Throw Down: Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting

mech-vs-elec

 

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.

Click here to shop for Shimano Di2 Bikes
Click here to shop for Campagnolo EPS bikes
Click here to shop for all road bikes

 

Electronic shifting systems, once reserved for the highest-end race bikes, are starting to appear on more and more bikes every year, like this Fuji Gran Fondo with Ultegra Di2

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.

Winner: Electronic

 

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.

Winner: Mechanical

 

Newer mechanical drivetrains, like the Ultegra 6800 found on the Ridley Fenix CR1, can be easier to maintain than most electronic systems

 

3. Reliability

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.

 Winner: Electronic

 

4. Compatibility

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.

Winner: Draw

 

Campagnolo’s EPS system, like the Campy Athena 11 EPS gruppo on this Kestrel RT-1000 bike, has the ability to shift the entire cassette in a single shift

 

5. Upgradability

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.

Winner: Electronic

 

Verdict

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.

Click here to shop for Shimano Di2 Bikes
Click here to shop for Campagnolo EPS bikes
Click here to shop for all road bikes

 

The Fuji Altamira SL

The Fuji Altamira SL is one amazing bike

The Fuji Altamira SL is one amazing bike

We’ve always really liked the Fuji Altamira. The blend of race-winning performance, high tech construction, and a geometry that you can ride all day have made it a staple for road riders around the office.

We were really excited though when we learned that our friend and coworker Jeff decided to get the Fuji Altamira SL. While all of the Altamira’s are fine bikes, the engineers at Fuji made the SL their special project—and pulled out all the stops to make it as light as they possibly could. When Jeff unboxed his bike and threw it on the scale, it turned out to be so light that it was not UCI/USCF legal to race. His size large bike, fully built up, weighed in at an astonishing 13.6 pounds—about 2 full pounds lighter than any of the other carbon-everything super steeds around the office.

When we picked it up to check it out, we almost felt like we were going to accidentally throw the thing through the ceiling.

So how did they get there? The Fuji Altamira SL is built around the same High Modulus, High Compaction C15 carbon fiber frame as the other high-end Altamiras, but where things get interesting is in the component choices. Full carbon fiber Oval Concepts handlebars, stem, and seatpost offer some serious weight savings over traditional alloy components, while the SRAM Red 22 groupset is the lightest component set available, saving over 200 grams versus Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 and about 110 grams over Campagnolo Super Record Titanium. But what really helps this bike fly up the hills are the Oval Concepts 970 full carbon fiber tubular wheels. Weighing in at only about 1100 grams, these wheels are almost a full pound lighter than a pair of carbon clincher wheels.

Jeff customized his build with a Fizik Antares saddle (the shape of the included Oval 970 full carbon saddle just didn’t work for him, but it’s a fine saddle in and of itself) and a set of Speedplay pedals.

This is one sweet ride, and we’re insanely jealous of his beautiful, welter-weight bike. If you’re looking for a machine that can get you up and over just about any sized hill in your path, then the Fuji Altamira SL is for you, and available at Performancebike.com.

To learn more about the Fuji Altamira line of bikes, check out our article.

 

To see more detailed pictures, check out the gallery below.

Our Take: Race vs. Compact Cranksets

When it comes to choosing a crankset for the road, it seems like there are a million and one options out there, but the biggest question we get all the time is: what is the difference between a compact and a race crankset, and which one should I ride?

Race cranksets, also known as “standard” cranksets have a 53 tooth big chainring and a 39 tooth inner ring. Until recently, it was the only gearing option for road riders, unless they went with a triple. The chainrings mount on a spider that has a bolt circle diameter (BCD) of 130mm (Shimano, SRAM, FSA) or 135mm (Campagnolo). This combination gives riders a very tall gear, which allows them to go fast, but requires more strength to push so they are usually only used by more experienced riders, or those with very strong legs. Although even for strong riders the 39 tooth inner ring can make climbing very difficult, and few outside of the pro ranks can ride in the 53-11 combination. However, if you ride with a fast group or are looking to “Cat up” for racing, you may find the race crankset to be ideal.

