Some years back I got a chance to ride Dura-Ace Di2 before it was officially unveiled to the press. I was pretty thrilled to get the opportunity to ride a product without the skewing that comes from having read others’ opinions before trying something. I went in with a blank slate and an open mind.
The funny thing is that my takeaway was exactly what everyone else has had to say since then. The shifting is clearly faster and smoother. However, at first, the tactile feel of the buttons is frustrating because there is so little feedback. Without a distinctive click, you’re not really sure you’ve pressed hard enough. Also, at first, it’s easy to confuse the two buttons because they are so small.
But what about when you’ve had a chance to ride the group, really get to know it over a few months? Do the advantages really bear out? And what of those dings? Are they really that big a deal?
I’ve been riding Di2 on a few different bikes over the last few years but more recently have had a number of months on a Felt AR FRD with Dura-Ace Di2 and have come to a few conclusions about Shimano’s top-of-the-line road group.
I’m not a fan of conspicuous consumption, rampant consumerism or Jones-keeping. Just because someone else has the new iPhone, I’m not a person compelled to stand in line in a mall. My interest in new bike equipment has always stemmed from the realization that those accrued advances from one generation to the next usually translate to a more seamless experience, making my ride a more transparent integration of rider and road. Frankly, unless the upgrade makes the bike recede further into the background, there isn’t much reason to make the purchase. Once the bike is invisible, that’s when you can hit flow.
If there is one thing Shimano has flawlessly understood, it’s this fundamental truth. The bike is a tool and if you’re thinking about your tool, you’re not focused on the ride.
Di2 takes this notion—that you shouldn’t have to think about your bike—and chases it relentlessly. Of the many drivetrains I’ve used in my life I can say that none come closer to acting like the system software of an Apple computer than Di2. That this is the quietest drivetrain yet devised is well-documented. That’s nice. No one wants to hear your bike, not even you. Then there are those occasional pops and clinks that signal a shift your drivetrain didn’t particularly appreciate. What I’ve yet to hear Di2 produce is one of those too-many-watts-too-few-rpms bangs. Nary a one. That first generation of Red could produce some noises that made me back off and look down at my bike. That’s definitely not in-the-moment.
Because the buttons are set to function in the same way as the levers of STI, the function is really pretty easy to get down. Have I occasionally missed a shift because muscle memory tricked me after riding a Campy-equipped bike? Yep, it’s happened, but that was a fault of my wiring, not its.
The greatest differences only begin to emerge after riding the group steadily. The first, biggest is that I shift more frequently. It’s the same increase in shifting that I experienced when I switched from down tube shifters to integrated control levers. I probably shift 50 percent more with Di2. I’ve also noticed that I no longer worry about when to shift, though admittedly that was a relatively minor worry, one that crept up only during steep climbs. With Di2, I’ll shift in moments where I might otherwise skip shifting because I was fearful that I’d tax the drivetrain into a missed shift or some awful bang as the chain climbs over that critical tooth.
With today’s wide-ranging 11-speed cassettes and compact cranks, front derailleurs have the toughest job they’ve ever had. I’ve had trouble getting Dura-Ace 9000 mechanical to align perfectly up front. As a matter of fact, I’ve approached perfection, but I’ve yet to hit true flawlessness, but that’s at least better than I’ve been able to achieve with SRAM’s yaw derailleurs. One of my favorite features of Di2 is the autotrim that the front derailleur performs as you push the chain around the cassette. You want ideal shifting in front as well as back? Di2.
Put your finger there
One of the cooler features of Di2 that almost never gets discussed or even mentioned are the satellite shifters. Shimano makes these, but no one specs them with the bike and consumers are so accustomed to not upgrading their groups in any way that very few riders get the sprint or climbing shifters added to their bikes.
It’s a shame because they absolutely rock.
They require some learning. I’d suggest it’s akin to using paddle shifters on a car that will otherwise shift automatically. You have to remember those little buggers are there. I’m most apt to forget about them if I’ve been riding other bikes (like my Bishop). But after riding the Felt for a few days, my thumb will instinctively reach for the little button on the back of the bar top. It’s a terrific feature for when a climb steepens gradually. Cooler still is when a climb begins to roll off and you’re able to upshift as you near the top of the saddle. Riders behind don’t see your hand go to the lever, and yet you accelerate. I don’t ride many people off my wheel these days, but I gapped a buddy by upshifting a few times as a hill flattened. Telling the two buttons apart is as easy as with the lever. The smaller, closer button executes downshifts. The bigger button that’s a bit further away does upshifts.
