Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset - product review

Words by Aaron Scott

on 29/08/2013 19:11:00

This Is An Older Post, To View Shimano Products Click Here
Live fast, Di2 young - the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset

???? 4/5

Here is a list of things you can do with £2500.

  1. Go on an awesome holiday
  2. Buy a decent used car
  3. Treat your lady / man
  4. Treat someone else's lady / man
  5. Buy a nicely spec'd bicycle
  6. Buy a Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset

If you're scared of flying, already have a nice car, are single or have a healthy set of morals there is a strong chance that you plumped for

The Trek Madone 4.9

the last two items on the list. I'm with you. Until Teasmade make something that not only wakes you up in the morning with a fresh brew, but a bacon sandwich as well. I wouldn't have thought too long about choosing between a shiny new bike or just a groupset. Looking at a Trek Madone 4.9 right now I get a Dura-Ace front and rear mech and Chainset on an OCLV frame for a smudge over the £2500 price point.

And who needs electronic shifting anyway? It's heavier, has a slower shift and what if the battery runs out? It's good ol' cables for me and always will be. Electronics never got Merckx to the finishing line, did it? No. Did the Mavic electronic shift sytem go well? No. I always ride cables. There's no skill in setting  up an electronic groupset either. The satisfaction in setting up a mech so it ticks perfectly when you ride it isn't really there. Its like choosing a Casio digital watch over a mechanical timepiece. Sure, the Casio is better for keeping time but all those cogs and springs correctly tensioned and working together is a beautiful thing.  Electronic shifting is for the Bourgeois golfers who decided to take up cycling.

What? Take out a Moda Finale carbon frame with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 on it and see what I think?


But it won't do any good. I'm going to hate every moment of it.

The Moda Finale carbon road bike

I had already arranged the weekly ride with Dan from the Whitwell shop and local living legend Michael 'Kilowatt' Watts (signed photos available from Grafham Cycling) and decided that a carbon frame with Di2 might be the way to get the edge over two mates who are irritatingly faster than me.  As I waited for them to arrive at my place I looked the bike over and gave it a tune up. Most manufacturers now make frames that will accommodate a Di2 groupset (you don't really need any further proof that electronic shifting is here to stay) and the Finale is no different. Cables disappear into the frame and re-emerge next to the Derailleurs, giving a next-gen sleekness look over bikes with cables on display.

The components themselves don't look too different from the standard Dura-Ace parts until you get close enough to see extra plastic covering small motors. The additions to the group are the small junction box which sits on wires from the shifters to the battery. The junction box serves as a battery indicator and a switch for set-up mode. I looked for the manual, which took a while as I was looking for a huge tome on electronic shifting mechanics and overlooked the pamphlet that actually held the instructions. Hold the button on the junction box until it glows red, then the buttons on the shifter become trim adjusters. Whilst on the fifth cog on the cassette, adjust it until it touches the fourth and makes an unpleasant noise, then trim it back four notches and that's it done. No cable tension to adjust either, which scores one over cables straight away. I also checked the battery level, although this wasn't high on my list of worries as I had heard the stories of the pro-team race mechanics charging the battery only once for the grand tours.

I was just in the middle of doing a robot dance with the electronic shifting providing the realistic sound effects when Dan arrived and began sorting himself out. Michael Watts arrived soon after and apologised for being late but he had passed a burning orphanage on the way over and had stopped to rescue a child that the fire and rescue team were unable to reach. Once he had removed the burning embers from his hair we assembled ourselves outside the house, carried out some last minute pre-ride banter (�oh no I'm sure I won't be as fast as you�. �No no, I'm sure you will�) and set off.

The ride didn't require much shifting until we hit Warkton Hill, which is lucky because I was rubbish at it. Being used to using SRAM shifting my hands struggled with the shift buttons and the fact that the levers didn't swing across was a little odd. So was the absence of multi shift as Di2 only moves one cog at a time. As a result my shifting was fumbled for the first fifteen swear-word-riddled miles and hills did a nice job of slowing me down. Di2 wasn't working for me.  The shifting was very accurate despite being slower than a cable system. When the rear mech moves it actually over shifts to securely place the chain on the next cog then trims back inline. This made it very smooth - when I got it right. Which was seldom. We paused for a quick drink and chat before descending the hill from Hargrave. As the speed built and safe in the knowledge that I was only going to be shifting one way, I found the correct button and hit it at intervals, building the speed. There was no kerplunking from the rear end - just a buttery-smooth building of speed. Di2 had began to show its hand.

