Friday, May 13, 2016

Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting

I saw this article on CyclingWeekly the other day: "Six Reasons Why Electronic Groupsets Are Better Than Mechanical."

If you are, like I am, an unrepentant retrogrouch, you probably don't care one whit for electronic shifting. But if you have even a shred of morbid curiosity on the subject, here are the six reasons:

1. The shifting is better.

"The top of the range mechanical groupsets have gone through years of evolution to get to their current level of performance, but in just a few years electronic groupsets have taken things to the next level."

Think about the logic of this for a moment . . . Electronic groupsets are better than mechanical - because the shifting is better. "The next level," apparently, whatever that can be.

Funny thing - after owning nothing but manual transmission cars for nearly 20 years, my current car has an automatic transmission. It works great, but there are many, many times that I still miss the manual shifting. I find that I really liked the feel of that clutch, and feel of the gears snicking into place. I liked that mechanical connection I had to the workings of my car, and I like that mechanical shifting on a bicycle has that similar type of connection between brain, body, and machine. Electronics sever that connection.

2. You can shift through multiple gears.

After admitting that many Campagnolo mechanical groupsets have long been able to do this, the article says, "While you’re not going to be going straight from the 28 to the 11 all that often, it is still a really nice feeling to be able to skip through two or three gears when opening up an attack or when cresting the brow of a hill, while the extra power of the rear derailleur means you can do this under load too."

If Shimano's and SRAM's current mechanical shifters don't allow multiple shifts, then that doesn't mean that electronic is better. It means that Shimano and SRAM's regular shifting systems suck.

You know what else allows multiple-gear shifting? Friction levers.

Skipping through "two or three gears when cresting the brow of a hill"? Here's something that anybody with more than a few hundred miles worth of experience on friction levers can do when cresting that hill: One hand wrapped around both downtube shift levers -  shift from small to large chainring with thumb, while simultaneously shifting from largest to smallest cog in back with one or two fingers.

3. You can put shifters everywhere.

Apparently, Shimano's Di2 allows a person to install up to 3 sets of shift levers (or buttons?) pretty much anywhere they want.

Then again, I've never found myself riding along wishing I had more levers, buttons, or switches on my handlebars, so while the concept might be mind-blowing - it's not exactly life-changing.

4. They're great for time trials.

You know, because you can put those remote shifters all over the place, that means you can have one set by the brake levers, with another out at the end of the aero bars.

If you don't time trial, this makes no difference to you.

Also, I don't think this warrants being listed as another reason. I think it would more accurately be listed as reason "3-b."

5. They're less susceptible to the elements.

"Ok, in their early days, electronic groupsets didn’t cope too well in wet conditions . . . However since then things have got a lot better. That’s because all the cables are sealed (or in the case of SRAM Red eTap, they’re not there at all), while the cables of mechanical gears are left open to the elements, meaning that they can wear out over time."

People make a big deal about cable systems wearing out or going bad over time, but the reality is that in this age of smooth stainless steel cables and lined compressionless housing, a mechanical shifting system will work well for years with only minimal maintenance. But a cable shifting system can also take a lot of abuse and neglect, and the worst thing a person will have to do to get it working right again is add a little lube or replace the cables. Will an electronic system hold up to neglect?

6. You can connect them to your Garmin.

"If you’re going to have gadgets galore on your bike, then you might as well have them all talking to each other."

I don't have a Garmin. I don't want a bunch of electronic gadgets on my bike. I get on my bike to get away from video screens and touchpads.

There you go - Six (really 5½) reasons why electronic shifting is better.

So now I present Seven Retrogrouchy Reasons Why Traditional Shifting is Better Than Electronic.

1. No Batteries. With a fully-mechanical bicycle, you are completely self-sufficient -- living "off the grid" as they say. You will never find yourself on a long ride, miles from home, with a useless hunk of derailleur-shaped aluminum and/or carbon fiber -- rendered as such because you forgot to recharge it before you left home.

2. Mechanical systems can be repaired by anyone. Really. Anyone who has a screwdriver, a couple of allen wrenches, and understands the significance of the words "Lefty-Loosie-Righty-Tightie" can fix an ill-shifting cable-op derailleur. Electronic systems reportedly work amazingly well - but what happens when they don't?

3. Traditional systems withstand abuse and neglect. +1 if it's a friction shifting system. Find an old piece-of-junk bike discarded on the curb on trash day. Just for grins, move a shift lever and see if the rear derailleur moves accordingly. Chances are good that it works. If it doesn't, a new shift cable (under $10) will probably fix it.

4. Inherently simple. A traditional shifting system is a marvel of simplicity -- especially with friction levers. There's very little that can go wrong with it. As a kid, first getting into bikes, I learned a lot by studying the mechanical parts of my bike and working on them myself. As I got older, I was able to apply a lot of the same principals to maintaining and repairing my motorcycles and cars. I don't believe that younger people today will have the same understanding of their bikes and how they work (or their motorcycles, or cars) as people who "cut their teeth" on traditional bikes.

5. Friction shifting systems are multi-compatible. For the most part, friction shifting systems don't care about brand, nationality, or number of cogs. Many people think of them as "obsolete" but in reality, they are practically immune to obsolescence. As long as a derailleur has enough range of movement to span an entire set of cogs, it will probably work.

