Is battery-powered shifting something we really can’t live without? Marc Abbott investigates...

The advantages of mechanical-free, electronic gear shift systems like Shimano’s Di2 and Campagnolo’s EPS include more precise, quicker gear changes, reduced chain wear, and the facility to allow multiple locations for shifters, making the process of swapping cogs as simple as the press of a button.

>>> Are you using your bike’s gear efficiently?

But will an electronic groupset benefit all of us? Ben Hillsdon, PR officer for Shimano Europe thinks so.

“The slick, precise shifting operation that comes through electronic gears is unrivalled. And the maintenance involved is minimal,” he says.

“When it was on Dura-Ace only, it was in the realms of aspiration, but now it’s on Ultegra it’s within the reach of sportive riders as well as pros.”

Shimano Ultegra groupset 

One major benefit of electronic shifting is that its performance doesn’t worsen over time or in poor conditions, as cables can.

On this, Hillsdon states: “There’s no way pro teams would be able to use Shimano Di2 in the Classics if it wasn’t up to battling through the weather.”

Luke Rowe of Team Sky has his own take on its effectiveness on cobbles: “If your hands are vibrating all over the place it’s hard to change with a mechanical lever because you can’t feel if you’re engaging it. And no matter how cold you are, you can always feel the sprint shifter buttons on the inside of the drops.”

But what are the benefits away from the unique demands of the cobbles? “When you’re sprinting or going over the top of a climb, and it’s touch and go whether you get on the wheel, you know you won’t jump a gear when you most need it,” Rowe adds.

>>> The best bike throws

But we’ve all seen that video of Sir Bradley Wiggins abandoning his bike at the Giro del Trentino two years ago, with a seemingly electronic shifting-related tantrum.

So is the reliability of electronic systems in question?

Bradley Wiggins waits for team support, Giro del Trentino 2013, stage four

It made a great bike throw, but did it call into question electronic’s reliability?

Lee McKay, workshop manager of Rutland Cycling, says no: “If it was to go wrong it can be more expensive — but it tends not to. I’ve only seen one total rear mech failure, and then it just gets stuck in a gear. You can still get home.”

>>> Do we need 12-speed gears?

On the subject of reliability, Hillsdon offers: “Remembering to charge your battery is the key. But if you’re involved in a heavy crash you might need to adjust the gears, just as with mechanical.”

McKay reckons we’ve come a long way in a few years: “The problems we saw on the earlier systems where the batteries are mounted on the down tube came from water and salt ingress. In terms of actual faults, we see very few.”

Time to find out 

But is there still a time and a place for mechanical shifting? Hillsdon says: “Using mechanical gears is more of an art. You might have to coerce the chain into position, and for those who like to take their bikes apart and know they can fix every aspect of it at the roadside, mechanical might still have its place.”

McKay adds: “If you can afford to go electronic, it works excellently and very few things go wrong with it, but if you’re mechanically minded and want to understand the systems of a bike then it might not be for you.”

Ryder Hesjedal's Cannondale-Garmin team bike 2015

Ryder Hesjedal’s Cannondale-Garmin team bike 2015, with mechanical derailleurs

And what about the elephant in the room? Electronic groupsets cost more than mechanical, but the gulf between the two is reducing all the time.

McKay says: “The price is certainly coming down, plus the advent of electronic gears on mountain bikes is only going to drive that price down even further.”

>>> Disc brakes in the WorldTour: are they necessary on road bikes?

Indeed, a search of online shops at this time of year can find Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 discounted to less than the full asking price of the mechanical equivalent. Can you afford not to fit it?

Our take

Bernhard Eisel's Pinarello Dogma K8-S

Team Sky’s Classics bikes – as with all their bikes – came with Shimano Dura Ace Di2. Photo: Gregor Brown

It doesn’t so much boil down to your financial means but more the type of person you are. If the idea of tinkering, spending hours re-cabling, building and lubing in your garage is what gets you through the working day, then the idea of battery assistance is likely to be beyond the pale.

If, however, you want the slickest-shifting bike at all costs, there’s only one way to go.

