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Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 groupset review

11 Feb 2018

Page 2 of 2First ride review: Shimano Dura Ace 9100

Verdict:

An evolution more than a revolution, but Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 has a few impressive tricks up its sleeve all the same

For 
Benchmark setter for front shifting; good looks; cross-compatibility with current Dura-Ace
Against 
Not a big step forward if you already have Dura-Ace 9000

Launch and first look: Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 groupset

Yesterday saw the launch in Caen, France of the long awaited, yet much-leaked new Dura Ace groupset, the 9100 (although technically 9150 for the Di2 fans).

For a summary of our first impressions and a cursory first ride, read on.

Big impression

Shimano Dura Ace 9100 review

First thing’s first, Shimano brought no power meters to play with; according to Japanese road production manager, Takao Harada, they’re all with pro team FdJ.

It’s a similar story with the fully finished Di2 version, the Dura Ace 9150, so this article mainly concerns the mechanical 9100 groupset plus a look at Shimano’s fully automatic and semi-automatic sync shifting system on the 9150.

For more information on the basics of the groupset click here: Shimano Dura Ace 9100 unveiled

Overall impressions of the mechanical 9100 are very positive, although the aesthetics are potentially divisive – if there’s a day the traditional road bike died, it might well be this.

Angular, sci-fi and functional are all words we’d level at the new Dura Ace.

That, and black. But no ordinary black. The Terminator-style claw (you know the one, in the glass case at the beginning of Terminator 2) of the rear mech is a smoked grey/black fade of an exoskeleton, with a carbon mech cage and a elements like the honeycomb back plate of the mech body hollowed and lightened to within an inch of its alloy.

If you liked those smooth organic lines of DA mechs in the past – the 7800 was a particularly fine vintage – you’ll probably have something to say about this new 9100 mech.

However the STI levers remain very pleasing to the eye, as well as to the touch. The hoods are that bit tackier and comfier compared to before, though maintain a virtually identical size, and the size of the down-cassette shift lever paddle has been increased to make it easier to reach in the drops.

If there’s an area of a new groupset that always divides it’s the chainset. Remember when Campagnolo lost that fifth spider arm?

No you don’t because you obliterated that awful memory with excessive drinking to numb the pain. So it is with the 9100 chainset.

It will divide, not least in its chunky smokey blackness and asymmetric crank arm design that Shimano says is more efficient at transmitting power. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s carbon, but actually it’s alloy.

The front mech is a mechanical joy to behold. A cam with wrap-round cable (no more pinch bolts gnawing away at you expensive cables) helps provide the leverage in place of the lost long swing arm of the 9000.

It’s all very compact and neat, and while we haven’t yet used it, the addition of a grub screw on the mech for tensioning the cable that replaces a regular inline adjuster is a stroke of genius. Provided it works. Which it will. This is Shimano.

Buy the Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 from Merlin Cycles

The last thing to add is the brakes, which look exceptionally slick, Shimano having tucked the quick release for the wheel in under itself, as opposed to jutting down at 6 o’clock.

It keeps the brake looking homogenous and smooth, and helps offset the fact it’s now that much wider to accommodate wider tyres and clearances.

Last word goes to the wheel quick release skewers. Well, two words actually: bang on. 

First ride: mechanical 

We must stress the first ride lasted less than an hour around the muddled streets of Bayeux, which though requiring lots of shifting, did not exactly test the drivetrain to its limits. Therefore we’ll keep it brief.

The mechanical groupset feels, well, entirely normal, very much like the 9000 before it. However, this is no bad thing, since the 9000 was – and is – an exceptional groupset: slick, fast and reliable.

The tangible differences are therefore small. New hoods, lever shape and increased paddle size are an improvement, though given the subjectivity of ergonomics not everyone will agree.

There is a patterned effect to the tackier rubber hoods, a little like Sram, that feels nice to the touch and grippy in the rain. The paddle is also definitely easier to reach in the drops, as too the slightly set back lever itself.

Actuation ratios (cable pull) is apparently the same as before, so you could feasibly use old levers – remember, this is still 11-speed – with new mechs and callipers, or old mechs and callipers with new levers. Old cassettes and chains are fine too, says Shimano.

The lever throw (the movement the lever blades/paddles go through before the ‘click’) is shortened, which isn't obvious unless you’re really looking for it.

However, the downshift, when the chain goes to ever smaller sprockets, is definitely snappier than before, the chain dropping quickly and cleanly.

We couldn’t tell you if the upshift was better or not, but both front and back felt positive and smooth – no better or worse than before.

