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.


Is Technology Cheating? Envying ENVE.

Today’s theoretical question: is technology cheating?

If Rider A puts out 200 watts on a 10 year old, 20#, non-aero bike, and Rider B (identical weight and build) puts out 200 watts on a brand new, 15#, aero bike, Rider B will go faster.  Hills or flats.  Is Rider B cheating?

My thoughts:

  • It doesn’t really matter for me, because just about everyone I ride with can kick my butt.  So I can ‘cheat’ all I want with technology.  I still get humbled regularly.
  • In racing, anything legal isn’t cheating.
  • In group rides, anything safe that makes the ride more fun is permissible.  Besides, it’s nice to be able to say, “you were faster because of that new bike…”
  • On solo rides, anything safe that makes the ride more entertaining is permissible.

At the pace that I’m normally riding, aero advantage isn’t going to do a ton for me.  I can say, in all honesty, that going from a traditional bike frame to the Ridley Noah I presently ride generated a serious, palpable difference.  It’s not in my head…you can feel the aero advantage over 20mph, into the wind, etc.  And I’ll take all the advantages I can get.

Which leads me to part deux of this post…Envying ENVE.  ENVE just came out with their SMART System 3.4 clinchers.



If you look closely, you can see that the rear is deeper than the front…because the rear affects stability less in crosswind situations.  Built weight is around 1450 grams with DT240 hubs and Sapim CX-ray bladed spokes.  These are intended to be all purpose, climbing/racing/training wheels…with ENVE’s best brake track technology to permit reasonable braking with a carbon wheel set.

ENVE’s details are here.

Bike Rumor’s details are here.

I find these super interesting.  They weigh less than the aluminum Fulcrum Racing 3s that I have on the Noah now…with a very wide design with the newest aero technology, plus a reasonable compromise between deep-dish aero and shallow wind resistance.  Basically, going from the Racing 3s to these would be no change in weight, and a significant change in ride quality and aerodynamics.  In addition, I could stick with the practicality of clinchers–frankly, I have no interest in tubulars…on any of my bikes.  These are optimized for use with 23c tires, in terms of aero profile.  ENVE is claiming that the clinchers are more aerodynamic than their tubulars now, because of the tire profile generated by the wiiiiide rim.

Intriguing.  Very intriguing.  Maybe we need to push the boundaries on the whole “is technology cheating” issue.

As soon as I get back into paved road riding this spring, I’ll put up a review on the Ridley, by the way.


The Surly Big Dummy Review.

Yup.  Big Dummy Review.

The Big Dummy does, and always will, have a special place in my bike heart.  It was my first “real” bike.  Sure…before it I had a Trek Fuel EX 5.5 and a Trek FX.  (Yes.  I’m not proud of it, but I had a flat bar road bike.)  But those aren’t real bikes.  Not like the Dummy.  Not like the Vaytanium.

Before I get to the pics, let me give you the truth.  I really thought about pulling a few things off the Dummy and dressing it up for pics.  But the truth of the matter is that the pictures show the bike how it is, 95% of the time.  I’ve had it for 2 years this summer, and I just rolled over 1,000 miles.  It isn’t an everyday bike for me.  That’s the truth.  It’s a luxury to have it.  And it’s so damn fun.

When I started riding more, I realized that I wanted to be able to take my daughter with me.  Based on that desire, I did what everyone does, and got a trailer.  I hated having a trailer, for a multitude of reasons.  And there was that fateful day when I walked into North Central Cyclery and saw my first Big Dummy in person.  It was their shop Dummy, which I rode and loved.  I went back and rode it again.  Loved it again.  Went back and rode it a third time.  Loved it more.  With their assistance, I got a Dummy of my own.

Quick note on trailers vs. Dummy.  No comparison.  On the Dummy, my daughter and I can talk without yelling, we can point things out to each other, we can ride when it’s windy without dragging a parachute, we can ride anywhere a regular bike can fit without worrying about width, we can hop curbs, and we can do just about anything you can do on a bike.  In far, far greater comfort.  The Dummy allows parents to go for a ride with their children, instead of taking their children along on a ride.  See the difference?

