I was fortunate enough to wangle an invitation to the launch of the 10th iteration of Shimano’s premium Dura Ace groupset in Normandy recently. It was a fascinating gathering of the great and the good of the media for what is undoubtedly a big deal in the world of road cycling. It’s taken me a while to get a chance to put my thoughts down and at the time of posting, there have been bikes with the new Dura Ace shown at Eurobike and you can pre-order it from some online retailers.
Dura Ace is not only the top of the Shimano road range but it sets the direction for the range and the future of the entire Shimano lineage of road cycling components. So it’s an opportunity not only to assess the merits of the new groupset but also to see what you’ll likely see more of in future Ultegra, 105 and other Shimano road product lines.
Since Dura Ace 9000 was launched back in 2013 the road cycling marketplace has seen significant changes including the launch of disc brakes, the move to wider tyres and wider types of geometry and more mainstream adoption of Di2 electronic shifting. Part of the challenge for Shimano was ensuring the new R9100 Dura Ace could provide solutions for all of the types of riders and bikes in this now broader definition of road riding.
Shimano unveiled the new R9100 groupset in an impressive presentation tagged “System Supremacy” as more than ever before Dura Ace is now a system that can be configured into a number of different configurations for a range of applications. Also unveiled was a futuristic new look of dark and black metal finishes with angled surfaces. I had been worried about if I’d like it (like many roadies I can be a bit funny about new things) but within 30 minutes of looking at it, I was won over by the Aesthetics. It looks modern and takes a noticeably different design direction than the competitors.
Many people, including myself, felt that Dura Ace 9000 was the finest groupset on the market, so improving it was going to be tricky – or at least to use the now hackneyed phrase a case of “marginal gains”. Shimano talked about examining and improving every component in their press release, to optimise the input and maximise the output – minimizing energy loss. Marginal gains in other words.
With respect to the mechanical groupset that is quite possibly the case but with the R9100 gruppo it’s now possible to configure the following combinations all in full Dura Ace:
- Mechanical Shifting with caliper brakes : Dura Ace R9100
- Mechanical Shifting with hydraulic disc brakes : Dura Ace R9120
- Electronic Shifting with rim brakes : Dura Ace R9150
- Electronic Shifting with hydraulic disc brakes : Dura Ace R9170
The technical/product presentation began by talking about how the development team focussed on the system beginning with the drive train of the cranks and derailleurs in particular. Changes in bike design especially with respect varying chainstay lengths has seen a re-profiling of the chain ring teeth to improve shifting performance that should work across a range of types of bikes (as the range of possible chain lines has expanded). The chainset is now chunkier (to use a technical term) after Shimano modelled how riders apply power through the pedal stroke. This has led to them beefing up the “power” side of the stroke and taking material/weight away from the opposite side of the pedal stroke. This means the new cranks are more rigid but are also fractionally lighter.
There are a range of significant changes to the derailleurs. The mechanical front mech has had a major redesign as apparently the previous generations long arm design caught on some frames. It’s now been cleverly redesigned with a toggle system that makes for a very compact front derailleur and improves cable routing for a much cleaner finish. A fantastic touch is that you can now adjust the front mech on the bike with an allen key rather than using any of the traditional cable adjusters (which typically don’t work well). On the road on a first ride – it worked impeccably – easy, smooth and simple shifting. Impressive.
The new mechanical rear derailleur adopts Shimano’s shadow mounting system that comes over from the company’s recent mountain bike designs. The results is that it moves the derailleur closer into the bike, giving more protection should you crash and paving the way for bike frames to be designed for a direct mount rear mech. The Dura Ace rear derailleur will ship with a link to fit normal frames that can be removed on a direct mount frame. It looks very clean on the bike and definitely looks more hidden behind the chainstay. Also for the first time a Dura Ace rear mech will accept up to a 30 tooth cassette at the rear. This was driven by pro teams who were having to switch to Ultegra long cage rear mechs on the toughest mountain stages. Now they might not have to. Regardless it’s very welcome for us mortals. I’d happily run 52/36 front combination with a 30 tooth rear cassette.
Once again as you’d expect – it works impressively on the bike – slighter faster shifting I thought and a delight to use. Riding this first, it had me wondering about the need for Di2. Hold that thought for later.
The 9000 series Dura Ace brakes are much loved and respected as being perhaps the best caliper brakes ever. In fact Carsten Jeppesen, Team Sky’s Head of Technical Operations and Commercial, told me at the launch that Team Sky had analysed the braking of all groupset options and Dura Ace gives the best braking according to their measurements. For the R9100 series the brakes have been redesigned to now fit 28mm tyres, which is great and the stiffness of the brake has been improved by over 40% – so yes, they’re better than ever and on the road even in wet conditions on my short test ride – they performed in impressively with good feel. Marginal wins. As you’d expect, you can have the caliper brakes in standard or direct mount options.
For the first time in the history of Dura Ace, R9100 brings us a Dura Ace level flat mount hydraulic disc brake calipers. These look a lot like the current top of the range RS805 flat mount calipers and unfortunately were only on display at the launch. The demo bike had the 805 brakes fitted. Even more interesting was the new Dura Ace rotors that have a much larger cooling area for improved heat management. They look very different to a traditional rotor but are an extension of the Freeza concept that reduces braking temperatures by an extra 30 degrees.
At the launch I was lucky enough to get a short ride on a Pinarello Dogma F8 fitted with the new mechanical groupset and it was very impressive. Great shifting feel, great braking, great shifting performance on a rainy morning in Bayeux, France. As I said earlier, I had thought Dura Ace 9000 was terrific, Dura Ace R9100 just improves everything a bit further with a striking new look. Personally I really liked the new front mech design and I’m delighted to see a 30 tooth cassette and clearance for 28mm tyres as these are all great practical improvements.