Likewise, the brakes. The excellent PTFE-coated Shimano cables carried over from the last generation are super slick, giving great lever feel; the brakes themselves seem to work just fine on this limited test. Longer term will reveal more. 

First ride: sync shift

This is where it gets really interesting. The bikes we got to ride were still prototypes, using old 9070 mechs (an indication of further inter-generational compatibility), but the system ostensibly functioned like the proper 9150 groupset will.

The idea of sync shifting is the brains in the Di2 system, making front chainring choices so you don’t have to in order to make pedalling seamless and cadence constant.

In full sync mode, that means as you buzz up and down the cassette, the front automatically shifts when you get to the extremities of the cassette.

For example, imagine starting in big front, small rear. Go up the cassette by holding the right hand shift button and when the chain reaches a middling sprocket, the front mech automatically shifts into the small ring as you seamlessly progress into the largest sprocket.

Think of it like a car’s sequential automatic gearbox compared to selecting gears in a manual.

All the shifts are carried out using just the buttons on the right lever. You can use the left lever to override it though.

Semi sync is a lesser version of the same system, and one we find harder to fathom. Imagine starting in big-big. Click the front shifter to drop to the inner ring and the rear mech automatically shifts up one.

The inverse is true when shifting from small-small: shift up to the big chainring and the rear mech automatically goes one down into a larger sprocket.

The idea in both systems is to help riders keep cadence between shifts and make the gear jumps more incremental. It is important to note that it’s a feature that can be turned off – in fact, usual Di2 shifting is still the default setting. The question, then, is do we need it?

The answer will be entirely personal. Many riders will claim they can make all the Di2’s decisions as well, if not better, Then again, people sniffed at Di2 altogether when it came out, and now look.

It's not quite ubiquitous, but is certainly de rigeur. It does feel kind of lazy, but it works seamlessly well and feels totally natural. Plus, it has a wonderful novelty factor that had us grinning.

We think in the long term, just like Di2, the sync shift will be a game changer. Campy is rumoured to have been working on its own version for a while now – after all, the mechanics are there in any electronic system, it’s just a matter of intelligent programing to utilise them.

So for Shimano to do such an amazing job of it in its first attempt already surely means the others will have to follow.

Whether you’ll be glad of it, only you can decide, but for Cyclist’s money this sync shift is the most important development since Di2 arrived, and we’ve no doubt it will win over a huge number of fans.

It’s also the most exciting thing we’ve seen from this launch. Until the power meter finally arrives…

vs. Sram and Campagnolo

So how does Dura-Ace 9100 mechanical compare to the competition? Operationally and ergonomically it is of course very different to Sram and Campagnolo. Shifting remains Dura-Ace’s strongest suit, feeling significantly slicker going up and down the cassette than both Sram and Campagnolo.

Likewise front shifting, which is the lightest action amongst the top mechanical groups.

Brake feel is supremely smooth and positive, and just edges both Red and Super Record in terms of power and modulation.

However, which groupset’s ergonomics are preferable is a subjective matter, though for Shimano fans the good news is the 9100 lever body size and shape is very similar to the last generation.

Shifting up (ie, going to smaller sprockets) is still a one click, one move affair, so here arguably Super Record with its five-at-a-time Ultrashift mechanism trumps the 9100, but all three groupsets still happily make multiple shifts down (ie into larger sprockets) for a single lever push.

Shimano has yet to release every individual component weight, but judging by the ones it has published it’s fair to assume 9100 won’t be lighter than the class leading Red 22 at 1,740g.

Buy the Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 from Merlin Cycles

The 9100 STI shifters, for example, weigh a claimed 365g, whereas Red shifters are 260g. The 9100 rear mech is 158g, a Red rear mech 145g.

Aesthetics is a deeply personal thing, but there’s real departure here from any road groupset gone before, and that’ll undoubtedly polarise opinion and have Campyphiles waggling their judgemental fingers.

A full Di2 Dura-Ace 9150 groupset wasn’t available for test, only a prototype system, but based on that we’d say there was plenty on offer to challenge Sram’s eTap, even though Shimano has stuck with wires.

The revision of the charging port into a little frame or handlebar bung is very neat, though both home and pro mechanics will no doubt prefer the ease of eTap installation.

But it’s the Synchro Shift system that steals the show, putting the 9150 in a different league to both Red eTap and Super Record EPS.

That said, both Sram and Campagnolo could – in theory – programme their existing electronic groupsets to perform in a similar way. Whether they will is another story, with hydraulic disc versions of EPS and eTap on the way, the window of opportunity is there.

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Page 2 of 2First ride review: Shimano Dura Ace 9100