Shimano invited us to the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, to test ride the new Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting group. As expected, it worked amazingly well and, at half the price of it’s Dura-Ace brother, is set to change the landscape of bicycle drivetrains.
First, a primer. From start to finish, Shimano spent five years developing the Dura-Ace Di2 system. Three years of design followed by two years of real world testing under their sponsored pros. Why so long? Because as we all know, whenever such a high profile product is released, it needs to be perfect from day one lest it get panned by the press and have a massive uphill battle in the marketplace. At the risk of sounding like a Shimano fanboy, it pretty much was perfect.
Like all things electronic, though, technology changes, lessons are learned, Moore’s Law happens and things improve. The result is the new Ultegra Di2 group – a system that is better in many respects, performs just as well and cuts the cost in half. What that means for us is complete bikes on the showroom floor this fall with an electronic drivetrain in the $4,300 range. And you’re going to want one.
Get the full scoop, ride review, pics and video after the break…
WHAT’S DIFFERENT FROM DURA-ACE TO ULTEGRA Di2?
Price and weight. Technically performance, but unless you’ve been on Dura-Ace Di2 for a while, you’d be hard pressed to find any less performance coming from the Ultegra group. Here are the numbers:
|Component Weights by Group (in grams)
*FD is braze-on. Cranks are 53/39 with BB. 11-23 cassette. 114 links in chain. All weights provided by Shimano. “Other” includes the wiring, battery & mount, junction box and control box for the electronic groups and shift cable & housing for the mechanical groups.
As for price, the Ultegra Di2 electronics parts ring up at $1,600 USD (individual component prices in this post). Compare that to $2,700 for the Dura-Ace Di2 bits. If you’re comparing the entire group with cranksets, bottom brackets, brakes and cassette, Ultegra is about half, coming in at about the same price you could be an entire Dura-Ace mechanical group for.
Cosmetically, the Ultegra housing is slightly larger where the servo motors are housed. This is because they use larger, less expensive servos than DA. In both derailleurs, the servo rotates lever arms (the silver and black ones on the top of the rear derailleur shown at left, above) that form part of the parallelogram. This is very different from the prototype Campagnolo electronic derailleur we’ve seen.
The brake levers are alloy rather than carbon.
The battery indicator/control box is slimmer and has better inline cable routing. To check the battery’s charge level, simply press and hold any shift button.
The Ultegra Di2 wires are much thinner, and the “zip ties” snap on and off unlike the fixed ones on DA’s wire. Because they’re easily removable, custom frame builders will have a slightly easier time doing trick installs. For normal installations, the ties keep the wire pressed against the inside of the bike’s tubes to keep it from rattling about. The tool (top left) is used to safely push the wires into the ports on the junction box (rectangular thing), levers, battery and control box. The other end pulls them out. It’s designed to put the pressure on the plug rather than having you yank on the wire and possibly mess things up. After all, they’re about $30. Each.
There are two cable kits, one for internal wiring and one for external. The internal setup gets the small rectangular junction box. The external uses a junction box that mounts under the BB shell and has all wire plugs on one side.
Dura-Ace wires use a five-pin connector (left) that has specific mount points within the wiring schematic. The Ultregra Di2 wires are 2-core wires based on CANbus technology that allows networked devices using multiple controllers to communicate with each other. This lets frame manufactures make the holes smaller and the wires are lighter. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the new design is that it’s waterproof once it’s connected; it doesn’t need the heat shrink seals that the Dura-Ace version required. That means it’s more easily moved to a new bike in the future.
Another killer new feature is their diagnostic device. Dura-Ace has one, too, but it requires you to plug each component in separately and simply blinks lights to indicate a problem. This new one has a very, very nice GUI that loads on your PC (Mac version should be coming soon!) and only requires you to plug it into one shift lever to read the entire system:
If everything turns green, you’re good to go. If a part shows as red, you’ve found the problem. If everything looks green but it’s not working properly, chances are good that it’s a bad/damaged wire somewhere. Unfortunately, the only way to test that is either swap in a new part (hopefully your Local Bike Shop will stock them) or swap wires between components and see if the red part changes.
