Brace Yourself - Chinese Electronic Groupsets are Coming
China Cycling posted a YouTube Short showing off a new electronic version of L Twoo's RX Groupset. A friend of mine showed this to me and made me instantly regret splurging so much on the SRAM Red eTap AXS that I bought for my 2018 Ridley Noah SL.
I'm optimistic about cycling products designed and marketed by Chinese companies. Hardware in particular has gotten pretty good in the last 5 years, giving the big brands a run for their money. When I started cycling in 2008, carbon framesets and carbon wheelsets were incredibly expensive and were only available from the big brands.
However, by 2012, I was riding an excellent OEM chinese carbon frameset fitted with 50mm carbon wheels. I paid S$1500 for both. Not cheap, but far cheaper than anything comparable from the big brands. I rode those for 6 years before purchasing my 2018 Ridley Noah SL - a testament to their quality.
I did replace the wheels with another set after 3 years because carbon rims wear out from braking and mine warped. That's just they way they are.
Electronic Groupsets might commoditise shift performance.
Okay, this title is a bit triggering, but hear me out. I think electronic shifting might commoditise shifting performance on bikes.
Let's briefly talk about Mechanical Groupsets before I elaborate.
Mechanical Groupsets are expensive and difficult to do well. Take a look at this image of a Shimano 105 shifter 👇
It is a marvel of mechanical engineering. This is not an easy (or cheap) thing to make. Building out the tooling to produce small parts like this to tight tolerances and putting them together into a compact form factor is incredibly hard and expensive. Imagine the difficulty in producing a tolerance stack for this assembly that works when producing millions of these.
There's a reason a Shimano shifter feels so light and smooth. I've worked with Japanese engineers at my past job and they're fanatical about part tolerances when produced at scale. I mean no disrespect to Campagnolo or SRAM, but I prefer the clinical feel of a Shimano shift that's likely the result of that fanatical attention to the tolerance stack. It also helps that Shimano 105 has always been cheaper than Campag and SRAM (until recently).
This raises an important point about groupset preferences.
I notice that people prefer one over the other based on points like "shift feel", "build quality", "weight" and "history". Campagnolo fans often sing hymns about how Campy feels less clinical and has more shift feel than Shimano. I would concede here and say that I do like Campag's thumb shifter, but prefer the smoothness of a Shimano shift. SRAM fans often talk about how intuitive Double-Tap is. I didn't like Double-Tap's long lever throw.
All of the above are largely centred around the ability of a company to design and reliably mass manufacture little parts that go together into set of shifters and derailleurs. Each mechanical design produces a different result. The mechanical chinese groupsets never quite got that shift down to a refined level and I suspect it's mainly because they under-invested in tooling to produce parts at high tolerances. Which might explain why they're so much cheaper. Pure speculation here by the way.
However, when you replace those little mechanical bits with a battery, a printed circuit board (PCB), some good code and simplified moving parts a lot of the skill needed to manufacturer a complex mechanical part is no longer needed.
I discovered this when I mixed a pair of SRAM Red AXS eTap shifters and derailleurs with Shimano.
Moving a shift lever to press a button that sends a signal to the derailleur motor is indistinguishable from Shimano's Di2. Sure, you press different buttons on each system, but it is a button nontheless.
SRAM is slower by a smidge because of the way the system processes the signal, but honestly - not something I notice. And judging by how many bikes are getting equipped with SRAM Rival AXS, I suspect many people no longer think about the shift performance difference between SRAM, Shimano and probably Campagnolo.
Which begs the question. In an electronic world where groupsets shift roughly the same way and feel roughly the same - will shifting become a commodity? Will the chinese finally catch up?
Will Chinese Groupsets finally be good? Just like Chinese Electric Vehicles?
I've test ridden Sensah and L-Twoo mechanical groupsets. I never cared much for them because I preferred the way Shimano shifts. Same reason I don't care much for Campagnolo and SRAM mechanical groupsets.
However with electronic shifting abstracting away the whole mechanical component assembly, this looks like an opportunity for chinese groupsets to finally gain more adoption.
If the whole shift experience is boiled down to the press of a button, why not?
Let's think about the automobile market. Chinese car companies never mastered internal combustion engines. But they do make excellent electric vehicles. BYD produces several models that are honestly pretty good and very well priced. They're also fairly reliable since an electric motor is inherently simpler and more reliable than a complicated internal combustion engine.
Electrification of the automobile and mass adoption of EVs made it possible for chinese companies to go all-in on EV manufacturing and get good at it.
What is Chinese groupset makers decide to focus exclusively on electronic groupsets just like their EV producing brethren? I see some potentially good outcomes for the consumer.
What Chinese Companies aren't good at yet
I don't like chinese branded cranksets, chainrings, chains and cassettes. The result has always been a noisy drivetrain. In some cases, i've had parts been out of tolerance that resulted in poor shift performance.
Producing metal bits to tight tolerances appears to be a handicap at the moment for most chinese groupset companies. Perhaps there's one I have yet to try that does make something indistinguishable from a Shimano Hyperglide system. Please tell me what that is in the comment section below.
Will Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM prices drop because of the Chinese?
I doubt it.
All 3 companies produce full groupsets that appear on most mid-range bikes. Until bike manufacturers decide to introduce road bikes equipped with chinese electronic shifters, whichever company has the most market share with bike manufacturers will be the one that maintains pricing power.
I do think there's an opportunity to introduce builds from a mix of suppliers that can break this "single groupset brand" approach. For example, a bike manufacturer could introduce a model that's made of :
- L-Twoo eRX shifters and derailleurs
- Rotor crankset
- Shimano cassette
- KMC chain
- Juin Tech F1 brakes (disc brake)
- KCNC brakes (rim brakes)
- Shimano rotors (disc brake)
The supply chain is probably going to be a nightmare. Also, i'm not sure if Shimano (or SRAM / Campagnolo) will sell just cassettes and brake rotors to a bike maker
Also, i'd imagine that few people who prefer such a build over a full Shimano / SRAM / Campagnolo build.
This is why I think the big 3 will maintain pricing power. If pricing does drop, it will likely be a result of competition between the 3. A good example is the ubiquity of SRAM Rival eTap. A lot of mid-range road bikes come equipped with it and it's not badly priced. Not cheap, but not terrible. As they gain share, it is possible Shimano might respond with a cheaper 105 Di2 variant. One can hope.
Opportunity for Better Bikes at Lower Prices for the DIY-er
I think the opportunity is going to expand for chinese companies within the DIY community.
People like me who want to upgrade an old bike or buy their own parts and build up a bike. I won't spend on a chinese mechanical groupset. But i'd seriously consider a chinese electronic one if it shifts as well and as reliably as one from the big 3.
I think the future has never looked brighter for someone who wants to get into cycling at a lower price point. I'm excited about that.
* * *
Love to know your thoughts about upcoming Chinese electronic groupsets and bike parts. Leave your thoughts below 👇