Let’s be honest: for gear-heads like us, getting our hands on the latest cutting-edge tech is one of the most exciting reasons to take the bike out for a test spin.
But electronic bike shifters aren’t just a gimmick – they offer a smoother, deeper, and more enjoyable cycling experience.
With the level of performance benefit they bring, there’s a strong argument to be made that all serious cyclists should be upgrading to electronic shifters!
So what’s available right now? And what do you need to know about the different options on the market?
Read on! In this article we’ll be covering:
- 4 Key Benefits Of Electronic Bike Shifters
- What Do You Need To Know Before Investing In Electronic Bike Shifters?
- The 3 Contenders: Shimano Di2, Campagnolo EPS, and SRAM AXS
Ready to get to grips with electronic bike shifters?
Let’s dive in!
4 Key Benefits Of Electronic Bike Shifters
Electronic bike shifters haven’t been around that long, and adoption hasn’t been as rapid or unreserved as you might expect from exciting new technology.
So what are the benefits cyclists look for when making the jump from mechanical to electric?
#1. Streamlined Shifting
The gear shifting experience is basically better in every way when you go electric, and this is the prime benefit of the technology.
Shifting using a mechanical shifter involves depressing a button or lever, which transfers force from your hand to your derailleur using a cable and spring. This is how cyclists have controlled their gears for decades.
This basic system has been refined over the years but has a number of drawbacks that the electronic system eliminates.
Firstly, moving between gears on a mechanical system requires a distinct press, or actuation, for each gear shift. This means shifting multiple gears requires multiple quick actuations which you need to track to end up in the correct gear.
This is not the case with electronic shifters. You can hold down your shift button and the system will shift repeatedly until you release the button, easily executing as many shifts as you like in a fraction of a second.
Secondly, in a mechanical system, you shift your drivetrain using your derailleur by applying all of the force yourself, from your hand, which is then conveyed using cables and springs.
This means that to shift you have to apply the correct amount of force to a system that can be reluctant due to wear and tear. Not applying the correct force can mean missing the shift entirely.
Again, this is not an issue with electronic bike shifters: your button press is effortless and the battery-powered derailleur provides the necessary force to execute the shift.
This also means an electronic bike shifter gives you near-perfect consistency up and down your gear set: your shift always takes the same amount of force and time. The same cannot always be said for a mechanical system.
Finally, electronic bike shifters further streamline the process by making calculations for you. The Synchro feature for Shimano groupsets or Sequential Shifting for SRAMs enables your system to calculate the ideal ratio between the front and back cogs.
For a 2×12 drivetrain, for example, this effectively gives you seamless and continuous access to all 24 gears from a single shifter, without the divide into two sets of 12.
Again, this means a smoother experience as the system takes care of some of the practicalities for you, which are cited as a key reason people choose not to cycle more.
In other words, with an electronic bike shifter, you move into the exact gear you want, at the same rate, every single time.
The benefit of this is obvious: no finicky shifting, missed changes, or momentary stalls as you find the right gear.
Let’s get this question out of the way: Yes, electronic bike shifting systems are waterproof.
You can go for a ride in the rain and power-wash the bike when you get home and you won’t have any issues.
As the systems use static wires (or are wireless entirely) they won’t become clogged with debris or wear down over time. Whilst proper bike maintenance is always recommended, with an electronic system you can leave regular cable replacements behind.
With electronic bike shifters, you have a degree of flexibility to where you place your actuating buttons and levers, which you simply don’t get with a mechanical system.
Without cables to think of, your shift buttons can be anywhere, so you can shift from the drops, the tops, the base bar, or somewhere else entirely!
On entirely wireless systems like SRAM’s AXS groups, you can also have multiple shifting buttons in multiple places which will all link to your derailleur and trigger the shift.
Electronic bike shifting systems also often have associated apps or computer interfaces which let you customize your experience further, controlling the way your system works and tailoring it to your riding style.
Electronic shifters are fun pieces of hardware to innovate your rides, and the innovation extends into new software too.
