- 4.5 / 5 Bee's Knees -
Most of my reviews could be described as thorough, maybe wordy at times. If ever there was a product to dive deep into for the purpose of a review, surely a component group would warrant that level of detail. However, after riding Shimano’s Dura Ace 9000 component group for the season (admittedly a short period thus far) I’ve decided to do something a bit different. If you’re reading this review, you’ve likely read others and have found it uncommon to find many criticisms of this groupset. There’s no doubt, the 9000’s performance is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the 7900. Here’s what I can add, the group is fantastic (news flash), so with this review I’ll be breaking down each component and hopefully giving you a more bulleted or paraphrased summary of the enhancements and changes rather than writing a novel like I often do…and my apologies by the way.
Cables & Housings -
Let’s start at the most logical point with the most integral element: cables and housings. Wait, what? There is no mistake here, the improvements to Shimano’s cables are so notable that they deserve the spotlight. By applying a polymer coating to both the brake and derailleur cables, responsive, snappy shifting and exceptional brake return is immediately realized. It would be easy to attribute the improved shifting to either the new shifters or derailleurs where much praise is due but truly the cable improvements play a massive role. Though cable housings appear unchanged, the ferrels included have extended hoses to reduce contamination and two have notches to prevent movement within the shifter bodies once seated.
Crankset & BB -
Changes made to the Dura Ace crankset are far greater than just esthetics…but damn it looks sharp. At first notice, the four bolt design is a big change from the traditional five. Not only does this new spacing reflect a focus on increasing rigidity at crucial positions in the pedal stroke but also providing consumers with a single platform that any Dura Ace chainring set can fit on. This crankset comes in just one BCD but allows for a multitude of ring sizes (50/34t, 52/36t, 52/38t, 53/39t, 54/42t, 55/42t) including the new and highly popular mid-compact. For a change of pace, I opted for one of the mid sizes, the 52/36t. I find that it pairs very well with my 28-11t cassette, giving me a wide range of gears for climbing (important here in Duluth) but more than enough meat on the descents. In retrospect, I would purchase a 28-12t for my application instead. In addition to offering several chainring sizes, there is a multitude of arm lengths including 165, 167.5, 170, 172.5, 175, 177.5 & 180mm. Mated with the crankset, a newly designed BB is said to have reduced seal friction. The size of the cups is also smaller and an adapter ring is included to allow use of tools that fit on the older Shimano standard size. As a whole, this new crankset and bb feels solid, is terrifically stiff even laterally and boasts a modest weight savings over the previous model.
Viva la 7800. Gone is the much criticized feel and performance of the 7900 shifters. Resurrected and then improved upon is the predictable and crisp response praised in the previous 7800. Advancements in hood shape, dual compound covers, ergonomic levers and material choices bring Shimano back to the forefront of component design. I haven’t, nor will I dissect the shifters to understand how the design of the internals is completely new but they feel great. The slimmer ergonomics feel more natural, and both the main lever and inner levers have increased surface area for greater access. Of course the reach is adjustable, but I found it unnecessary in my setup because again, the levers are generous. Again the shifting is predictable and crisp, the power on the brake levers is greater, cable routing is slightly different and worked great with both the bikes I installed it on. Most importantly I’ve experienced zero mis-shifts since using these compared to the nearly weekly occurrence noticed via the 7900’s. Again regarding shifting, the “slop” of the 7900 is greatly reduced. Shimano reports a reduction of 30% in the required stroke of the shift lever to engage shifting. This was a poor feel for the previous version and a great improvement found on the 9000.