It’s gone through a few iterations, but here’s the current spec:

18″ swoop Big Dummy, stock build (Deore LX 3×9, Avid 7s, Salsa Gordo wheels, Schwalbe Big Apple 26x2s, somewhat cushy Bontrager saddle (I never wear bike shorts on the Dummy, so a little cush helps).  Ergon grips.  I run an inverted drop bar for a stoker bar (details below).  I have the family kit and the cargo van kit, and usually run a flight deck, Peapod kid seat, and the 2 side bags.  Jones Loop Bars.  Rolling Jackass center stand.  A ton of bottle cages, pump mount, etc.  Planet Bike fenders.

This is how we roll.

The vast majority of the time, the Dummy is my kid-chariot.  I also use it for errands and trips to town, and occasional fun rides around the ‘hood.  I haven’t used it for touring (I’d like to), or anything really serious.  Longest ride was about 45 miles over the course of a day.  I said it–the Dummy is a luxury for me.

Big Dumb Shadow:

Mirror is useful for watching traffic…and passengers.

Jones Loop bars, wrapped.

That’s a mount for my Edge 800 on the stem (I’ve used it once on this bike).  Ergon Grips.  Stock Avid SD-7 brake levers (love them) and Deore LX shifters.  Cheap-o Bontrager headlight (used to be seen, not to see.  I run it on flashing mode when it’s dusk, so others can see my daughter and I returning from a park).

The lever in the center/front of the Loop is used to deploy the Rolling Jackass Centerstand.

Squeeze it, and it deploys the center stand down to the ground…then you just lift the front tire and pull the bike back onto the center stand, just like a motor cycle.  You can then dismount in complete comfort.  Frankly, it makes the bike so much more stable for loading cargo…and for loading and unloading my daughter.  It works perfectly.

Nice wide stance, easily adjustable feet.

When you’re ready to ride, just ease the bike forward and the spring shown above will retract the center stand…roll away.  It’s ugly…very ugly.  But it works great.  If you’re loading/unloading kids, dealing with the extra weight and the aesthetic concerns is a small concern compared to the security and stability of the center stand.  Srsly.

Because we ride after I get home from work a lot, I run reflectors and lights.  I don’t care if it looks stupid–I’ve got my daughter on board.

Goofy inverted drop stoker bars.

Why the inverted drop bars?  Well, for starters, they’re incredibly comfortable for a rear deck passenger to hang on to…without having to put their hands in incredibly close proximity to the biker’s rear end.  Equally as important, they’re surprisingly functional.  They’re easy to grab to lever the bike around in tight quarters.  They’re super easy to lash heavy/large/awkward loads to.  They’re very comfortable for kids to get close to and hang on.  They just work.  They’re also great for holding helmets at the park.

I intentionally took these pics at the park because that’s the second home of my Dummy…parks all over my local area.  My daughter begs to ride on the Dummy.

In the rear, you can see my dual lights and extensive reflectors.

Mr. Whirly cranks and DMR Vault pedals.

Why the Vault’s?  Because I had them, and they’re awesome.  Awesome.  I love them.  Best platforms ever.  Reasonably light, totally bombproof, great traction.

The Peapod is very nice…super comfortable for my daughter, and very adjustable as she grows.

The downside to the Peapod is that it’s pretty huge.  If I want to carry significant cargo, it has to come off.  The stock design requires you to remove the flight deck to remove the Peapod.  That is really inconvenient.  Xtracycle really needs to come up with a quick attach/release version of the Peapod, so it can be mounted and dismounted with ease.  They don’t have one–and that’s unfortunate.  I ended up building my own, with a fabricated aluminum subframe that the Peapod mounts too.  It works well, and mounts/dismounts quickly and securely.

The Dummy handles loads with ease.  I have yet to find a load that it feels uncomfortable or unstable with.  Last year, there were a few times when me, my wife and daughter would all ride the Dummy to the park (or to Ollie’s for custard).  The more weight you put on it, the more stable it feels.  And yet, for as sturdy as the wheels and frame are (look at that ovalized bottom tube), it has a very prototypical steel frame ride–which is to say it rides great.  For big loads, throwing the wide loaders on is very, very helpful.