For: Luke Rowe – Team Sky rider

“There’s no one on Team Sky still using mechanical, and for me if there was ever a choice I’d never go back to it.

“I’ve ridden electronic for four or five years, and it’s not until you hop on a bike with mechanical shifting and change gear a few times that you realise how much poorer it is. It takes a while for you to remember just how bad it was.

“It’s a no-brainer — I never want to go back.”


Luke Rowe: all for electronic shifting. Photo: Graham Watson

Against: Lee McKay – Workshop manager, Rutland Cycling

“It does take a bit of the purity away from home mechanics. I like the mechanical systems because a bike to me is a mechanical thing; it’s something that I’m powering. Pressing a button isn’t what cycling is all about.

“A lot of people like to change cables, like to know they’ve made their bike run nicely. I like to know that I’ve made that mechanical shift myself and it’s me who’s made the difference.” 

  • Oliver Sarmiento

    He didn’t mention the CONS of Electronics groupset. Of course, There are small motorized parts that needs to maintain. This motorized parts are exposed in Dust, rain, impact, vibration and heat. You need to maintain the waterproof gaskets, grease the motorized parts,check the battery, check the motor, continuity etc.. So many complicated things to check. I dont think EPS are ideal groupset.

  • Altimis Nuel

    LOL @ dumping in the morning comments

    Well, did electronic good? for me, I think so but I don’t plan to buy it soon

    Wait until 105 electronic coming out as half price of Ultegra Di2 and everyone win.

  • Arseny Chernov

    So many different opinions, thanks everyone for sharing! Anyone has any experience with Di2 in Triathlon? Namely Full IM distance (180km tri)? Which course you done, how Di2 compare(d) if you done same on mech. before? What’s the tri perspective?.. Thanks!


    I have had both, and it really depends who you are and what you do. I prefer mechanical DA, but if I raced crits, definitely. TT or any short race? YES! I race road (100mi) and it’s not worth it. First, I’m not a pro, so I buy it myself, maintain it, and fix it. Mech wins! The cost of replacing a derailleur is too high, I can fix mech with a cable, and carry one with me because I don’t have a chase van, especially when training. Extra batteries are heavy and can’t be replaced on the fly. I’d rather have an extra set of carbon wheels! It costs half a new frame, and I often need new shoes when I replace the derailleur I broke. On the other hand, Campy EPS is really, really fast! I also like the idea of SRAMs etap on aero bikes, where routing cables can be a real pain. But I have to say that one thing I hate is I have to worry about a crapload of stuff these days – lights, power meter batteries, computer, cell phone, etc. Adding another one that controls a critical function is a real PIA.

  • Damian

    I am pretty sure his answer would be no, seeing as his bike is running Dura Ace 9000 mechanical.

  • Damian

    My biggest complaint with electronic is not the groups themselves but the fact that many manufacturers top spec frame sets and now electronic only. So you are being forced into it if you want a top of the line frame. That being said the new Sram Etap wireless group peaked my interest from a techie standpoint, no wires or cables to run and small easy to change batteries.

  • Bob

    I agree but cant comment first hand as id never buy electronic gears – seems like more to go wrong and just a gimmick to extract money from the ‘must haves’ imho

  • mrwalker

    And, of course, you could do that and use Dura-ace or Ultegra over 105, and be even lighter.

  • Rich

    i must say it’s great fun on a alfine di2 setup on a Genesis.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    Is the author of this piece a rep for Shimano or Campagnolo I have both electrical and mechanical and the mechanical is much to be prefered so much that the electric will be for sale next week.

  • Phil Hall

    “(H)ave a big dump in the morning, you will save more weight.” Sound advice. And, of-course, far less expensive.

  • Mike Prytherch

    I have both mechanical (105 – 5800) and electric (Ultegra Di2 – 6800), the 105 is amazing, it’s so light and fast, has it miss shifted ? well yes once or twice it has, but it’s no big deal, so 1 in every 1,000 shifts it doesn’t work as intended, could be me causing the mis-shift ? I don’t know, but it’s a fantastic groupset.