Let me get this out of the way, the 9000 series brakes are bar-none fantastic! Tons of power, terrifically smooth and more welcoming to the increasingly larger and popular tires as well as wider rim profiles. Independent pivots ensure perfectly symmetrical arm articulation. When setup correctly, which is a cakewalk by the way, this action promotes the best braking experience I’ve had with caliper brakes. If you get a chance, before installing either caliper, manipulate the brake in your hand laterally…notice anything? These brakes are hugely stiff in every conceivable direction. Because of this, all of the power input can translate directly into stopping power. Part of the genius behind this design is the roller bearing that an arm extension rests on. This element improves stiffness and provides a silky smooth action that is nothing short of perfect. My frustration with my last set of premium brakes (Ciamillo Negative Gravities) was their pure paralyzation once contaminated…easily I might add. Where the NegGrav brakes were terrible in their spring return, the 9000 brakes pop back with no cable sag. Time will tell how long the springs last but so far they are are well contaminated yet respond as-new. While I haven’t used the direct mount version, this option is available for those who own such bikes. I imagine the braking is even that much stronger…wild.
Rear Derailleur -
Re-engineered in conjunction with the shifters, the improved rear derailleur shifts crisply and without hesitation. Apparently the lighter feel in the shifters is primarily the result of the new mechanics within the derailleurs themselves rather than the shifters. For the rear, a reduction in effort of 47% is claimed. How much of the improved shifting is derailleur based and how much is shifter based I don’t really know, but regardless I can attest to the quick, consistent and accurate gear changes. A primary goal with the redesign was to decrease effort near the larger cogs thereby evening out the shifting feel throughout the entire range, this is realized. From a tactile perspective, the downshifts are poppy and reliable while the upshifts feel very confident with ample power.
Front Derailleur -
Maybe more improved upon than the rear derailleur, the front sees many changes to improve what was already good front shifting. Extended arm length and a contact set screw both transform the front derailleur into something as solid as concrete. With nearly no effort from the shifters (claimed 43% less), the front derailleur commands the chain up to the large chainring with ease and without any pause waiting for alignment with the chainring shifting ramps. The two trim positions are also terrific. Regardless of cross chaining in either extreme, the drivetrain seems to accommodate any gear ratio however absurd. After a very simple setup/installation, both shifters worked flawlessly until a much anticipated minor cable tensioning was needed after roughly a month of riding.
Chain & Cassette -
I feel as though I’m doing this chain a bit of injustice by skimming right over it but truly, I’ve never broken a chain in my 20+ years of riding, never experienced shifting issues (associated with the chain), never an issue whether cheap or platinum. That said, the 9000 chain is like any other Shimano chain: shifts great, terrible stock lube that prohibits rust in the package but clings to every imaginable bit of debris, likely somewhat durable, and of course lighter than it’s brothers. My only complaint, stop with the pins! Please, start including masterlinks…that’s my hope. Now for the cassette, a pink elephant of sorts. The initial design of the cassette proved inadequate for numerous riders small, large, stallion and pony. Noteworthy reports of creaking, cracking and skipping were heard and the spotlight fell on the carbon spider (the outer I believe). As a result, a recalled was issued and a second version came out with two cotter pins rather than one. Seemingly, the issues have been eliminated. My input? With both of the groupsets I purchased, I received this second version and in both circumstances I sold the Dura Ace cassette and purchased an Ultegra instead. Though I had confidence in the redesign, avid cyclists both pro and solo have been using lower grade cassettes because the materials used in their construction are more durable, heavier yes, but greater in longevity and better on your wallet.
Hobby cyclists, career riders, product testers, the whole gamut really can’t be wrong. All are concluding the 9000 series Dura Ace components are the best group we’ve seen Shimano produce and many including myself would argue it is the best mechanical group on the market. This is subjective of course. Some prefer the more serviceable and (for some) lustful Campy bits, others are hardcore about weight and/or prefer the double tap shifting style offered by Sram. For me, I’ve long found Shimano’s shifting approach to be the most natural and thankfully with the 9000 series, you don’t feel as if you're making a compromise in performance to have this shifting style. Again, like I so quickly spoiled in this review, the 9000 group is quite simply brilliant for all of the previously mentioned reasons and more. Whether or not it is the right component group for you stands to be your judgement call but if you have the opportunity to ride a bike outfitted with it, I suspect you’ll make the plunge and be very satisfied with your purchase. One more point as well, if this happens to be the first review of this product that you’ve read, do a little more research for some long term reviews. There are plenty out there and most are gleaming with praise, aside from the first production run of cassettes. Happy rides!