We rode into Sharnbrook at the thirty-mile mark and found a bench to park on as Michael Watts headed into a nearby cafe and, once he had politely declined the marriage proposal from the proprietress, returned with doughnuts, flapjacks and tea. We sat and chatted about the Di2's rivals. Campagnolo had entered the market earlier this year with their EPS system. The shift buttons are in the same place as their conventional shifter but have a more tactile feel, thanks to the buttons incorporating a laminate metal switch surface. It does have the multi-shift function - and so it should, as it's heading towards the £4000 price point, which aims it squarely at the pros and the very bourgeois. SRAM haven't pursued the electronic race yet as they have decided to further refine their Red groupset, which will utilise hydraulic brakes and a front mech that shifts at an angle to eliminate the cage rubbing on the chain. It is looking very likely that this will take its place as the lightest groupset available. With the cakes done with we climbed back on the saddles and began to get warm again.

I resolved to get my issues with the shifting sorted on the return thirty miles and slowly my head and hands began to co-ordinate and the shifting began to work. Brilliantly. Riding alongside Dan uphill and hearing his gears kerthunking next to the smooth little clicks coming from mine made me realise how little noise the bike had made all day and the shifting really began to come through. Fifty miles in is normally where shifting the front mech becomes a chore. Swinging the shift lever arm over to carry the mech to the big ring can be tedious when most of your energy is being devoted to keeping the pace of who you're riding with. You'll the shift the lever and put a bit more force through the pedals to drive the chain through the mech and then recover from that not huge effort (but we are fifty miles in remember) and push a bigger gear.  A simple click from Di2 and the chain glided on to the big ring so smoothly that no effort from me was required to pedal the chain into the new gear and I was free to push the new gear more efficiently.  As the ride drew rapidly to its close, the Di2 was close to winning me over. Di2 does everything that a cable system does - but better and with less effort. If you rode with it for two laps of a car park you wouldn't be convinced that it's a significant improvement but over sixty miles, where things become a measure of efficiency, it begins to shine and with every mile ridden past the fifty mark you'd be more thankful that it was wired into your bike.

We arrived back at the house and headed in for a final cuppa and chat as kit was packed away.  Dan began to strip naked in my living room without so much as a warning and dressed too slowly for my liking as Michael Watts loaded up his van, pausing only to sign the T-shirt of a passing female fan before giving a manly 'Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast' kind of wave as he drove off to a plumbing job. We made arrangements for next week's ride, Dan left and I began to clean the bike down.

Had Di2 won me over? I got onto my bike and rode it a short distance and felt a bit deflated. I was Jennifer Aniston after being dumped by Brad Pitt. I'd just had the best and was now looking at Vince Vaughn. (I've got Michael Watts' number, Jen.  Seriously, he'd make Brad look like a gerbil.) I looked at my bike and sighed. It didn't have Di2 and there wasn't £2500 hiding down the back of the sofa. I had told everyone back at the shop how good it was and what it can do for you on a ride but two days later I calmed down and was able to look at it with a level head. The Di2 is excellent stuff but there is a lot you can do to a bike for £2500. A £1000 set of wheels would make a similar difference in terms of effort to your ride over the same kind of distance. A Colnago Masters frame may not offer the pinnacle of technology - but it is jaw-droppingly beautiful, has more soul than wires and would leave you enough change for a few days in foreign climes. And then there was always the Shimano Ultegra Di2 to consider: an attractive alternative with its more realistic price tag of £1500 and a neater wiring system.

I'm struggling to wrap this blog up. I rode the bike and enjoyed it but I'm not sure I'd rush to buy it. In the battle for hearts and minds, electronic shifting had won half of it with me. Shimano Di2 is brilliant. It works brilliantly and it convinced me that it's a piece of kit worth having if you're the right kind of rider. If you race, then Di2 is definitely for you. If you've got a high disposable income and just ride for leisure, you'll probably buy it and enjoy it (and the admiring glances from the rest of the cycling club) - and so you should. But if you ride because you like looking at black and white Tour photos and know who Eugène Christophe is, then you'll probably be able to appreciate it but will happily ride some classic gear. An echo from another cycling time. Safe in the knowledge that one day, electronic shifting with buttons and not mind control will be old hat, and then you can buy it at a jumble sale. I'd love the tech bike with the latest kit on it...but only if I can keep a classic-looking bike in the shed to keep me riding with a smile on my face and not just sweat on my brow.

Mark is based at the Grafham Cycling shop.