Shimano Dura-Ace Past and Present

How a Japanese company has come to dominate the cycling market is a story of precision engineering, supreme functionality and tireless attention to detail. Bespoke Cycling looks at the history of Shimano's flagship groupset Dura-Ace and rides the latest version released last year.

Words: David Arthur

It all began in 1973...

1973 was the year it all changed. Shimano may have been founded in 1921 with the manufacturing of single freewheels and dabbled with early parallelograms culminating with Crane in the early 70s, but 1973 was the year it introduced the Dura-Ace name and sparked the Japanese company's steady ascent to a position of dominance in not just the pro cycling ranks but also the market as a whole would take off.

Here's how Shimano sold the groupset in its first every brochure for Dura-Ace: 'The Dura-Ace series is a full line of high-quality components, featuring the most advanced engineering and performance possible. Each is manufactured of special light weight extra strong "micro-alloys". Shimano's unique cold forging process adds that extra degree of strength and precision. The Dura-Ace line's exquisite jewel finish characterises the extra care and craftsmanship that goes into each and every component. If it bears the Dura-Ace name - it's your guarantee of strength, lightness and performance.'

Before Shimano introduced Dura-Ace, the professional peloton was dominated by European brands, namely Campagnolo, but its market position was slowly eroded by Shimano's rapid development of Dura-Ace. Over the decades the pendulum would swing in Shimano's favour, and in 2017 Shimano serves 14 of the 18 WorldTour pro teams and is largely the default choice in the wider bicycle market at most price points.

The name, incidentally, was derived from the 'Dura' in duralumin, a lightweight and strong alloy the company used to produce the groupset.

Following the first debut of Dura-Ace in 1973, in 1978 Dura-Ace EX 7200 came out, offering a 6-speed setup with down tube shifters. Shimano was keen to make it into the pro ranks and sponsored Belgian squad Flandria who would provide valuable feedback, helping Shimano to rapidly develop the groupset, refining it to meet the demands of pro racing.

Shimano was also now working to a philosophy that it still adheres to today: "each part should function together and integrate into a whole system that improves the overall performance of the bicycle."

The 1980s marked a significant period of development for Dura-Ace. In 1980 along came 7-speed with Dura-Ace AX 7300 and the first index mechanism in the rear derailleur. It was also the first groupset to be more aerodynamic, with Shimano reducing drag by some 20%.

In 1984 Dura-Ace 7400 introduced S.I.S. (Shimano Indexing System), indexed downtube shifters. It was still 6-speed but 7- and 8-speed soon followed.

1990 was a big year. Shimano developed the first dual control lever, Shimano Total Integration (STI). It marked the eventual move away from traditional downtube shifters, and the ability to change gears without moving hands from handlebars.

Dura-Ace 7700 came in 1996 and introduced 9-speed and redesigned STI levers. Hollowtech cranks with Octalink bottom brackets marked a move away from the old square tapered axles of previous cranks. This was the groupset that in 1999 was ridden to Tour de France success by a certain disgraced American cyclist, the first time Shimano had won the prestigious race. And in 1998, Shimano celebrated the 25th anniversary of Dura-Ace with a special groupset presented in a briefcase.

The move to 10-speed came in 2003 with Dura-Ace 7800, the first 10-speed groupset, and by now Shimano was really making big inroads into the pro ranks. The Hollowtech cranks were attached to the frame with a new external threaded bottom bracket, which allowed larger bearings for increased rigidity and lower weight. Shimano was now leading the groupset wars and leaving rivals in its wake. Alberto Contador would ride this groupset to Tour de France victory in 2007.

In 2008, Dura-Ace 7900 was launched, a radical redesign and new aesthetic direction over the previous version, gunmetal grey replacing polished metal. A year later Shimano went electronic, introducing its first Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) groupset with Dura- Ace 7970. Met with initial scepticism, it nethertheless went on to mark a new chapter in the history of the groupset. Now, every pro team on Shimano uses Di2 and it's popular with consumers too.

Another five years and along came the jump to Dura-Ace 9000 (mechanical) and 9070 (Di2) and the addition of an 11th sprocket. There was also a radical new four-arm chainset and dual pivot brakes, and second generation Di2 got smaller and lighter. It was now 40 years since Shimano first introduced Dura-Ace to the pro peloton.

The introduction of R9100 series…

All of which neatly brings us to the real topic of this feature, the latest Dura-Ace R9100 (mechanical) and R9150 (Di2) and for the first time, hydraulic disc brakes available with either mechanical or electronic shifting and Shimano's first power meter.
Shimano bills the latest Dura-Ace as "the most advanced system of road cycling components in Shimano's 95-year history," which is certainly bold talk. Let's take a closer look.

