Let’s start off by saying that nothing in this Shimano eMTB EP8, LinkGlide & XT Di2 review is really new, not even the AutoShift itself. This is all tech that we’ve already covered over the last two years, or so. On their own, each of these updates had its own merit, but didn’t seem all that important in our eyes (and likely to many others in the cycling industry. Yet combined together, they truly have the possibility to be transformative in how a few different types of riders use ebikes. The sum is actually greater than its parts.
But wait, do any of us actually want an automatically-shifting e-mountainbike in the first place?
Shimano eMTB AutoShift & FreeShift – What & Why?
Starting with a simple conclusion from my second day riding this tech: “I completed a very technical – rocky, wet & greasy – 42km / 1000m of climbing / 4-hour elapsed / 2.5-hour moving mountain bike ride on a Santa Cruz Bullit CC eMTB equipped with Shimano AutoShift and did not shift manually one single time. And I never felt like I was missing out by not shifting manually. Just pedal, and enjoy the ride.” – me
With that out of the way, I can dial back to my starting point…
No, I didn’t think I wanted an auto-shifting ebike. Just like how in theory I want a manual transmission in my car, why would I ever think of giving up manual control of my bike/ebike’s shifting? But I wasn’t so against the idea, to not give it a try. And after spending two technical days riding it, I’m a lot more intrigued by the concept. And on a side note, my old van is still a manual, but my newer family car is an automatic, and I enjoy driving both.
FreeShift is a no-brainer. Every time you slow down approaching a turn or navigating a technical section, the bike automatically downshifts to an ideal gear that you can pre-set, so when you exit the techy spot you are already in the perfect gear to pedal out again.
AutoShift is a harder concept to accept. The bike constantly monitors your rolling speed, your cadence, and the power you put into the pedals, and shifts itself whenever it determines that you are not in an optimal gear. You can manually shift yourself – overriding the AutoShift at any time – or simply turn off the automatic system if you don’t want it to be in control. But you really can just ride without thinking about what gear you are in, and the ebike brain keeps you going.
Ebike tech concepts
What you have is: an updated ebike powertrain system that has more power & versatility than ever, a drivetrain that prioritizes increased durability and the ability to truly shift under load instead of incremental shift speed gains, and an electronic shifting system that will automatically downshift your bike as you coast down into a difficult section or turn AND give you the option to fully automate every shift based on a few keys sensor inputs.
Only an ebike can bring these systems together. And only a new ebike can combine them all to work. No normal / analog / acoustic bikes can Auto or Free Shift. And no existing ebikes can be retrofitted if this setup was not already installed by the manufacturer. That really limits the application of this tech for the time being. But we suspect as more people (and OEM bike brands) accept that this style of riding can be beneficial, it will become much more mainstream in the eMTB and likely eGravel ebike markets.
Step 1: Shimano EP8 – EP-801 drive units
You need the latest EP-801 generation of Shimano’s top EP8 ebike motor to make any of this work. It has higher torque than the first E8000 generation – now 85Nm – and more complex & customizable rider power-matching curves. It adds more ports to connect powered accessories, smarter battery management, and a new fine-tune support control mode. And it improves communication capabilities to collect & share data and to control that new Di2 derailleur. The update essentially soft-launched last summer around Eurobike 2022.
Step 2: LinkGlide drivetrain
LinkGlide promised 3x cassette lifespan durability when it debuted 2 years ago by putting 11 thicker cogs in the space of 12 modern HyperGlide+ cogs. What they didn’t really talk much about was shifting under load.
To get the full automatic shifting feature, you need a cassette that truly can shift under full load. Lots of drivetrains claim you can shift under full load, but because of the need to mesh gears or chain+cog, most that just means shifts under greater load. This one really shifts whenever it wants, which often happens to be when you are pedaling hard AND when that EP-801 motor is also helping you pedal hard. It’s not quiet. The clunky sound of the shift seems sketchy at first – it’s not so different that the bad-new chunky sound of a thing cog shifting under load and being damaged. But Shimano engineers assure that LinkGlide is happy to clunk, and its performance does not degrade over time like a lighter setup would.
LinkGlide also now forms the basis for the recently described, lower-cost 9-, 10- & 11-speed CUES drivetrains.
Step 3: XT Di2
The last piece of the puzzle is an electronic ebike-only XT Di2 rear derailleur that can be activated by more than one type of signal input, and a Di2 shifter for when you as the rider want to exert control on your shifts.