Of course, because this is Di2, you can program the buttons to do whatever you want. Why anyone would want to, say, make the left buttons execute upshifts for front and rear and the right buttons tackle downshifts for front and rear, I can’t fathom. Other than to deliberately be obtuse, I can’t see the point of going to all that trouble. I just don’t have that much time to devote to changing a working system.
In short, reprogramming the Di2 buttons is the Dvorak keyboard of the bike world. Don’t do it unless you trade on weird.
The other auxiliary shifter are the sprint buttons. It is but one button per side, and unless you reprogram it, it executes upshifts on the right and downshifts on the left. The sprint shifter requires a light touch—I’ve overshifted a number of times, but I think I finally have the quick and gentle squeeze down. It’s a handy thing for descending as well as sprinting or, frankly, any time your nose is in the wind and you decide it’s time everyone suffered.
That hole in your pocket
Shimano long maintained a noticeable performance difference between Dura-Ace and Ultegra. When I think back on the eight, nine and 10-speed mechanical groups, Dura-Ace always had faster shifts, better tactile feedback, more powerful braking and less pull from gravity. As a result, it rather understandably commanded a premium at retail. (Hell, it commanded a premium at shop cost).
All of that was true until Di2. With the current Ultegra and Dura-Ace 11-speed groups, I can’t tell them apart when I’m riding a bike. I’ve weighed the stuff, and the Ultegra is heavier, but the shifts are just as quick and crisp, at least so far as I’m able to perceive and if there’s a real performance difference between the brakes of the two groups, it evades my powers of detection, which is remarkable because braking was the ace-in-the-hole for anyone wondering why you dropped the extra cash. No matter what anyone might say about the light touch of the shifting, the fantastic ergonomics of the lever, or anything else, you could always respond, “Yeah, but I like to choose when I stop.”
Except, not any more. I can’t come up with a reason for anyone to choose Dura-Ace over Ultegra, other than weight. I suspect nine times out of ten the deciding factor in a purchase will be some other factor in a bike—such as frame quality—but when you consider the extra silver you’ll toss just to get Shimano’s best parts, the better frame on which they are likely to be spec’d is a better excuse. If I were buying a group to put on a frame, Ultegra Di2 would be near the top of my list.
I’ve ridden a few Di2 bikes that were equipped with non-Shimano cranks. In each instance I was dismayed by the aforementioned problems with front shifting. Here’s what I didn’t sufficiently appreciate until I put three different aftermarket cranks on the same bike: No one’s cranks and chainrings run as true as Shimano’s. Bear in mind, this isn’t a comparison to Campagnolo or SRAM, but when considered against other widely available cranks (some of which get OE spec), their chainrings simply don’t run as true and as a result, front derailleur performance suffers.
Another feature I really love about Di2 is the ability to adjust the shifting on the fly. Push the button on the junction box, and hold it for two seconds and then use the shifters to execute micro adjustments. I had to do that this past winter at the Old Caz Grasshopper. I was on a brand-new Diverge and while it was 98-percent right, there was a bit of trouble with the front shifting. I was able to sort that out on a flat, straight stretch of road, by myself.
It’s fitting that I’m a writer; I’ve got rather fine bones. I’d not have gotten far as a boxer. The ergonomics of the levers from Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano are so much better than they were 15 years ago, I’m amazed that I tolerated what was out there. As good as the 9000 mechanical and various other lever shapes are, I have to admit that my hands are happiest on the Di2 levers.
It’s this little detail, that people with smaller hands will find improved comfort on Di2 levers, that makes me think that the easier shifting and smaller hoods make Di2 a better choice for most women.
The straight poop
Dura-Ace continues to be the best of the best (though there’s stuff on the horizon that may challenge it soon). There is, however, the economic reality that most of us live and work in. When I consider how much more affordable Ultegra is, and how close in performance it is to Dura-Ace, I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to splurge, that it’s worth it. Ultegra is better than it ought to be.
That said, in a world of 700-gram frames, people will always want a lighter bike, and Dura-Ace does deliver that. Shimano just needs to do more to differentiate Dura-Ace from Ultegra.
I adore this group. If I were pulling down mid-six figures, I’d put Dura-Ace Di2 on every bike I owned. I’d buy extra bikes just to put it on them. I’d have a mixed-surface bike with their hydraulic brakes. There’s no question in my head that a faster shift is better, that a more powerful shift lends confidence, but flawless shifting makes for a transparent bike. That’s the thing about Dura-Ace, the highest compliment I can give any group—that there are times I forget I’m using it.