6. Mechanical systems foster REAL connectivity to your bike. The concept of "Connectivity" gets thrown around a lot these days in a world filled with WiFi, Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS, smartphones, computers, power meters, and now electronic shifting -- but to my mind, all those things actually Disconnect us from the best part of riding our bikes.

As I touched on already, I like being able to feel a shift happening -- feeling that connection between my hand or my fingers, through the cables, to the movement of my derailleurs, and feeling that chain move across the cogs. All the electronics separate us from those very real functions of our bikes, and the various gadgets, screens, and touchpads end up distracting us from our surroundings.

7. Did I mention "No Batteries"? Hey, if a major publication with numerous writers, editors, and who-knows-how-many interns can say that "multiple shift levers/buttons" counts as two reasons, then I can count "No Batteries" twice.


  1. Love it!!! I recently replaced all the cables and housing on my road bike. I didn't really HAVE to. I just figured it was time. The cables weren't frayed or anything. The housing had cracks in the plastic coating and the ferrules were disintegrating (aluminum instead of brass). But the cables themselves were about 5+ years old and the housing and ferrules were closer to 10. But everything was still working fine. I just replaced it because I figured ... why not. But I do wonder if electronics will work the same 5-10 years later, the way mechanical systems do.

  2. Well said. As in any sport, the gadget nerds shill for the manufacturers and try and convince us all of the joys of planned obsolescence. And I applaud them for it as I have managed to acquire enough fantastic bikes, bike parts, film cameras and lenses for less than pennies on the dollar to last me as long as I live.

  3. Of all the tech marvels of the modern bike world, electric shifting interests me the least, I think. I barely care about index shifting.

    Batteries? To shift? Feh.

    "They're less susceptible to the elements"
    - I believe this to be flat-out wrong. After time, weather-resistance and operating-tolerances have to be lost with electric systems (I don't care what they say). Not only with the batteries, but with the motors and with the switches. Too many points of failure. With my bikes, I can literally chuck 'em in a river, drag it back out, and it will still shift fine. If it gets worse than that, it will still probably shift "good enough". In extreme situations, you can adjust/tighten the cable to keep the chain on one gear and that should at least let you get down the road. What is the default position on an electric derailler, and can you manually position/override it?
    Levers and cables are the simplest way to move something. And simplicity is generally the key to longevity.

    "The shifting is better."
    - I don't see how it could be, on a regular person's bike. They may be quicker (doubt it, and certainly not quick enough to be meaningful for my riding), and when they are tuned 100%, they may snap right into place. What happens when that 100% creeps to 90%... 80%? Do they trim automatically? What is the level of fault tolerance? Friction systems can handle a comical level of slop before they become non-functioning. I suppose. I've never had a friction lever stop working all the way. And, as you note, a super-cheap cable replacement cures most of the ills, and can be done by anybody with the tiniest shred of handy skills.

    Sure, the electric system may be great for a sponsored rider that has a mechanic that performs near-constant maintenance on a bike that lasts one season.
    For the rest of us... well, let me just say this: my last ride was on a 20 year old mtn bike that I picked dried mud out of the rear derailler with a stick, trail-side, before my ride. Worked fine.


  4. Amen. Long live the simple steel, all mechanical bicycle.

  5. Thank you for the voice of reason. Common sense is less common of senses nowadays. Your posts are always spot-on.

  6. You may not even need to replace that rusty shift cable. Move the housing, gently scrub with a little lubricant and a Scotchbrite pad and presto! Good as new.

  7. We have become a society of appliance operators and cycling is no exception.
    The next step might be to invent a bicycle that rides itself. An on-board computer could send texts and pictures back to our smartphones to let us know how much fun we're having.


    1. Perfect, Louis. Wish I could have thought of that.

  8. Just to play devils'advocate I've read that Di2 holds up well in peanut butter style mud because there is no moving cable to pull contamination into the housing. For this reason it's becoming popular with monster crossers and other masochists. However since I don't race it is of little interest to me. And there is still the issue of being dependant on a battery. What will you do after the zombie apocolypse when batteries charged or otherwise will be hard to come by.

  9. Rohloff and carbon belt, no hassle forever.

  10. Better quality aftermarket cable systems like Nokon and Gore, solved the "gunk in the cables" gripes years ago.

    I run them, in a full length configuration on pretty much all my bikes.

    Slop infected cables affecting my shifting? I know not of what they speak.

    As for electronics? Spot on.

  11. No-no-no! The bicycle has endured because of its beautiful SIMPLICITY. One of the most beautiful inventions of man. All the other additions, gadgets, nonsense are just a manufacturer's means of separating you from your money. IMO.

  12. Have you used electronic shifting?

    1. Nope. No interest in it. Couldn't afford it if I had the interest.

    2. Have you seen any negative reviews of electronic shifting by someone who's actually used it? I would like to read one. So far, the only negative things I've read were written by people who have never used one. And all reviews have been similarly positive (skeptical at first, then never going back to mechanical). The main reason why I haven't tried Di2 is that I'm afraid I'll like it too much and want it on all my bikes.

    3. Who said anything about negative reviews? Everything I've heard and read about this stuff is that it works great. I find it unnecessary and expensive. It's wonderful if people are buying bikes for you, or you have an unlimited bike budget.

  13. Like someone else said, I don't want to ride an appliance that needs to be charged now and then.