Bikes have come a long way and every year new tech hits the market to make cycling easier, safer, and more fun than ever before—from the single-speed penny-farthing to fully electric bikes with automatic shifting and ABS braking.
One innovation that has become popular is the electronic shifter, a piece of tech that has positioned itself at the high end of the drivetrain market and that many tech-savvy cyclists consider a must-have. But are the electronic shifters worth investing in?
What Is Electronic Shifting?
Electronic shifters combine several pieces of technology to improve the performance of your bike. In some cases, they eliminate the need for cables connecting your bike’s shifters to the front and rear derailleurs. In your cockpit, programmable buttons replace shift levers, and the front and rear derailleurs are equipped with servos powered by an onboard battery that allows them to shift gears electronically.
For these pieces of equipment to communicate, wireless shifters can use two wireless protocols for connectivity: the ever-popular Bluetooth and the second-generation Advanced and Adaptive Network Technology (also referred to as ANT+).
Used by fitness companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Fitbit, ANT+ was designed specifically for fitness gadgets such as the Apple Watch Ultra and Garmin MARQ, heart rate monitors, power meters, and cadence sensors because it requires less power than Bluetooth.
Performance Benefits of Electronic Shifters
Many people who use electronic shifters tout the performance benefits as the primary reason for switching. For instance, the ability to shift up or down becomes much easier because there is no mechanical force required to move the shift lever or pull a cable to actuate the derailleur.
Because they are electronic, they are also programmable. Electronic shifters can be set up so that you can shift by two or even three gears at a time using a single press of the shift button.
Another performance benefit of electronic shifters is their ability to provide more consistent shifting. There are no more variables to worry about like cable stretch or cable housing contamination, which can hamper the performance of a mechanical setup.
Electronic shifters allow you to see what gear you’re in when paired with a cycling computer, and shifting data can be accessed online so that you can see how much time you spend in each gear. You may find the information provided by electronic shifters useful since it can help you decide the ideal gear ratio for your bike and provide an indication of how your fitness level may be changing over time.
Electronic Shifter Reliability and Maintenance
Because electronic shifters have different mechanical components built into them, you might be inclined to think that there is more that can go wrong. And while in some cases this may be true (for example, if you forget to charge the batteries), because there are no cables to replace, electronic shifters might be more reliable and require less maintenance than traditional mechanical shifters.
Cost of Electronic Shifters
While they offer benefits, electronic shifters are unquestionably more expensive than mechanical ones, and you’ll only find higher-end bikes coming equipped with electronic shifters on the showroom floor. If you’re buying an electronic shifter as an upgrade, you’ll need to consider the cost of extras such as a charging station, a handlebar mount, and, in some cases, a battery and wiring.
Replacing an electronic shifter is also going to cost a lot more than a mechanical one, so if you’re a mountain biker prone to banging into rocks or stumps and want to keep costs low over time, you might want to avoid electronic shifters until they become cheaper.
Having said that, it may be worth considering that by using electronic shifters, you’ll no longer need to replace your cables and housing as they wear out, generally once or twice per year depending on how often your ride your bike.
Electronic Bike Shifter Batteries and Charging
Like many people considering the upgrade to electronic shifters for the first time, you may be afraid of running out of battery power during a ride. This is a reasonable concern since, for it to function, it needs to be charged.
The Shimano Di2 system runs a single battery and one charge lasts several hundred kilometers, though the exact distance can vary depending on how often you ride, how often you shift, and the temperature. The other major manufacturer, SRAM, claims that its eTap system can last for over 1,000 kilometers of typical riding.
All the electronic shifting systems on the market have some indicator of battery life, with flashing or solid LEDs to signal when the battery is getting low or very low. That way, you’ll know when to charge your battery well before it becomes completely drained.
Popular Electronic Shifter Options
Two of the most popular electronic shifting groupsets—made by two of the largest bicycle component manufacturers—are the Shimano Di2 and the SRAM AXS systems. The primary difference between them is that the Shimano shifters use E-Tube wires to connect components, and everything is powered by a single battery. On the other hand, the SRAM AXS system uses a wireless signal to connect the shift levers and derailleurs, meaning each part requires its own battery.
The benefit of having a single battery is that your system will be easier to maintain and keep charged, while the benefit of being fully wireless will be that your electronic shifters will be easier to install, especially if you’re a DIY kind of person.
The Shimano setup will definitely need to be installed by a professional as the battery is mounted inside the frame tube. That also means not all bikes will be compatible. The SRAM setup can be installed on any bike, regardless of vintage, without the need to drill into the frame.
Is Electronic Shifting Right for You?
More and more bikes come equipped with electronic shifters. While the fastest road riders have fully embraced the technology, if you’re an average cyclist, a budget-minded cyclist, or a mountain biker who is more likely to need to replace their derailleur at some point, you might want to stick to mechanical shifters or consider buying used.