Review: First Ride Review: Shimano Dura Ace 9100
As part of my Euro road trip I popped in to the European HQ for Shimano just outside Amsterdam, where I got to check out some of their new cool stuff – in particular the latest iteration of the pro-level Dura Ace groupset. The morning was taken with rocking around on an XT Di2 equipped mountain bike (more about that to come later), but for now I want to write about my afternoon’s ride aboard Pinarello’s Dogma F8 with Shimano’s new mechanical Dura Ace groupset.
Even as I write that sentence I recognise how absurdly lucky I can be at times, because for a great many cyclists riding a bike of that spec maybe the best bike they ever get to ride, this is the second time this year I’ve sat atop a Dura Ace equipped Pinarello, the first being back with Team Sky where I rode Elia Viviani’ Dogma K8 (that’s the pinarello with the rear suspension as used in races such as Paris-Roubaix).
Many cyclists, myself included, like ‘new shiny’ things, and sometimes it’s nice to have subtle iterations between products so only true aficionados can notice the details, but not this time! The first thing you notice in the different styling is the darker colour compared with the current Dura Ace, it stands out particularly on the oversized crankset, whose girth really does suggest significant weight, but that suggestion, like a dream implanted by Leonardo DiCaprio, is utterly false. The work bench had a crankset sitting there and I was pleasantly surprised just how light the whole unit was.
In addition to style, for a great many cyclists weight is important on their bikes (we will obviously ignore the paunch that we carry), and naturally the first thing I did when confronted with my ride was to see just how light it was. 2 fingers were sufficient to lift it, and it’s clear that the weight was around the World-Tour race weight of 6.8kg – and no matter how many times you feel it, you can’t help but smile at the thought of the ride to come!
I’ve been riding electronic gearing now for the best part of two years with the bulk of my riding taking place with Ultegra di2, so there’s a moment where you switch back to mechanical gears where you move the levers and the gears just change once. There’s a moments hesitation before you twig that you are back on mechanical and you actually have to do a little more work than simply click a button.
Di2 to me is about simplicity, it works at the click of a button no matter how you try to strain the system, it will always change under load. That’s has been my experience to date, never once, despite mashing the buttons, has it failed on me, so I was particularly interested to see how mechanical would fare in our time together – would it be possible to drop a chain, or to jam the rear mech? In all honesty, admittedly on the pretty flat terrain of Holland, as you would expect it to be at this level it was flawless through the ride – despite my best efforts to break it.
Dura Ace is pitched at the elite rider seeking to eke out every performance advantage that they can, and in this ride with the bike set up by Shimano’s mechanics it really was crisp, the mechanical of the shifting responding effortlessly (although not as effortlessly as simply pressing the Di2 buttons).
On a strong day I can crank out just over 1000 Watts for a short period of time, so when sprinting out of the saddle I’m really trying to detect any flex in the bike, the Cranks, or the wheels. If truth be told, the size of the bottom bracket shell of the Pinarello doesn’t exactly lend itself to flex, due to it’s oversized nature and World-Tour heritage, and as expected there’s no discernible deflection, the bike just surges forward, positively skipping, taunting you keep the power on. Whilst the bike is driving forward it’s soon evident that I am a 4th Cat chopper riding Chris Froome’s bike and I sit back down again to enjoy the ride, without busting a heart valve!
By default the new Dura Ace cassette can come in at a knee-friendly 11-30 range, with perhaps a nod to making both the pro-mechanics, and also the Mamil’s, life a little easier. This new sizing means that one cassette with be enough for nearly every terrain, and it will also simplify down the rear derailleur with the longer length being suitable for all rations.
Whilst eking out those marginal performance gains over what was the previously exceptional group set, Shimano have really taken a holistic view to the whole system. Finding gains will be, at this level, a case of revolution not evolution, but those smaller steps are evident in the design thinking.
The front derailleur cable now tightens in a different area of the mech, making it simpler but also making it a little bit more aero. The brakes themselves have also seen that attention to detail. Previous calliper brakes had their tensioner turning outwards to tighten, but Shimano have changed that, bringing the lever closer into the brake’s body, helping to provide a marginal, performance benefit. As we have seen in the Olympics, elite level riders will claw their way to marginal gains, and by consistently making those small aero savings, ultimately they can add up to something more meaningful, maybe the difference between first and second when we see races being won on the width of a tyre!
The industry as a whole seems to be making further inroads towards disc brakes, the will-they, won’t-they, saga carrying on in the professional peloton and Shimano clearly recognise this because Dura Ace now comes in both disc and rim brake versions.
I was using the rim brakes version of Dura Ace and was thoroughly impressed! In the dry they performed admirably, with plenty of stopping power when called upon. The disclaimer must go here that the roads were both flat and dry that day so it’s certainly hard to measure performance in more conditions that I had available, but for the time that I had them, the brakes did a great job. The new shifters seemed smaller, more comfortable, in my hands. Now others may possibly disagree about grip and reach, this is a personal thing after all (and one in which you can certainly adjust the reach), but I like them, they provided enough to get hold of without any excess sticking up and out (i.e no hydraulic reservoir), and what was there was great for dropping down low onto the hoods with.
Any first ride is almost blind, especially on unfamiliar roads, but the bike was clearly very well set up by the mechanics at Shimano – and, as you would expect from a product aimed at the World-Tour, is is sharp! The shifting was flawless, precise, and nigh-on instantaneous, the new Shadow rear derailleur keeping chain lines smooth and as friction-free as possible. Braking was sharp and responsive (dry, flat roads etc), and easily modulated, with speeds scrubbed easily.
Aesthetics, not as important obvs, but still, are growing on me. I find the flowing crank-arms somewhat at odds with the shadow rear derailleur, but it’s really no biggie, and I’m fairly sure it would grow on me longer-term. It certainly wouldn’t be a deciding factor in a purchase!
What would be the deciding factor then?
Clearly it’s a mechanical groupset, and my style of riding suits electronic shifting, especially from a fatigue prevention point of view. That would almost certainly be the first factor, and that’s before we’ve got to price.
Dura Ace isn’t for the faint-hearted, or the light of pocket, a serious crash can put a dent in the mortgage payment quite easily(check out Bikmo for insurance if you’ve not got your steeds covered!). But for those at the sharp end of racing it could be a solid investment, and for those riders that prefer mechanical to electronic gearing it’s a delight!