I remember back in 2009 when I first rode the Dura Ace Di2 electronic shifting component group. It’s hard to believe that it is now almost 12 years ago to the day but back then it was cutting edge tech in the road biking world. It was insanely expensive and it took several years for that tech to move its way down the ranks.
Electronic shifting made a lot of sense on a road bike. With limited amount of dirt, mud and the fact that you were rarely dumping the cassette (or shifting up multiple gears at time) made electronic shifting a perfect match. Your shifting now had perfect shifts every time and there were two less cables on the bike to deal with. It was a win/win.
As time moved forward, electronic shifting started to make an appearance in mountain biking. The advancements in durability, batteries and design made it so that it was a better fit than in the past. However, electronic shifting had the same issue that it did in early road bike adaptations. Price.
Budget Electronic Shifting for Mountain Bikes?
12 years later and SRAM introduces the SRAM GX AXS electronic component group. Now…I am going to use “budget” in quotes here because we are still talking about a $600 investment for a derailleur, shifter and the necessary batteries and chargers. One could argue that this price point is not budget but it is a step in the right direction for electronic mountain bike components. I know you still see those $900 electronic dropper posts out there…
So the real question is…do we really need electronic shifting in mountain biking? Electronic shifting does have some obvious benefits.
Perfect Shifts…Every Time
The derailleur automatically adjusts for perfect shifts every time and there is even an app that you can connect that makes fine tuning it that much easier. Those days of fiddling with cable tension is gone and if the derailleur gets hit on the trail…it automatically adjusts back. This greatly reduces the amount of work you have to do on the trail and in your garage to get smooth shifting on your bike.
Less Clutter with 2 Less Cable Runs
Routing mountain bike cables has always been a balance of clutter and how they interact with the frame as you turn the bars and the bike cycles through its suspension travel. Nearly every bike these days has some form of internal routing to clean up the overall look which makes for difficult installs. When you make the switch to electric…those problems are gone. It is a much cleaner overall look that also does not interact with any other cables or the frame itself. No increased cable noise or cable rub on the frame…all good things.
So if everything is so great…what isn’t?!
Everything Requires a Battery
This is obvious but it is an issue. Every single component used to drive the shifting now has to have its own battery. Your shifter and your derailleur can not work without a charge. If you are someone who forgets to charge their phone on a regular basis, you can bet you are going to get to the trailhead with a dead battery once or twice. On a recent ride with a friend on mine, he had to steal the battery off his dropper post so he could shift for the ride. That meant he had to ride without being able to use his dropper.
You can get spare batteries that you keep charged and bring with you on the ride. Keep in mind that those extras increase the cost of the setup at $55 a piece. While you are in $600 for the kit…you can be adding over $100 just to have the added security of a battery going dead on a ride or just having a backup in case you forget to charge them. For many riders, this might be a deal breaker on its own.
More Expensive and Harder to Fix
Even some of the least mechanical of mountain bikers can troubleshoot a jacked up derailleur on the side of a trail. That might mean bending it with a stick or maxing out some limit screws just to get home…but everything is mechanical and can be easily sourced or worked into place to get working.
That is not the case with electronic shifting. You are dealing with motors and sensors. These parts are harder to replace and are more expensive to replace. More often that not…you are probably replacing the entire derailleur instead of a couple of parts if you are into rebuilding things. When it comes to the GX lineup, you are talking about a difference of $300 in the retail prices of the rear derailleur. This also happens to be one of the most common parts on a mountain bike to damage thanks to tree limbs and other trail obstacles.
So where is the cutoff?
At what point is it feasible for you to switch to electronic shifting? Does it have to do with price, durability or a combination of the two?
As the price continues to come down, that will get rid of something reservations riders have on the switch. I have to imagine there will still be a group of mountain bikers who don’t want to mess with it and are happy with cable setups. There is also another group that just couldn’t wait to jump on the bandwagon to have the latest and greatest. They already paid the really high prices to have it now.
Where do you stand? Is there a magic number the retail price has to hit or are you just not interested at all? At least there is one thing we can all agree on…at least this is not another mountain bike “standard” we all have to adjust to. It is a take it or leave it.