Shimano have combined their EP801 motor, XT Di2 electronic shifting and Linkglide technology systems, to create Free Shift and Auto Shift.
Despite Lufthansa’s best efforts, Pete made it to the Adriatic Coast to put Shimano’s Free Shift and Auto Shift systems to the test.
Photos by Dan Milner.
It’s worth noting that XT Di2, EP801 and Linkglide are all current and were launched some time in the recent past, this is simply the first practical opportunity to get people on bikes in the same place as the humans that developed it.
A development of the XT Di2 system that didn’t take off like Shimano had wanted, Free Shift and Auto Shift almost do exactly what they say on the tin. Auto Shift is exactly that. Think of an automatic car, the gear shifts are related to engine speed, much is the same with this system. Free Shift is the ability to use the motor to drive the gears as you freewheel, meaning that you are free from having to pedal to change gears.
All this is essentially a combination of the Shimano EP801 motor, XT Di2 shifting and the Linkglide drivetrains. The latter being particularly suited to the demands of ebike riding, and shifting under power. Shimano claim that Hyperglide+ will see rounded cassette teeth within 1200 shifts, whereas Linkglide will still be fine after 5000. Much of the increase in the Linkglide components’ weight is the extra material used to offer this reliability.
After arriving in Croatia for the press camp, I was handed a brand new Transition Repeater to run for the long weekend. A quick suspension and control setup out of the way and it was a few laps of the grounds to get used to what Auto and Free Shift would do and when before a full day’s riding the following day.
Auto Shift can be adjusted to suit with cadence and climb response, with three ‘standard’ profiles. One for ‘pavement’ riding, one for off road and one in manual where Auto Shift is disengaged. Within this, using the ETube app, you can produce multiple different tunes for Eco, Trail and Boost. With no real idea of what to expect, and little real knowledge of my preferred cadence range, I decided t just run the standard settings until they bothered me enough to know what wasn’t right.
The Adriatic Coast is essentially all limestone, and with the opening few trails hugging the shore, it was a good test of getting the tune right. My objective was to spend the planned 40km+ ride letting Auto and Free Shift do their thing, and see if I needed to intervene with the shifter.
Luckily, we had Nick Murdick, Shimano North America’s MTB Product Manager, on hand to help make sense of what we were experiencing and how best to get what we wanted out of the system. I was finding that on the opening kilometres that the bike was in slightly too hard a gear for most situations.
Nick suggested that my cadence might be set a little too low, but that changes in twos or threes was best in either direction otherwise I’d have the opposite problem. With the cadence set to 72rpm, I bumped it to 74 and away we went. Happily spinning away, with the Auto Shift now shifting like a good auto box in a car, and happy with the ‘Start Gear’ which is the gear the Free Shift will return you to on a descent, I’d only have Climb Response left to tweak.
This is the one thing you can’t adjust on the bike. Climb Response is set at 5 of 10 as standard, and feeling it didn’t quite jump up to the easier gears when pushing hard on the climbs, I bumped it down to 3 to see if it would whisk me up the climbs that little bit better.
It’s worth pointing out that for the next three hours, I only touched the shifter three times. Once was half way up a steep climb with a technical section that few had cleaned. I’m a sucker for this stuff, so rolled back for a good run up. Auto Shift had me in the easiest gear and I felt a bit of a harder gear was required. The other two times were just force of habit.
With the Climb Response now giving me a better… well, climb response, I was happy to just leave the bike do its thing as I negotiated an array of jagged limestone before me. While I never found the sweetspot with the bike, having missed a day and a half of the camp, there were few times I grumbled at the chosen gear or speed of change. We were told to ignore the harsh mechanical sound of the gears changing under load as that’s what Linkglide is for, and you do have to jut get used to it.
Heading down one steep descent immediately into a steep climb is where the algorithm comes unstuck, and there will be a limit to what any system can do, and it seems that this is where the work needs to be done. Shimano have worked through multiple algorithms to date, and ours was the latest in a line of them, and fresh ones are to be expected to constantly hone how this works.
For no particular reason, I expected Auto Shift and Free Shift not to be as good as it was. Shimano don’t rush things to market, never have, never will, but I was surprised at how little I needed to adjust the system once I’d made my initial tweaks. Leaving the shifter alone came naturally eventually, and I’d find myself pushing far too hard a gear up hills once I got home. Adapting to the Auto and Free Shift wasn’t the issue, adapting back was.
What little time I did spend with Auto and Free Shift was impressive enough. It would be good to try and spend weeks and months with it to see if it can be used as a daily driver. The real test is whether or not it can survive every day use in slightly less agreeable conditions than the sun and dust of the Adriatic Coast.
Even if you get a bike with Auto and Free Shift, you can turn all or none of them off to suit, so you’re not stuck with one or all of them. It’s simply extra functionality for a bike that is already going to be pretty ideal on the trails. Linkglide just works full stop and XT Di2 is a delight, the shift response being wonderfully consistent.
Free Shift is likely the one I’d opt for, as the ability to shift without pedalling is one of those coveted things formerly reserved for gearbox bikes, has now been opened up to bikes equipped with the right kit. Auto Shift… I’m not sure. Yes, it works, for the most part, but I am a big fan of not allowing tech and human’s inherent laziness to remove our input from outdoor experiences.
It’s worth pointing out that this will, for now, only come on OEM (pre-built) bikes, and not available as an aftermarket upgrade.
You can check out Shimano’s Free and Auto Shift over on their website here.