Throw Down: Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting
May 14, 2014 35 Comments
With SRAM finally getting ready to launch their long awaited electronic drivetrain system, all three major manufacturers will now offer electronic shifting. This got us thinking about how far these systems have come in just the last few years (never mind how far since Mavic Mektronic, if any of you guys remember that), and also wondering if electronic will ever fully replace mechanical shifting.
SRAM prototype units (or maybe full production, hard to tell since some units had clearly covered up logos) were spotted on the bikes of the Bissel Pro Cycling team at the Tour of California. SRAM is keeping such a tight lid on them that even Belgian superstar Tom Boonen and Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra were chased way when they came to investigate.
If the pro’s are racing them, then that means that they must be in the final stages of getting ready to launch. With the unveiling, SRAM will join Shimano Di2 and Campagnolo EPS in the electronic drivetrain market. The race now is not to be first to market, but who can add new features and make the technology economical enough to appeal to every cyclist– but will this justify an upgrade for most riders?
We take a look at the pro’s and con’s of both electronic and mechanical shifting to see who comes out ahead when we looked at a few key features.
1. Shifting Performance
Hands down electronic wins this one—especially when it comes to front shifting. We were skeptical at first too, but trust us, after one ride you’ll understand.
While the power and feel of mechanical shifting has been refined to an art-form these days, it’s just tough for cable-actuated spring mechanisms to match the power and precision of electronic computer-controlled servo motors.
Because the motors are so powerful, it’s now possible to shift the drivetrain, even while under load, without fear of damaging components (though it’s still possible to snap a chain). Many systems also include novel features, like Shimano’s add-on climbing and sprinting remotes, or Campagnolo’s ability to sweep the entire cassette with one shift.
2. Ease of Maintenance
This one goes to mechanical. Electronic shifting is pretty straight forward to get adjusted. You simply use the shift levers as barrel adjusters, and once you have it set, you don’t have to worry about adjusting it again unless you switch bikes or crash.
Mechanical shifting on the other hand can be finicky to set up—especially with some of the newer 11-speed designs. It also requires fairly frequent adjusting since the springs and cables eventually lose tension.
The upshot though is that problems with mechanical shifting are very easy to diagnose, and seldom require anything more complicated than replacing a cable or some housing. It can seem complex, but it’s one of those things that after you’ve done it once, you kind of have it figured out.
Electronic shifting…not so much. Beyond fine tuning adjustment, any real issues with your components will require them to be serviced by a trained technician. Which is probably good, since not too many of us have the engineering expertise to a) realize what’s gone wrong, or b) even know where to begin to fix it.
Electronic. We know, we know. Its battery operated. But take it from us…most people will have to recharge their batteries maybe twice a year. And the battery will give you plenty of warning that it needs to be recharged—but in the meantime each charge will be good for about 1100 miles or more. And besides… you remember to charge your laptop and your phone, so surely you can remember to charge your bike every now and again too.
But all that aside…in our experience we’ve had fewer of the weird quirks and random mid-ride issues with electronic than mechanical. We’ve never seen anyone drop a chain on an electronic system, and the automated front derailleur trim means that you can cross-chain without really having to worry about anything (not that you should worry about cross chaining anyway, it’s not as bad as it’s hyped up to be).
Plus, you don’t have to worry about snapping derailleur cables, having to fine tune barrel adjusters or any of that nonsense. It just works without any of the finicky-ness of mechanical, and seldom goes out of adjustment.
Draw. Once, many years ago in the dark ages, few frames were electronic compatible. And even if they were, you had to choose between a mechanical- or electronic-specific frame. So if you ended up upgrading, you needed to get a whole new bike. All that has changed now, and most frames are dual compatible.
Electronic shift systems still have some wonkiness with compatibility (10-speed 7970 Di2 can’t be used with 10-speed 6770 Di2 for example, and Super Record and Record EPS systems are not compatible with Athena), but these days so do mechanical systems. With the increasing complexity of 11-speed mechanical systems and redesigned front derailleurs, fewer mechanical groupsets are cross-compatible, even within brands.
Electronic. Obviously, the digital nature of these systems means that the possibilities are wide open. In a world of apps and smartphone integration, engineers are only just beginning to play with what electronic shifting systems can do. Currently Shimano offers the ability to custom program some features of Di2 systems, for instance to allow for customized shifting combos. But there’s even more in the pipeline. From systems that talk to your compatible Garmin or cycling computer and tell them what gear you’re in, how much battery is left and more, to API’s that integrate with power meters to automatically shift to maintain a consistent power output, there’s no telling what the future holds for electronic shifting.
Plus…if rumors are to be believed (and please don’t quote us on this…), it appears that SRAM’s new electronic drivetrain will be completely wireless, which only makes it even more upgradable. This effectively makes each of the levers and derailleurs a standalone computer, which operates solely on software. They could in theory be wirelessly updated in the future for more speeds or improved functionality, or whatever else the boys in Chicago decide to dream up.
Ultimately, choosing which drivetrain to select for your bike is a personal choice. At our offices and stores we have lots of folks on electronic shift systems…but we also have plenty who have opted to stay with mechanical for the time being.
Electronic shift systems are definitely more expensive, but the benefits are pretty clear. More powerful, precise, and dependable shifting performance, with almost unlimited upgrade potential.
For many though, the tactile feel and cost-benefit aspect of mechanical makes it a still worthy choice. Especially with new approaches to engineering things like front derailleurs and shift levers, some of the very best mechanical systems are beginning to approach the performance of electronic.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you. So tell us: for your next bike, which would you prefer? Tell us in the comments section.