Sunday, October 23, 2011

Q&A: Should my new road bike have electric shifting?

Q: Hi Jim,
I'm heading into the off season and already making plans for my next year's road-racing campaign. One of the things I want to do is upgrade my bike. I've been hearing from racers on my new team that if I'm buying a new bike, I should seriously consider going with Shimano's new Ultegra Di2 electric shifting. They say it's as nice as Dura-Ace Di2 at about half the price. I'd appreciate any input you could provide.


A: You sound like me, Michele. Every year I consider whether or not my top bike is ready to race, and like you I'm considering upgrading to Di2 because it's so impressive and even more importantly, I think it will be an advantage to be able to shift so quickly, accurately and effortlessly (pressing a button versus moving levers).

To help you, here's an article about Di2 that I wrote for my column Jim's Tech Talk in the online publication RoadBikeRider. If you don't already receive it, you might like to sign up for RBR's free weekly e-newsletter so that you will get my weekly column in your email and lots of other roadie news and tips.

My article ran only a few weeks ago but already there's news that Shimano is working on a race-day battery so that you could save a few grams switching the larger battery for the smaller (the regular battery weighs only 71 grams so it's not exactly heavy to start with).

You can scroll down to read my story, but first here's a good YouTube video on Ultegra Di2. It's not in English but it's the best video I found showing Di2 in action so you can watch how beautifully it shifts. Each shift requires a tap on the button on the lever but you can still shift across the entire cassette very quickly as you'll see.

Also, here's a really nice write-up by BikeRumor with more photos, a video and a weight comparison between Dura-Ace and Ultegra and both mechanical and Di2, too.

Di2 Sets A New Standard
While Shimano’s Ultegra 6770 Di2 electric components group (Di2 stands for Digital Integrated Intelligence) was just introduced, it's already probably the most sought after product in the road market right now. I got to test ride it, talk to Shimano about it, attend a technical seminar about Di2 and discuss it with other industry pundits at the Interbike bike show in September.

Shimano’s first electric group, Dura-Ace Di2 debuted about 4 years ago, but the significantly lower price of the new Ultegra Di2 and its sleeker design has created high demand and if you’re in the market for a new bike you should act fast to get on the list for Ultegra Di2. Especially since the buzz at the show was that the demand will far exceed the supply. To whet your appetite, here are some of the details about this showstopper.

Two small wires, neater connectors and USB compatibility
At a ballpark $2,800 for the entire Ultegra Di2 electric group, and a little north of $4,000 for a bike equipped with it, the new Di2 is about half the price of Dura-Ace Di2. Ultegra uses a 2-wire system versus the D-A 4-wire one, and the wires are smaller diameter for a cleaner look and easier internal routing. Also, the wire connectors are easier to use and waterproof so mechanics no longer have to seal the system with heat-shrink electrical tubing after installation as was necessary with Dura-Ace.

Ultegra is also USB-compatible so mechanics can hook your bike up to a PC to diagnose the Di2 shifting and even set the functions of the shift buttons. For example, if you wanted to set your levers up with the different buttons shifting down instead of up, or the front instead of the rear derailleur, it’s easy with Shimano’s graphic-user-interface software (you would probably have the shop do this, unless you wanted to purchase the tuning box and download the software).

Perfect shifts every time, automatic trimming and no lube needed
But the best thing is the shifting performance, which equals Dura-Ace and beats mechanical shifting hands-down. Every shift is quick and crisp and precise and will stay that way. There are no cables to stretch or housings to compress or ferrules to slip out of the frame stops. You can even stand and jump on the pedals and the front derailleur doesn’t care a bit. It still happily shifts the chain onto the large or small chainring with a funny electrical chirp noise you can hear in the video.

Plus, just like with Dura-Ace Di2, the Ultegra electric front changer trims itself as you shift up and down the cassette to eliminate any chain rubbing. In other words, the trimming is automatic. This also means that you won’t need to run a chain keeper to prevent the chain falling off the small chainring because the derailleur doesn’t trim until after you’ve made the shift. So there’s no overshift to kick the chain off.

Maybe even more impressive, you don’t even have to lube the Di2 derailleurs or pulleys and never have to replace the cables/housing or lube them. If you want you can clean the derailleurs with dish soap and water, but they will never need lubrication and you shouldn’t lube them. You do of course lube the chain as always.

Click to enlarge
Simpler components
One of the most interesting aspects of Di2 is that it’s much simpler than regular mechanical components, with far fewer moving parts. In the Di2 levers alone, it’s kind of amazing.

A mechanical lever has perhaps hundreds of small parts – like a Swiss watch. Someone has to assemble all these parts and then they have to keep working with every shift. It’s kind of a miracle that they work as well as they do when you think of the complication.