The software and device is only intended to locate the damaged part, not diagnose what’s wrong with it. However…
…it does let you customize the way the shifters work. You can pick which button shifts up and down or even swap it so the left shifter/lever controls the rear derailleur. This is a great feature because the system comes set up to operate similarly to the mechanical versions in that the inside lever on the right moves to harder gear on the cassette but moves the front derailleur down to the small ring. I found myself getting them mixed up, and being able to make the same button on both sides control up shifts or down shifts is pretty cool.
Alas, the unit is really intended as a shop tool, and at $200 to $300 expected retail, it’s probably not something most cyclists will have laying around. If you’re loaded, though, it can make for some pretty cool bike geek party tricks. With it plugged into your system, you can tune the shifting and have it simultaneously show you where the derailleur is on screen and move the derailleur on the bike. It borders on creepy making something move just by tapping a button on your computer, but it’s pretty darn cool.
Speaking of adjustments, Ultegra has 30 steps for each gear (versus 24 for Dura-Ace Di2). You don’t need this tool to setup/tune your shifting, it can be done from the bike, too: Simply press and hold the button on the control module until it stays red, then press the shifter to make micro adjustments on one cog. Once you’ve got it lined up perfectly for one cog, it should be adjusted properly for all gears.
The brains of the operation are in the front derailleur. That, along with having a quite powerful servo, explains the bulky top section. This means that in order to run Di2, you need a front derailleur in the system. Shimano’s Tech Rep Tommy Magrath says the development on this was well before people started getting into 1×10 drivetrains, and really that’s only starting to get popular (as in other than DH) in mountain bikes now. So, for the foreseeable future, you won’t be able to run a 1×10 Di2 setup unless you’ve a) hacked it or b) have a very expensive front derailleur acting as a chainguide.
The battery meter shows the charge level when you hold either shift button. Solid green is 100%, blinking green is 50%, solid red is 25% and blinking red means 0%. However, even when it’s blinking red, you’ve still got an estimated 250km of riding before it’s totally dead. It’ll show as being low earlier when holding the front shifter versus the rear because the front derailleur uses more power. So, if you do drain the battery on a ride, the front derailleur will stop working first, but you’ll have about 180 shifts left in the rear. This is a nice safety net to help get you home.
Actual distance per charge will vary based on how often you shift. Basically, you can expect 1,000 to 1,500 shifts per charge in normal conditions. Really cold weather will work through the battery quicker. Shimano says it’s been tested from -32ºF to 120ºF and it works as designed. Honestly, if you can remember to charge your cell phone or GPS cycling computer, you should be able to remember to charge this. Charging time is claimed at just 90 minutes with a guaranteed 500 recharges per battery. You can charge it for any length of time, and supposing you do forget, Magrath says just put it on the charger while you fill your bottles and get dressed and you’ll have plenty of charge for a ride.
Devin Walton, Shimano’s PR manager for the States, says there’s actually less that can go wrong with Di2 than mechanical drivetrains. He said one customer had put more than 35,000 miles on a Dura-Ace Di2 bike before the rear derailleur had to be replaced. That said, there are a couple of minor things to consider before making the leap:
The rear derailleur will work with a 28T max cassette cog. Front derailleur is designed for 50-53 tooth range on the big ring. Those aren’t physical limits, just recommendations for maximum performance.
For cyclocross, it’ll work and it’s covered under warranty. In fact, all of Shimano’s tech and marketing folks at the ride event said it’s pretty much ideal for ‘cross. The only issue is that the front derailleur’s is designed around a normal big ring, so running a 46-ish chainring on the front may only give 99% of the performance. In other words (Shimano’s words, to be exact), the only people that are going to notice a degradation in real performance are the engineers that developed the system. The issue is the cage shape, not the mechanical/electrical bits. Conveniently, their new CX70 cyclocross parts will match up both color and style with these new parts.
As for mud and water, the system is (for all practical purposes) waterproof. In fact, Shimano says they’ve completely submerged the Di2 system at 10m (~33 feet) and it still worked. Real world application: Riding in the rain won’t hurt it. Putting your bike on a roof rack and driving in the rain at 80mph won’t hurt it, either.