In today’s world of cycling analytics provided by platforms like Strava, electronic bike shifters enable you to expand your information portfolio by getting receiving data and analysis from your groupset.
That’s right, electronic bike shifters are able to export information including how much time you spend in each gear.
This adds another dimension to quantifying your riding, and can be helpful in understanding how your fitness is changing, and even how many teeth your cassette needs.
What Do You Need To Know Before Investing in Electronic Bike Shifters?
How Much Do Electronic Bike Shifters Cost?
Here we arrive at the elephant in the room: electronic group sets are significantly more expensive than their mechanical equivalents.
This is the main reason the adoption of electronic bike shifters has been somewhat slow, as the technology is still expensive to make, buy, maintain, and replace. So far, they’ve been prohibitively expensive for all but elite cyclists (or those with deep pockets).
A good rule for cycling, and for life, is not to ride what you can’t afford to replace. And currently, there’s a sizable price gap between electronic shifting technology and its mechanical older sibling.
That said, as electronic shifting inevitably becomes more commonplace and mass-produced, costs should start to come down to manageable levels – and the recent electronic upgrade to Shimano’s revered blue-collar 105 groupset is a great sign of things to come.
What About Battery Life?
Here we can give you the good news: with electronic bike shifters, battery life is not the problem some people imagine it to be.
It’s an emotive scenario: far from home and your shifters go dead, leaving you stranded and trapped in a single gear. Fortunately, it’s unlikely ever to happen.
The batteries on electronic bike shifters run for literally hundreds of kilometers – and there are plenty of indicators to let you know your kit needs charging when that time does eventually roll around.
When you find your battery indicator at low power, you could still probably complete three or four full rides without running out. So it’s a “make sure you charge when you get home” indicator, not a “you’re in trouble” indicator.
Now you’re up to speed on the pros and cons of electronic gear shifting, let’s talk about what’s actually on the market!
The 3 Contenders: Shimano Di2, Campagnolo EPS, and SRAM AXS
Shimano Di2 Shifting
Shimano first released the Di2 as electronic road bike shifters in 2009. The technology was then developed to a point where it could be also applied to the rough and tumble world of mountain biking.
Currently, the Di2 technology is offered across a range of Shimano’s upper-end road, mountain, and gravel groupsets.
The Shimano Di2 system is wired, meaning a display unit is connected to the shifting paddles, derailleur, and battery via wires mounted to the frame.
The shifting paddles resemble traditional mechanical levers but operate as light buttons. The display unit contains the system’s computer and indicates information such as battery life and your gear.
The battery is slotted into the frame, typically in the seat post unless you’re using a dropper, but is charged from the display unit – so once you’ve inserted the battery you shouldn’t need to dig it out again.
The systems work with one or two derailleurs depending on how many front cogs you ride with, and the Synchronized Shift system will manage the ratio between both cogs actively as you shift up and down. The Shimano Access App allows you to further customize.
The system also has a safety release in case the derailleur takes a knock on the move.
Campagnolo EPS Shifting
Currently, Campagnolo only offers their EPS Electronic Shifting system for road bikes. It’s a wired system that is structurally similar to a Di2 groupset.
The major point of differentiation is that the EPS system is designed to more fully mimic the mechanical experience: the shifter buttons have inbuilt resistance to make shifting feel more tactile.
The Super Record EPS comes with an impressive battery life of up to 1700km.
Perhaps then, for the cycling purist, the EPS represents a happy middle ground between exciting new technology and an uncompromised cycling experience.
SRAM AXS Shifting
SRAM entered the electric shifter world late and their AXS systems are comparatively a bit simpler – but simple doesn’t necessarily mean worse.
Currently, there are AXS systems for road, mountain, and gravel biking.
The derailleurs and display unit operate as independent systems, each having its own batteries and motherboards. They communicate with one another wirelessly using a proprietary frequency system.
Shifts are triggered by buttons that also communicate with the system wirelessly, and can be mounted anywhere on the bike. Batteries clip into the respective units externally and are removable for easy charging.
AXS groups also interface with the SRAM access app, which lets you customize your experience with the shifter.