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Imagine cruising down a scenic bike path with the wind in your hair, effortlessly shifting gears without ever having to move your hands or think about a thing.
Ok, let’s not get too dreamy with this – time to land back down to Earth…
Welcome to the world of the auto shift bicycle. Unlike traditional bikes that require manual gear changes, auto shift bikes use intelligent sensors to automatically adjust the gear ratio based on your speed and cadence.
Not your thing? It won’t appeal to everyone, but auto shift technology is here, and it’s going to evolve. In this article, we’ll look at auto shift bikes and where they might be going.
The Concept Of Auto Shift – What Is It?
Rather like a car with an automatic gearbox, auto shifting on a bike means you don’t have to think about what gear you need to be in at any given moment. You can just focus on the ride.
How is this achieved?
At the very least, the bike will shift gears automatically according to your cadence, which means the speed of your pedal stroke.
With Shimano Auto Shift technology, you can set auto shifting parameters using the E-TUBE PROJECT App. There are three settings: Shift Timing, Climbing Response, and Start Gear.
So, what does the above mean in reality? It means the bike will give you an easier gear if your cadence slows down uphill, or if your torque increases, at least until you run out of gears. And it’ll give you a higher gear if you try to pedal downhill or launch a sprint.
This is not a brand new thing in bikes. Many years ago, you could buy a LandRider bike with automatic gear shifting. The LandRider had a flywheel on the rear wheel which moved the derailleur according to pedalling speed, thus adjusting the gears.
Given the LandRider is many years old, why are we talking about automatic shifting now?
Shimano has previously used auto-shifting gears on a hub-gear system, but only now has it set its sights on auto derailleur gear shifting.
Video: LandRider Auto Shift Rear Derailleur
Shimano Auto Shift and Free Shift Unveiled
In 2022, Shimano introduced two new technologies: Free Shift and Auto Shift.
Free Shift technology is an e-bike technology driven by Shimano EP600 and EP801 electric motors. It allows riders to change gears while coasting, which helps eliminate the heavy, crunching gear changes that are particularly prevalent on electric MTBs.
Because Free Shift needs hooking up to motors for functionality, it’s not a technology that will transfer over to manual bikes. But it does blend well with Auto Shift, which you may well eventually find on a regular bike in some form.
Shimano’s automatic shifting also features manual override, so you can take back control of shifting whenever you feel like it. Using Free Shift and Auto Shift combined, the system can even make predictive shifts while you’re coasting and find the optimal gear for you.
For now, these are both e-bike features designed specifically for e-MTBs and electric commuting bikes.
Shimano XT M8150/M8170 & Cues Di2 Groupsets
Having given you the gist of what Auto Shift and Free Shift technologies are about, you might be wondering where you’ll see these revolutionary features.
At the same time that news of these technologies broke in 2022, Shimano was also busy releasing new groupsets.
Shimano XT M8150 and M8170 Di2 e-MTB groupsets are electronic alternatives to the XT M8100 mechanical system. The M8150 rear derailleur uses Shimano’s durable, relatively new “LinkGlide” (LG) cassette, while the M8170 works with established Hyperglide+ parts.
One of the standout features of the Shimano LinkGlide cassette is its durability. It is built to withstand high torque loads and heavy usage, making it an ideal choice for riders who frequently tackle demanding terrains or engage in long-distance cycling.
The Cues Di2 drivetrain also uses a LinkGlide cassette but is intended more for commuter/lifestyle e bikes.
All these groupsets are driven by the aforementioned Shimano EP600 and EP801 electric motors and incorporate Free Shift and Auto Shift technologies.
Who Is Autoshift For?
There’ll be many traditional cyclists out there for whom automatic gear shifting is a no-no. On the other hand, many of the same will also tell you to just enjoy the ride, so maybe some will come around to the idea. For now, it’s not an option anyway on manual bikes.
On an electric mountain bike, Free Shift is likely to be more popular than Auto Shift, since it makes electronic gear changes less brutal on rugged terrain.
Already with electronic shifting, you can have sequential gear shifts that automatically make front chainring switches whenever you want the highest or lowest ratios. Sequential shifting mimics a 1x drivetrain and simplifies gear changes.
The above feature is called “Full-Synchro” mode on a Shimano Di2 SynchroShift road groupset. You also have “Semi-Synchro” mode. This is designed to adjust cassette gears via the rear derailleur when you switch between front chainrings, ensuring a smoother transition.
Of course, none of these fancy electronic shifting modes amount to automatic shifting, where the bike makes intelligent decisions about what gear you should be in. Only you can decide whether this is a feature you’d potentially want in a year or five from now.
Whatever Next? (Future Potential)
For the moment, you won’t see auto derailleur shifting on anything other than e bikes, unless you’re looking at an old LandRider bike. Even if you have no interest in having gears auto-selected for you, the potential is kind of interesting.
Suppose automatic shifting is combined with GPS. Then you’d have a system that knew you were about to climb a hill or mountain. It’d know the terrain, and you’d get perfectly timed shifts that would get you into the right gear without needing a sudden change in cadence.
By adding power or torque into the equation (torque being one part of power), perhaps you could have auto shifting that takes your level of fitness into account. Thus, it might leave you in a higher gear if it knows you can produce more power.
Maybe your bike computer could dial into auto shifting to control certain types of training or intervals, like cadence drills. This is all starting to sound a bit fantastical, so we’ll digress. But it already exists in one form (ERG mode) on smart trainers.
Shimano is out of the blocks first with auto Di2 shifting for e bikes. SRAM has patented a similar system that is yet to be officially unveiled.
What, or who, is next? Auto-shifting tech is unlikely to stand still, but it remains to be seen whether it will evolve into a serious training tool or desirable feature on manual bikes.
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