I’m an avowed modernist. I’ve liked both new and better ever since I was a kid. The march of progress appeals to me like the spring sun. How can you not like stuff that works better? Maybe that’s why I’ve found myself as a reviewer of things. From records to wines, I’ve reviewed all sorts of stuff over these far too many years. And over the last 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter each new iteration of Shimano’s top road group, Dura-Ace.
So that thing where I said I was an avowed modernist? I lost the plot line of my own life when Shimano introduced STI control levers with Dura-Ace 7400. I thought they were silly. I didn’t think they were necessary. I didn’t think they were better. I like better, so maybe I wasn’t going so much against my own grain. Those levers were heavy and made the front end of the bike feel sluggish. And you needed the ability to crush tin cans, not aluminum ones—like Quint in Jaws—in order execute a down shift in the rear or upshift the chainring.
But with each new iteration, Dura-Ace improved. Shimano has added three cogs, usually improved the braking, and vastly improved the ergonomics while decreasing the force necessary to shift. And in several decades of relentless evolution the group has lost more weight overall than those initial control levers weighed.
And so now we have the newest edition, 9100. Unlike the jump from 7800 to 7900 with the two ten-speed groups, 9100 doesn’t feel like a misfire. Sure, it didn’t add yet another cog, which was the hallmark of new Dura-Ace groups for more than 20 years, but nothing about this group is worse than its predecessor. Better, at every turn this group tweaks the best features of 9000 for just a little bit improved performance. Let’s take the group component by component.
There have been few groups in history where the front shifting was one of the most important gains in the group’s performance. Dura-Ace 9100 ditches the long parallelogram of the previous front derailleur in favor of one that is much shorter, giving the entire derailleur a more compact appearance. More surprising is the addition of a new plastic cap on the top of the derailleur that helps route and hide the front derailleur cable. Most surprising is that for the first time in history a component manufacturer has included a way to adjust cable tension directly on the derailleur. Why is this just now a thing?
I had to watch a video on YouTube to understand the derailleur’s setup and had to fiddle a bit to get it right, but next time will be easier than Pi. I love the no more bending of the remaining cable to keep it from curb feeler-ing (technical term) the crank arm (or worse, your shoe).
The new rear derailleur sports a carbon fiber cage, a first for Shimano, but more important is how the design borrows from Shimano’s Shadow rear derailleur. The direct mount design is said to offer superior alignment while reducing the opportunity for either frame or derailleur damage in the event of a crash. I’m just praying I don’t have the opportunity to verify this first-hand. The cage had to be increased in length a bit in order to accommodate the new 30-tooth cog available on one of the cassettes. And rather than enter the derailleur straight in from the rear, the cable now enters at an angle
For the first time in more than 10 years Shimano has noticeably shortened the stroke of the small paddle behind the brake lever. Reduced by 14 percent relative to 9000, the 9100 levers have a stroke that is reduced enough to be readily apparent. More significant is a 24-percent reduction in lever throw for the large lever (the brake lever). I hadn’t recalled the reduction as I was assembling the bike with the parts, so my first ride served as my news flash that shifting was faster due to reduced stroke length and decreased force. Lever pull remains unchanged, so you can mix these with previous Dura-Ace parts. Brake reach has been made even more adjustable. The hood material has been changed to offer improved grip.
When you look at the brakes what is most visually striking is how much of the mass is oriented parallel to the rotation of the wheel. Shimano reports that these new brakes are 43 percent stiffer than the previous calipers. What I can say on a more subjective basis is that the increase in braking power is unmistakable. What that means is that you don’t need to pull as much to feel modulation. For everyone who thinks that caliper brakes have room for improvement that can save them from buying a new bike with disc brakes, these are the best caliper brakes I’ve encountered other than the Cane Creek EE brakes.
And while I’ve managed to fit a 30mm tire in the 9000 brake, Shimano increased tire clearance in this new brake to, as they put it, accept 28mm tires. There’s certainly room for tires larger than that. The orientation of the brake quick release was changed so that it tucks into the caliper arm. Should you need to open the brake on the fly to accommodate a wheel that’s out of true a bit more effort will be necessary.
This is one place where I have to admit that Shimano’s gains are utterly lost on me. The Hollowtech crank arm is now broader to increase stiffness and the outer chainring has been stiffened to improve shifting. I simply don’t produce the wattage necessary to notice the difference. Shimano’s front shifting has been the industry standard ever since the introduction of 7800, the first group that would allow you to shift from the small chainring to the large chainring while out of the saddle. The funny thing about this is that it’s a feature I don’t use as much now that I run a compact crank. A 16-tooth difference between large and small rings means that when I shift to the big ring I must immediately downshift two cogs in the rear, at minimum. All that said, for riders who produce big power and tend to mash gears, these incremental changes will make shifting that much smoother and foolproof. And while Shimano continues to offer 53/39 and 52/36 combinations, the logic of a 50/34 setup seems tough to beat if you’re not a pro.
So the big news on the cassette is that Shimano now offers an 11-30 cassette. That seems like a gigantic spread for a road broup until you actually look at the cog arrangement: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 24, 27, 30. I can say with a straight face that I really don’t even miss the 16, and I’m a guy who used to look down his nose at cassettes that didn’t include both a 16 and an 18. What’s really intriguing in the Shimano catalog are the options of 12-25 and 12-28 cassettes. Were I still racing, the opportunity to ride an 11-speed 12-25 would have caused my brain to incandesce.
After thousands of miles on the 9000 Dura-Ace, I was wary of how much of an improvement 9100 could represent. Out of the box it looks like different cosmetics and not much else. And except for the front derailleur, as I assembled the group I found myself thinking that the group was nice, but not any sort of quantum leap.
Then I rode it.
The improvement in braking and shifting and the light feel of the operation of the group in terms of chain and bearing tension means the bike rolls with an effortlessness that is truly remarkable. Would I sell 9000 to upgrade to 9100? That would depend on my tax bracket. However, for anyone who has skipped a generation or two of innovation, be it Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo, this generation of Dura-Ace is worth the investment. Who knows if Shimano will offer another group with caliper brakes? I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last one; five years from now how many top-end road bikes will be sold without disc brakes? I can’t imagine too many. Dura-Ace has always been a study in the pursuit of excellence; this group demonstrates why Shimano continues to dominate the road market.
Final thought: I kinda wish I still raced.
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