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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Simon says: why I lament the apparent demise of high-end mechanical groupsets

With the launch of Shimano 105 Di2 R7150, high-end mechanical groupsets appear likely to join rim brakes as an obsolete technology for performance road bikes.

It’s been over three years since one of the three major manufacturers (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) announced a new mechanical road groupset, while we’ve seen the introduction of four electronic groupsets in the interim.

There are undoubtedly some clear advantages to battery-powered gearing on bikes, especially those designed for going fast.

But with the cheapest electronic groupsets (105 Di2 R7150 and SRAM Rival eTap AXS) costing more than double what their mechanical predecessors did, I’m still not convinced they’re a sensible investment for the performance-conscious rider on a budget.

Fancy gears don’t make you any faster

Electronic groupsets may look cool, but they won’t make you a faster rider.
Shimano

Electronic groupsets can save some weight, the ergonomics might be nicer, and their cutting-edge tech is more likely to make other cyclists glance admiringly at your prized possession every time you take it out.

They usually make setting up a bike easier, too, and generally require less maintenance, which isn’t something to be sniffed at in the age of internally routed everything.

To get very specific, having to remove (and then later reinstall) the gear cables on my time trial bike simply to try out a different set of aero extensions is a hassle I’d gladly be rid of.

For the most part, however, having an expensive, electronic drivetrain doesn’t make your bike any faster.

105 R7000 is, fundamentally, still a great groupset.
Simon von Bromley / Our Media

Crucially, someone using Shimano 105 R7000, Ultegra R8000 or Dura-Ace R9100 (the most recent – and possibly last – generation of high-end mechanical road groupsets from Shimano) wouldn’t have been meaningfully disadvantaged in a race scenario compared to someone using their electronic equivalents, Ultegra Di2 R8070 or Dura-Ace Di2 R9150.

With the difference in price between mechanical 105 R7020 and the new 105 Di2 R7150 being around £900 at RRP, a cyclist with the budget for 105 Di2 would have a significant amount left to spend on things that can make a far greater difference to performance (such as aerodynamic cycling kit, fast tyres and aero wheels), by opting for the mechanical groupset.

It would be a shame if the option to spec up a high-performance, budget-friendly road bike in this way isn’t a viable option for much longer.

Simon has never felt held back by using a mechanical 105 rear derailleur on his time trial bike.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

After all, when I turn up to an event, I might gaze longingly at the odd Giant Trinity or Trek Speed Concept, and feel my Planet X Exocet 2 is a small handicap, but I never feel my mechanical 105 R7000 rear derailleur is holding me back.

I’m not setting the world of time trials alight, of course, but we need look no further than the modestly specced Rose X-Lite used by Tom Bell to win the 2021 National Hill Climb Championships.

With its Shimano Ultegra R8000 rear derailleur and shifters, its drivetrain cost a fraction of an electronic equivalent, yet the performance of those components was clearly good enough to compete at an extremely high level.

What are our options?

SRAM still offers three high-end mechanical groupsets, but all are getting a little old.
Robert Smith / Immediate Media

If 105 Di2 does represent the end of the line for high-end mechanical road groupsets, what options does the budget-conscious cyclist have left?

For the time being, stock of existing components will likely continue to be available (within the limits of the ongoing global supply chain crisis).

SRAM lists three mechanical groupsets (Force 22, Rival 22 and Apex) as part of its current product range, although these groupsets are all somewhat long in the tooth.

Likewise, it’s possible manufacturers (whether the big three, or smaller companies such as Rotor) are working on new mechanical road groupsets we’re simply yet to hear about.

Even if we do see a new mechanical road bike groupset from Campagnolo, I expect it won’t be that affordable.
Matthew Loveridge / Immediate Media

Campagnolo, for example, showed its commitment to mechanical with the launch of its Ekar 13-speed gravel groupset in 2020.

Could we see features from that groupset carried over to the Italian brand’s next road groupset?

Campagnolo Chorus 12-speed might be an appealing option, but its RRP of around £1,600 (for the disc brake version) is firmly in electronic groupset territory, and therefore not really what we’re looking for here.

Good ol’ Tiagra and Sora shouldn’t be overlooked.
Oliver Woodman / Immediate Media

Alternatively, then, it’s perhaps worth acknowledging that the mid- to lower-range mechanical groupsets offered by the likes of Shimano are also excellent.

Groupsets such as Tiagra 4700 and Sora R3000 offer excellent bang for buck.

Would I be any slower if I used either of those drivetrains on my race bike? Probably not. Nine- and 10-speed groupsets were, after all, once the pinnacle of road cycling technology.

Are either of those two likely to find their way to my race bike? Probably not. Shamefully, I’m too much of a snob.

You never know, though. Before I used 105 R7000, I used to swear by Ultegra for my ‘race’ bikes. Times change.

Will I ever go electric?

I won’t deny 105 Di2 makes the lure of an electronic groupset more tempting than ever.

As someone who loves new bike tech, I’m definitely the target audience, and can completely understand why so many cyclists have already taken the plunge.

The price-to-performance ratio still feels hard to justify personally, but the gap is closing rapidly and if the technology eventually becomes accessible at an even lower price point (or BikeRadar’s head honchos give yours truly an inflation-busting pay rise), then I’ll undoubtedly be keen.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be cleaning my bike, waxing my chains and eking out every last kilometre from my mechanical drivetrains, hoping this isn’t their last hurrah.

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