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Mechanical vs Electronic Gear Shifting on Your Bike


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bike gearing

If you’re buying a new bike, there are plenty of features that you need to keep in mind, and one of the most important aspects to consider here is the shifting system. Ideally, there are two major types of gear shifters for bikes: mechanical and electronic.

If you’re curious about the one that you should buy, this guide has you covered! In today’s article, we’ll put mechanical and electronic gear shifting head to head in direct comparison, so you can pick the one that works best for your needs. So without further ado, let’s head straight to it!

How Does a Mechanical Bike Shifter Work?

shimano ultegra
Shimano Ultegra Mechanical Derailleur

Mechanical shifters, also known as analog shifters, are the classic design of bike shifters. These shifters use levers and Bowden cables in order to move the derailleurs and push them into another gear.

When the shifter is used, the tension on the cables of the shifter changes, depending on the tension of the wire.

Increased tension causes the derailleur to shift to larger gears while reducing the tension shifts to a smaller gear. In other words, the shifting process depends mainly on the rider’s effort.

How Does an Electronic Bike Shifter Work?

sram etap derailleur
SRAM Force eTap electronic derailleur

Electric shifters are the modern design of shifters on a bike. In this model, cables and levers are replaced with a small electric motor that is responsible for moving the derailleur to larger and smaller cogs and gears.

The electric motor is powered by a rechargeable battery, which is controlled by electronic signals coming from switches or buttons that are built into the brake lever on the handlebar.

In other words, there’s a small computer that manages the gear shifting system effort instead of the rider, although the rider still controls when to shift.

A Brief Comparison Between Mechanical and Electronic Gear Shifting in Bikes

Now that you know more about mechanical and electronic shifters in bikes, let’s compare them in terms of the most important aspects of a shifter system, so you can pick the one that suits you the best:

Ease of Installation

Let’s start with one of the most important aspects for many beginners. When you first buy a gear shifting system, the first thing you’ll need to do is to install it, and that makes the first difference between electronic and mechanical systems.

Mechanical systems are generally less troublesome during the installation process because of their simple setup of cables and the mechanical drivetrain. You don’t need deep experience, skills, or tools in order to get the job done.

On the other hand, installing electronic gear shifters takes more time and requires intricate tools to set it up and get it to work properly. Even after installing them, it’ll still take you some time to optimize the gear ratios for maximum performance.

Compatibility

While installing a gear system, you should also keep compatibility in mind, especially if you’re using an electronic system. This is because not all frames and derailleurs are designed to work with electronic shifters.

As for mechanical systems, just about any bike frame, no matter how old it is, can be compatible with a mechanical shifter.

This is because mechanical shifting has been around for decades, so all frames in production are built to house one easily.

Ease of Use

After the initial hassle of installation and setting things up, intuitiveness and user-friendliness shift dramatically in the favor of electronic gear systems instead of mechanical gears.

In addition to the mental effort you need to do to upshift or downshift, you also need to spend some physical effort in order to shift the gears in a mechanical system.

On the other hand, all you need to do to shift gear in an electronic system is a push of a button, and the motor will do the legwork for you, literally!

Shifting Speed

black road bike

When it comes to shifting, the speed at which you shift from one gear to another can be crucial, especially if you’re cycling competitively.

Electronic shifters are known for being remarkably faster than analog ones, which also help you find the right gear easier and allow you to keep your cadence at a more steady rate.

As for mechanical shifters, changing gears takes a relatively long time, so you end up losing a small bit of your speed every time you do it, reducing your average cycling speed.

Shifting Precision and Consistency

Both mechanical and electronic shifters can be pretty precise when it comes to doing their job. However, when it comes to repeatability, electronic software is always going to be more consistent.

In mechanical gear shifting, the faster you shift, the slimmer your window of accuracy becomes. Also, since you’re using your physical effort to do the job, distractions, variations in the environment, and fatigue can all affect your performance and precision.

This shouldn’t be a problem for a battery-powered electronic shifting system. This is because all movements by the gear system are controlled by a small computer unit that is capable of repeating the same shift every time with almost no changes whatsoever.

Shift Smoothness

In a mechanical gear system, you’ll need to find the ideal point at which the chainring is exactly where it’s supposed to be for a smooth shift. While this is achievable, it has a massive learning curve to it and will still vary slightly when you shift.

As for electronic systems, the drivetrains and the computer are designed to time the exact point where shifting is smoothest, and it’ll guarantee that, every time you shift gear.

