Here is the story of why electric shifting is better than mechanical shifting on bikes. Both are completely fine and valid, but having now ridden a bike with SRAM Rival eTap AXS electric shifting for the last two months, I can never go back. You might have a similar experience.
What is electric shifting on a bike?
On most bikes, you move a little lever on the handlebars which pulls a cable to shift the chain from one ring to the next. On a mountain or hybrid bike, you just press it in with your thumb or forefinger, and on a road bike you often push the whole brake/gear lever to the left or right.
With electric shifting, you just press a button and then the gear shifts quickly, with a little mechanical whirr.
Do you actually need electric shifting?
No, almost no one “needs” half of the stuff on a fancy bike, just like almost no one actually “needs” a sports car, or a 4K HDR TV.
Getting into riding bikes means you go through a series of “I wouldn’t do that!” moments and then eventually doing that. For example, when I first started riding, I said I would never wear lycra. But then I started riding further and needed padded pants, and then once you have the padded tights, you need the cycling jersey so you still have pockets. Then I said I would never get clipless pedals, and then I needed new pedals for my bike and got double-sided pedals “just in case”, and now I ride clipless.
I also used to scoff at people on expensive bikes, because what’s the point? Riding a heavy hybrid bike made me a better, stronger rider, and who needs to go further than 50kms at a time? Anyway, I have a carbon endurance bike now with electric shifting. Electric shifting was something else I was dead against, because why even add the complication of electronics to a bike when you don’t have to? I work with gadgets enough to know that things go wrong with them constantly and they are a hassle.
After test driving, the upgrade to electric shifting is what convinced me to pay an obscenely large amount of extra money for this model over its mechanical sibling.
Why is electric shifting so great?
Firstly, it’s the fact that the gear just shifts instantly. You press the button, hear the whirr, it’s shifted. This simplicity means you can just hold down the button to shift all the way through the gears if you suddenly find yourself facing a big hill. It’s also just really satisfying to hold down the button and watch/feel the gears shift all the way.
Another bonus is that you don’t need to do as much maintenance, and it’s easy to do because you’re not battling with a hidden cable. I’ll be the first to admit that I have not yet built up my bike mechanic skills. It’s something I need to work on, but I’m not there yet, so whenever I have a problem, or I need the mechanical gears on my Trek FX3 tuned, I just take it to a mechanic. That first bike was bought back when the store offered free servicing for life, but if I had to pay, that would cost $60-$180 a pop. I have a limited amount of time to ride each weekend, and I’d rather spend that on the bike than working on the bike.
With electric shifting, there’s no cable to adjust, and there’s very little cross-chaining risk due to how it’s all set up. You can tune your gears the way you want in the app, customise which button does what (with my SRAM Rival AXS you can switch which side makes it go up or down), and change how the front derailleur is operated (on mine, I hold down both buttons to switch at the front).
Granted, given that bikes with electric shifting are much, much more expensive than those with mechanical shifting, it’s not exactly a huge cost saving on servicing when you add it all up over the life of the bike, but I find it a good way to justify it to myself, and sometimes that’s enough.
I can also set it so that when I change between chainrings on the crankset, the rear gears automatically shift up or down two, so it’s not such a huge shift for my legs in one go, maintaining momentum.
This part might be because these are the nicest gears I’ve ever used, and my entry-level hybrid bike is no comparison to a road bike, but I just find shifting to be so much smoother on the Rival AXS. It’s just a pleasure to ride.
If you find yourself riding more on the dropped bars, or using the flat section of your road bars, you can also get satellite shifters, so you can shift from multiple hand positions.
What’s not great about electric shifting?
Anything with batteries is always a risk. I’m currently dealing with a faulty SRAM power meter that drains batteries in 5 minutes, so I get it. But I’ve been riding my bike for two months, and haven’t had the battery get low at all. I’ve only anxiety-charged them once, but the reports of them being able to last for months at a time between charges, even when going long distances, seems to hold true. But the concern is always that SRAM or Shimano might stop making that size of battery, or that you’ll run out on a multi-day ride.
It’s also that they’re really expensive. For the price of my SRAM Rival eTap AXS, I could have gotten mechanical Shimano Ultegra gears. I was lucky to get a really good deal on my bike that made it only slightly unreasonably expensive, rather than extremely. But, to me, the reduced maintenance and my increased comfort with troubleshooting electronics, along with the arguments above made them worth it for me. But they’re definitely not worth it for everyone. They’re a luxury that are slowly taking over the market, and likely will soon find their way onto more mid-tier and entry level bikes, just not quite yet.
You also just don’t get quite as much feedback from electric shifting. I like that now, but it did take me a little while to get used to. Your mileage may vary.
Electric shifting is amazing and I love it, and you should try it if you get a chance. You don’t need it, but you will want it.
Image: Alice Clarke
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