Who Needs Electronic Shifting Anyway?
Why this long-time cyclist is still in love with mechanical
Sometime around the turn of the last century a friend showed up for a ride on a bike equipped with the then brand-new Mavic Mektronic electronic drivetrain. It was thrillingly angular and tantalizingly futuristic, and I could feel my own mechanical shifters becoming obsolete in my very hands. Then, 20 miles in, the whole system crapped out and he had to ride all the way back home in his 53/12. Never had I gone so quickly from coveting a bicycle component to laughing at it—and that’s part of my job.
Then, a decade later, Shimano came out with Di2 for road bikes. Campagnolo and SRAM followed with their own systems. All of them worked really, really well. Now electronic shifting is not only de rigueur for a high-end bike build, but it’s come down enough in price that it’s at home on your workhorse too. So why is mechanical shifting still even a thing on performance-oriented bicycles?
Well, a few years back I got my hands on a road bike equipped with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 group. While I’d tooled around on other bikes with electronic shifting, this was my first time actually living with it, and I was deeply impressed. The ergonomics of the levers were fantastic. Furthermore, the shifting was dead accurate and stunningly consistent. The front shifting in particular was revelatory—not only did the derailleur lift the chain effortlessly onto the big ring, but it also trimmed itself automatically, making the minute adjustments to account for chainline variation that you usually have to do yourself—an I-didn’t-even-know-I-needed-that feature that made me feel like this new tech was worth whatever it cost.
You know what’s better than only having to charge your shifters a few times a year? Never having to charge them at all!
Still, as a cyclist who harbors certain retrogrouch tendencies I kept waiting for some tragic flaw in my fancy new drivetrain to reveal itself. It never did. The battery needed charging so infrequently I barely thought about it. I never once dropped a chain. At one point, after many months, the shifting did start getting a bit balky. “A-ha! I’ve got you now!” I sneered. But on closer inspection the issue turned out to be some stuck links in my chain, which I’d been neglecting, probably because my electronic drivetrain had been so boringly reliable I hadn’t even thought to lube it. At the end of my first year with Di2 I had to admit defeat. Clearly this shit worked.
Then, a couple years ago, I had the opportunity to trade my Di2-equipped bike for a classic Litespeed. While I’d long coveted the titanium bikes of that era, divesting myself of the push-button shifting did give me some pause. Would I miss it? Would the ratchety ker-thunk of mid-aughts Campagnolo feel like going back to a flip phone? And what if I wanted to go electronic on the Litespeed? It didn’t even have internal cable routing! Would those bare cable housing stops look funny in the event I decided to retrofit it with one of those new wireless drivetrains?
I needn’t have worried. Just as no problems manifested themselves in the Di2 during my tenure with it, I haven’t experienced so much as a flicker of remorse since parting with it. In fact, the only time I even think about it at all is when I hear the whirring servo of someone else’s electronic shifting and find myself contemplating how utterly I don’t miss it.
But why don’t I miss it? Electronic shifting is as close to perfection as the multi-geared bicycle drivetrain has come. It would stand to reason then, that I’d long to experience the pinnacle of performance once again.
The thing about bicycles is that they’re not grounded in reason—in fact, scientists still can’t even fully explain the physics of how they work. Given this, I suspect the real reason I don’t miss electronic shifting is indeed because it’s too damn perfect, and therefore fundamentally at odds with whatever it is that makes the bicycle so beguiling. Moreover, a well-engineered, properly adjusted mechanical drivetrain is already remarkably precise, and while electronic shifting may require less effort, it also offers less feedback in return. Yes, it’s true, the nature of a mechanical system means that when you’re under considerable duress and unable to modulate the motion of your digits (trying to catch onto the tail end of a breakaway, for example) you may occasionally mis-shift. However, this happens once in maybe a thousand times. So unless such an unlikely occurrence is liable to cost you your pro contract next season, savoring the tactile feedback of a mechanical system the other 999 times you need to change gears is well worth the trade-off.
And what about that battery, anyway? Yes, I only needed to charge it once every few months, and it never left me miles from home and unable to shift. But you know what’s better than only having to charge your shifters a few times a year? Never having to charge them at all! The latest mechanical drivetrains work virtually as impeccably as their electronic counterparts, with the added benefit that you’ll never, ever have to plug them in. (Yes, eventually you’ll need to replace your shifter cables. But eventually you’ll need to replace your battery too, so there!) If you had the option of a smartphone that you had to tap ever so slightly harder, but that you also never had to charge, you’d take it, right? Sure you would.
Not only do I not miss electronic shifting, but in the unlikely scenario that it ever threatens to take over completely I’d pay a premium for mechanical. It may be near-perfect, but shifting has been so good for so long that it was probably the last area of the bicycle that needed additional optimizing. It’s like the bike industry took a perpetual motion machine and created a version of it that needed occasional recharging.
Then again, this could all just be my inner retrogrouch talking. In fact, the bike I’ve been riding the most lately has friction shifters, and I’m just as impressed with their smoothness and almost limitless compatibility as I was with the electrified precision of my Di2 group. But I’d also miss them a hell of a lot more than the Di2 if they were gone.