A Di2 lever in comparison has only a few simple parts. It’s basically a brake lever that pulls the cable to operate the brake, that’s it. Then there are the electric buttons for shifting and the wiring. This makes for a much simpler and lighter lever. Should you break one in a fall it should be cheaper to replace too.

Also, there are remote satellite shifting buttons available for Ultegra, like there are for Dura-Ace, that allow you to shift from different positions on your bars. This is one of the best features of electric shifting in my opinion. Unfortunately, right now, if you're setting up a time trial or triathlon bike you'll need to go with Shimano's Dura-Ace Di2 because it offers optional aero-bar satellite shifters. Ultegra Di2 doesn't yet.

Superior longevity 
I spoke to Wayne Stetina about his Di2 since he’s Shimano’s Chuck Yeager and has had a lot to do with its development. He said he has logged 42,000 training and racing miles on his Dura-Ace kit and that the bike was also used as a loaner at every industry event he attends (that’s a lot), so it actually has many more miles on it. He had a rear derailleur stop shifting perfectly at 32,000 miles and had to replace it. Other than that he has had zero problems, just perfect shifting.

Wayne believes that even though the purchase price of Di2 is more than mechanical Ultegra (or Dura-Ace), you might actually save money because of how durable it is and how it saves wear and tear on components. He says he is getting twice the mileage out of his chains that he used to get and that the derailleurs last longer too. That stands to reason since the shifts are controlled by the motors in the derailleurs not by the rider so you can't force a shift.

Of course, Wayne works for Shimano, but I also talked to Calfee Designs’ Craig Calfee, who is doing a lot of Di2 integration on his bikes now. He runs the wiring internally in his frames and offers custom cylindrical batteries that hide inside seatposts - a neat trick. Craig also believes the components are more durable due to the lack of moving parts and how advanced the electronic industry is – so that things like wiring and connectors and servo motors, etc. are more perfected and less likely to fail.

Powerful battery 
Di2 is powered by a small 7.4V lithium-ion battery that looks like it’ll run out of juice fast (compared to the batteries in electric screwdrivers or other battery-powered appliances). So at the show a lot of questions were about battery life. As with any battery-powered device, it depends on how you use it. With Di2, rear shifts sap the battery very little, fronts take a lot more juice. But, the riders of Di2 at the show said they don’t worry about charging the battery all the time because it’s almost always charged enough for a ride.

To completely charge a dead battery takes 90 minutes. But, let’s say you get up for your weekly group ride and your battery is dead. You can put the battery on the charger, go get dressed for the ride and you’ll already have enough power for a century. That only takes about 5 minutes of charging! Like a cellphone battery, the Di2 charges very quickly at first.

Getting Ultegra Di2 
As with all new components groups, the best/most affordable way to purchase Di2 will be on a complete bike. The other advantage of this approach is that the cleanest setup is having internal wiring and the battery tucked neatly beneath the chainstay or elsewhere.

It’s hard and not recommended to drill holes in carbon and modify parts to internally route your Di2 wires and hide the battery on a bike not made for it. Instead you mount it externally and that works fine, too. But, if you are looking for the cleanest setup, look for a 2012 bike made for Di2 and you will get nice integration and a custom/clean look.

Overall, I think you’ll love Ultegra Di2 and I can't wait to upgrade when I can. I'm sure a lot more people will be racing on it next year too. Plus, Campagnolo just announced that their long-awaited electric gruppo is almost ready for production, so Campagnolo riders will be able to upgrade to electric shifting too.


bekster said...

Howdy, just wondering if the Ultegra di2 shifters/rd/fd with be compatible with Dura Ace 7900 brakes, cassette and chainset?

Jim Langley said...

I'm not sure because it's so new I haven't had a chance to see if it'll work without all the parts that come with the kit. The one tricky component might be the chainset (crankset). Since the Di2 kit comes with a crankset, it suggests that a special one is needed. So that's what you'd want to check to make certain before committing. The brakes aren't part of the Di2 kit so they'll be fine and the cassette should be the same as the old one too.

bekster said...

Thanks Jim:-)

Jim Langley said...

As luck would have it, bekster, I was looking at some 2012 Fuji bikes today that have Di2 with Rotor cranksets, so that makes me think that it will work with your 7900 crankset. That's good news.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

I originally read your article on Ultegra Di2 that was cross published on Space City Cycling.

I'm should have all the parts to install this on my Look 566 in early January 2012.

I was curious to read your comments that the FD & RD don't require regular lubrication because I have not ready that anywhere else. Can you confirm that is Shimano's position as I typically wash and then lube my current 6700 parts every week.

Nigel in down under Sydney.

Jim Langley said...

Glad to hear you're going to get to ride Di2 Nigel. I think you'll love it. The advice not to lubricate the derailleurs comes straight from Shimano. They told us this at the technical seminar they put on at the Interbike Bike Show. You should read and follow the instructions that come with the components too. Have fun with it!