Shimano joins the 11 speed revolution. But an extra cog is only part of the story…
“we can expect to see some more radical designs on road bikes heading into 2014.”
“Shimano are continuing to push the boundaries of their mechanical offerings”
During the middle of 2012 Bicycling Australia was invited to a Shimano show in Sydney. There we saw a number of interesting products, particularly in the ‘lower end’ groupsets such as Sora and Tiagra which got us pretty excited on behalf of the average rider. We also saw some great stuff from PRO and Pearl Izumi and got to have a good chin wag with the people responsible for the big S in Australia. In hindsight though, perhaps the most important conversation was one I had with one of Shimano’s representatives. I posed the question whether sales of mechanical groupsets had dropped due to the popularity of the electronic Ultegra. And whether mechanical groupsets would disappear, at least at the top end. The response was, as you might expect, an admission of slightly less demand, but a negative to the second question. But the most interesting part was the sentence, “At Shimano, we believe that electronic has given us a benchmark for how our mechanical groupsets should perform.”
You get a lot of marketing speak thrown at you in this line of work and this sounded very much like a ‘company line’, but now that we’ve been testing the new Dura-Ace 11 speed it seems much more plausible, even prophetic.
Three of These Things Belong Together
When you first look at the new 9000 Dura-Ace, three things are immediately apparent: The shifters, the cranks and the front derailleur. So this seems a good place to begin. The levers have been re-shaped to be similar to the Di-2 models. But importantly, Shimano have taken the opportunity to embrace what many considered one of the possibilities of Di2, smaller hoods and pivot area. It’s just that they’ve done it on a mechanical system. This means that you get a very secure grip when you wrap your fingers around the levers, which themselves are shaped so that your fingers fall automatically into the bend. The hoods are made from dual compound rubber, providing both grip and comfort. If you’re the type of rider who likes to ride with back low and two fingers and thumbs around the hoods, then you’ll enjoy riding the new 9000.
The shifting is, in a word, excellent. Shimano have gradually been lightening and lightening the shifting action in their levers for the past couple of years and the 9000 is no exception. Shimano say that the levers have a 30% shorter stroke than the previous incarnation. This is particularly noticeable when riding and combined with new PTFE coated cables makes for very smooth shifting, right across the rear cassette. As a general rule, shifting becomes slightly more difficult as you go higher on the cassette but Shimano have done some work here so that the difference is hardly noticeable.
The front derailleur has an interesting shape and this is due to the cable being connected very high above the cage. This provides extra leverage and goes a long way to providing that reduction in shifting stroke. It also has an extra bolt for improved strength and to prevent rotation under load. Interestingly, there is also some material on the front derailleur cage. This prevents the metal rubbing against metal during gear changes, although I personally have never had a problem with the durability of a Shimano front derailleur. It does however make the changes quieter, which will be important for some riders.
I also mentioned the cranks. You’ll notice that they have four arms instead of the previous five. But look closely and you’ll see that the arms aren’t evenly spaced. This is because Shimano have been doing plenty of research on pedalling force and they’ve found that we put most pressure between the points of two o’clock and four o’clock and that we put hardly any pressure through the top and the bottom of the pedal stroke. So Shimano have placed the arms in the position that they will have the most effect and therefore, apply the most force to the road.
Shimano have also made it easier to swap chainrings by standardising the bold position points across the range. This means you can run standard or compact rings without having to change the crank arms as well. Chainrings will be available in 52-36T, 52-38T, 50-34T, 53-39T, 54-42T and 55-42T. They’ll be available in 165, 170, 172.5, 175, 177.5 and 180mm crank lengths.
On the Chain Gang
The logical progression from the chainrings is to the chain and then the cassette so let’s head there next. The chain has a point of difference from the previous version in that it is no longer directional. Here at Bicycling Australia we’ve seen chains on the wrong way straight out of the box from the factory so there’s obviously some confusion out there and it’s good, I think, to see it going. Rumour has it that this was also partly driven by pro team mechanics who change so many chains that they wanted the process to be as simple as possible. I’m keen to see whether future 10 speed groupsets will have the directional version removed as well. The chain has hollow pins for weight reduction but unfortunately will require a specific chain tool and there’s no quick link available.
Obviously the cassette has changed with the addition of an extra cog and this means that it is slightly wider, so it will require an 11 speed specific hub. On the plus side, you can put a 10 speed cassette onto an 11 speed hub with the aid of a spacer, but you won’t be able to do it the other way. Presumably it will become a buyer’s market for anyone sticking with 10 speed and looking to pick up some second-hand wheels.
Weight weenies will be pleased to know that the combination of titanium for sprockets above 16T and a carbon spider has kept the weight down to roughly the same as a 10 speed cassette, despite the extra cog. The Shimano 9000 cassette will be available in 11-23T, 11-25T, 11-28T, 12-25T and 12-28T options.
The brakes have come in for some surgery as well. The existing Dura-Ace brakes are called SLR and Shimano have named the new ones SLR-EV for ‘evolution’. These new brakes are still a dual pivot but they differ in that the pivot action doesn’t revolve around a central bolt. Instead it relies on two stud pivots on either side. This means that the callipers themselves are much shorter, down from 39mm to 22mm and so don’t flex nearly as much as previous versions, and of course, weigh less. It also means that the brakes are more suited to some of the hidden brake systems we’re beginning to see on TT bikes. While these have been considerably more aero they have come at a cost to braking efficiency. The brake cables have been given a similar treatment to that of the gear cables. This combination of shorter callipers and better cables will certainly keep frame designers happy and I think we can expect to see some more radical designs on road bikes heading into 2014.
How Does it Ride?
We didn’t get nearly as long on the 9000 groupset as we would have liked, just a couple of days. Shimano had just one working bike for people to look at in the lead up to Christmas and it had to go to shops, races and of course, other magazines. So a short couple of hours was all we had. That said, it was long enough to be able to tell how easy the shifting is. It is extraordinarily light. Combined with the smaller hoods if you ride a lot in that position (as I do), you’ll find shifting a breeze. As before, you can go down the cassette to a higher gear one sprocket at a time, and three sprockets up the cassette with one push of the lever. But it really is so much easier. Not quite electronic level, but certainly getting closer.
The other big thing is the braking power. Dura-Ace has always been a benchmark for braking, but these new SLR-EV brakes are a step up again. What is nice here is that these brakes aren’t just grabbing in a strong way. They have an amount of progression that is very pleasing. A type of ‘gradual power’ if you like. The finest non disc brakes on the market I’d say, though again I would have liked to have had a play on them in the wet.
Our test bike had done the rounds before being sent to us and as such the front derailleur wasn’t set up correctly, refusing to move over into the small ring. It did give us a chance to have a bit of a play with that item and we found that adjustment was as easy as ever. I did feel that the cable routing for the front derailleur looked a little bit more finicky than the 7900 version, so expect to take a little bit longer for the initial set up, particularly if you happen to work in a bike shop.
All in all, this is a very good groupset. The shifting and braking have improved so much from the previous Dura-Ace that at times I forgot that it had an extra cog. I’m not sure that anyone actually counts the number of gears when they’re riding and given that you can run a 28T cog on 10 speed, the whole 11 speed thing seems less important. The real story is that despite the success of Di2, Shimano are continuing to push the boundaries of their mechanical offerings. Not only is this good for the purists, it means we the consumer will continue to have the best choices available. You won’t hear me complain about that!
Price: To Be Confirmed
Distributed by: Shimano Australia