ELECTRONIC SHIFTING VS MECHANICAL SHIFTING

FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING

With the entire world going digital in one sense or another, mountain biking is no different. The popularity of electronic shifting systems for road bikes are already set to outstrip their mechanical counterparts.

For mountain biking, it all started with Shimano’s XTR Di2 being the first mountain bike groupset with electronic gear-shifting. Rumour of Sram launching their own MTB version gets us excited even more. But, do we really need it ?

Based on online reviews, our experiences and feedback of some of our fellow riders, here are a few Prons and Cons of electronic shifting vs mechanical shifting systems for mountain biking.


 

ELECTRONIC SHIFTING VS MECHANICAL SHIFTING

Prones and Cones of Electronic and Mechanical Groupsets In MTB

ELECTRONIC SHIFTING VS MECHANICAL SHIFTING IN MOUNTAIN BIKING

With almost every UCI XC professional rider running electronic group set on their mountain bikes, most MTB enthusiasts want to go digital too. What is the benefit of running electronic groupsets vs mechanical groupsets for recreational mountain bikier ? Which one is better ?

Price

The gap might be getting smaller but the mechanical systems price tag is still more affordable. The electronic system can set you back three times as much as its mechanical equivalent. You can equip three bikes with a comparable XTR mechanical drivetrain for the price of the complete XT Di2 group.

Winner – Mechanical


 

Weight

The weight of the very first Di2 systems was one of the main problems often cited by competitive riders. That has all changed now to the nearest 5 grams. Shimano’s front-runner electronic and mechanical shifters weigh the same.

Winner – Draw


 

Cassette

Shimano’s 1×11 Drive terrain (To date Shimano’s widest range) coming with electronic XT Di2 might offer a larger bail-out cog than SRAM’s 1×11 groups, but SRAM’s 1×12 groups and many aftermarket 1×11 options simply out gear it.

The 11-46t cassette has plenty of range, but the jumps between gears (especially from 37-46th) can be for some riders too large. Syncro Shift-enabled XTR Di2 electronic transmission gives you more benefits of a 1x system with more range and smaller steps in between gears, but this luxury comes at the cost of the even higher price of the already expensive groupset.

If you are a tech geek, who is hooked up with electronic shifting, you can fix these gear jumps with fine-tuning. Otherwise, the current 1x cassette coming with Shimano’s XT Di2 is hard to justify.

Winner – Mechanical


 

Set-Up

Even though the most bikes sold nowadays have internal cable routing ports that let you thread the cables neatly through the frame, fitting internal cabling can still drive you mad. There’s no difference here. Same as with traditional mechanical shifting set-up, the whole process will require working out the best cable routing.

Running the electronic system will also need a battery. Many bikes that are not Di2 compatible and don’t offer Di2-specific wire ports, can present a few challenges with housing the battery and junction box. It’s something to consider if you’re thinking of the upgrade. Obviously, it will not concern you if you’re buying a complete mountain bike with an electronic groupset.

Finally, in order to set up Shimano Di2, unlike manually playing with the barrel adjuster on the mechanical system, you will require a computer or an iPad to run the Shimano E-Tube software. Programmable Shifting also means more fine tuning and personalised changes that can be a really cool upgrade. With an iPhone and Android apps, you can even make trail-side adjustments. But we are all different. I’m a simple kind of human. Battery ? Meddling with the computer to set up my shifters for recreational trail riding…? It is too much for me.

Winner – Mechanical For Me


 

Performance

These days, the power and feel of mechanical shifting have been refined to an art-form even on the less expensive group-sets, but cable-operated spring mechanisms are simply no match for the power and precision of electronic computer-controlled servo motors. The electronic transmission performance is faster, smoother and more precise in any conditions.

Another major benefit of digital technology in MTB is that its performance doesn’t degrade over time or in poor conditions, unlike cables of the mechanical system. The flawless shifting of wireless version is the definite winner here.

Winner – Electronic


 

The Shifter Button Feedback

Electronic gear shift paddles have satisfying tactile feedback which is accompanied by an audible beeping sound when a rider reaches the end of the cassette’s range. For some, it might be more useful than glancing at the gear number display while riding. Although, I think that with the time and experience, anyone can learn and make gear changing intuitive without the need for visual feedback.

After one month experience with Shimano’s XTR Di2, I still had a hard time to get used to the one-sided lever layout. The shifter paddles themselves can be adjusted laterally, but the layout does not seem to be as intuitive to use as standard Shimano. It probably is a matter of preferences and something that can be customised too, but personally, I’m more inclined to use standard buttons. I don’t see any significant advantages of the wireless system in this place, and for this reason, I declare the winner – Mechanical.

Winner – Mechanical


 

Maintenance

In terms of maintenance, Di2 systems are straightforward. Once you have it set and you don’t plan on frequent wheel changes, the usual post-rides won’t require much more than a good clean. No need for bi-weekly tune up and cable adjustment of mechanical shifters that often stretch and deteriorate over time and elements.

Electronics will require an external power so you will need to keep an eye on the battery level. Saying it, these batteries have an excellent durability and require to be charged approx 3-4 times a year. But even if you manage to ignore the low power warning light and you run out of it, you will still have enough charge to change the rear mech around 500 times – This should be enough to get you home.

Winner – Electronic


 

When Things Go Wrong

Even though electronic shifters are more reliable than mechanical ones, it won’t be as much fun if shit happens to you. Especially when you are quite a distance away from the civilisation.

It’s not unheard-of for a Di2 system to simply shut down upon damage – It might not happen very often, but it has been reported on a few occasions. The best-case scenario when your electronic system goes haywire is that you’re stuck with one gear.

Running out of batteries will also leave you in the gear you are currently in, while a snapped cable might let you operate only one of your mechs. (Pray for the rear)

In case you manage to drop the chain to the inside of the crankset, you won’t be able to manually move the front derailleur cage over to re-engage the chain like you would with a mechanical transmission. You will need to dismount and wrestle the chain back on to the chainring by hand.

Problems with mechanical shifting are usually quite easy to diagnose. The gears will make weird noises, the chain can drop off the front derailleur every now and then, but most of the time you will be able to shift and get back home. Fixing rarely needs anything more complicated than replacing a cable or some housing. The serious issues with electronic shifters can happen less often, but when they do… you’ve got big trouble.

Winner – Mechanical


 

Conclusion

Maybe I’m old-fashioned and maybe I’m wrong, but to me, the advantages of better performance and less maintenance of the electronic shifting don’t justify such a steep price tag over their mechanical counterparts. Yes, XT Di2 and XTR Di2 will give you smoother gear changes and more custom settings. They will also be more reliable. But all these are not mind-blowing when compared to their equivalent tier of mechanical counterparts.

Also, too much tech requiring laptop or smartphone to set and fine-tune the system slightly putts me off. I like to forget about the whole matrix when I ride. But, it could be just me. I’m sure many of you will have a slightly different opinion here.

I guess it’s a little bit like with carbon bikes. Not being a competitive rider you won’t gain anything by riding 2kg lighter bike, but if you have money to buy one and fix it when it breaks, it’s nice to have it.

 



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