A race crankset from Campagnolo

The compact crankset hit the scene a few years ago, and was immediately embraced by many riders out there. Compact cranksets have a gear combination of a 50 tooth big ring and a 34 tooth inner ring. The chainrings mount to a smaller 110mm BCD spider (for all brands). The compact crankset gives riders the ability to pedal with a higher cadence in an easier gear instead of always grinding away like you would with a race crankset. Compacts are ideal for riders who are more interested in enjoying the ride than going fast (although we have some folks at the office and in our stores who race on compacts…) or that live in very hilly areas. In fact, even some pro’s will ride compacts on very difficult mountain stages. The main drawback of the compact is how easy the gearing is. It’s not unusual for a rider on a compact to spin out his gearing on a downhill, and some riders find the 34T inner ring to actually make climbing more difficult because it forces them to pedal at an excessively high cadence.

A compact crankset from SRAM

A third option, and one that is increasingly being embraced around the office, is the mid-compact. The mid-compact splits the difference between a standard and compact by offering a 52T big ring and a 36T inner ring. The chainrings mount on either a 110mm BCD (Shimano, SRAM, FSA) or a 130/135mm BCD (FSA, Shimano, Campagnolo) spider. The biggest advantage of the mid-compact is that it gives riders a pretty high top gear thanks to the 52T big ring, while the 36T makes climbing much easier by offering a higher cadence than a 39T, but with more resistance than the 34T.

A mid-compact crankset from Shimano

A fourth, but little used, crank combination is the venerable 54/42T chainring combo, aka “The Flemish Compact”. You can still sometimes find this crankset combination, although it’s almost never spec’ed on a bike now except for some time trial bikes. If you’re an exceptionally strong rider who lives in an exceptionally flat area, you may benefit from using Flemish Compact. Otherwise, we’d recommend staying away unless your first name is “Roger” and your last name is “De Vlaeminck”. So, now for the question…if a 54/42T is a Flemish Compact, what is a Flemish Standard?

Roger de V has a good day riding a Flemish Compact

Roger de V has a great day riding a Flemish Compact

UPDATE: When we first posted this article, many of you asked about triple cranksets. The introduction of the compact crankset, 11-speed drivetrains, and mid-cage rear derailleurs has mostly rendered the triple crankset obsolete. Newer mid-cage rear derailleurs like SRAM’s WiFli system, or options from Shimano and Campagnolo, can now handle cassettes with up to a 32T big cog. An 11-32T or 12-32T cassette, when paired with a compact crankset, appears to offer about the same gearing range as a triple with less gearing overlap, less weight, less mechanical complexity, and a lower Q-factor. A few bikes (mostly touring models) are still spec’d with triples, but if you’re looking for a bike with plenty of gearing options, you may want to look at what the cassette range is instead of the crankset.

So which is the right crankset for you? Well…that’s really going to depend on your ability level, the terrain around you, and your experience. It you’re a very strong, very experienced rider, you’ll probably want to use a race crankset. However, for most riders the compact is just fine. While there is always the temptation on a bicycle to go as fast as possible, it’s important to remember that you need to work your way up to things—and that a bigger gear doesn’t necessarily equal bigger speed. Trying to push too big of a gear right off the bat can hurt your knees, lead to muscle imbalances, and just make rides more difficult and less enjoyable than they need to be. Especially for newer riders, or those without a lot of time to ride, proper form is more important than pushing big gears, and the compact is perfect for developing form since you pedal at a higher cadence. Over time, if you feel you are spinning out the compact crankset, you can always upgrade it with 52/36 or 52/38 chainrings to get more top end speed and a more comfortable climbing cadence.

Kid In A Candy Shop: Our Favorite Bikes

Last week, my coworker Aaron and I got to talking about our favorite bikes. Working in the cycling industry, we get a chance to ride some great stuff, and we’re always impressed by the bikes that the likes of Fuji, GT, Diamondback, Devinci, Van Dessel, and our own in-house guys at Scattante turn out.

