Shimano Ultegra Di2 Review

Among the things I got to spend some quality time with in California was Ultegra Di2.  The Domane we rode was equipped with Ultegra Di2, whereas the Madone we had was equipped with the latest version of Shimano’s mechanical Ultegra.

My previous 2 road bikes were both equipped with mechanical Ultegra, so I have a lot of experience with it.  When I built up my Madone 7, I built it up with SRAM Red Yaw (which I still believe has the best feel of any mechanical system on the market).  And I’ve spent thousands of miles on the hoods of the SRAM Rival on my Vaya.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the mechanical Shimano hoods.  After a lot of miles on the Ridley and its predecessors, I’ve concluded that Shimano hoods are just not the most comfortable out there.  In my opinion, the most comfortable hoods are Campy Super Record, followed by Sram Red.  I was interested to see how the Ultegra Di2 hoods felt.

To my surprise, they are substantially different from the mechanical hoods.  They have a nice shape, adequately wide (but not too wide), and nicely shaped to fall easily to hand.  I have no complaints about the hoods.  When I’m riding, I often ride with my palm on the hoods, my ‘trigger’ finger on the brifter lever, my next 2 fingers between the bar and brifter, and my pinky finger behind the bar (particularly when descending or riding in a paceline).  That gives me easy access to the controls and a good grip on the bar.  The spread between the hoods/brifter/bar made it very easy for me to do my preferred control grip.

The braking action was identical to the mechanical–it feels like exactly the same ratio of effort/braking.

Shifting…that’s what you want to know about, right?  In a word: perfection.

I don’t know how much time Shimano spent working on the tactile feel of the buttons, but I couldn’t criticize a single thing about them.  They just feel perfect–they feel substantial, but they’re easy to press.  Perhaps most amazingly (and I don’t know how they do this), the feel of the buttons changes at the end of the cassette.  With mechanical, when you reach the end of the cassette, the shift levers will not go over all the way–they stop mid-throw to tell you that you’re out of gears.  With the Di2, the buttons act similarly–there is a change in feel to tell you that you’re out of gears.  Amazing.

If you’re dumping a bunch of gears, going from the big end of the cassette (slow) to the little end of the cassette (fast), I get the sense that mechanical can make the shifts faster.  I could be wrong, but that’s how it feels.  Going in the opposite direction, Di2 feels faster.  There isn’t enough of a difference in speed to be a real advantage or disadvantage to either system…but it was something I was wondering about, so I checked it out.

Here’s the amazing part of Di2: it…functions…perfectly…always.  I tried to screw it up.  I tried to just partially press the shift button.  I tried to shift under load, on a hill, with a hard effort underway.  I tried to cross-chain to an extreme extent.  I tried shifting without pedaling.  I tried shifting while spinning backwards.  I tried everything I could think of to screw it up…and couldn’t.  It shifted perfectly every time, no matter what, load or no load.

Di2 on the Domane made a lot of sense…it made that a bike that you could do some Loooooooong rides on.  Even when you’re tired, you can’t miss a shift.  Honestly, I cannot overstate how impressive the shift quality was–it was outstanding, and amazingly precise.

The other advantage of the Di2?  If if needs adjustment, all you have to do is press the little inline trim button by the brifter.  No stopping to turn the barrel adjuster.  No trying to remember which way to turn it.  No worrying about running out of adjustment or cable tension.  Just press the button.  Now, mechanical systems shouldn’t require much adjustment…once the cables stretch, how often do you really touch the shifting?  (Not very often).  But the simplicity of adjusting the Di2 is pretty great…and there is no accommodating cable stretch, because there are no cables to stretch.

So for purposes of shifting (the intended purpose of a drivetrain), the Di2 is pretty hard to beat.  If all else was equal, in my opinion, the Di2 is more consistent and precise in its shifting than any mechanical system I’ve ridden, SRAM Red included.  You can’t do a partial shift, or miss a shift.  Press the button, get a gear.  It’s that simple.  Let’s be clear: Di2 made shifts under conditions when any mechanical system would have had a problem.  I can say this with absolute confidence because I duplicated the conditions with the mechanical Ultegra and got partial/missed shifts, and because I’ve done the same with SRAM Red.  You just can’t fool the Di2.

Of course, all else is not equal.  Here are the concern areas I have:

Wiring: The wiring is ostensibly waterproof and from what I’ve read, pretty durable.  On bikes that are built for internal routing, the Di2 looks pretty eloquent (save for the big bulk of the front derailleur)…but on bikes not intended for internal routing, the wires strapped to a bike frame don’t look nearly as clean as cable runs, for some reason.  Maybe it just takes getting used to.

