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Electronic shifting: is it worth the extra cost over mechanical shifting?

Electronic shifting: is it worth the extra cost over mechanical shifting?

Electronic shifting: is it worth the extra cost over mechanical shifting?

In recent years, electronic bicycle drivetrains have gone from the realm of niche products on the cutting edge of bike component technology to gaining widespread adoption by bike manufacturers. Groupsets such as Shimano Di2, SRAM eTap/AXS and Campagnolo EPS now can be commonly seen fitted to high-end bikes. In this article we look at the advantages electronic shifting offers over traditional mechanical drivetrains.

More precise shifting

One of the main arguments leveled against electronic drivetrains is that mechanical shifting is “precise enough”. That is certainly true, especially when it comes to high end mechanical groupsets like Shimano Dura-Ace, SRAM RED or Campagnolo Super Record. But shifting precision is not limited to how smooth and snappy the shifting action feels. There are “smart” features in electronic drivetrains that mechanical ones lack (or require additional steps and input from the rider to accomplish). For example, the front derailleur on SRAM's AXS system optimizes the amount of travel when shifting between small and big chainrings according to which rear sprocket the chain is on at any given moment, which contributes to not only smoother shifts, but less chain rub and much better chain retention because the front derailleur cage is always in the right position. There are similar features in Shimano’s Dura-Ace and Ultegra Di2.

Quicker shifting

Sometimes riders need to shift more than one gear at a time in order to quickly get into the right gear for a climb or a sprint. With a mechanical system, it is not always possible to perform this quickly enough because getting across several gears requires several presses of the shift lever, and mechanical shifters require a much longer lever throw compared to electronic ones. With electronic systems you can go from one end of the cassette to the opposite end by keeping the shift lever depressed. The difference may only be a few seconds, but if you race your bike sometimes a few seconds make all the difference!

No cable stretch and less maintenance!

Mechanical shifting systems depend on precise indexing and a certain amount of cable pull. These cables are subject to stretch and corrosion over time, and shifting quality degrades as the cables approach the end of their useful life and require replacement. With electronic drivetrains, there are no cables! Beyond the initial setup of an electronic system, you need to make sure that your batteries are charged and you periodically lube your chain. That’s pretty much it.

Installation of electronic drivetrains is also a breeze. There are no inner and outer cables to run. Sometimes there are wires to be connected, but in the case of something like SRAM’s AXS system, it’s a matter of bolting the parts onto your bike and wirelessly pairing them together, much like you pair bluetooth earbuds to your phone.

Customizing your shifting:

Electronic drivetrains can be programmed to customize how the system shifts. Things like the number of gears that are shifted at a time (when pressing and holding the lever), shifting speed, button functions on the left and right levers, etc. With modern electronic drivetrains such as SRAM AXS, these functions can be easily configured using a smartphone app.

Better ergonomics:

Shift levers come in a single standard size, hands of different riders do not. Mechanical shifting systems allow for adjustments like lever reach which enables riders to dial in their cockpit to suit their preferences, but there is certainly a limited useful range of these adjustments. With electronic systems, the throw of the shift lever is much shorter (often it is just a button!), which allows for much better ergonomics and improvements in comfort over mechanical levers.

Additional shifter options and positions:

Electronic shifting allows riders and bike mechanics to add additional options for shifting location elsewhere on the handlebar aside from the main shift levers. For example, SRAM has “Blip” buttons that can be installed anywhere on the handlebar. Shimano has similar buttons such as their Climbing Shifter (which is a two buttons that can be installed in the middle of the handlebar so riders wouldn't have to keep moving their hands between the bar tops and the shifter hoods everytime they need to shift if they prefer to rest their hands on the top of the handlebar while climbing) or the Sprint shifter that allows then rider to shift easily from an aerodynamic sprinting position in the drops..

Is electronic shifting worth the extra cost?

Yes and no. If your budget allows, an upgrade to an electronic shifting drivetrain will certainly improve various aspects of your experience on the bike as we outlined in this article. That being said, good mechanical drivetrains work very well when properly installed and adjusted. If you often race your bike, an upgrade to an electronic system will certainly have significant advantages when it comes to shifting precision and speed.

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