A Sub-$600 Electric Drivetrain? Maybe.
It's been said that you shouldn't ever talk about sex, politics, or religion in polite company, and I feel like adding electric drivetrains to that list would make sense. It seems that batteries, wires, and the possibility of Skynet hacking into your bike are all things that mountain bikers are nervous about, and there are a few reasons why they should be, including how much current and future electric drivetrains cost. Shimano's Di2 XTR will run you about $2,800 USD for an entire two-by-eleven drivetrain, and there's a good chance that SRAM's electric group will be in the same ballpark when it's eventually released. Ouch. But there might be another option in the future.
And then there's Microshift's 11-speed electric eXCD drivetrain that, while admittedly still deep in the prototype stage of its life, might retail for around the same price as a $425 USD Shimano XT group. Even if the eventual production eXCD drivetrain ends up retailing for $600, you'd still be able to buy more than four groups for the price of a single Di2 XTR kit.
Will it work as well as a Di2 XTR drivetrain if and when it actually is released? I highly doubt it, especially given that the live display eXCD group that I tinkered with presented some questionable performance characteristics, but I can't deny that a relatively inexpensive electric group is pretty damn interesting.
• Wired, electric drivetrain
• Front derailleur in development
• Lithium AA batteries in shifter
• Battery life display
• 6,000 shifts / 1,000+km battery life (claimed)
• 11 - 42 tooth cassette
• Clutch derailleur
• Weight: TBA
• MSRP: $TBA USD
| The eXCD rear derailleur features a clutch, and its motor is located in the large protrusion that hangs off its side.|
Battery life and care are always pressing subjects in the comment section of any article about electric drivetrains, so let's get right to it. The eXCD rear derailleur is wired to the shifter, and it's all powered by two rechargeable AA lithium batteries that are located in the rather large shifter. That means there's no battery box or tube that needs to be attached to the outside or inside of the frame and that replacement batteries should be somewhat easy to find. Microshift is claiming that the batteries give the group around 6,000 shifts or around 1,000 kilometers of riding, which matches estimates from riders who've been using Di2 since its release. And, because the AA batteries are relatively small and inexpensive, it'd be easy to bring along a few spares when on a road trip if need be. If the batteries do expire during a ride, the derailleur will stay in whatever gear you were in at the time.
Microshift's battery life claims can't be verified until we get our own eXCD group, but the idea of locating the batteries in the shifter certainly does have some merits when it comes to packaging, even if it does result in a rather large shifter body.
The eXCD clutch derailleur is interesting. The motor protrudes quite a bit, although Microshift was quick to point out that it is a prototype that will evolve more before the group is ready for consumers, including an update to a slimmer profile that will increase clearance between it and large rocks that would like to tear it from your bike.
Also, the derailleur's parallelogram is not nearly as wide as what you can see on a traditional derailleur, with extremely short pivot pins and a narrow stance.
The eXCD derailleur will likely end up looking a bit different by the time if reaches production.
Two buttons on the shifter regulate the derailleur's action, with each button moving the derailleur in a different direction. There didn't seem to be a multi-shift function that would allow riders to move the chain over a number of cogs at one go. Two smaller buttons control setup and power-saving modes, and a small LED indicator right next to those tell the rider how much juice is left. The shifter body itself is quite large, as it would be given that it's also home to two AA batteries, but it appears as though it won't interfere with any brake levers or dropper post remotes.
| The eXCD shifter is home to two lithium AA batteries that power the derailleur.|
How does did it feel on the display stand? First, this eXCD drivetrain is still a long way from production, despite being fours years into development, so it wouldn't be fair to come to any real conclusions here. Still, the fact that it's on display and people can walk up and push its buttons means that Microshift is confident enough to let people play with it. So I had to do exactly that.
The shift action is quite slow, to be honest, slow enough that the delay would be pretty noticeable on the trail, and the shifter buttons are laid out differently than I'd prefer. Instead of being beside each other, I'd like to seem them oriented vertically so a rider wouldn't accidently push the wrong one by mistake in the heat of the moment. The system does work, though, and the chain moves smoothly across the gears on the unloaded display.
Microshift said that the slow shift action is down to both the motor used for the prototype and the battery power required to drive it, one or both of which could change before the group becomes available at some point in 2017.
Shift action is much slower than a mechanical group.
Microshift clearly still has a lot of work to do, and it's doubtful that the eXCD group could ever come close to rivaling Di2 when it comes to straight-up performance, but there's something to be said for an electric group that costs under or around $600 USD. This is especially true if Microshift is able to sort out the slow shifting and show the group's reliability. If they can do both of those things, the next question is whether a consumer would want a proven mechanical drivetrain from Shimano or SRAM, or a possibly quirky electric group from Microshift. Which would you choose?
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