One of the big product releases this year was Shimano’s new Dura-Ace 9100 groupset, unveiled to the world’s press in the days leading up to the Tour de France. Following that launch, it’s been rarely spotted save for a few showstopper bikes at Eurobike, but when the new Storck Durnario Platinium rolled into the office with the latest groupset fitted, I immediately set about racking up the miles. Here are my first ride impressions.
A visual departure
The biggest and most immediately obvious change is the visual appearance, a new glossy black finish (to match your gloss black iPhone 7) and angular design replace the smooth lines and grey/silver finish of the current Dura-Ace 9000.
Functionally, the changes are less dramatic. It’s still an 11-speed groupset, but it’s lost some weight and gained some ergonomic and aerodynamic improvements. And, as I’ve found from riding it for the last few weeks, the update ensures Dura-Ace is still the benchmark mechanical groupset by which all others are judged.
It’s not as big a leap forward as previous Dura-Ace groupset releases have been and instead, builds on the solid performance foundations of Dura-Ace 9000. If it’s not broke and all that… The first thing to note is that it feels very similar to Dura-Ace 9000, but look a bit closer and there are some useful changes that all combine to make it just a bit slicker and nicer to use. I’m talking very marginal improvements here, which is perhaps an indication that Shimano has probably pushed mechanical groupsets as far as it can.
Here's how Shimano describes the new groupset:
"The DURA-ACE groupset is the result of Shimano’s ongoing passion for technology. This is reflected in every single component in the groupset. All components are joined together to work as one, reinforcing each other for unparalleled performance. This is how DURA-ACE achieves ultimate supremacy."
Revised hoods and shorter lever throw
The most tangible changes are the revised hoods. They now feel a bit more compact and are now wrapped in a new textured material that vastly improves the feel of the hoods and provides more grip when your hands are damp from the rain or sweat – especially if, like me, you prefer to ride without gloves. It makes holding the hoods a nicer experience compared with the smooth finish of the previous hood design.
Shimano has also reduced the lever throw, and you really do notice this, even though the change is small compared with the previous Dura-Ace. It’s not in the same ballpark as SRAM’s Red groupset, but still, it’s a nice improvement. Reach adjustment has also been increased, providing a bit more customisation than before. The paddle shifters inside of the brake lever are a touch larger and covered in a soft material that makes shifting gear easier. You notice this most when riding in the drops and combined with the increased range of reach adjustment, you can really dial in the levers to your preference.
Front and rear mech get all new look
Shimano says the shift action is lighter, but that is pretty tricky to detect, mainly because the previous groupset was so damn good. Really search for it, though, and there’s a slight improvement in the front shifting, it feels just a touch easier and lighter, whether shifting up or down and seems to work better under load. Yes I know, shifting gear while on the gas isn't optimum shifting technique, but I have to test these things, and sometimes you just need to change gear fast, such as in a race. Rear shifting feels about the same, though the shorter lever throw does produce slightly snappier changes.
The long arm of the front derailleur has gone and has been replaced with a much more compact design using a cam mechanism. This change was brought about by the increasing popularity for wide tyres. Shimano has repackaged the front mech to provide more clearance so bike manufacturers can squeeze bigger tyres into frames without the front mech causing problems. Cable routing is a bit cleaner and you can now run a full outer housing to the front mech, and there’s a cable tension adjust Allen bolt.
Somehow, Shimano has not only managed to retain the light shift action of the previous Dura-Ace 9000, but it's managed to find a small improvement. Another change that certainly seems to help is the redesigned internal shifting mechanism in the front shifter. It certainly appears to work. It takes very little force to change gear, with one-finger shifting a doddle, and the shorter lever throw provides a noticeable improvement in shift time and speed. Downshifts feel a smidgen quicker than previous Dura-Ace 9000, but the overriding impression is that none of the stellar performance has been lost.
The rear derailleur has had a radical redesign. It looks like something from a sci-fi movie now. It has come about because Shimano has brought the Shadow technology, with its direct mount design, over from the mountain bike category to the road market for the first time. The result is a lower profile mechanism – look at it from the side and it juts out from the frame much less than the original. That provides better crash protection and, you could say, aerodynamics, but these were two aspects I wasn't able to test during my time with it.
The change hasn't caused a negative impact on the shifting quality. Performance is every bit as good as before, and with the shorter lever throw, gear changes are a shade quicker. You really have to search for the improvements, but the important thing is that it's still quick, precise, crisp, quiet and all the words that are usually summoned up to describe Shimano groupsets.
Another critical change, in much the same way that the front mech has been redesigned in response to wider tyres, is that the rear mech has been revised to accommodate the trend for wide-range cassettes. It’ll work with an 11-30t cassette, but it wouldn’t surprise us if it goes higher than that.
The new completely revamped chainset divided opinion when it launched, but spend time with it as I have and it does grow on you – just like every previous Dura-Ace groupset has done. Looks aside, the new chainset has the same Hollowtech II construction but with wider arms and a more reinforced outer chainring, which has allowed Shimano to reduce the weight but keep the stiffness of the previous generation chainset. That’s an improvement you’ll see on the scales but is impossible to detect from the pedals. It’ll be available in 50-34T, 52-36T, 53-39T, 54-42T and 55-42T with crank lengths ranging from 165mm to 180mm.
The brake callipers have been tweaked and now provide clearance for up to 28mm tyres. The new quick release lever sits flush with the top arm of the brake calliper when in the closed position, providing a smarter appearance. Braking performance has always been impressive with Dura-Ace rim brake callipers, and that holds true with the updated callipers. There will doubtless be a disc brake version along soon enough, and direct mount brakes will be available.
It’s perhaps easy to be underwhelmed by the performance of the new Dura-Ace 9100 groupset on the first ride, but that’s only because Shimano set such a high benchmark with Dura-Ace 9000. The list of changes, though small, do add up to a tangible improvement. It’s still a wonderful groupset to use and if you’re not a fan of electronic groupsets, Dura-Ace 9100 is a good alternative. Better than that, I personally prefer the ergonomics of the mechanical version, savouring the sweet action of moving a lever rather than pushing a button. But that’s just me.
The evolution rather than revolution approach of Dura-Ace 9100 is probably testament to the fact that Shimano has likely reached the end of the development path for a mechanical groupset. Can it really get better than this? Given the race-focused development of Dura-Ace, and with the majority of the pro peloton on Di2 these days, will Shimano feel the need to continue to search for improvements in its mechanical groupsets? Away from pro racing, there’s still a place for mechanical in bike ranges where price is a factor, but will that be enough to drive Shimano to continue to develop it in the same way it has over the past 10 years? Time will tell.
So, to wrap up, Dura-Ace 9100 provides exceedingly good performance with super-light shifting and the best ergonomics of any groupset, backed up by the solid dependability Dura-Ace is founded upon, and now wrapped up in a very modern outfit.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.