The parts spec is dead-on.  Deore LX isn’t exactly high-end in the drivetrain…but as long as the chain is, the drivetrain is totally forgiving.  My Dummy lives a pretty nice life…it’s been out in the rain one time.  That said, the only work I’ve ever had to do on it is chain lubing.  It’s never needed a derailleur or brake adjustment, and has, after 1,000 miles, always shifted and braked perfectly.  (With those super long cables, that’s a really impressive feat.  I attribute much of that to the careful setup at NCC).  The headset has been nice and tight from day 1.  I started pulling apart the bottom bracket to check it last weekend (after hitting 1k miles), and it was tight and lubed.  Wheels are true and spin easily.  When I got it, I did spray the frame down with some Boe-shield…and I have washed it once.  (After it was out in the rain).  But that’s it.

I did run clip less pedals on it for a while…and for heavy loads, clip less rocks.  But after one “almost didn’t unclip while stopping” when I had my daughter on the back, I went back to platforms.  As long as I have passengers, I’ll stick with platforms.  Risk/reward.

The Dummy is a great bike.  Riding it just makes you smile.  The perfect Dummy speed is 15mph–it just loves to ride 15mph.  It will ride faster, it will ride slower…but 15 is about perfect.  The drivetrain offers a wide enough gear spread to cover any load, any hill, any situation up to about 30mph.  And 30mph is plenty fast on the Dummy.

I’ll close out with a few comments on the Schwalbe Big Apples.  They’re quiet and have a great ride for the suburban use that I put the Dummy through–the high volume design works well at squelching bumps, especially in combination with the steel frame.  At lower pressures, they’re comfortable, at higher pressures, they’re fast, around 45 psi, they’re both.  I’ve had 400 pounds of rider and cargo on the Dummy, and the B’Apples didn’t even blink.  The reflective stripe is a nice touch, as well.  My complaints?  Obviously, no real tread means no effectiveness in any kind of mud or snow.  (I threw a Schwalbe Smart Sam on the rear end and screwed around in the snow once…it was super fun.  The long wheelbase meant you could hang the rear end out sliding around every corner, and have complete control).  Also, when you push it hard into a corner, the front tire squeals like a pig.  Really.  It’s annoying.  I’m also not fond of the look…I’ve seen a few Dummys with more aggressive tires, and think that they fit the bike’s personality much better than the Big Apples.  But after 1,000 miles, they look relatively like new.

The Dummy is a great bike.  It would be a great urban, all-purpose bike, and it is a great suburban, special-purpose bike.  And it can carry a butt-load of gluten free beer.


Wireless Electronic Brakes!

This post is about hydraulic electronic brakes.

Yup, you read that right.

Wireless electronic brakes.  Don’t need to worry about road hydraulics anymore…

Because what the world truly needs is additional bike e-gadgetry.  Don’t worry…the system will include “mathematical calculations to check such systems automatically.”  I hear the whole thing runs on a computer running Windows Me.  The proponents of the technology also point out that they can integrate anti-lock braking and traction control…and frankly, with my massive power output, it would be helpful to have a computer deciding how much wattage I can throw down, so I can stop burning through rear tires so quickly.

I believe version 1.2 of the technology will include a wireless controller that is held by a safety monitor who follows you around on a gas scooter…so the safety monitor can apply your brakes safely in the event that you ride too quickly.  It will also permit automatic enforcement of speed limits on multi-use trails–so if you exceed 10mph, the brakes will automatically bring you to a stop and hold you until park police arrive.  And finally, the brakes will have a feature where Starbucks can stop passing cyclists at will, forcing you to come in for a $7 cup of coffee (price increase due to the technology they have to purchase to enable forcible stops).

When I think about how incredibly reliable wireless networks and cellular communications are, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Man, I wish there was a way that my ability to stop a bike depended on this wireless network.’  I’m envisioning something along the lines of:

RATG riding along.  Applies brakes to avoid obstacle.

Braking Computer:  “DNS Error.  Please renew your wireless host by unplugging brakes for 30 seconds.”

RATG crashes into obstacle.

The good news is that your wireless brakes will integrate with both your electronic drivetrain and the electric motor concealed in your seattube.