But inevitably, the question always comes up: what is your favorite bike? With so many good ones out there, it was hard to choose, so to narrow down the challenge, we decided we had to pick three favorites.

  1. The “Dream Bike”– if cost were no object, what would you ride?
  2. The “Next Bike”– what is the bike we’re probably going to be riding next season?
  3. The “Best Bang For the Buck” Bike– of all the bikes available from Performance, what is the best value for the money (in our opinion)?

BRIAN

Dream Bike: 2014 Diamondback Podium Equipe Campagnolo Super Record EPS Road Bike

It seems like an obvious move to pick the $10k road bike, but there’s good reason here. Namely, I love Campagnolo and I thirst for EPS. And I also think the Podium is  one of the most beautiful and distinctive road bikes out there right now. Diamondback really knocked this one out of the park with the color-matched parts and frame in the distinctive “wet” red look, a full Campy Super Record 11 EPS gruppo, and carbon fiber HED wheels. Plus, Diamondback did all their own R&D and development on the frame and fork, and the ride quality is right up there with any other pro-level frameset.

2014 Diamondback Podium Equipe Campagnolo Super Record EPS 11-Speed Road Bike

Next Bike: Fuji Altamira 2.1 C Campagnolo Athena EPS Road Bike

Not being a big fan of the all-Top Ramen diet, next season will more than likely see me on the Fuji Altamira 2.1 C instead of the Podium. But that’s just fine by me. Campy’s EPS system is absolutely incredible, and Athena EPS is exactly identical to the Super Record variety, except the parts are aluminum instead of carbon fiber– which is actually a bit of a benefit because it means better crash survivability. I’ve heard nothing but great things about electronic shifting performance from other coworkers, so I’m excited to test it out for myself.

2013 Fuji Altamira 2.1 Road Bike

Best Bang For The Buck: 2014 Fuji Roubaix 1.3

If I were trying to get the most value for my dollar out of a bike, I would go straight for the Roubaix 1.3. This alloy bike packs some serious punch in the parts department. A carbon fiber fork and a full 10-speed Shimano 105 drivetrain give this bike plenty of performance for the dollar. The compact crank is paired with an 11-28T cassette, which means you’ll have the perfect gearing for casual riding or racing right off the bat– all for around a thousand dollars. Plus, the frame is stiff, light, and fast enough that it can easily grow with you if you decide to upgrade components over time.

2014 Fuji Roubaix 1.3 C Road Bike

AARON

Dream Bike: 2014 Devinci Atlas RC Carbon 29er Mountain Bike

For me, the DeVinci Atlas is all about having a really lightweight carbon 29er with Shimano XT and a Fox Float 32 CTD FIT 29 fork that can go out and fly on the trails. Plus, it’s just a little extra mashed so it’s awesome at downhill but won’t be weird on regular single track.

2014 Devinci Atlas RC Carbon 29er Mountain Bike

Next Bike: 2014 GT Force Carbon Expert 27.5″ Mountain Bike

The carbon fiber Force is all about AM riding all-day long on a very smooth, comfy, bike. The great parts spec and cushy, full suspension will mean you won’t still be feeling the trail hits later in that night. Plus, you get the new 27.5″ wheels that give you plenty of speed and maneuverability on the trail.

2014 GT Force Carbon Expert 27.5″ Mountain Bike

Best Bang For The Buck: 2014 Fuji Nevada 29 1.1 Mountain Bike

If I was looking for a bike that could really tackle the trail on a budget, I think this is the best option– since you don’t see too many 29ers with this spec at this pricepoint. For about a grand you get an aluminum 29″ frame, 100mm travel fork, and a mix of Deore and XT. You could  ride this one all day and stay pretty happy.

2014 Fuji Nevada 29 1.1 Mountain Sport Bike

Our Take: 10-Speed vs. 11-Speed

11_speed_shifting

In the last few years, Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM have moved to 11-speed and the technology is becoming more main stream. Lately when we’ve discussed 11-speed bikes, many of you have had some questions and concerns about the new systems. To answer some of them, we found one of our employees who has been riding both 10- and 11-speed groupsets for a while. Here’s his take on things.