So while I was impressed by the mechanical groupset, I have to say the new Di2 Hydraulic Disc Dura Ace instantly wowed me. I’ve ridden several thousand kilometres on Ultegra Di2 now and quite a few hundred on hydraulic discs too, so I didn’t think it’d be that big a deal to ride the new Dura Ace version. It also meant stepping off a Pinarello Dogma to an unbranded “frankenbike” that I had trouble getting the saddle to stay in one place for more than a few minutes.
However even with this on a short ride, the new Dura Ace Di2 hydraulic disc groupset was deeply impressive. Effortless shifting, fabulous ergonomics, wonderful braking and all incredibly easy to use. My prediction is that this combination will be Shimano’s best groupset.
The Di2 version doesn’t see as many physical tweaks as the mechanical version with it’s newly designed mechs but the Di2 disc shifters have been reshaped and slimmed down and felt much nicer to my hands.
Again when I was talking to Carsten Jeppesen of Team Sky, he said that Sky were ready and willing to use disc bikes as soon as they can. I asked him about braking and his view was that the gap in the dry in performance between disc and caliper was small – with discs being no more than 10% better but it’s night and day better in the wet, which my own unscientific seat of the pants experience concurs with.
Where Di2 gets more interesting is that new Wifi and Bluetooth modules allow it to get really clever. They allow more programming options for your Di2 bike, such as programming the gear shifting speed, profiles for different riders/bikes and when using Bluetooth you’ll be able to do this from your phone/tablet rather than plugging into a laptop. Nice!
This new software/connectivity update also paves the way for Shimano Synchronised shifting, another cool feature making it’s way over from MTB. This means you can programme your gears to shift in whatever sequence you want. This means you just change up using, as an example, your right shift lever and the bike shifts the front mech automatically in the sequence you’ve choosen. Thanks to the software you can programme the system how you want to control the shifting sequence. It’s very, very cool to use in person. What’s also cool, is that you can set it up to automatically shift a gear or two at the rear mech when you change the front chainrings, something we all do manually at the moment. This was also fantastic to try and that particular configuration is called Semi Synchronised Shifting. I’m going to cover Synchronised shifting further in a separate post soon.
Another really welcome update to Di2 is the launch of a new junction box that can be incorporated into a frame but will also fit inside a handlebar end. This will allow you to no longer have a junction box under your stem and with the right (and adapted) bars and stem, allow a much cleaner front end of your bike.
For some, the big news was that after about a decade of speculation, Shimano finally announced it’s power meter. Sadly there wasn’t one on show but Fred Grappe of Francaise Des Jeux was on-hand to talk about how they were using them in the Tour de France and were very pleased with how they were developing. Shimano say the system will be highly accurate, have wireless charging and is fully incorporated in the cranks. The “brain” sits inside the crank spider and the strain gauges are in the crank arms. You’ll be able to change chainrings without affecting performance and you’ll be able to do system checks or firmware updates via Bluetooth on your phone. However we don’t know pricing and the release will be into 2017.
Dura Ace R9100 also sees a range of new aero wheels including some full carbon options. There are two new depths/rims C60 and C40 both 28mm wide. If you want the full carbon clincher version of either 40mm or 60mm carbon wheels, you’ll have to be riding discs and 12mm through axles at that. You can however, get the new rim shapes in a tubular full carbon wheelset. I tried a pair of the 60mm disc clinchers on the Di2 frankenbike but sadly it wasn’t enough to form any particular impression (and I was too busy playing around with the synchro shifting). These new wheels look interesting and Shimano talked about genuine aero gains over the previous D2 rims, which also performed well. It’s a shame to me that you have ride 12mm through axles to try them. I don’t have a bike in that configuration (for now). The clincher caliper versions will continue to feature an alloy brake track with a bonded carbon “fairing”. They’ll also have a different rim shape that won’t be 28mm wide (they’re 24mm wide).
Amusingly the C24 clincher, much loved by many riders, continues as Shimano’s Dura Ace level training wheel.
Overall, there was a lot to take in and sadly only a chance for a small taste of riding the new groupsets. Shimano have definitely broadened the scope of Dura Ace to be much wider than ever before. Mechanical Dura Ace has been finessed and improved to continue to sit at the top of the tree for mechanical shifting. Greater connectivity and software enhancement were genuinely exciting for me and reinforced in my mind that they really are the future. The new levers for the disc brakes are another step forward for discs and I definitely left the event thinking that with the right choice of a light road frameset, Dura Ace R9170 is my perfect groupset. When Dura Ace 9000 was launched I couldn’t have even imagined saying this.
We’ll have to wait to learn more about the power meter and I’m curious to learn more about the wheels although I worry that they’ll struggle to gain much traction against other top end aero wheels from Zipp, Enve or Reynolds. They’ll be cheaper though which will help. The C60 disc clincher wheels will retail for £1660 a pair and the shallower C40’s will be £1570.
If you’re looking to jump and place an order, mechanical Dura Ace will likely arrive first late in the year and Di2 and disc version arriving in the first quarter of 2017. If you’re looking at buying Dura Ace on a new bike, you might manage to get it earlier depending on the brand.
Here’s a gallery of the presentation to introduce the new Dura Ace and it include some detail behind the thinking:
You can find out more here: http://www.duraace.com/global/en#intro
And if you’ve not seen it, I think GCN’s story on the launch is the best coverage I’ve seen. They ate everybody’s lunch that day:
Thanks for reading.
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