Electronics:  Yeah–I’ll admit it…I’m skeptical about long-term durability of the electronics.  In the first gravel metric, my Vaya was ridden in water over the BB, and was portaged across a stream that was chest-deep.  I don’t know if the Di2 will stand up to that kind of abuse.  Shimano seems to think that it is pretty durable, and I haven’t read of any systems frying yet…but to be honest, I have the concern in the back of my mind.

Battery:  The first Di2 batteries I was seeing were mounted to the bottom of the downtube.  Ugly.  On the Domane, the battery was mounted under the BB.  Unless you were looking, it was pretty well concealed (from the drive side, it was hidden by the chainrings, and from the non-drive side, it was pretty unobtrusive).  As the Di2 matures, there are far more installations that involve throwing the battery into the seat tube.  That seems like an ideal solution to me–if you can hide it, so much the better.  As far as battery life goes, every report I’ve read has said that battery life is amazingly good…so that doesn’t really seem to be an issue.  I have to charge my garmin and lights once a week.  If I have to charge the Di2 battery once every couple months, that isn’t a big deal.

Would I buy it?

Yes.  And No.

I would have no hesitation or reservation about buying and using Di2 on a bike, from a functionality perspective.  It works great.  I’d use it on the Madone without any concerns, based on how that bike is used.  But honestly, with Illinois riding, I’m not sure that Di2 would give me a huge advantage…we don’t have climbing, and there really isn’t much shifting under load.  SRAM Red has been pretty flawless for me, so I don’t think going to Di2 would result in a marked difference in bike performance.  So yes, I would (in theory), but no, I don’t see myself upgrading.  (The better reason to upgrade might be to go to 11 speed someday, but I’m not feeling as though I’m missing anything there yet, either).

The Vaya presents a more compelling case to try electronic.  The Vaya gets run in a lot more challenging conditions…mud, wet gravel, slush, crud, steep gravel rollers, etc.  Those conditions present more of a challenge to mechanical shifting, and the advantages of Di2′s consistency seem to be pretty well tailored to those conditions.  That said, these abusive conditions are also the conditions that are most likely to expose problems with an electronic drivetrain (e.g. what happens when the rear derailleur is completely submerged into water?)  Perhaps if Shimano gets to market with Di2 and hydraulic disc brakes, we will see.  That would be a combination that I think would be hard to beat on a bike like the Vaya, assuming that the durability is there.  (That said, I don’t know where the battery would go.  The Vaya has a 27.2 seatpost…I don’t think a battery is going in there).

I had anticipated trying Di2 on this trip and saying: “Meh, no big deal.”  That isn’t the case. It is a big deal.  The shift quality, the tactile feel, the ‘always perfect shifting’…they’re pretty great.  As bike integration improves, the disadvantages are being addressed one by one.  And as riders get more time on Di2, my concerns about reliability and durability are slowly going away.

The Di2 Domane was a pretty compelling argument for how technology is improving bikes at an exponential rate, right now.  Purists gonna hate, but both sets of technology just plain worked–and improved the ride experience.  That, in the end, is what I want my equipment to do.  Di2 is worth a look.

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BILTO: Manbearpig

BILTO = Bikes I’d Like To Own.  That’s a new RATG acronym.  We’re big on acronyms here.

Today’s BILTO is a bike that appeals to me on some very basic level.  Since I have the Vaytanium, I’m not building up this bike.  But if I didn’t have the Vaytanium…

I find this build intriguing because: 1) it’s a collection of nice components; and, 2) it shows how incredibly versatile Salsa bikes are.  This particular La Cruz happens to be a steel frame.

The Manbearpig is stolen from MTBR, where it was posted by rroeder.  (And by stolen, I mean fair use.)  Pics:

Uhh…wait a minute…

That’s better.

Build Specs that I can discern from the pics:

La Cruz (steel)

SRAM X7 Rear derailleur, Shimano 105 Front derailleur.  SRAM Brifters (look like Rival, perhaps?)

Stan’s ZTR Arch.  Looks like Schwalbe Smart Sams (maybe 700 x 40c?  Or are they 29×1.75?)

Thomson seatpost and stem.

Not sure what bars (perhaps Salsa Bell Lap?)  Man, those brifters are waaaay up there in the mounting.  Probably for single track controllability.

Anyhow…it’s a nice build spec–reasonable budget for a highly functional bike.  It’s probably equally at home on single track, doubletrack, cross, gravel…maybe even light touring.  The owner indicates that it’s “1/2 cross, 1/2 mtb, 1/2 graveler.”  Sounds about right–that would mean 150% awesome.  Manbearpig…it’s a BILTO.