I’ve been riding both 11-speed Campagnolo and 10-speed SRAM  for several years now, and I switch between the two often enough to be able to tell you there are some definite differences between 10- and 11-speed drivetrains. Generally, adding an extra cog means you have more gear ratios to choose from which can make your riding more efficient. But I’ve been asked to address the 6 most common questions we get about 11-speed, so here it goes. (And please remember, this isn’t a Campy vs. SRAM article– it’s 10-speed vs. 11-speed).

Is 11-speed less durable?

Answer: There’s not really much difference. I currently have about 2500+ miles on an 11-speed cassette and chain, and neither is worn out yet. I also have yet to break an 11-speed chain while riding. So far my Campagnolo chains and cassettes have lasted about as long as my SRAM 10-speed ones. I guess the thinner cogs and chains make people nervous, but I haven’t had any issues so far. I haven’t ridden the new Shimano stuff, but I’ve read that their new PTFE chain technology actually makes the chains stronger than their 10-speed chains.

Isn’t the shifting compromised?

Answer: Shifting performance isn’t really  affected by the addition of another cog. Aside from the different shifter designs, I have noticed very little, if any, difference in performance between 10 and 11. If anything the 11-speed shifting feels smoother and crisper than 10-speed. My 11-speed bikes do need to be put into the stand a little more often (about once every two weeks) for some basic rear derailleur adjustments, especially after high mileage weeks, but it’s a quick 2-minute cable tension adjustment, and that’s it.

Do you need new wheels?

Answer: Yes*. Contrary to what you read on many bike message boards, you do need a new rear wheel; the reason being that the new wider cassettes require a wider axle than a 9/10-speed wheel. If you look at an 11-speed wheel, the drive-side spokes are nearly in-line with the hub flange. I have converted a set of Mavic and a set of Reynolds wheels from 10- to 11-speed Campagnolo, but it was a pretty involved process and each conversion required the wheel to be re-dished and trued. And, of course, the manufacturer cannot guarantee how a wheel will perform with a converted freehub. Your best bet is to get a new wheel.

 *with the exception of Mavic wheels with an M10 freehub body, which technically should work with Shimano 11-speed if you leave off the Mavic spacer

Are 11-speed wheels less durable?

Answer: Maybe, but that kind of thing really depends on your riding style. For folks who really beat up on their wheels, you might notice a difference. I’m not very tough on wheels, and rarely need to have them trued, but I do have a set of 11-speed wheels that need to be trued more often than their 10-speed counterparts. However, I also have another set that has gone almost 2 years without needing to see the truing stand, so it’s hard to tell.

Is it worth it?

Answer: That all depends. In my experience, I love having the extra 11th gear. And yes, I definitely do notice that it’s not there when I switch back to a 10-speed bike. The biggest benefit to me is that the shifting is smoother and more progressive, since there are fewer big jumps in cog size. I don’t have to keep two different cassettes around anymore (one for the usual riding, one for climbing), since I can still have an 11-25 cassette, but with a 27t or 29t cog tacked on that makes it perfect for climbing as well. 11-speed cassettes also offer a bigger range of gearing options that make it easier to find that comfortable cadence in any variety of conditions, whereas when I switch back to a 10-speed bike, I sometimes struggle to find the right gear.

Why upgrade? Won’t they just go to 12-speeds soon?

Answer: Don’t quote me on this, but no, I don’t think they will go to 12-speeds any time soon. I know Tiso has a 12-speed gruppo out there, but they had to scrounge up some breathtakingly expensive stuff to make it work (i.e. all titanium cassettes), so I doubt it’s ready for mass market appeal. As you read above about wheels, it seems to me like 11 cogs are about as many gears as they’ll be able to cram into the standard 130mm rear spacing. To fit in any more gears without sacrificing wheel durability, I believe that road bikes would need to adopt the MTB standard 135mm rear spacing, and I don’t see that happening any time soon. But then, nobody really saw disc brakes for the road coming either, so anything is possible.

