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

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  1. Walt

    Let me be up front. I hate Shimano and I hate Dura Ace. Why such a visceral statement? I have two reasons. The first, is that I consider Dura Ace, especially the crank, to be hideous. Second, when I worked in a shop and Dura Ace was gaining traction, Shimano introduced the new and improved version each year that was incompatible with last year’s model. This necessitated larger inventory, more tools, and a stock of older parts that nobody wanted any more. The first Dura Ace guppos were amazing in appearance with deep pearl anodize and function that was better or at least equal to Campagnolo. You also mentioned how Dura Ace is particularly hard to work on when doing something as simple as replacing cables. That undesirable factor is repeated throughout their group. I am looking forward to buying Campy’s electric group, just not in the near future.

    I don’t happen to have $4K sitting around at the moment. But Some Day…


  2. grolby

    Currently I have 7700 Dura-Ace on my second, backup road and commuting bike and 6700 Ultegra on my main race bike. Previously, I road and raced on Rival. In general, I like the feel of 6700 better than Rival, but the point about lever play is exactly what I would have brought up as my main complaint. I haven’t raced on the new Shimano stuff yet, but I’m a bit worried about upshifting in a sprint. It was easy to do this with Rival, with the very short lever travel for upshifts (no, I didn’t use the ridiculous “sprinting mode,” I just tapped with my index finger). The lever travel is much longer with the new Shimano stuff, and I’ll have to see how it goes. And the upshift lever just gives the impression of cheapness, but that might have something to do with 6700 being down a tier from 7900. It would be a bit less jarring if the 7700 Dura-Ace upshift lever didn’t have less travel than the new one. Shouldn’t we see some progress in this regard?

    Regarding the looks, without the reach adjusted it works for me in a blocky industrial sort of way.

  3. Wayne

    “I hear lots of people say they always replace their chain and cassette together.”

    Where do people get this idea?
    Has their LBS sold them this line?
    Do these people also follow the instructions on their shampoo bottle that says

    “1 lather,
    2 rinse,
    3 and repeat” (see line 1)


  4. Paul

    The DA 7900 crank is fantastic, it is a super stiff and shifts great. Even in 180mm it is rock solid. And a lot of the stiffness is apparently in the chainrings. After almost 20 years on Campy, I’m happy with my choice. The main drawback of the 7900 mechanical shifter in my opinion is resistance in the cable path: it is much more sensitive to sluggish cables than Campy 10s.

    I replaced a 2007 Record crank which was a creaky wimpy piece of junk by comparison. The 2004 Record square-taper crank was better.

    I haven’t tried the Campy 11s equipment so can’t comment on that.

  5. randomactsofcycling

    I ride Campy 11 speed and have only ever ridden Shimano twice. Most recently I was lucky enough to ride Dura Ace Di2. It was nice. The front derailleur is amazingly strong. I liked the brakes too. They had good feel at the levers and were very powerful. This was consistent with my memory of Dura Ace 7800. I liked the longer levers on 7800 too. The new ones look a bit stubby for my liking.
    I have lots of friends who really like their Shimano. My only gripe with it is that it can’t shift multiple gears the way Campy does. I find that very convenient.

  6. A Stray Velo

    That was a nice read.

    I still have a bike with Dura-Ace 7800 on it, that was a fantastic group. Still is actually.

    Dura-Ace 7900 shifters for me are a large disappointment. The brakes are great, I love the new cable adjusters on the brakes and the new brake pad compound.

    There are more features that I don’t like about the 7900 shifters than I do like. First there’s the metal bits hanging out the bottom of the shifter. You can really see everything, all the guts are there just hanging out. My least favorite feature is how the rubber on the hood terminates near where the shifter clamps to the bar. It doesn’t sit in the hand well. It pretty much just sticks straight out as if they didn’t even bother to think about it. The thing is it’s not only DA that has this issue, it’s the Ultegra and 105 as well.

    After reading this review I think I realized that I’m not an “OEM rider”, my wants as a cyclist have changed through the years and Shimano isn’t what I want anymore.

    I hope DA 9000 (or whatever they end up calling it) is a step back in the right direction.

