Battle Royal, Part II: Shimano Dura-Ace
Let’s start with the 800-lb. gorilla: Dura-Ace. Shimano usurped Campagnolo’s position is the top dog in the OEM category on bikes even before Bill Clinton became a household name. The combination of smooth and simple operation plus high value made the Japanese manufacturer’s parts not just acceptable, but sought after.
With the introduction of Hyperglide (which was the first system to add individually contoured cog teeth to aid shifting) back in 1989, Shimano drivetrains took a noticeable step ahead of its competition; that technology was added to the redesign of Dura-Ace that was introduced in 1991. That iteration of Dura-Ace gave us eight speeds and—more important—the first integrated control lever. I assembled a Schwinn Paramount (“One of the Waterford bikes!” I exclaimed when I opened the frame box) with the new Dura-Ace and I was just enough of a Campy grouch to proclaim (largely because Campy’s Ergo lever had yet to be introduced) that the integrated control lever was “unnecessary.”
It is, perhaps, fortuitous that I turned down a lucrative career in crystal ball reading.
Had Shimano not introduced that revision of the group, I shudder to think what Campagnolo would have dreamt up as a follow-up to C-Record. My fear is that it would have been prettier than the Taj Mahal, sported seven speeds and weighed 15 pounds. Eight-speed Dura-Ace turned the tables on Campagnolo and the venerable Italian manufacturer spent a good six years rocked back on its heels—until 9-speed Record went into production. In the 20 years since the introduction of STI in Dura-Ace, the group has lost nearly two pounds, gained two gears, offers wider gearing options for us mortals and improved brake modulation to allow you to choose between scrubbing a tiny bit of speed or making an emergency stop, plus everything in between. Shifting performance has continued to increase as well.
The trouble with Shimano is that it has become the de facto standard and due to the company’s patent attorneys, their voluminous filings have done more to stifle innovation than give the company a competitive edge. For as much as I love their innovation, I despise the work of their legal team. But that dominance owes to their sales team. Shimano figured out the OEM game in a way that Campagnolo still fails to replicate. Shimano gives great pricing to bike manufacturers and they produce their parts very near where most bikes are made and assembled. It’s easy to do business with Shimano, so for that reason many product managers go with them. You get a great bike at a good price.
Best Features: So let’s start with what there is to recommend Dura-Ace 7900. First is the operation of its levers. The two-lever operation of the shifting and the fact that the brake lever doubles as one of the shift levers makes the shifting on Dura-Ace fairly intuitive. The genius part of the shifting system is the fact that you can brake and downshift at the same time. It’s a feature that I used in crits to my advantage and one that continues to serve me well on group rides. It’s rare that I’m braking with any real force and not downshifting at the same time.
Am I out of gears? A quick push on the lever gives instant feedback to whether or not you’re in your biggest cog. That the front derailleur has enough mechanical advantage and stiffness to shift from the little ring to the big one even while you are out of the saddle and pedaling hard is pretty impressive.
Durability is another real selling point for Dura-Ace. With no carbon fiber to be found in the crank, the rear derailleur or even the front derailleur, a Dura-Ace bike is likely to fair a little better in a crash than a Campagnolo Record or Super Record-equipped bike.
The shape of the 7900 control lever is good in that it offers multiple hand positions. I frequently find myself riding with my hands resting half on the bar and half on the lever, as opposed to wrapping my hands fully around the lever body, a position I seem to save for getting out of the saddle. That the 7900 lever now offers brake lever reach adjustment is terrific. I don’t have big hands and I like to run the levers as close to the bar as possible. Another nice feature of the brakes is the quick release lever that allows you to open the brake for wide tires, or in the event of a wheel knocked out of true, the ability to open the brake on the fly and ride home without it rubbing.
Worst Features: Unfortunately, the shape of the 7900 control lever is as attractive as a Ford Pinto. Where the 7800 lever had a slightly sci-fi-edged ergonomicity to it, this new one is blocky and the plus that both cables are run under tape can’t overcome the fact that the lever has all the style of a banquet table. Even worse is how if you remove the faceplate off the lever and turn in the screw to adjust the reach on the brake lever you are left with this open-maw appearance that gives the lever a look that is simultaneously not aero and oddly hungry. Slack-jawed is synonymous with vacant.
What I can’t wrap my head around is how after 20 years of STI you can still move either shift lever a full centimeter and not execute a shift. What’s with all that wasted lever throw? I’ve asked in the past and I’ve gotten answers, but the answers never made enough sense for me to memorize or even believe. Lever play seems to be a vestige of an era when we didn’t know how to maximize ergonomics and performance in the pursuit of all-out excellence. It reminds me of the criticism that the Ford Mustang is deficient because while it has a V8 engine, Ford coaxed less than 400 horsepower from it. Porsche does better than that with only six cylinders. And those aforementioned lever faceplates? They corrode. Shimano has trouble with plating periodically. Those of us who live near the ocean can tell stories of corroded chainrings and crank arms through various iterations of Dura-Ace. The finish seems to be good on all the other parts, though.
It used to be really easy to slide a 5mm Allen key beneath the hood and loosen the lever clamp to adjust lever position. It’s a pain in the ass, now. It’s difficult to roll the lever hood up enough to get a 5mm ball driver in there. Do not like. Another feature I’m less than enthused about is the half polished/half matte finish on the brakes, derailleurs and crank. I suppose that there are lots of people out there who like this, but 7800 was a much more attractive group.
On the cassette front, Dura-Ace gives you eight different options, three of which begin with a 12t cog. I’m sorry, but most of us don’t live in a place where the descents are long enough and fast enough to make use of a 53×11 or even a 50×11, nor are we strong enough to sprint at better than 40 mph—a 50×11 spun at 120 rpm works out to 42.6 mph; I never sprinted that fast.
Assembly and Maintenance: For the most part, installation of a new group is fast and easy. That’s good from a labor rate standpoint if you’re paying your local shop to work on your bike. Replacing a cable, however, is a real frustration. It used to be that you could feed a new cable in and the internals would guide the cable into the existing brake housing pretty effectively; with gear cables it was easy enough to pull the housing out of the lever while you ran the new cable. Running a new cable in a 7900 lever takes some time. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cut the electrical tape holding the housing to the bar before running the cable through and then sliding the housing onto the cable. Again, the upshot here is that if you do your own maintenance, it’s a time suck and if you’re paying someone else to do it, you’re spending more on labor.
I hear lots of people say they always replace their chain and cassette together. I replace my chain about every 2000 miles. When I was racing and my jumps had more spice (and torque), I replaced them every 1000 miles. Consequently, I don’t wear out cassettes. If you replace the chain often enough, the cassette cogs will last a long time.
Chainring wear has been very good with this group. I can recall friends eating through 7700-series chainrings in just a season.
Group Weight: 4.57 lbs. (2070g)
Best Internet Pricing: $1549