See that? That’s a taste of things to come. You may have noticed in those computer diagnostic screenshots there’s the outline of a remote shifter pod. Well, the pic above shows the two wire ports on the shifters to accommodate those and any other future accessories. The second port also happens to be where you plug the diagnostic tool into the system. Shimano said they’re working on both remote shifters and TT/Triathlon bar end shifters for the Ultegra Di2 group, and that other things like the sprinter’s shift buttons are likely in the future. At the earliest, you might see some of these items in the spring. Because of the different wiring plugs, DA bits won’t work with Ultegra.
IT’S ALL ABOUT PERFORMANCE
Shimano would like you to know that Di2 is not about having an electronic drivetrain. It’s about flawless shifting. They proved that with the Dura-Ace version and the Ultegra edition works just as well.
One of the most heralded features of Dura-Ace Di2 is the front shifting, and Ultegra Di2 is no less fantastic.
Stand up to mash gears up a climb and you can shift back and forth between big and little rings effortlessly and perfectly. Not only is it quick, but the auto trim feature keeps it in line with whatever cog you’re in so there’s never chain rub.
If you’ve ridden DA Di2, Ultegra Di2’s rear shifting may seem infinitesimally slower, but it’s still at least as fast as is normally done with a traditional mechanical system. One common complaint about the system is that you can’t dump a bunch of gears before a climb or instantly add a couple for a surprise sprint. Technically that’s true, but the system will basically shift as fast as you can tap the button (see video). So, it’s more about relearning how to dump gears (ta-ta-ta-tap) as opposed to not being able to do it. And it feels much more controlled.
Here’s where I’m struggling: I feel like I should write more. What you really need to know is that it shifts perfectly. Everytime, all the time. There are no cables to stretch, it won’t shift funny on really hot or cold days, and it can’t get mucked up by lack of maintenance or lousy weather.
What’s really exciting about the Ultegra Di2 is that it brings that electronic, flawless shifting to the mainstream. Complete bikes with Di2 are now going to be available at price points that most enthusiast riders (like you!) will consider. And, as you’re considering those bikes – or simply upgrading your existing frame – you’ll likely test ride a Di2 bike. One or two of your friends will show up at a group ride with Di2 and rave about it. Then, if I were a betting man, I’d say an electronic drivetrain ends up on your wish list. If you think I’m just tooting Shimano’s horn, you owe it to yourself to go test ride it. Seriously. As one cyclist to another, and I honestly don’t care if you buy it or not, you’ve gotta try it. You probably won’t want to go back to mechanical shifting.
LONG TERM TESTS & ONE SMALL ISSUE
Shimano was very careful to note that the cables and plugs (everything, actually) were pre-production and not fully watertight on our test bikes. We were warned that they shouldn’t get too wet, but on one of our rides, the ground was damp with puddles in spots from an overnight rain and overcast morning. My bike stopped shifting about 90 minutes into the ride. After about 30-40 more minutes, shifting function returned sporadically and after the full 2.5 – 3 hour ride, it was mostly shifting again. Some of the Shimano guys thought perhaps a little water had entered one or more of the plugs, others thought it might be something else. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the diagnostic tools on hand to test it and find the real issue. Should this concern you? Probably not. The production versions will have better seals at the cable snaps and junctions. Do I still want it on my bike? Yes. Would I still buy it? Yes. Will I tell my friends it’s the second coming of the great Spaghetti Monster? Perhaps after drinking the bottles of wine I borrowed from the UCI’s wine cellar.
If Shimano had everything to prove with Dura-Ace Di2’s launch a few years ago, the stakes are even higher with Ultegra. It’s going to be spec’d on way more bikes and sold to way more customers after market. If Dura-Ace Di2 was seen as an aspirational product of the pros and country club set, Ultegra Di2 will bring electronic drivetrains to the farmers market rides.
We’re on the list for a full, production groupset and will be testing it on both road and cyclocross bikes this fall/winter. Look for a proper long term test early next year – you know, about the time you’ll start looking at all the shiny new bikes with Di2…
MORE COOL STUFF
In case it’s not obvious, there are three more things that should get you excited:
1. Ultegra’s improvements in wiring, battery management and diagnostics tools will undoubtedly trickle up to Dura-Ace. Probably sooner rather than later, meaning that system will get lighter and better.
2. Potentially, that could actually lower the cost of Dura-Ace Di2. The mechanical DA system is getting a pretty hefty price drop for 2012.
3. K-Edge is already thinking up mountain bike kits for this, too, which should put it into the range of normal rich, not just the super rich.