Mechanical Versus Electronic Shifting on the Bike

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Mechanical Versus Electronic Shifting on the Bike

For a machine that’s been around for more than 200 years, there have been various new cycling innovations of late. Determining which new technology is worth an upgrade and which to pass on isn’t quite so obvious. For example, the switch from mechanic to electronic shifting is one such technology released within the past few years that you might be on the fence about — and the truth is: It might not be for everyone.

HOW EACH SYSTEM WORKS

Mechanical shifting involves moving the chain up and down the cassette and chainrings via a steel cable that runs from the handlebar shifter to the front and rear derailleurs. With electronic shifting, there are no cables, and the derailleurs move the chain with battery power. For this to work, the motor in each derailleur must receive a signal from the shift levers, which then moves the chain either up or down the cassette or chain rings. While there are many other differences in how each system performs and functions, this is the main difference with how each system works.

WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS

Like anything else, new technology has its advantages but also comes with some drawbacks. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both electronic and mechanical shifting to better understand the differences in performance, maintenance and cost.

Below are a few categories you should consider before deciding whether or not an upgrade to electronic shifting is worth it.

1

PERFORMANCE

One of the biggest advantages of electronic shifting is precision under load. While mechanic shifting is often very reliable, it requires the rider to shift at the right time to keep from grinding gears or dropping a chain. Because electronic drivetrains are powered by a battery, you don’t have to worry about waiting to shift from your small to big chain ring (or vice versa) once you’re traveling at the right speed. Shifts can be performed any time you want and the precision of the shifts will be exactly the same no matter the circumstance.

Electronic shifters also allow you to shift multiple gears at once seamlessly, allowing you to jump four gears (or more) at once. In addition, companies like Campagnolo claim electronic shifts are 25% faster than mechanical, which can be an advantage when you need to get to a specific gear quickly. Cross chaining or chain rubs are also non-issues, which can prolong the life of your components.

While mechanical shifters have improved greatly over the years, if performance is your number 1 priority, electronic shifters are the clear winner.

2

MAINTENANCE

When it comes to maintenance, the lack of cables might make it seem like electronic shifters would have the clear advantage. But while it’s true electronic shifters require less maintenance overall, when something goes wrong the system might shut down completely, making it impossible to shift your bike. Diagnosing and fixing the problem might be more difficult as well, and could require a trip to the bike shop instead of completing the repair yourself.

While mechanical systems might be more susceptible to problems due to all the moving parts, if something does go wrong, the drivetrain should still function to some degree. Mechanical drivetrains are also pretty straightforward and easy to fix, and the parts you need to repair the system aren’t going to cost you a ton of money.

3

THE BATTERY

Things like bike lights and GPS computers require you to charge them between uses. If you’ve found this to be a drag or are constantly forgetting to charge your equipment before you ride, you might not be a fan of electronic shifting. If you forget to charge your battery pack on your drivetrain, it will be impossible to ride your bike. While you’ll be warned with plenty of time in advance that your battery is getting to critical levels, if you don’t want to be bothered with remembering to charge another gadget before you ride, then electronic shifters might not be for you.

4

COST

While the price difference will likely shrink as electronic group-sets become more popular, presently there is still a big drop off if you have budget constraints. A new Dura-Ace Di2 group set costs about $3,000, while the mechanical Dura-Ace R9100 group set can be had for $1,800. Even with a new cables and chains every few years, that’s a significant price difference that will likely sway some buyers.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Since top-end mechanical shifters are plenty reliable and offer excellent shifting in most situations, the decision between the two can be difficult if top-level performance is not your primary concern.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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