Shimano's flagship electronic group, Dura-Ace Di2, has planted itself firmly at the top of the dream gruppo pecking order over the last four years, culminating with this year's Tour de France, which was by all accounts a rampant success for Di2. Following three fantastic weeks of racing, Di2 left with some major spoils: the Yellow Jersey (Cadel Evans), Green Jersey (Mark Cavendish), Polka Dot Jersey (Samuel Sanchez), and 12 stage victories. I won’t say that electronic shifting was responsible for the riders' success, but it certainly doesn't look bad when you put all of that together.
For anyone who has had the chance to partake in the unique feel of an electronically assisted shifting experience - it's unquestionably a huge pleasure. Unfortunately, that pleasure came at a monster cost, a cost that left Dura-Ace Di2 a delightful privilege for either the top professionals or those of the deep pocket persuasion. I had the chance to ride Dura-Ace Di2 last fall for the first time, and I liked it a lot. I couldn’t love it though, because it was just so prohibitively expensive. With Shimano’s new Ultegra Di2 groupset, however, I’m certifiably smitten.
Ultegra Di2 will come through at a price far, far below its big brother. In fact, little brother Di2 will be priced below even mechanical Dura-Ace. In short, for me personally, if I’m looking to buy a new groupset for a bike - it’s going to be extremely difficult to pass up on the chance to go electronic. One could go so far as to say that this release could be a crucial step in the evolution of cycling technology - it could well be the gruppo that puts electronic into the hands of many.
2,500 dollars for a groupset or a bike priced in the 4,000 range isn't cheap by any means, but it's a whole world closer to the reasonable consumer than Dura-Ace Di2, which when attached to a bike, regularly sees prices with numbers in the car range.
What is the best part in all of this? You’re not losing out by going with Ultegra. At the moment, I would contend that it’s the better of the two - for half the price! The explanation is simple: Dura-Ace Di2 is four years old. In the realm of electronics, that's archaic. Think about the phone or computer you were using four years ago. Exactly.
Shimano's new Ultegra Di2 groupset goes a long way to rendering Dura-Ace obsolete (for the moment at least - I can't imagine it will be long before Dura-Ace gets its due upgrade). It’s one of those rare moments where the trickle down of technology will actually be a trickle up. For once, the consumer can get brilliant new kit without taking out a second mortgage.
Keep in mind, however, that Ultegra doesn’t win the weight war. That just wouldn’t be acceptable. It's heavier, as Ultegra is supposed to be, but that's easily rectified with non-Ultegra brakes and cranks. Some numbers: mechanical Ultegra weighs 2402 grams, a Dura-Ace Di2 group weighs 2219 grams, and mechanical Dura-Ace weighs in at 2149 grams. The lower-cost mechanical 105 weighs in at 2609 grams.
The improvement is in the electronic guts of Ultegra, which are simply better - they're smaller, there are half as many wires, completely waterproof, and there's the option for internal and external wiring as well.The Ride
So the question that begs answering - is electronic better than mechanical? Some will vehemently defend the viability of mechanical shifting, and that's fine, they're not wrong. Mechanical shifting works great, that's unquestionable. I'm still rocking mechanical Ultegra, and I'm still happily plowing my lonely furrow through the Dolomites without problems. While my exuberance and many others' is painfully apparent, the actual differences aren't earth shattering. A shift is still a shift. The world's greatest shift isn't that much different than an average one, but the difference is real.
BUT…I find myself yearning for the shifting experience of electronic, because for me, it's better. It's a step forward, it's easy, it's effective, it's precise, it feels good and...
