Electronic shifting: What’s the buzz?

Many who have tried electronic shifting it say it’s the best thing since sliced bread. It sounds mysterious, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little magical. But all that aside, what actually IS electronic shifting?

Here’s the lowdown.

Most bikes since the invention of shifting use cables—called mechanical shifting. When you shift, your hand is physically pushing a lever that moves a cable that is pulling against a taught spring in your derailleur. This means you’re doing the work of making your bike shift. Though it takes such little effort you hardly notice, it is a system with a lot of room for error both by the operator (ahem) and from wear-and-tear on the cables and housing which come out of adjustment over time.

Electronic shifting changes the game with battery-powered shifting. By pushing a small button that takes as little effort as pressing a key on your keyboard, the shifters communicates with a motor in the derailleurs for you. Motors, of course, need power to run them, so electronic shifting requires a rechargeable battery that needs to be charged every few months.

Motors, of course, (even little baby ones like these) also do the manual labor for us.

If you’ve ever thought your front shifter was a pain, electronic shifting makes that a thing of the past.

What makes electronic shifting so great?

The shifting is supreme.
Since a motor and software is telling your derailleurs how to work, it simply works every time. People who have tried it literally gush about how good it is. And that’s not just hype.

It’s low maintenance: it doesn’t go out of adjustment.
After your shop installs it there are no cables to stretch or housing to get clogged with mud or road grime, you don’t ever have shifting go out of adjustment. It’s been said that it’s so reliable that a downside is you have to remember to keep all the other regular maintenance on your bike up!

It’s less susceptible to damaged by the elements.
Since all the wiring is sealed, there is no rust, dirt, debris or anything else to damage. When it was first introduced, this wasn’t always the case, but given a few years time, the reliability in adverse conditions has been top notch. It’s become the go-to choice for racing cyclocross and mountain bikes since it can take the dirt and cleaning sessions that follow. This is why I’m pretty certain that much like disc brakes, it will be the upgrade of choice for commuters at some point.

With Sram E-Tap or Shimano DI2, you can have multiple sets of shifters on your bike.
Both these systems offer options to add shifters on your bike to places you might have not thought of—like the top of your road bars if you like to ride up high.

A great option for smaller or disabled hands.
For those of us with small (or in my case, arthritic) hands (I’m also looking at you Donald) most mechanical shifter hoods on road bikes are unwieldy and can be hard to function. Since there’s less inside, the shifters are smaller for hands—and making your bike look sleeker. For front shifting, the motor makes the big effort a thing of the past.

Ok. If it’s so great and wonderful, why doesn’t everyone have it?

It’s expensive.
While your old bike can be retrofit with electronic shifting, it might mean routing cables on the outside of the frame (modern frames hide the cables inside). So even if you can afford it, you might be looking at a better deal just by investing in a whole new bike. Which again, is expensive. But if you’re already in the market, it’s something to consider.

It’s really expensive.
Yeah, I mean it. This bears repeating because the cost is currently the main the barrier to why more people don’t have electronic shifting. It will take a few more years before this system becomes affordable and you start seeing it on more entry-level bikes. In the meantime if you crash hard enough to damage the shifters or derailleurs, you’ve got a big replacement cost on your hands.

An electronic shifting group is much cheaper on mountain bikes, but even then it’s still hundreds more, instead of potentially thousands. If either of those quantities seems like a lot to you, then you’re not alone, and electronic shifting may be a few more years out before considering.

Should You Make the Shift?

To many of us our shifting is a thing that just kind of works. Meaning we not only don’t understand how it works, but we also don’t always appreciate if it’s working properly since we wouldn’t know the difference. If that’s you, electronic shifting probably won’t impress you too much.

That being said, if you are in a bike shop or somewhere you get an opportunity to experience electronic shifting in your own hands, I’d recommend checking it out. Not only is how it works pretty cool, it makes a rad “pew, pew, pew” noise when it shifts that sounds like you’re driving a spaceship.

And no one can argue with that advancement!

Tori Bortman is ORbike’s resident bike mechanic. She is also an educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench. Tori’s book, The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners, is out now from Bicycling Magazine.

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