With Shimano’s announcement of its new 105 R7100 groupset, all three of the Osaka cycling giant’s top-tier groupsets now have electronic shifting. That all of them also add a twelfth cog to the cassette is almost inconsequential, bordering on coincidence rather than relevance.
A little sentence at the end of of BikeRumor’s report, however, states that for mechanical shifting aficionados, or people on a budget, 11-speed 105 R7000 marches on…and there is no 12-speed mechanical option.
This got me thinking. With 105 now committing to Di2, does this mean the shift to electronic derailleurs is inevitable? While we like to think that it’s the companies who dictate our purchasing choices, we forget that we vote with our wallets and our monetary “voice” is a pretty sizable influence in what companies do. That said, today I lay out arguments for and against electronic shifting.
PRO: LOW MAINTENANCE
Anyone who’s broken a shift cable inside their control levers will appreciate this being a total non-issue with electric-shift groupsets. Perhaps the only maintenance they need is periodic charging of their batteries, which, in the case of Shimano Di2, may be needed only a few times a year.
Freedom from a shift cable also means an electric-shift groupset will never have its indexing go bad because of improper cable tension, since the derailleurs operate via servos and electric motors. If you do need to adjust the indexing, it’s often a pretty simple operation. On older electronic groupsets, you press a button to enter a “fine adjustment” mode, then use the shift buttons to move the relevant derailleur cage millimeters at a time. These days, you can do it via smartphone app.
PRO: LOW LEVER EFFORT + PERSONALIZED SHIFTER LAYOUT
Unlike with cable-shift control levers, where larger sweeps of the lever are needed to pull sufficient cable to shift to a larger cog, electronic groupsets basically have buttons controlling the shifting. Pros may complain that inadvertent shifts can happen while riding on the brutal cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, and winter cyclists may grumble about Di2’s shift buttons not being distinguishable enough from each other, but otherwise this is a net boon – and SRAM eTap’s “paddle shifter” shift ergonomics don’t suffer from these problems either.
Because shifting is now just a button operation, and there is no longer any physical shift cable and ratchet mechanism to account for, there is no reason why shifting has to be restricted to just the shift levers. Shimano led the way here, with climbing shifters intended to mount on the bar tops, and sprint shifters meant to be thumbed while in the drops. SRAM has followed suit with its Blips.
Interestingly, both Shimano 105 and SRAM Rival eTap AXS drop support for satellite shifters.
PRO: THIRD-PARTY TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATION
Many folks have heard of the hidden buttons on the hoods of Shimano’s Di2 shifters by now. These can be assigned a custom function; one frequent use is flipping through the data pages of a compatible cycling computer. Unfortunately this is yet another omission for 105 R7100 Di2.
There are other applications for this. Most electronic groupsets allow current selected gear data to be displayed on a cycling computer (although Shimano has infamously retracted this for Hammerhead Karoo units). SRAM goes whole hog on this concept though and records your time spent in each gear, which you can nerd out on with their AXS smartphone app.
Shimano 105 and SRAM Rival eTap AXS have definitely brought the price of admission down on electric groupsets. That said, they’re still not cheap. A full Shimano 105 R7100 Di2 groupset is $1900 (PhP104,400) – that sort of money can get you a pretty spiffy built bike all on its own, albeit with mechanical shifting.
Along with the price delta of the whole groupset is a price delta of the individual components themselves. The 12-speed Di2 groupsets, in particular, have integrated a lot of their circuitry into the rear derailleur, so if yours gets destroyed on a ride, prepare for a hefty hit on your wallet to replace it.
CON: YET ANOTHER BATTERY TO CONTEND WITH
As appreciative as I am of modern cyclist gadgets and conveniences, the fact remains that a huge percentage of these require batteries. Electronic groupsets are no different. On a fully wireless drivetrain like SRAM eTap, you need a CR2032 coin-cell battery at each control lever, plus one eTap battery per derailleur. Most others require a beefier main battery, either externally mounted on the frame (as with older Di2) or hidden in the seatpost. If you take advantage of the “semi-wireless” option that 12-speed Di2 and FSA’s K-Force WE groupsets offer, you need additional coin-cell batteries at each control lever too.
