entirely in the control of the manufacturers.

 

 

 

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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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David Arthur @davearthur wrote:
WashoutWheeler wrote:

. Personaly I am not good enough or fast enough to bother with electronic toys but a nice set of light free rolling wheels will help.

 

Do you need to be either of those things to justify electronic toys?

I am not sure if these are toys, certainly Mr Boardman feels they are unessecary embuggerance and he knows a good deal more than me about cycling and bikes!

My point was that if,  I were a Fast - Professional Rider who depended upon wins for my living,  if electronic shifting MIGHT make the difference between my winning or losing,  that might be sufficient grounds to justify the cost of  investment.

Personaly I cant see how spending another grand and adding extra weight will aid me, A nice wheel upgrade? Now that is worth saving for IMHO.

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WashoutWheeler [124 posts] 1 year ago
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smithy wrote:
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

My latest and so I thought last new bike is titanilum with internal routing and hydraulic discs and a mechanical group set.

I  wish I had gone for a mechanical groupset, I love the bike it is like riding a feather bed, but I really do not like the look (The more I look at them the more hiddeous they get!) or behaviour of those discs. IMHO they overbrake the bike (had two nasty experiences with the rear wheel lifting)  and they can get  embarrasingly noisy if I forget to wash the discs with Isopropol Alcohol after every two rides.

They also add weight and limit wheel choice, I made a big mistake that will cost to rectify ,caveat emptor!

 

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BartNotSimpson [1 post] 8 months ago
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On a recent cycling trip our bikes where stored in a hotel storage room. My friends bike was moved slightly by the hotel personel, so that the DI2 shifting lever was slightly pushed on during the night. No shifting possible the next day, battery completely drained. Best day of the trip ruined. Big advantage.

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peted76 [1496 posts] 8 months ago
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BartNotSimpson wrote:

On a recent cycling trip our bikes where stored in a hotel storage room. My friends bike was moved slightly by the hotel personel, so that the DI2 shifting lever was slightly pushed on during the night. No shifting possible the next day, battery completely drained. Best day of the trip ruined. Big advantage.

That's not the shifters fault though. Poor shifter brutally tortured like that all night.

The simplicity of mechanical will always win in certain situations. For me DI2 has been a delight. I won't cry about not having electric shifting on future bikes, but it's certainly something I prefer.

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David St Hubbins [1 post] 8 months ago
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I would not even be considering electronic shifting if I could get more than a year out of the rear shift cable (with its sneaky hidden destruction inside the shift lever assy) and the front derailleur follies drama.  Maybe I could handle one or the other, but dealing with both issues has pretty much pushed me over the edge into to going electronic and being done with it. 

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muppetkeeper [43 posts] 3 months ago
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I've only read two pages of comments, so it may have been said.  My Di2 sends info to my head unit to tell me what gear I'm in.  I'm no pro and sometimes I lose track, and cycling in the steep Spanish mountains its good to know if you need to "man up" or if you have another cog left.

I also, ultimate sin of sins, use the function that shifts my rear two up or two down when I move the front, it saves me a few "clicks".

 

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BehindTheBikesheds [3322 posts] 3 months ago
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muppetkeeper wrote:

I've only read two pages of comments, so it may have been said.  My Di2 sends info to my head unit to tell me what gear I'm in.  I'm no pro and sometimes I lose track, and cycling in the steep Spanish mountains its good to know if you need to "man up" or if you have another cog left.

I also, ultimate sin of sins, use the function that shifts my rear two up or two down when I move the front, it saves me a few "clicks".

Is it beyond the skill of the 'modern' cyclist to simply have a look down to see where your chain lies/how many sprockets you have left in hand? I mean, even Chris Froome could do that whilst on a steep climb never mind a non competitive type, and in any case how is that going to help you, you can't magically produce a lower or higher gear can you, so what if you know what gear you are in and have only one sprocket left, how is that going to actually change anything if you don't know?

Your statement makes zero sense whatsoever, either you can cycle up the hill in the lowest gear you have or you can't, you don't run out of gears nor have to 'man up(whatever the hell that means), you simply haven't fitted a low enough gear for your ability/difficulty of terrain or you have to push harder to keep going than you might have expected to. 

knowing where you are on the sprockets is immaterial to your ability to get up a slope or not.

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hawkinspeter [3848 posts] 3 months ago
2 likes
BehindTheBikesheds wrote:
muppetkeeper wrote:

I've only read two pages of comments, so it may have been said.  My Di2 sends info to my head unit to tell me what gear I'm in.  I'm no pro and sometimes I lose track, and cycling in the steep Spanish mountains its good to know if you need to "man up" or if you have another cog left.

I also, ultimate sin of sins, use the function that shifts my rear two up or two down when I move the front, it saves me a few "clicks".

Is it beyond the skill of the 'modern' cyclist to simply have a look down to see where your chain lies/how many sprockets you have left in hand? I mean, even Chris Froome could do that whilst on a steep climb never mind a non competitive type, and in any case how is that going to help you, you can't magically produce a lower or higher gear can you, so what if you know what gear you are in and have only one sprocket left, how is that going to actually change anything if you don't know?

Your statement makes zero sense whatsoever, either you can cycle up the hill in the lowest gear you have or you can't, you don't run out of gears nor have to 'man up(whatever the hell that means), you simply haven't fitted a low enough gear for your ability/difficulty of terrain or you have to push harder to keep going than you might have expected to. 

knowing where you are on the sprockets is immaterial to your ability to get up a slope or not.

Personally, I love my SC-MT800 display for showing what gear I'm in. It's most useful for knowing when the synchro-shift is about to change your front chainring, though that's probably Di2 creating and solving its own problem.

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paradyzer [31 posts] 3 months ago
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Having tried Di2, I can see why it is popular and why it is to be desired.. 

To me personally, however, a bike that needs charging in order to  fully function somehow misses the point of what a bicycle is  3 to me it is a mode of transport, a device that enables you to get from point A to point B completely independently, and with no additional energy input other that that produced by your own body! It is fully independent! Each to their own though  3 (and yes, I'm aware that lights fall into rechargeable territory, however a bike can operate without them, plus lights can be connected to dynamos which follows the same ethos)

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paradyzer [31 posts] 3 months ago
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Having tried Di2, I can see why it is popular and why it is to be desired.. 

To me personally, however, a bike that needs charging in order to  fully function somehow misses the point of what a bicycle is  3 to me it is a mode of transport, a device that enables you to get from point A to point B completely independently, and with no additional energy input other that that produced by your own body! It is fully independent! Each to their own though  3 (and yes, I'm aware that lights fall into rechargeable territory, however a bike can operate without them, plus lights can be connected to dynamos which follows the same ethos)

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hawkinspeter [3848 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
paradyzer wrote:

Having tried Di2, I can see why it is popular and why it is to be desired.. 

To me personally, however, a bike that needs charging in order to  fully function somehow misses the point of what a bicycle is  3 to me it is a mode of transport, a device that enables you to get from point A to point B completely independently, and with no additional energy input other that that produced by your own body! It is fully independent! Each to their own though  3 (and yes, I'm aware that lights fall into rechargeable territory, however a bike can operate without them, plus lights can be connected to dynamos which follows the same ethos)

The rider would also typically need to be recharged between long rides.

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