We take the new Shimano EP801 motor with also new Auto Shift out for a spin - is it better than it's predecessors and competitors, and where does it fit into the e-bike motor market? Our thoughts on the new motor
For a lot of riders, e-bikes have made trails more accessible, and climbs a lot easier, but imagine if your e-bike did other things for you, like changing gear. That sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what Shimano’s updated motors deliver. The new EP801 (and cheaper EP60) has a new Auto Shift function, in combination with the electronic XT Di2 drivetrain, that allows the bike to change gear automatically.
Need to know
- Updated EP8 motor gets new functionality and improved sealing
- No increase in power or torque with EP801
- Auto Shift combines motor and Di2 electronic drivetrain to fully control gear changing
- Uses new 11-speed Linkglide chain and cassette, which are cheaper and more durable
This is possible because the chainring on an eBike is independent of the crank spindle, so the motor can spin the chainring and change the gear regardless of whether you’re using your legs to spin the cranks. And yes, it is totally bonkers to look down and see the chainring rotating and hear the bike change gear when you’re just coasting downhill.
Essentially there are two parts to Auto Shift – a smart algorithm that monitors things like cadence, torque, and speed, and the new 11-speed Linkglide cassette. To begin with you set two parameters using Shimano’s e-Tube app, the first being the Shift Timing, which is tunable between 50-100rpm. If you like to spin more when you ride you can set this at a higher RPM and the motor will change accordingly. You also set the Climb Response, which equates to the amount of force you put through the pedals.
Like most things, Shimano does recommend a ballpark setting in the app (72rpm with a climb response of 4) but there are over eight levels to pick from in the advanced menu. Users can also set two profiles – for example, one for road and the other for dirt, which can be toggled via a small button on the new DI2 shifter. And that’s not all – you can also set a start gear, so when you slow to a stop the bike will sense it and automatically shift into this default gear for when you want to pull away again.
New Linkglide Cassette
To ensure the shifts are as clean and as smooth as possible, Shimano has created a new 11-speed Linkglide cassette specifically for e-bikes running Autoshift. The first question we asked is why 11-speed? Apparently it has nothing to do with the idea that e-bikes need fewer gears, but more to do with packaging.
To create the smoother shift, Shimano has increased the height and width of the teeth, and that means the overall dimension of the 11-speed Linkglide cassette is roughly the same as a 12-speed Hyperglide cassette. There’s also a compatibility issue as Shimano wanted the Linkglide cassette to fit on a standard splined cassette body rather than Microspline.
Shimano has also removed a number of shift gates from several of the cassette sprockets, which means the cassette isn’t as quick to shift as a Hyperglide cassette, but it’s a lot smoother, and Shimano says it is over 300% more durable. The 11-speed Linkglide cassette is available in 11-50t. There is a slight increase in weight and it does require you to use a dedicated 11-speed chain, but it is significantly cheaper than 12-speed options, which is to be applauded.
Shimano EP801 motor
Although fundamentally similar to EP8, there have been a couple of small updates to the new EP801 motor. Shimano has improved the quality of the sealing, but it hasn’t eliminated that infamous EP8 rattle. This is because EP8 and EP801 use a clutch mechanism, which disengages fully from the internal drive.
It’s also one of the reasons the Shimano motor has less drag when you hit the speed limiter, so you don’t feel like you’re pedalling through treacle.
There’s also improved heat management and a couple of additional connection ports for powering accessories. Weight seems to have crept up by 100g, too. Shimano’s staff wouldn’t reveal what the peak power output is, but we found it listed on the Shimano EU website at 600w. Like the EP8, it still packs 85Nm of torque and remains one of the most compact full power motors on the market.
Shimano recognises Auto Shift is not for everyone, or may not be something you want to use all of the time, which is why there’s a full manual option. You can also access manual shifts while in Auto Shift mode for those times when you can see the terrain ahead changing and need to override the AI.
The new motor also has a Free shift function, which literally means you can shift and change gear without actually pedalling. While testing the system it did occur to us that a really cool feature would be to have a lube mode, where the motor actually rotates the chain, so you could lube the chain without having to lift the rear wheel off the ground.
How does it ride?
We actually think experienced riders are going to take longer to get used to the system because years of riding have programmed our brains to reduce power through the drivetrain when shifting. With Auto Shift, the chain and pedals are decoupled during the shift phase, so that tension is greatly reduced. It’s not totally eliminated, because there are times when you are pedalling and the bike is trying to shift at the same time. We’re unsure what has priority in these situations, but there are times when it can feel a little clunky.
There were also specific situations where the bike would shift into a harder gear and we didn’t really want it to. On one of the test trails, there was a short, steep incline and the usual technique, even on an e-bike, is to put in a couple of revs to boost up the bank.
However, Auto Shift detected this increase in cadence and changed up, which left us in too hard a gear. It did shift to an easier gear again, but there was a lot going on in a short period of time. Also, rolling over a crest into a descent, the motor would often take a split-second longer to shift up – it’s almost like you are waiting for the bike to catch up. However, in both of these situations, you can override the AI and shift manually.
Where Auto Shift really came into its own was on rolling terrain. The sort of trail where you’re putting in multiple shifts and have to be quite mindful of when and where you have room to sneak in a crank revolution. With Auto Shift the bike does all that for you, regardless of whether you have the time or not. And the motor doesn’t hold back, if it thinks you’re struggling, or starting to spin out, it will change gear. The actual speed of the shift is at a constant rate, regardless of whether you’re climbing or descending, but according to Shimano it has to be, otherwise the bike would actually be driving you forward.
Generally, we found Auto Shift works best if you’re slightly more aggressive when tackling steep ascents, because the bike will sense when you’re starting to slow and change into an easier gear. The traction was pretty consistent – we couldn’t detect much wheelspin.
There are some obvious questions with Auto Shift. Does it herald the arrival of a fully automated mountain bike? Are we dumbing down riding, so that we become more of a passenger and less of a pilot? Right now, it’s hard to say, because we’ve only put less than 10-hours on the new EP801, but beginners are obviously going to benefit from Auto Shift the most because it eliminates one of the most complicated parts of riding – when to change gear. Which leaves more mental capacity free to focus on braking, steering, pedalling and body position.
But there are advantages for the experienced rider too, because how many times have you not had time to change gear, or got bogged down, even on an e-bike? If you brake hard into a tight turn, stall on a climb, or even stop to open a gate, Auto Shift is going to put you in the right gear when you get going again.
The other unknown is how the system behaves in typical UK conditions. In mud and slop, you tend to ride a harder gear to eliminate wheel spin, but that might just be a case of setting it up with a lower cadence.
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Shimano could have easily made Auto Shift mandatory, but you are totally free to choose whether to use it or not, and you could easily do rides where you switch between auto and manual modes in the same way you switch between Trail and Boost. Also, one of the ancillary benefits of the system is that you can ditch all the controls. It’s a radical step, but Shimano claims you only need a single on-off switch and the E-Tube app to make it work, so it would be possible to run a cockpit with just a set of brake levers and a dropper post lever. How cool would that be?