Spin Doctor Tech Tip: Shimano and Campagnolo Chains

Spin Doctor

So you’ve decided to upgrade to the latest and greatest drivetrains from Shimano or Campagnolo, but now you’ve got to figure out how to deal with the new chain that you need for your new components.  Read on below for some important information, from our Spin Doctor Product Services team, that you need to know before you ever install a Campy 11-speed or new Shimano 10-speed chain.

Campagnolo 11-speed Chain

Installing or shortening the Campy 11-speed chain requires special procedures and tools:

• New chains can only be shortened on the end opposite the special link. The special link is marked by a plastic tag and a batch number.

• The 11-speed chains are connected with a special piloted connecting pin (Ultra-Link CN RE 500). The pin must be driven from the inside out.

• For secure operation the end of the connecting pin Ultra-Link CN RE 500 must be flattened or peened once its pilot is snapped off.

CT-11 in action

• The Campy UT-CN300 chain tool can shorten, connect and peen the connecting pin, or the Park Master Chain Tool (CT-4.2 or CT-4) can be used for connecting and shortening but the Park CT-11 tool must be used for peening. The CT-11’s sole function is peening the Campy 11-speed chain. It should not be used for anything else.

• The Campy 11-speed chain can only be broken and reattached 2 times and the special connecting pin can only be attached to the special link.

Shimano Asymmetric 10 Speed Chains (Dura-Ace HG CN-7901, Ultegra HG CN-6701, 105 HG CN-5701)

Like the Campy 11-speed chain, the Shimano Asymmetrical chains requires some special steps:

• The chains have distinct inner and outer sides. The inner side outer chain plates have rectangular cut-outs. The outside outer chain plates will have model designations.

Dura-Ace 7901 chain inside plates

• The connecting pins should be installed on the leading edge of an outside plate. Viewed from the drive side, the leading edge of the top run of chain from cassette to crank will be the right of an out plate’s 2 holes.

Outer chain plates - connecting pin should go in rightmost holes

• When readjusting the length of an installed chain, the connecting pin should be installed from the same side as the chain cutter.

• Only Shimano connecting pins with 2 or 3 grooves should be used.

Item #50-6585

• Once installed the connecting pin should never be removed except if the chain is to be discarded.

Shimano Dyna-Sys 10 Speed Chains (M980 XTR chain, HG94 XT chain, HG74 SLX chain)

Dyna-Sys chains have 4 different types of outer plates that facilitate shifting up & down on the cassette or between chainrings.

• The Dyna-Sys chains have distinct inner and outer sides. The inner side outer chain plates have no lettering while the outside has outer chain plates that are alternating stamped with HG-X and Shimano.

HG74 SLX chain - inside chain plates

• The connecting pins should be installed on the leading edge of an outside plate. Viewed from the drive side, the leading edge of the top run of chain from cassette to crank will be the right of an outer plate’s 2 holes.

Outer chain plates - connecting pin should go in rightmost holes

• When readjusting the length of an installed chain, the connecting pin should be installed from the same side as the chain cutter.

• Only Shimano connecting pins with 2 or 3 grooves should be used.

• Once installed the connecting pin should never be removed again except if the chain is to be discarded.

In case you’re wondering, the close-up shots of these chains come from sample versions of our new 2011 bike lineup, available soon (shot in the lobby of our headquarters, because it was a sunny spot).  The road chain was on our top-of-the-line 2011 Scattante CFR Pro road bike:

While the mountain chain was on our brand new Access Stealth 3.0 carbon 29er mountain bike, as seen below (we’ll have a whole lot more to share about these bikes very soon):

If you still have questions about Campy or Shimano chains, just head down to your local Performance store or contact Spin Doctor Product Services by phone, email or chat; they’ll be happy to help!

Call: 800-553-TECH
Email: spindoctor@performanceinc.com
Chat: Live Help at PerformanceBike.com

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers

%d bloggers like this: