Mechanical Vs. Electronic

This article covers, well, a lot of questions. However, it could also be seen as only one question. We’ve seen this topic discussed at great length in our forum on many occasions, and it seems to be a never-ending controversy.

Should I ride electronic or mechanical shifting?

More specifically, the controversy surrounds electronic systems:

-Is it really the best thing ever?

-Is it totally unnecessary?

-Is it worth the money?

-Will the price ever come down?

-Will mechanical shifting completely die? Is it only a matter of time?

-What about XYZ Pro Athlete that set every record known to man… on mechanical shifting! They were fine without stupid batteries!

I could go on for days. The banter never seems to end, so I’ll offer my opinion on the matter. While I have ridden more bike parts than the average bear, by no means does that make my opinion more valuable than yours. If you love or hate electronic or mechanical shifting, I’m not here to stand in your way. What I would like to discuss are the ins and outs of mechanical and electronic, and why you might choose one over the other.

Let’s start from the Tippy-Top

Before we really dive in, I want to throw a few observations out there. They may or may not personify you, but are worth considering.

1. Many (but not all) of the extreme anti-electronic riders have never used it on a real outdoor ride. Among those people, most tell me that they never intend to buy it in their lifetime. I’ve been taking this poll informally since Di2 first came on the scene. The reason I write this is that I think it necessarily works against the pro-mechanical/anti-electronic group. It’s hard to argue vehemently against something that you’ve never tried (remember what your parents said about that broccoli?). Admittedly, I was once part of this group… until I tried it.

2. Many (but not all) of the extreme pro-electronic riders have the expendable income to easily afford it. Once they try it, they’re hooked. They tell all their friends. You. Must. Ride. Electronic. You HAVE to! This also includes professional athletes that are sponsored with free electronic equipment. I’m not faulting these people for having the spare dough; I just think it’s important that they keep perspective and understand that some people will never be able to afford electronic equipment.

3. Both of the above groups have some valid points. However, neither group is hitting the bull’s-eye dead on.

Argument for Electronic Shifting

If there is one big benefit to electronic shifting, it is the fact that you get two shift points on a triathlon bike (one at the brake levers, and one at the traditional bar-end shifter).

Do you NEED it? No. Will races still be won on mechanically-actuated systems that lack this feature? Yes. Does that mean that it isn’t awesome? Absolutely not. It is a wonderful feature to have.

I also hear the argument that you should really be riding your tri bike in the aerobars 90% of the time anyway, so the whole brake-lever-shifting feature is superfluous. While I understand the point, think it is a pipe dream. Not everyone has a road bike to ride, and not everyone rides their tri bike ‘properly’ (e.g. with the majority of the time spent in the aerobars). That is the reality, and electronic shifting caters to it in a way that mechanical shifting never will. You can argue against this until you’re blue in the face, but it will not stop people from using their base bars. Sorry, Charlie.

Another factor that many people seem to forget is simple: Terrain. Where do you live? If you’ve always lived in a very flat area, it can be hard to imagine living in the mountains (and vice versa). We all tend to think that everyone is like us and that their surroundings are like ours. They’re not. I grew up in the Midwest US where it is very flat, and could never understand why people might need a triple crankset or large cassette… or both on the same bike.

Above photo © Jake Orness

Then I moved to Colorado. I quickly understood. Just riding the first few miles to get away from traffic always included serious climbing and descending. I lived at one apartment where the last two miles riding home included a one mile climb that averaged over 10% grade. The climb had pitches and turns that required very frequent shifting. Give me granny gears AND electronic shifting! It was a whole new ball game for me.

Finally, some training sessions are best accomplished with base bar shifting regardless of where you live. One training partner of mine puts together wonderful bike workouts that include timed repeats that you must alternate standing and sitting. On a tri bike with mechanical shifting, you often cannot complete the standing intervals without sitting down to shift once or twice. It isn’t the end of the world, but definitely makes workout execution more difficult. In this sense, electronic shifting can actually make you faster – if it allows you to more effectively complete the training session.

NOTE: Not all electronic shifting systems offer dual position shifting. The first generation Ultegra 6770, for example, did not come stock with brake lever shifters. For that system, they had to be purchased in the aftermarket, along with a 5-port junction box. Additionally, bikes equipped with the Magura hydraulic brake system do not support brake lever shifting out-of-the-box.

The other benefits of electronic shifting include:

-Sleek bike appearance on bikes and aerobars that are purpose-built for electronic shifting
-Great shift quality*
-No slow degradation of shift quality due to road grime
-Requires less rider skill and experience than mechanical systems

*Great shift quality assumes a lot of things. Not all electronic equipment functions the same, and it is all dependent on the choice of chain, chainrings, frame alignment, setup, and other factors – just like mechanical shifting. I think it is fair to say that – on average – electronic shifting quality is better than most mechanical shifting.

Argument for Mechanical Shifting

Why would you want to ride mechanical shifting? One of the original arguments was a big decrease in weight over electronic systems, but that delta is rapidly shrinking. In fact, the latest iteration of Dura Ace Di2 (with the internal battery) is lighter than the mechanical equivalent by a handful of grams.

The most common pro-mechanical argument is simple: Price. It’s not that mechanical systems are caveman technology, it’s that they’ve been manufactured for a much longer time. The manufacturing has been streamlined and the sales volume is MUCH higher than electronic, both lending to lower price. The other way to look at the price difference is this: Mechanical systems cost less up-front, but require a little more maintenance over time (cable and housing replacement).

The biggest argument for mechanical, however, has nothing to do with the system itself, but rather the infrastructure to support it. If you crash or your bike experiences damage in travel, the time it spends in the shop will likely be shorter with a mechanical system. Shops are more likely to have parts in-stock because they’re cheaper. The labor time is also going to be much greater and more expensive on an electronic system (if you’ve never wired up a 10-speed 7970 system with heat-shrink connections inside of an integrated aerobar and frame… trust me).

For example, let’s compare two identical bikes that fell over to their left sides in the parking lot. One has Dura Ace mechanical, and one has Di2. The left brake lever on both bikes got smashed due to the odd angle at which they landed (including damage to the cable housing and Di2 wire). If you have to replace one cable, one cable housing, and one Dura Ace brake lever, the cost will be much less than replacing a Di2 brake lever and wiring harness. Cost-of-ownership with electronic systems is very low until a problem occurs.

The final point that supports mechanical systems, in my mind, is the simple fact that they’re more fun to work on. This is totally subjective, and I’m sure some will disagree. I’d much rather be in the garage getting my hands a little dirty than plugging my bike into a computer to update firmware or troubleshoot a problem.

Mechanical systems force me to stay engaged with the bike. I pay attention to how it performs and what it does. When there is a problem, I’m usually not left with a big repair bill or a case of ‘just buy a new one’. I have to work on my mechanical bikes more often, but the time per maintenance operation is always less. Instead of re-wiring the entire aerobar assembly or re-wiring the bottom half of the bike, I can often just replace the single cable that is the problem. This more frequent maintenance also gives me the opportunity to generally assess the bike to keep an eye out for other potential problems – is that a crack in my fork, or just a surface scratch?

Which is more reliable?

The topic of reliability has been a hot one. It appears that when electronic shifting failures happen, the conversations quickly become a slippery slope of “This would never happen with mechanical… all electronic systems are garbage!” The electronic system supporters proceed to grab their broomsticks and shout, “Shenanigans!”

I’m not saying that failures don’t happen with one system or the other. They can and do. What we need to consider are the total sample sizes (sales volume) of each, along with the types of failures we see.

To put it simply, I see issues with mechanical systems all the time. The problems are most often due to 1) lack of maintenance, 2) poor installation, and 3) poorly designed and/or cheap parts. What we should all realize, however, is that most of these common problems still allow the bike to be ridden. It might require a huge amount of effort to move that bar-end shifter through the gears because the housings haven’t been changed since 1989, but you can still kinda-sorta shift. The front derailleur might drop the chain every other shift, but the derailleur will still move.

With electronic systems, these problems almost never happen. Either the system works or it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t – it really doesn’t. I’ve seen reports of people being stuck in one gear for an entire race, a junction box or wire that gets damaged in travel, and other similar problems that result in a completely useless shift system. Would you rather need a wrench once a month or a tow truck once a year? Which one is better? Who is right?

It is easy to scapegoat electronic systems, and I feel for the manufacturers of them. Due to the higher price, some people expect perfection. I’m sure luxury car dealers experience the same thing. They’re still manufactured parts built either by human hands or by processes overseen by humans. Some people also miss the fact that all shift systems – both mechanical and electronic – are still subject to the quality of the frame on which they’re bolted.

In fact, just yesterday I was working on a high end carbon road frame that had dropouts and a rear derailleur hanger of questionable quality. Sometimes when a hanger is weak or too thin, the derailleur’s spring tension is too low to compensate and shift quickly into the smallest cog. The ‘fix’ for this is to hot-rod your derailleur’s main spring by spacing the derailleur out and away from the small cog. I use small 1mm washers from McMaster-Carr:

When the high limit is set properly (after the washer is installed), the derailleur’s main spring is preloaded in the small cog, effectively giving it more horsepower to shift. This can be necessary on both electronic and mechanical systems from all brands. If I just spent a huge chunk of change on an electronic system, it may be easy to blame the derailleur, when in fact the real culprit is the frame and/or the freehub spacing of the wheel. If I only bought a mechanical Rival or 105 rear derailleur, I would likely not expect the same level of perfection and would be much more lenient in my judgment.

Which should you buy?

Here’s my take after riding nearly every flavor of mechanical and electronic system.

For TT or tri bikes, I do think that electronic shifting is a worthwhile expenditure, assuming three things: 1) Your brake system supports dual-position shifting, 2) You can afford to buy expensive replacement parts at a moment’s notice, and 3) Your frame is purpose-built to support internal routing of electronics. If either of the first two are out, I’d rather have the mechanical system’s simplicity and ability to ‘limp’ home in the event of a problem. The third point is aesthetic; externally routed electronic systems always look clunky to me.

For road bikes and cyclocross bikes, I personally would not invest in electronic shifting. The new Di2 climb and sprint switches are super cool, but not enough of a value-add to justify the expense of initial purchase and maintenance/replacement. Your resting place is right on the shift/brake lever, making these 2nd and 3rd shift points less critical. Of course, if I was primarily a road racer or cyclocross racer (and not a triathlete), I might feel differently.

The thing we’ve yet to see is if electronic shifting will come down another tier to 105-level. With each lowering of price point, I think the argument for electronic becomes more and more compelling for triathletes.