Sneak Peek Tuesday: Ultegra Di2 and Moonlander Schwag

I schwung by my favorite local bike schop today to schee schome new schwag.  What did they have?

Ultegra Di2 (Electronic Derailleurs):

This was the first time that I, a mere mortal, have had the opportunity to fondle see Di2 in person, on a nice Trek Madone that’s being built up at the shop.

Note…some negative comments follow.  Notwithstanding those negative comments, it’s super cool to see that my local bike shop is on the cutting edge with new technology.  If I hadn’t seen it in person, I wouldn’t have any basis to have an opinion.

From some angles, it looks relatively normal:

And from other angles, it looks decidedly not normal:

Those are both shots of the rear derailleur which, as you can see, is significantly larger than a ‘standard’ Ultegra derailleur (like I have on the Ridley).

The front derailleur is even beefier.

What was cool about it?  It’s like, electronic and stuff.  Seriously, though–the auto trim feature was very cool, as was the authority with which it shifted between gears–no hesitation, no delay, just complete precision.

What is to like and not like about it?  Well, for starters, the aesthetics of it do nothing for me.  In fact, I find it rather garish.  I also found the noise it made to be rather un-bike-like.  I haven’t seen Campy’s EPS system in person, but I find the aesthetics of it (in pictures) to be more pleasing, and I’ve heard good better things about the noise it makes.

What else looked kinda hinky?  Well, on this bike, the recommended battery mount location was below the bottom bracket:

It’s relatively hidden and out of the way, and it is ‘protected’ by the chainring.  But it looks weird, once you see it…and the connections are right in front, where they’ll get hammered by water should you ever find yourself in a rainstorm.  I don’t know…it might grow on me, but I didn’t like it thus far.  (Obviously, concealed in the frame/seatpost is the best option, followed by some unobtrusive bottle cage mounting, perhaps).

But the biggest concern I have about it is the placement of the shift levers:

The smooth part at the back (the normal shift tab on Shimano) shifts one way.  The bumpy-textured part closer to the brake lever shifts back the other way.  Another view:

There, you can more clearly see how the shift buttons are built into the brake lever.  From a very brief “grab it and shift” perspective, the buttons felt too close together.  I can see a lot of accidental shift activations.  Perhaps more importantly, for someone that rides in a location that has weather that drops below 50 degrees from time to time, it looks un-rideable with gloves.  There is no way that you could reasonably be expected to distinguish between the two buttons and engage just a single button to effect a shift with gloves on.  No way.  Plan on a lot of fumbling and some cursing in order to shift with gloves on.  That one issue, by itself, is a deal killer for me.  I’ll look on with interest at the Campy and SRAM options, and wait to see if Shimano comes out with something more reasonable…it would take a lot to convince me that this setup makes sense outside of extremely warm climates (unless you hang the bike up when it gets cold out).  Based on how it shifted on the stand, I do bet that it shifts like butter when you’re out riding.

And for a bike gear nerd like me, it was a moment of bliss to see it up close and in person.  On to item no. 2:

Moonlander Schwag:

North Central Cyclery was recently featured on Fatbike.com.  So it came as no surprise, really, to see one of Fatbike’s new Moonlander Patches that had been mailed out to NCC’s GM, Tobie.

But nonetheless, it was cool to see.

Ride on.

How to Clean a (Rumble)fish.

In just a bit, I’ll post a review of my Trek/Gary Fisher Rumblefish…but for now, I’ll start with a winter tune-up.  I last rode the ‘fish a couple months ago, and it got put away dirty.  I had wiped down the chain, but nothing more.  In anticipation of the upcoming spring, I wanted to take a few minutes and do a full clean/tune/lube job.  On a full suspension bike, that is no small task.

The Rumblefish has a lot of suspension pivot points.  There are all of these:

And there’s also the pivot for the chain stays (just above and behind the bottom bracket) and the Active Braking Pivot (ABP), where the chain stays and seat stays pivot around the rear skewer.  So if you add it all up, you get 2 pivot points at the shock, 2 pivot points on the top link that the shock attaches to, a pivot at the chainstay/seatstay junction, and a pivot point at the bottom bracket.  Mission for today was to clean and check out all of them.

Starting with the shock, a 5mm allen wrench will loosen the 2 bolts that hold the shock to the frame.  At this location, the bolts go through the aluminum mounting tabs, with plastic washer/bushings that locate the shock.  The bolts thread directly into threaded openings on either side of the shock.

In that picture, you can just see the white bushing on either side of the shock.