    The Di2, well the shifting has never failed, not once, the front change in particular is in a different league to the 105.

    So the margin of difference in terms of shifting is 1 in a 1,000 – is that worth it ? you decide, but I could easily have the same argument between 105 and Dura-ace, I see absolutely no reason for anybody to purchase manual Dura-ace or Ultegra over 105, sure it’s lighter, but have a big dump in the morning, you will save more weight.

    So you could argue… isn’t this the same argument as buying 105 over Ultegra or Dura-ace ? what’s the need for 3 groupsets ? well the reason is choice, and for us to have arguments on a forum, let people have a choice and if electric inspires somebody to get into cycling, or somebody who has lost interest regain their interest then it’s a good thing.

    One last point, I’ve never had to touch the Di2 once since it was set-up, which was easier than mechanically by the way, but the mechanical requires a cable changes every year or so and adjustments in-between, easy jobs to be fair and I like tinkering, so I’m happy to do it.

  • Mike Prytherch

    Not exactly true, I have the climbing shifter which I miss dearly when I got back to a bike with mechanical, there are far more options available on electric, that’s a fact, you may not want them, or see the need, that’s your choice, but perhaps you have not tried them either

  • Andrew Bairsto

    Of course it is you just need showing thats all.

  • DaveS

    The big plus for me is the freedom to place shifters anywhere. That just isn’t possible with mechanical.

  • BruceyBonus

    What would be cool would be some way (maybe some form of micro-dynamo, that can be engaged when required/wanted: for instance, in a high-speed decent) to charge the battery. Now that would be truly sweet.

  • Rashoop

    I found this article as I tried to get more input about something I’m just on the fence about. I just got a bike with DA Di2, and I’m just not quite “getting it”. I’m still getting used to it, but I miss the mechanical “move the entire (both front and back) lever” to shift up, and the inner lever to shift down. Have to think “Okay which button does which”… and I’ve been riding and racing for over 35 years.

    Sure, the shifting is more precise, and the fiddling needed to deal with cable stretch is eliminated, but I’m just not sure the added complexity and reliance on motors in the derailleurs and battery to run the whole thing is worth it. OK, double shifts are also be a bit easier and cleaner, with the ability to press-and-hold of a button to change a whole bunch of cogs is pretty cool. But, then there’s the replacement cost of parts if, god forbid, you ever break something. “A replacement rear derailleur is going to cost me WHAT?!…”

    Really, for the person who lives for tech, this is the stuff. For those who enjoy working on their own gear, and like tradition, stay mechanical (the new DA mech group is amazing). For pro riders for whom it’s provided, and cost plus cost of replacing parts is irrelevant, enjoy it!

  • Chris Zacho

    Why not ask Alberto Contador: winner of the last TWO consecutive grand tours (2014 Vuelta & 2015 Giro), and who is going for a record breaking third in a row (2015 Tour de France)?

  • Chris

    If I could afford it, I would love it. As it is, Luddism rules, OK?

  • 1970greenie

    I agree completely with Luke Rowe. Absolutely love it.

  • Damian

    Electric for me was always the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. I rode a di2 bike for 6 months and there was nothing wrong with it, it had no problems, then I went back to my normal bike with Sram Red and there were no problems in every preservable way it shifted just as fast, never missed a shift and works fine in all gear combinations. Do you have to replace the cables every so often, yes, does it take me any longer to change the cables then it does to recharge the di2 battery no in fact far less time. I just find electronic group sets to be more industry hype to sell a more expensive product than any great advance to cycling.

  • Lenny

    E-shifting is a solution in search of a very limited set of problems.

    It still costs too much $$$, and nearly everyone can get along absolutely fine without it. Mechanical works well, in fact, has never worked better.

    Then there are the 1×11 road drivetrains that SRAM’s coming out with, which make e-shifting even more unnecessary.

  • Alex_nma

    I just want to know what DI2 brake levers cost more than STI levers? DI2 levers are plain brake levers with the addition of a small switch. STI levers have a complex mechanism in them. Do DI2 levers should cost dramatically less, but they don’t. ???

