Bikes and Tech
SRAM's eTap rear derailleur has a battery mounted...

VeloNews stories of the decade: Electronic shifting takes over

Component makers first produced electronic shifters in the 1990's, but in the last decade, the technology became ubiquitous in cycling, from the Tour de France to the weekly group ride.

How quickly did electronic shifting take over pro cycling? Shimano launched its electronic Di2 shifting system in 2009, and George Hincapie quietly used it at the Tour de France that year. Hincapie was one of a select few riders experimenting with the new drivetrain that ditched cables for wires.

Fast forward to 2019, and you’d be lucky to spot a single cable-actuated derailleur at any WorldTour race. And the technology has infiltrated the amateur cycling ranks, from your local Cat 3 criterium to the regional Gran Fondo.

The last decade hosted an era of electronic refinement, with Shimano leading the charge, and then Campagnolo and SRAM bringing their own technologies to the market. And while this decade’s trend didn’t have an easy path to fruition, it has ultimately resulted in cementing electronic shifting as the rule rather than the exception.

Head back to 1992 for the technology’s bumpy beginning. Mavic’s hardwired Zap drivetrain capitalized on the notion that electronic shifting had a future. Mavic’s wireless Mektronic followed a few years later in 1999. Unfortunately, the system was plagued by bugs. Shifts happened agonizingly slowly, and the system often ghost-shifted. Still, the ambitious product planted a seed that blossomed into the offerings we have today.

Now it seems as though cable-actuated systems are completely antiquated, at least on high-end race bikes. Shimano’s Di2 system triggered that revolution, with its small battery (initially mounted to the frame, but later integrated into seatposts and other out of the way space), buttery smooth shifting, and button-push operation. That system — like Campy’s EPS — relied on wires to connect all components.

SRAM took the next logical step: A wireless system that worked as well as a wired one. The launch of eTap gave electronic shifting yet another boost, thereby spelling the near-demise of mechanical shifting among the pro ranks. eTap took wireless shifting from experimental curiosity to viable reality, and then refined it with eTap AXS — an update that smoothed out the shifting, opened up drivetrain gearing opportunities for road and dirt categories, and reinforced the idea that the future of shifting looks to be wire-free.

And now the trickle-down has begun. SRAM’s eTap AXS system is now available at the Force level; Shimano’s Di2 system has been available at the Ultegra level for some time now, and it’s long been rumored that eventually we’ll see a 105 Di2 groupset.

Now FSA is in the mix with its WE groupset. Expect more brands to enter the electronic shifting market soon.