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Disc Brakes vs. Electronic Shifters: Which Should I Buy for My Bike?

Once upon a time, your choices for mods and upgrades on your next bike were simple. A saddle upgrade here, a new set of pedals there, and you were on your way for a few hundred bucks extra. 

Nowadays, serious cyclists are faced with some more monumental decisions. Should I add electronic shifters? Are disc brakes worth it for my bike? These bike modifications can significantly enhance your rides, but they’ll cost you upwards of $1,000. 

If you’ve got the cash for both, then this isn’t a tough decision for you. But what if you can only pick one? When it comes down to your choice of disc brakes vs. electronic shifters, cycling guru Darryl MacKenzie says there is a clear winner.

Disc Brakes vs. Electronic Shifters: Weighing the Options

At first glance, this looks like a close contest.

Disc Brake Pros and Cons

Disc brakes, which place calipers and brake pads around a fixed rotor at the center of your wheel, add braking power and precision over the traditional rim brakes. This is especially true in wet areas, where a slippery bike rim and wet pads can add a treacherous few seconds to a stop. They also can’t be added on later, as the setup for disc brakes requires a different frame, so there is a sense of “now or never” when you buy the bike.

On the downside, disc brakes add significant ongoing maintenance costs. Darryl notes spending $300 in two years for disc brake repairs, while he probably hasn’t spent that on rim brake maintenance in three decades of riding. They also add a noticeable amount of weight to your bike.

Electronic Shifter Pros and Cons

On the other hand, adding electronic shifters to your bike brings some clear advantages over mechanical shifters. The Shimano Di2, for example, is the industry leader in electronic shifting and boasts instant, precise gear changes at the push of a button. This removes the need for all those cables running along your bike and makes those long rides that much easier.

There are some cons to choosing electronic shifters over disc brakes, though. They will cost you even more up front than disc brakes — above $1,500 is common. They likewise carry additional maintenance costs. Plus, there is the fact that you can always decide to add them later. The biggest downside, though, is the battery. If you forget to charge up, you could completely lose your ability to shift in the middle of a ride.

Seems like a toss-up, right? Not so fast.

Experience Changes Priorities

When it comes to choosing between electronic shifters and disc brakes for your bike, Coach Darryl notes that experience is the real game-changer.

This became clear to him when he started conducting two different polls within his online cycling community. In the first poll, he asked those who have never ridden a bike with either feature which one they would choose if they could only pick one for their next bike. That poll was a 50-50 split.

In the second poll, however, the truth came out. Among those who had used both electronic bikes and disc brakes, 70% said they would choose electronic shifters if they could only have one of the two. Four even said they would never get another bike without Di2 shifters, while not a single person said this about disc brakes. 

In other words, this contest is only a toss-up to the inexperienced. Once you’ve tried them both, you’re much more likely to say electronic shifters are the clear winner. So, why the difference? 

The Real Value of Electronic Shifters

Ultimately, Coach Darryl says, it comes down to some misperceptions. 

For one, many cyclists equate electronic shifters with the idea of an automatic transmission in a car. So, they think that the shifters will automatically shift on their own. But, while some do come with that optional feature, that’s not the default, and Darryl has only known one cyclist who ever decided to use it.

Another misperception is the hassle of charging. If you’re envisioning having to charge your shifters after every ride simply to ensure you can get through the next one, you’ll be happy to know that’s not the case. A typical shifter battery is good for roughly 1,200 miles of riding, according to Darryl. Simply recharge for an hour or so after a ride when the indicator says it’s below 50% full (after about 600 miles). Doesn’t sound like a big hassle, does it?

In reality, electronic shifters make it much easier for many cyclists to handle long distances. On a mechanical shifter, you’re pushing some of the shifting levers a good 4 or 5 inches with your fingers. Darryl’s Di2 bike once counted 2,100 of these motions on his rear shifters in one century ride! 

Now, compare that to simply pressing a button (which offers little resistance) and even holding it down to shift over multiple gears. It’s a difference that’s magnified quite a bit over a lifetime of cycling. And, Darryl notes, it makes it possible for some riders who have smaller hands or suffer from arthritis to enjoy cycling at all.

In his view, electronic shifters offer a distinct advantage over disc brakes for anyone serious about distance cycling.

“If I do have a longer ride — once it gets to about 75 miles — the only bike I want to ride is the one with electronic shifting,” says Darryl. 

So, if you’re looking into a new bike and weighing adding disc brakes vs. electronic shifters, the answer is clear. At the end of the day, unless you’re riding in a particularly wet climate, electronic shifters are the mod to add. Well, after you put on a tensioned leather saddle, of course. 


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Tower Electric Bikes