    Also, if you have ridden mechanical groups and DI2 back to back you will see the shifting on the mechanical group is just as good. Why spend the extra cash?

  • gbacoder

    but your Di2 is new and your mech groupset was “old” and getting on?

  • gbacoder

    Well said. I think some people just get a buzz / addiction from spending money and spend the rest of the their time trying to justify it. if the money is hard earned why waste it on coffee runs when a fixed gear works better? Money better spent having time off from work and going on a proper cycling holiday – who cares if that’s good old mechanical gears? When electric is cheap and proven I’ll be using it but until then I’ll spend my money elsewhere. A better choice, but we can never convince others they are wasting their money, so let them.

  • gbacoder

    thankyou. your word is better to me than someone who has been tempted to get their next shopping high buzz from splashing the cash. As people that own one generally try to justify their purchase I don’t think they can be trusted to review them. but someone who has tried one out, that gives us a better view of reality. cannot by any means trust mags either they want us to spend so the bike companies can then afford to spend more on adverts – a very big part of a mag’s income.

  • gbacoder

    Full length outers and 1:1 ratio shifters will make it last 5 times or more longer. Add it best quality cables and even longer. It’s the future but at the prices they are at the moment, not worth it. But we will all end up with one I am sure.

  • gbacoder

    Before anyone says cannot mix Sram 1:1 shifters with Shimano rear mechs – I use a shimano 10 speed rear mech with a sram 9 speed shifter – it works fine. If it lasts THAT long on my MTB though all kinds of crap – it would last ages on a racing bike or touring bike. Would hardly ever have to touch it. Who needs electric?

  • gbacoder

    ““There’s no way pro teams would be able to use Shimano Di2 in the Classics if it wasn’t up to battling through the weather.”Shimano need 1:1 ratio shifters like SRAM. On my MTB I am able to use SRAM1:1 shifters with rear Shimano mech for ultimate it reliability. Plus full run outers. Can ride through anything and not have to touch it for ages.

  • ian franklin

    I live in the same world as you. No need for this.

  • Sound in Chains

    “Those who have electronic always seem to have problems.” In what world do you live in?? Before I owned Di2, I’ve heard the opposite of what you said. In the time that I’ve owned Di2, it’s given me far less issues than my old mechanical groupset.

  • PJ

    That makes no sense. Chain are relatively inexpensive, and if they are changed regularly, a cassette can last for donkey’s years.

  • Comments Sting Like All Caps

    replace chain and cassette together.

  • Dick_Turpin

    No idea what Campag does (their system isn’t anywhere near as clever or power-efficient), but on Shimano, as avtechnician says, you get plenty of warning – and ultimately there’s no reason why you should get caught out by a flat battery as long as you pay attention to the LEDs on the cable junction.

    If you change gear on DI2 and keep the button held, you will lightt the status LEDs on the junction. On a charged/good battery it’s solid green. When the battery drops below 7.4 volts, you get flashing green instead. If you use that as a cue to charge it, you’ll never get caught out.

    If you ignore that and allow the battery to drop below 7 volts, you get a red status LED and shortly after the front mech will disable (no changes *or* trimming). Not sure whether it automatically changes to the little ring or just stops wherever it happened to be.

    After that, the red status light flashes and you get another, maybe, 20-30 rear changes before the system cuts out entirely at 6.2 volts. So even in a get you home scenario, once you know the front mech has gone, you should still have plenty enough battery to do what you need to get you back to the front door. 🙂

  • Marcus

    As someone who had Ultegra and DA mech sets, and had no issue doing my own servicing and keeping them in tune, I was a sceptic of electronic groupsets. After a week of riding with Ultegra di2 (latest model 6870), I swore I’d never go back – and six months later I’m even more firm in that resolve. Absolutely no issues whatsoever, and aside from replacing a chain after 4500k and keeping it all clean, maintenance is non existent. A revelation.

  • Giant Bikes Break

    Reviews I’ve read say you can position the rear mech on one cog if the battery dies but not change. Sounds like you get plenty of warning before this happens. Thanks

  • Yes, we all have a choice. Tomorrow I do the 76km coffee loop on single fixed. Now that’s really trouble free!!!!