While mechanical can go toe to toe with electronic in most disciplines, there's one realm where it falls far, far behind: big and little ring shifts are superior to mechanical. It's a fact. The long throw of the left shifter has been replaced with an easy button, and more importantly, that shift can be done at any time, any situation, any wattage, any cadence, and any gear. Want to go from little to big while attacking uphill, or perhaps drop it from big to little under huge power? Not a problem. The shift is seamless, perfect - it changes how I ride. I used to fret over big or little options on certain hills while racing; Di2's extremely stiff, automatic trimming front derailleur ensures that I can be in exactly the right gear at all times - no matter how absurd it may seem. That's kind of cool to me: what was previously absurd, is now perfectly ok. Want to ride that 53x28 gearing - no worries, go right ahead. Are you for some reason insane and want go 53x28 to 39x28 in the middle of a climb and then pop right back up to the 53? You can do that too. It's not that I'll ever do that, but to know that it's possible, to know that I'll never have to think about that and worry if the shift will work is sublime.*** NOTE ***
When I use words like ‘worry’ or mention the 'long' shift throw of mechanical - please keep in mind that I do not worry about shifting, nor have I ever once bemoaned the shift throw to my big ring…it's just that mechanical to electronic shifting really brings those extremely small issues to the fore.
Interestingly, I shift roughly twice as much as I do with mechanical systems. I don't know quite what it is, but I shift a lot more, and because I shift a lot more, I always seem to be in a better gear. Call me lazy, but I will often just stay in a gear for the simple fact that I don't feel like shifting. I've been cured of that habit with Di2 - shifting is a button click. It's so easy, even the laziest of shifters (me) actually utilizes the wonderful world of twenty different gears.The Little Stuff
When I first got on the bike, I was less than impressed. My bike was not shifting well. I thought that wasn't supposed to happen. I took my grievance to the Shimano people and was quickly educated in the difficult process of adjusting the rear derailleur. And by difficult, I mean: hold down a button for a few seconds, then click either right shifter button to fine tune. How much can you fine tune? You get 15 clicks in either direction - that's some serious fine-tuning. According to Shimano, if you get it right on one gear, you're set for all the others, so this is something you can do on the fly with no problems. Basically, it's idiot proof, and that's music to the ears of this mechanical idiot.
Along with the idea of wrenching - initial set-up of an electronic system, especially with the newer, simplified Ultegra system, is much simpler than its mechanical brethren. After having the process explained and demonstrated in bits, I actually felt the urge to try to build a bike with electronic - it’s intuitive, it makes sense, it’s well designed, it works.
Ergonomics are important. Anyone that claims otherwise doesn’t ride his or her bike much. I had stopped being much of a Shimano fan since the wiring in its mechanical versions went internal. For me, an owner of small hands, it made the hoods a lot less friendly to my paws than SRAM. At the end of the day, it's extremely important to me how my hands feel on the hoods, and I just didn't like the Shimano feel very much. That's ancient history now with Di2 - the hoods are a wonderful place for my hands. They're small, narrow - they feel perfect. Like the external cabled Dura-Ace of old.
The Ultegra Di2 also got another small upgrade that is often not mentioned, but really helpful - mechanical Ultegra requires shims to adjust the reach, while mechanical Dura-Ace is adjustable via a small screw in the shifter. That Dura-Ace feature has trickled down to Ultegra now, and shifter reach adjustments are extremely simple.Negatives?
Cosmetically, the front and rear derailleurs aren't the prettiest things in the world. The mechanical portions of the two derailleurs make them much bulkier, but that takes oh about 42 seconds to get used to. On another cosmetic note, I think that the switch to electronic is best made with a bike that allows for it to be internally routed. While there is the option for external routing, it kind of seems to defeat the purpose. There are already a lot of companies stepping up to the plate with electronic specific routing options, and it’s clear that this year’s show season will see that simmer turn into a full boil. Electronic is about to be everywhere, and it’s going to be possible to wire your bike in a visibly pleasing manner.
This is where many naysayers would hope to see the word ‘battery’ written. I can’t call it a negative though. The battery is supposed to last a minimum of 1000 kilometers per charge, and can be recharged a minimum of 500 times at full capacity (If you ever actually DO need a replacement battery - they’ll run under a hundred dollars). Do the math on that one. Basically, if you run out of juice, you deserved to.Wrapping It Up
I’m converted. Shifting will always be something for personal taste, and that’s the way it should be. After two days on Ultegra Di2, my taste has gone electronic. It’s reasonably affordable, it works great, it’s the future, and it’s what I really hope that I can be riding at some point soon.