Shimano says their evolution of MTB Di2 had essentially been chasing even faster shifts from the racing/performance mountain bike side. But the improvements weren’t really that significant over the top-tier mechanical XTR anyway since you were still relying on the same cassette shift ramps to convert derailleur movement into a real gear shift – and not really justifiable for the additional cost to create something like XTR Di2. But…
When combined with an ebike drive system though, there were two new possible shift modes that were outside of the traditional shifting paradigm. And you could more easily share similar hardware in the same overall spacing for both lightweight 12-speed systems or more robust 11-speed systems.
The Result: Automated shifting control
Together, EP-801 plus LinkGlide 11sp or HyperGlide+ 12sp plus XT Di2 allows for FreeShift, the ability of your drivetrain to automatically downshift as you are freewheeling or you to manually shift while coasting.
Or combined, EP-801 plus LinkGlide 11sp only plus XT Di2 allow for AutoShift, the ability of your drivetrain to automatically upshift AND downshift while you are pedaling to always be in a correct gear, based on its smart algorithm (more than just a preset cadence:speed ratio). Plus, you still get FreeShift when you slow down while coasting.
Important note: Both of these automated shifting modes are completely up to the end-user on ebikes equipped with them. It’s easy to turn them off if you don’t want automated control. You can also easily disable one, while keeping the other. And both allow for setting customization via Shimano’s eTube mobile phone app, so you can quickly pick (or change) the gear that FreeShift returns to when you coast, or you can pick what is your optimal cadence (Shift Timing) of optimal rider torque input (Climb Response) for AutoShifting
Review: The verdict… are Shimano AutoShift & FreeShift better?
It’s undeniably weird to let the ebike shift for you, after something like 3 decades of me always being in charge of shifting while I ride. At first I was thinking too much about it, and even my thumb accidentally manually shifting out of habit.
So I reprogrammed the right-side Di2 shift buttons via the eTube app to control the ebike power assist mode (just like the left-side EP8 remote) so I wouldn’t accidentally override the automation, and never looked back.
I rode the automatically shifting bike up winding doubletrack, steep rocky climbs & long gravel road ascents, across deep creek crossings, through slow slippery rock gardens & deep sucking gravel sections, over wet roots, and down singletrack littered with small drops and the occasional kicker jump. Never did I miss shifting, and the bike never really missed a shift. Some of the steep techy climbs came with louder chunkier shifts, but it shifted without my input.
I only ever moved from Eco to Trail to Boost modes to select how aggressively I wanted the motor to support my pedal input, depending on terrain and slope.
On one steep greasy muddy ramp and on one really rocky technical climb, I didn’t quite make it up on my first attempt. So, I went back, spun my cadence a bit differently to instigate the ebike to shift when I wanted in anticipation of a steep climb that it could not have predicted, and I cleaned both of these very touch sections on their second attempt. Both were also sections that I likely could not have cleaned on a non-ebike, at least not with the challenging conditions I faced because of the weather.
Do you need Shimano AutoShift? And how can you even get it?
First off – No, you don’t need Shimano AutoShift or FreeShift. But why wouldn’t you want to have it as an option?
AutoShift really let me ignore what gear I was in and just ride. It was oddly freeing, and my brain quickly forgot that I normally should be shifting as I ride. (I also had no problem transitioning back to regular manual-shift non-e normal bikes the very next day.) And FreeShift is just cool – slow down or stop, and the ebike is just magically in the perfect gear to start riding again. All bikes would benefit from this, were it possible.
So where do you get it, is a harder question, as it is only an OEM thing and it can’t be retrofitted. Our test fleet of Canyon, Orbea, Santa Cruz & Yeti mountain ebikes is a good hint of where you might find the correct EP-801+LinkGlide+Di2 combo soon. But that list is not exhaustive, and real global availability is still up in the air – often dependent on Shimano’s own component supply to these and more brands. Bike rumors have it that some e-gravel options may even be available with automatic shifting sooner in North America than the eMTBs.
The point of this review is less to tell you to go buy this Shimano AutoShift tech now – you probably would have trouble to do so anyway – and more to say that it’s worth thinking about. I’m a technical mountain biker, and I went into this very skeptical. But I came away a few days later open to the idea of automated shifting on ebikes.
Maybe we can just lean back and enjoy the ride.