R
oad bike shifting has come a long way in the roughly 75 years it’s been around. The number of gears has ballooned from 2 to 11, shifters have moved from the frame to the brake levers and traditional cable actuation is poised to give way to electronic shifting. There’s little doubt that the revolutionary new tech, which replaces traditional steel cables with small electric servos, will eventually become commonplace. Two decades ago that couldn’t have seemed further from the truth.

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Early Attempts at Electronic Shifting

In the 1990s, when most people were happy wearing bucket hats or slapping bracelets, Mavic, the famed French wheel maker, was busy trying to get electronic rear shifting to work. The company started in 1992 with the Zap, a product with a suitably ’90s name that was an interesting proof of concept but broke quickly and ran out of battery even quicker. Undeterred by failure, the hommes at Mavic tried to raise the bar again with Mektronic in 1999. The new system used radio frequencies to wirelessly shift the electronic rear derailleur; the idea sounded excellent on paper but didn’t stack up to real-world use. Since the derailleur had to house a battery, radio and the servo, it was impractically heavy.

More importantly, it didn’t work. Early adopters figured this out as soon as they rode too close to power lines or their local radio station and their bike started shifting with a mind of its own. Mektronic proved conclusively that Mavic, bless their hearts, could not make a worthwhile electronic group. It also proved that electric drivetrains are really hard to get right. So hard that one of the biggest names in cycling had effectively created a list of what not to do. Future electronic groups would have to be reliable, durable and — for god’s sake — not wireless.

Shimano: An Evolution

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Success

Throughout the early 2000s, both Campagnolo and Shimano used Mavic’s pioneering ideas to develop electronic groups for their pro teams. In 2009, the world finally had a new electronic group in the Shimano Dura Ace Di2 — and boy was it good. The entire system was wired, and only one inconspicuous lithium ion battery powered the whole thing. Servos in the derailleurs were small, and front shifting was not only electric, but powerful. Not content to rest on their reviews, the latest update to the Di2 took the group from 10 to 11 speeds, dropped weight and improved ergonomics. The biggest criticisms to the Di2 have consistently been its astronomical cost ($4,125 for the group) and lack of “feel” (a connection to the bike almost as vague as a record’s “warmth” or a film camera’s “grain”).

After waiting a couple years to see how the market took to electronic shifting, Campagnolo introduced their stellar Record and Super Record EPS groups in late 2011. Their response to the “numbness” of electronic shifting was to replace Japanese precision with Italian fervor. Firm, satisfying clicks and a front derailleur servo that sounds like an injured squirrel make the very act of changing gear a pleasurable experience. Campagnolo’s electronic groups are priced in typical Italo-lux fashion, with the top-end Super Record group selling for $5,200.

Di2? EPS? Mechanical?

Choosing between Campagnolo EPS and Shimano Di2 is a difficult proposition. Di2 seems to have the edge on pure performance and handles battery placement better (not to mention the $1,000 in savings). EPS is prettier, in general, and has a greater air of exclusivity. The swing vote for most prospective ballers electronic shifters probably comes down to ergonomics and personal preference.

Electronic shifting has come a long way in 20 years. It’s now an incredibly reliable system that shifts accurately for a thousand miles per charge and doesn’t need regular maintenance to keep shifting consistent. Furthermore, mechanical front shifting still hasn’t been able to match the incredible performance of electronic, though it’s getting close.

The downsides? You’ll pay a premium for the technology. Recent releases of lower-priced versions of both Shimano and Campagnolo electronic systems (the Ultegra Di2 at $2,388 and the Athena EPS at $2,899, respectively) have brought the cost of entry down, but each of these still costs as much as a flagship mechanical model.

Mechanical shifting, meanwhile, is the best it’s ever been. With Campagnolo and Shimano as well as Chicago-based SRAM producing excellent 11-speed mechanical groups, riders are spoiled for choice. It’s true that mechanical shifting will degrade with exposure to rain and grime, but cable replacement every year makes a huge difference. There’s no doubt that modern flagship mechanical groups provide the best value to the serious road cyclist.

Still… once you press the shift button on Campy EPS or Shimano Di2 and hear the servos whir into life, there’s a pretty good chance that concerns over weight and cost will disappear.

MORE GP CYCLING: The Best Road Bikes for Any Rider | Interview with Cannondale’s Henning Schroeder | The Best American Mountain Bike Trails