It's still an 11-speed groupset but introduced a number of new features and refinements. Synchronised shifting is now available with Di2, which lets the system control both derailleurs.

Despite the popularity of electronic shifting, Shimano hasn't ignored mechanical, and the groupset gets some noticeable updates. The rear derailleur has a radical new appearance prompted by the Shadow low-profile design first introduced on its mountain bike line, and it now accommodates a 30t sprocket, previously limited to 28t. The new front derailleur is completely different, with the long arm gone and replaced by a more compact design that provides better tyre clearance and is said to work just as well.

The crankset has an all-new appearance, still made from aluminium but with a much larger asymmetric crank arm that is said to provide better shifting and lower weight. It caused a few ripples on the internet when it first appeared but it's grown on us, and we can confidently say it looks better in the flesh.

The power meter is big news for Shimano. The aftermarket for power meters has exploded in the past few years with prices slowly falling to ever more affordable levels. Shimano's power meter is crank-based with the strain gauges housed in each crank arm for proper left and right leg power measurement. At the time of writing, it's not actually available and we've not ridden it yet, but we're excited to ride it and see how it compares to the benchmark SRM.

Disc brakes are getting more popular, we've built more disc-equipped bikes in the past year, and the development of the first Dura-Ace hydraulic brake system is exciting news. Previously Shimano ported its mountain bike tech to a non-series brake lever and caliper. The new dedicated brake calipers and funky Freeza brake calipers are claimed to drastically reduce heat buildup, which should provide more confidence in the mountains.

David rides R9100 mechanical…

I've had the chance to get some quality miles on R9100, the mechanical groupset with rim brakes. The first thing that immediately hits you is that it feels very similar to the previous generation groupset, which is no bad thing as that was already damn good. But explore a little deeper and nuanced differences become apparent.

The first point of contact are the hoods. The shape is largely the same, but a new textured rubber material provides a more secure feeling when you're barrelling along the road. The shifting feels, though it's a tiny difference, a little crisper and the lever throw shorter and lighter. It's definitely a case of refinements rather than the major changes we've seen through Dura-Ace's history.

Rear shifts are still wonderfully precise and quick, the chain smoothly and quietly slipping across the cassette. Where there's a more noticeable difference is in the quality of the front shifts. It wasn't exactly sluggish before, but changing from the little ring to the big, and back again, requires less energy at the shift lever and the change is quicker.

Despite the advances of disc brakes, I'm still a fan of a good rim brake and the new Dura-Ace calipers, in my opinion, set the benchmark. The feel when you pull the lever is one of solidness and confidence, with superb feel at the lever. There's nothing wooden about these brakes. A benefit for fans of wider tyres is the news that they now accept a 28mm tyre.

It's perhaps hard to justify upgrading from 9000 to 9100, but if I was building a new bike and looking to spec a mechanical groupset, new Dura-Ace would be top of my list. It continues the impressive advances Shimano has made through the years, a company not happy to rest on its laurels. It confirms its position as the dominant player in the market.

Barry rides R9150 Di2…

I have spent a lot more time on 9100 and share Dave's thoughts. I absolutely adore the new mechanical groupset. Shifting is so light and quick that it made me question the need for the new Di2 9150.

I have historically ridden a lot of the two previous Di2 groupsets (10 speed 7970 and the 11 speed 9070).

When we heard rumours it was coming out we all had ideas on what improvements it was to have - would it be 12 speed, would it (surely) be wireless?

Looking at the naming convention; one would think 7970 to 9070 was a big jump (from 10 to 11 speed, internal battery etc), and the latest 9150 is more of an evolution than a revolution.

Which was an initial disappointment....

But I have had the new electronic groupset for a month now and am super impressed. Clearly it shares much of the same drivetrain parts (cranks, cassette, brakes, chain) as its mechanical brother which is a very good start !

Everything is just a litte bit better, crisper and lighter.

The ergonomics are much better on the road shifters and especially the TT ones…

Nothing leaps out in isolation - but together they make a wonderfully solid race package. Shifting the front mech is super quick, and the rear shift is amazing - sounds like a bolt from a rifle as it rattles up and down the cassette.

The highlight of the new system is 'syncro shift' - which has been taken from the XTR mountain bike groupset. Basically there are three modes; manual, semi synchro and full synchro.
Of the two synchro modes semi is the most useful - and very clever indeed.
if you change front chain ring it will automatically change the rear cassette as well to minimse the jump. So you don't have that annoying thing where you hit a climb, go into the inner ring but then spin out madly and then need to shift down 4 gears, and then 10 seconds later shift up again !

I know a number of staff at Bespoke prefer SRAM red eTap but if I had a choice I would go Di2 on the caliper bikes.

However we await the next shoot-out which will be on the new Disc systems which are coming very soon.