  • avtechnician

    The battery lasts 1000 miles or over a month. It only creates an electrical circuit for the 1 second the derailleur moves, then the rest of the time its technically switched off until you change gear again. If you never charged up the battery it wouldn’t die instantly with no warning, it would gradually wind down, for example it would stop the front derailleur first so you still had enough batery to use the rear derailleur. I don’t understand what you mean by “lock the rear mech into one gear”? The mech never moves anyway unless you tell it to.

  • avtechnician

    Ian, us “mere mortals” can spend our hard earned money on what we want. Why can’t we have a nice groupset and do a “coffee loop” if we want to? If it gets us out cycling more, then surely it’s a good thing.
    The whole attraction of di2 to me is I don’t need to service it. There’s no cable stretch or going out of index or skipping gears. Instead every gear change is spot on, always. I wonder if most critics of di2 have ever tried it?

  • I run Campagnolo 11 on all three bikes. Trouble free and easy shifting. Riding here everyday with a variety of riders from many countries, those who have electronic always seem to have problems. If you are a pro it’s easy to get the work done and the gear fixed. That’s all.

  • paul

    Hi I disagree that’s its just for pro’s as I am a novice and decided to buy a nice bike earlier this year. I opted to go straight to di2 as I like the idea that the set up should stay the same for a few years and I like how it adjusts the front when needed.i am mechanically minded but wanted a bike I could ride and only tinker with if I wanted to. Time will tell if I made the right choice happy so far

  • It’s OK for the pros with their mechanics on hand. But absolutely pointless for the rest of us mere mortals. I think the step up from 10 to 11 speed was a step to far. Ultra narrow chains last five minutes …….I know that’s the idea, get the consumables turning over more quickly and you have more business. I see guys here on electronic just to do a coffee loop which you can do quite happily on a fixed wheel. Leave the electronics to Team Sky and we’ll get on with mechanical which we can service ourselves.

  • David Chadderton

    Cycling, for me, has always been a DIY adventure. My Dad taught me how to reinstall brake and gear cabled. An older cycling friend taught me how to remove dérailleur gears and turn my road bike into a fixed gear version. Everything else has been a hobby sport. I’ve never had a professional team mechanic to prepare my bikes. Only about three times in my life have I taken my bike into a cycle shop for a repair I did not have the tools to do for myself. I remember, with loathing, the NeverReady cycle lamps of the 60s, always scraping bulb and battery connections. Battery-powered cycling – aargh! I am one inch away from ditching my cycle computer completely. I have given up on wearing a HRM with two unreliable batteries; I know I am not killing myself uphill anyway, so there is nothing worth watching. There are too many batteries in cycling nowadays. I do not a power meter battery to tell me how feeble my riding is thanks. Retired for a while now, so I do not cycle in the dark anymore; no more night training, riding home from work in dark, fog and ice. It’s all sunshine for me, or, I find something much more important to be doing. As for my iPhone trail tracking GPS software, well, it only works when it feels like it, often leaving me at the end of my home driveway, on the way out on a ride. As for relying on MS or anyone else’s software, well, blue screens, remember? I do not want to be stranded up a creek trail or country road by cycle equipment I cannot fix because the software has frozen! Yes, I fall into the Mechanical Engineer category of cyclist. Yep, cycling is mechanical engineering, recreation, sport and life, for me thanks.

  • Jiří

    I test rode bikes with Dura Ace Di2. While nice I’d not call it earth shattering experience.
    I’m not convinced that the price tag is justified. My mechanical Ultegra does a nice job.

  • Giant Bikes Break

    Yep, not necessary but I’d happily never change a cable or index a rear mech again. Has anyone on here had the battery die mid-ride? I know there’s a way to lock the rear mech into one gear to get you home but is it really a side of the road pissing down with rain job?

  • davem

    Obviously not necessary, but probably useful. Cost is an issue but as stated is ticking down. Personally changing cables is one of the few maintenance jobs I loath and would gladly not ever have to do it again.