The move from cable-actuated shifting to electronic shifting has meant, among other things, that riders aren’t confined to a single, factory-ordained location on their bike for shifting gears.
There are a few upsides and two main downsides to being able to shift from a button mounted directly to the handlebar instead of with a lever or button integrated into the brake lever.
While Campagnolo’s EPS system doesn’t yet allow for satellite shifting, SRAM’s eTap and Shimano’s Di2 systems allow you to plug in small button shifters. SRAM’s system has Blip buttons that are shaped much like an elevator button — a flat, circular trigger sits inside a cylinder. Shimano’s sprint shifters are much smaller, with a triangular lever that can easily be actuated from the side as well as straight down.
The upsides of satellite shifters
Outside of racing and even inside it, being able to shift without moving your hands — or barely even moving a finger — is convenient and arguably safer. If you are riding with your hands on the tops of the bars, for instance, it’s handy to be able to shift without reaching forward to the main lever.
The biggest winner in the satellite shifting of course is the time trial bike. Prior to electronic shifting, you had to choose between having your hands on the extensions with the mechanical gear shifters, or on the basebar with the brake levers. Now you can shift in both places.
Inside of racing, the sprint shifter can — true to its name — allow sprinters to shift while keeping all their fingers wrapped tightly around the handlebar that they are pulling on with full force during a violent sprint.
After initially being skeptical of electronic shifting — he preferred the feel of mechanical systems — Cavendish was sold on Shimano Di2 after the sprint shifters were released. He tried them in the winter of 2010 and raced with them beginning in 2011.
Cavendish is now just one Tour de France stage short of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34. He is racing with a unique satellite shifter configuration, using a single Shimano Di2 sprint shifter on the righthand drop of his handlebar. Since satellite shifters only shift in one direction, this lets him shift into a bigger gear as the sprint winds up.
The downsides of satellite shifters
So if remote shifters are faster, easier, and safer, why doesn’t everyone use them? Well, the two main reasons are that they can limit hand positions and that they can cause accidental shifts.
By placing a shifter on the handlebar, you are effectively reducing the full usable area of the bar. With a button on the bar, you can’t wrap your hand around that spot the way you normally could. At best, doing so is a little uncomfortable. At worst, and this is the second downside, you can accidentally shift without meaning to.
The accidental shifting is more of a risk for Shimano’s hair-trigger shifters, which can be actuated by a nudge from the side. SRAM’s Blips require a more intentional, head-on press.
Sprint shifters are often placed on the inside of the drops, where a rider can hold tightly onto the drops and then nudge the button with an index finger. A downside can be when that same index finger inadvertently contacts the shifter when riding over bumps.
DIY satellite shifters
While SRAM introduced a new shifting logic with its electronic groups, Shimano and Campagnolo use the same basic layout for their mechanical and electronic levers. In Campy’s case, that means the lever behind the brake lever shifts into an easier gear and the thumb lever shifts into a harder gear. Caleb Ewan, who crashed out of the Tour on stage 3, has extended thumb shifters on his 11-speed Campagnolo EPS levers that aren’t available for sale. The idea is similar to a sprint shifter — make is easier to reach the shifter without having to move the hand when sprinting full out. Perhaps this could lead to consumer options in the future.
Pro riders have led the way for some satellite shifters options. In 2015, for instance, Etixx-Quick-Step was splicing wires together to add shifters near the stem on the handlebars where the stock Shimano satellites would not reach. Later, Shimano introduced satellite shifters with longer wires.
In 2019, Trek-Segafredo spliced Shimano sprint shifters into their SRAM eTap levers. (Both systems use plug-in wires for satellite shifters.) We have not yet seen SRAM introduce a smaller shifter comparable to Shimano’s design.
And prior to satellite options being readily available in their current configurations and wire lengths, we saw several teams gluing on shifters, sometimes partially deconstructed.
One fun thing about digital shifting is that any button will work — even game console buttons.
Bottom line for everyday riders
Convenience, options, and safety are all good things for bike riding. Being able to customize your bike can be fun. If you do put on satellite shifters, just be intentional about where you put them, paying attention to where you normally put your hands. There’s a fine line between a shifter being close at hand and being underhand. And lastly, just watch out for unintentional shifting. Standing up to sprint only to find that you’re in a much smaller or much bigger gear that you thought can be a rude surprise.
In the meantime, enjoy watching Mark Cavendish fire his forward-facing sprint shifter in the final meters of the flat Tour de France stages.