Stories abound of cyclists having dead derailleurs on a long ride because they had forgotten to charge up their bikes’ shifting batteries. I can accept a cycling computer, sensors, lights, and a power meter requiring batteries, but needing one for the bicycle itself is still off-putting. Perhaps I’m an old fart that way.
CON: PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE
This is one of electronic shifting’s biggest sticking points for me, specifically Shimano Di2 as it has been around long enough to be observable.
Longtime cyclists may remember that Di2 first saw the light of day in 2009 with the Dura-Ace 7970 10-speed groupset. At the time it was a game-changer, but try to look for new Dura-Ace 7970 or Ultegra 6770 parts these days (say, because your derailleur pivots have seized) and you will be flat out of luck. As one episode of the Cycling Tips Nerd Alert podcast mentioned, unlike with cable-shift drivetrains where you can still “force” incompatible components to work with some effort and perhaps extra parts, the same is not true with electronic-shift drivetrains.
First-generation Di2 is a particularly egregious example, as Dura-Ace 7970 and Ultegra 6770 are not compatible with the 11-speed stuff (Dura-Ace 9050/9150/9170, Ultegra 6850/R8050/R8070) mainly due to Shimano’s move to the “e-tube” architecture. Incompatible electronic drivetrain parts just will not talk to each other – which means once spares for your Di2 groupset run out, you will be forced to buy a new groupset.
WHAT DO I THINK?
SRAM’s headlong commitment into its wireless groupsets since 2015, and subsequent success, has obviously influenced Shimano’s decision to introduce Di2 to its three highest-tier drivetrains. There is definitely a technological arms race happening here. Unfortunately it is one that caters towards the upper end of the market, despite both companies’ efforts to push electronic shifting adoption to the masses. While many folks wished for 105 Di2, the unspoken accompanying request was that it be made affordable – and that, it certainly is not.
Where does this leave mechanical shifting?
Judging from the smooth operation of Shimano 11-speed, and comparatively lower lever effort per shift over older groupsets, one could argue that it’s about as good as it will ever get. Even Shimano’s fourth-tier groupset, Tiagra 4700, is just as good despite missing the eleventh cog and using heavier materials. Now that is a groupset ripe for a revamp, as save for a mid-life injection of hydraulic disc brakes, it has remained in its current form since 2016 – perhaps now with the eleventh cog it was always designed to work with?
Unless you go with Campagnolo, the current direction seems to be that 12-speed drivetrains are the exclusive domain of electronic shifting. Folks have whispered that sticking with mechanical shifting may become Campagnolo’s unique selling proposition, its ticket to future continued relevance – especially considering that its EPS electronic groupsets don’t receive the same amount of continuous development that Shimano or SRAM pour in. Given the Italian company’s historically unfriendly pricing strategy, however, I have my doubts. They’ve learned from the Potenza groupset debacle of 2017, and they’ll have to court the OEM market a lot harder than they are currently doing with their 13-speed Ekar gravel groupset, which is a welcome success story for them so far.
Let’s not forget – apart from, say, Tiagra, all these developments are still largely at the pointy end of the bicycle market. Most bicycles still ship with good old shift cable and indexed shifting, and with good maintenance habits these are still perfectly serviceable drivetrains. Personally I will continue soldiering on with mechanical shifting as long as I am able to.
One thought on “Is electronic shifting every cyclist’s future?”
I thought I would be a bit more polarised, but oddly enough I’m really not fussed one way of another about cable / wireless shifting. I do like the elegance and simplicity of cables, however I can’t help thinking about more consistent shifting and the option of having shifting blips on different positions (such as on aero bars for long-distance riding). I agree there will be planned obsolescence, however it seems to be a factor in all technology these days – if one likes rim brakes for example, its only a matter of time until replacement brake blocks become relatively expensive. The same can be said for bolts, etc on older bikes – the cyclists toolkit ain’t what it used to be. I’m curious to see how it develops over time and perhaps how bike design might adapt without the need for cables.