Then, go to the other side of the shock.  This side has a bolt that goes through the mounting tabs, and through an aluminum spacer that locates the tail end of the shock, threading into a nut on the left side of the bike.  Again, a 5mm allen wrench does the trick.

In this picture, you can see the shock pulled out of the mounting tabs–the aluminum bushing attached to the shock mount directly against the aluminum tabs.  The actual pivoting occurs between the bolt (threaded into the bushing) and the shock.

This next picture shows the top of the upper link of the suspension.  There is a bolt (again, 5mm allen) that goes through this sealed bearing, into the frame.  Incidentally, if you look at the pictures above, you can see small text on each bolt/nut.  That text, rather conveniently, provides the torque values for each fastener.  I pulled apart the links that have bearings just to take a look at the bearing, and to put a very thin film of grease on the fasteners.

But as you can see–the bearings look perfect, and are clean.  They had no stiction on rotation.  I pulled one apart to confirm that they were lubed, and they were.  All of the pivot points were disassembled in the same fashion.  Bushings were lubed, and bearings were checked and lightly lubed.  Reassembly was done with blue locktite, as recommended.

All fasteners were tightened to snug with an allen wrench, and then torqued to spec with a beam torque wrench.

The top and bottom of the upper link of the suspension both had sealed bearings.  The bottom of the top link is shown here:

The pivot point at the bottom bracket also utilizes a sealed bearing.  It can be accessed on the non-drive (left) side of the bike–a 10mm allen wrench goes into the middle of the bolt that holds everything together, and a 20mm box wrench holds the surrounding nut.

The picture below shows the ABP at the connection of the seatstay/chainstay; as you can see, the skewer goes right through the ABP.

This is the drive side of the rear skewer.  Because the skewer goes through the pivot, you cannot simply loosen the skewer and drop the wheel out.  The skewer has to be completely threaded loose, and then pulled out to the side before the wheel will drop out.

The hole in the middle of the picture is the part that the threaded end of the skewer threads into.  One benefit of this system is that the rear end of the bike is a bit more solid feeling than a bike with a normal QR skewer–the wheel is pretty solidly locked into place.  The ABP pivot point also incorporates a sealed bearing:

In the front, it runs a 15mm Maxle:

Again, the Maxle adds a lot of strength and stability…but must be completely unthreaded to remove the front wheel.

As with past cleaning projects, I disassembled the drivetrain and lubed everything, including the idler pulleys in the chain tensioner/rear derailleur.

Not too terribly dirty, but still in need of cleaning.

If you look in the center of this derailleur, you can see that unlike the SRAM drivetrain on the Schweet Mukluk (which has sealed bearings), the idler pulleys on the rear derailleur of this Shimano drivetrain (SLX Shadow) just have bushings.  So…clean everything off, lube it up:

Then, reassemble, clean off the excess grease, and torque to spec.

The Rumblefish originally came with a triple chainring (3×9–chainring was 44/32/22).  I dropped the big ring in favor of a bash guard.  Specifically, a BBG Bashguard.

Why run a bash guard?  It’s nicer to my calves when I wipe out.  And…..I wouldn’t want to do this to a chainring.

Another step on this bike was cleaning up the threads on the cranks.  I had loaned the bike to a friend who swore he was going to ride clip less…but ended up swapping on some old platforms he had.  Lesson learned–be selective with bike loaning.  Anyhow, he had bunged up the threads a bit.

Actually–that’s the good side.  Other side was the bunged up threads.  Broke out my handy-dandy Park thread taps…

Threaded them in and chased the threads clean, with a light coating of oil…

And then put a light coating of grease on the Eggbeater pedal threads, and threaded them in.  Next, because I’m a bit A/R, I checked out the Eggbeaters to confirm they were properly lubed.  Unscrew the end cap with a flat tip screwdriver:

And then loosen the internal locknut with a 5/16 nut driver.

The Eggbeater then slides off the spindle.  Clean, lube, reassemble in reverse order, and torque to spec.

Follow it up with a good cleaning job everywhere else, lube the drivetrain, and call it good.

 

 

Ok, Ok…one bike post. Shimano Di2 Electronic IGH Alfine?

Yup.  Di2 Alfine.  I’m on vacation, so no long posts, but here ya go…

Bike Radar’s Coverage.

Here’s the hub:

Here’s the shifter:

And here’s the gear display:  (Gear display?!?!)

Note the gear display also has a battery life indicator.  (Obviously, all pics from Bike Radar).  According to BR, this is a real product that will be out in September, 2012.  Add in some waterproof connectors, and this may be the hot, new fatbike setup.