  7. rotselaar

    When I began riding seriously as a Jr. I had friction Campy Victory. It was crap! Then I got the first Dura-Ace STI. It was from another universe, although you could tell the finish quality was not the same. In the mid 90s I switched to the first ergopower Record. The shifting was not as smooth and precise as Dura-Ace, but it was a huge improvement over 80s Campy. It actually worked. The problem with Campy is if you crash the RD bolts get smucked. I then moved to Dura-Ace 7800. When set up properly this is the finest mechanical group ever produced, PERIOD. It still shifts faster and crisper than my 7900, SRAM or Campy. The Shimano reps will advise you to use metal cable ends, route to the back and use the expensive DA cable grease with 7900. It still does not shift as good as 7800. For the ultimate performance with Dura-Ace you need to find a NOS 7800 group or save your pennies for the electric which has killer ergonomic levers. The SRAM ergonomics are like the 7900 (ok)and the new Campy levers have great ergonomics. The SRAM stuff does not have great finish quality and reminds me of old SACHS/Mavic parts. The new RED looks promising. I still think for racing, price, stiffness, brakes and overall performance Dura-Ace is still the best, especially electric. Hopefully, they improve the levers and shifting performance with the new mechanical.

  8. Dennis

    I think this is the first review of a group I’ve read that hasn’t sparked a component holy war in the comments. Either this is some magical writing or RKP attracts a more reasonable readership than even the most considered, nuanced bicycle-related website or both. Whatever the reason, thanks! I can’t wait to read the other installations.

    I can’t afford any of the top groups (and in fact, I’ve never had a complete group that didn’t have some mixing of bits) but I really like the double-tap lever. I have no idea if it shifts better or smoother or whatever; it’s just that the one shift lever seems the most convenient for my particular set of hands to shift from any position on the bar. Perhaps I lack subtlety, but I would occasionally shift when I meant only to brake while using Shimano, and I can’t reach the Campagnolo nubs while in the drops.

  9. velomonkey

    Good review, but . . .

    “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.”

    18 years on dura ace and 4 years on campy – this has virtually never happened, especially in a crit.

  10. noel

    Nice to see you point out how Shimano nudged Campy into pushing forward. I think this is the true value of both gruppos…. that they force the other to re-think design/function and evolve in the marketplace. I agree with Mr VeloMonkey.. I never ever needed to shift and brake simulataneously. The once factor that ever came up for me was finding one easier to shift mid sprint in the drops than the other. But that’s so subjective…. and really about my tiny hands.

  11. Thomas

    great post. I like where it’s going.
    I sum it up for friends like this:
    Dura-ace: works great right out of the box. best brakes. period.
    Campy (I hate the thumb shifter but whatever): Shifts like crap for the 1st 1000 miles, then shifts like butter for the next 40 years. God forbid you ever need to overhaul the shift lever though. best fr. shift lever…ever.
    Sram: shifts o.k. brakes o.k. Cross kit of choice. I’ve rebuilt the right lever twice after mud fests and crashes. That thing is like an HK semi-auto. It’s what you want in the field.

  12. dave

    I can attest to the corrosion problems with DA in coastal areas. I still ride 7700 but the finish on the upshift levers and the chainrings blistered badly.

    Never, ever had an issue with corrosion like this on any other part, Shimano or otherwise.

  13. A Stray Velo

    I forgot to mention a trick about the installing new shift cables on this or any group really.

    If for some reason you need to replace a shift cable but not the housing, get another brand new cable that is still soldered at the end and thread it through the housing backwards. Then thread the new cable all the way through the shifter. Now in the canal for the shift cable try and butt the two ends of the cable together. With the ends of both cables touching pull out the reverse threaded cable while pushing the new one through at the same time. Pushing the two cables end to end through the system most of the time will help pass over the internal piece of plastic in the shift housing where the cable tends to get hung up on behind the end cap. It sounds stupid pushing two 1.7mm cable ends against each other but it has worked for me many times.

  14. Evan

    there are rubber inserts that fill in the slack-jaw gape that you described. Two sets at 2 different widths (2mm and 4mm? I forget) come in the box with the shifters if you buy your shifters individually. This cleans up the appearance and actually obviates the need for you to fiddle with the screw.

    1. Author

      Evan: That’s an Ultegra feature (and perhaps lower groups such as 105) but not a Dura-Ace feature. If you want to adjust lever throw on Dura-Ace, you use the screw.

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