This doesn’t only make the shifting smoother on the rider, but it’s also more efficient at reducing the grinding noises associated with shifting gears and helping the components of the shifter to stand the test of time for longer.

Overall Weight

Fewer components mean less weight, and less weight means more speed, it’s as simple as that! Of course, the exact weight of every gear set, whether it’s electronic or mechanical, will vary greatly.

However, most mechanical gears are noticeably lighter, on average, than electronic gear sets. Although mechanical gears may use more cables, they don’t have a computer unit or a battery, which can be pretty heavy and add to the overall weight of the bike.

If you’re all about weight efficiency and you keep every ounce in mind, you’ll have to keep in mind that an average mechanical shifter is around 10 ounces lighter than electronic ones.

Sturdiness Against the Elements

Longevity is an important aspect when picking a gear system for your bike since nobody wants a shifter that breaks down on every tough run.

While both mechanical and electronic shifters are decently sturdy, we have to give this one to electronic shifters, as they’ve become incredibly durable and resistant to mud and dirt, which extends the life of the shifter for a significantly long time.

When the cables of the mechanical gear are exposed to wet or muddy conditions, their smoothness takes a powerful hit, so you need to stop and clean them more often.

Multi-Location Possibility

If you hold your handlebar differently depending on the riding style or speed, electronic gear shifters should be a better choice for you.

This is because you can install more than one button that does the same job on your bike, making it much easier to control the bike without compromises.

Mechanical shifters, on the other hand, can just support one shifter for every derailleur, so you’ll need to reach out to the shifters when you need to make one. This can affect your balance or speed when you’re riding at high speeds.

Batteries and Charging

battery charger

Although electronic shifters’ major advantage over mechanical ones is the motorized gear switcher, using batteries remains a drawback in comparison.

You see, for the motor to operate, you need to keep the battery charged. In some cases, these can be multiple batteries too. The problem here is that when the battery dies, your bike automatically shifts to the lower gear and chainring.

This can be a problem for those who take long trips with their bikes, as they’ll have to keep spare batteries or chargers on them to utilize the electronic shifter system.

Data Collection and Customizability

Wahoo Elemnt Roam Cycling Computer

Shifting at the right time will have a major influence on your performance. For that reason, if you want to improve your speed and time, you need to keep track of your data.

While mechanical shifters are primitive designs that only do their jobs, electronic gear shifters are far more intuitive in that aspect.

There is plenty of software and sensors that can be connected directly to your electronic shifter system to collect data and allow you to customize various aspects of the shifter.

In fact, most popular electronic shifter brands have mobile apps that allow you to customize the shifter as well as various other features.

Many cycling computers (wahoo elemnt roam pictured above) also allow you to connect to your electronic shifter to them. Depending on which computer you have, it will show what gear you’re in, battery life of your shifter, or even log all your shifts for future review.

Cleanliness and Aesthetics

Although electronic gear shifters have more internal components, they don’t rely on large cables that can look quite messy.

As a result, when it comes to cleanliness and aesthetics, electronic gear shifters are much more aesthetically pleasing.

Replacement Parts Availability

When a part of your shifting system breaks down, you’ll have a hard time finding its replacement if you’re using an electronic gear shifter.

On the other hand, mechanical shifters are quite simple and decently compatible with each other.

This means that their parts are not only readily available, but also more affordable and suitable for buyers on a budget. When a mechanical gear system breaks your nearest bike shop should be able to fix it. However with mechanical shifters you may have to shop around or wait a while for parts to be ordered.

Price

Last but not least, electronic gear shifters are generally more expensive to purchase, whether as a whole unit or in terms of replacement parts.

This is because electronic systems require advanced technology and more parts to build when compared with mechanical systems.

Final Verdict: Which One to Go for?

With that said, our guide that puts the mechanical vs electronic gear shifters on your bike comes to an end.

As you can see, each one of these shifting systems has its pros and cons, so you should go with the one that offers a better package for you and your budget.

Electronic shifting is incredibly clean, intuitive, and easy to use. It’s also easily installed and provides precision shifting for the best performance if you don’t mind the motor and battery requirements.

However, electronic groupsets are noticeably heavy, expensive, and complex when compared to mechanical ones, so you can’t repair one on the spot.

On the other hand, mechanical shifting is easier to repair on the field and has been around for a long time, so it’s less complex and more affordable.

You also don’t have to worry about batteries and charging. For that reason, they’re more suitable for beginners and cyclists on a strict budget.

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