Still the best shift yet?

Shimano Ultegra SL STI levers


A couple of days ago I looked at the weather forecast and, for the first time in several weeks, decided to pull the Indy Fab Club Racer down from its hook. It has mudguards and rain was forecast…

Anyway, as I set off and shifted down to take the first little rise I concluded yet again – it happens every time I ride the bike – that Shimano finally nailed gear shifting at the brake levers with the Ultegra SL groupset. It is arguable that the Japanese company did it even earlier with 7800 Dura-Ace, but Ultegra SL, which arrived in time for the 2008 season, was the affordable face of top-end Shimano shifting via exposed cables and does the job every bit as well.

It’s the exposed cable route that does it, of course. Shimano was first with shifting at the brake lever with the 7400 STI (Shimano Total Integration) levers of 1990, which sported the exposed outer gear cables that were to be associated with the Japanese brand until the arrival in 2008 of the 7900 Dura-Ace groupset, with its gear cables concealed under the handlebar tape alongside those for the brakes.

Shimano stuck with exposed cables for almost two decades for two reasons: in head-on photos they made pro riders sponsored by Shimano readily distinguishable from those riding Campagnolo, and the straight run of the inner control wire gave a slicker shift action than the convoluted exit required of a cable run under the bar tape.

With the growing popularity of SRAM’s Double Tap system, which like Campagnolo’s ErgoPower concept hid the cables away from the breeze, Shimano presumably felt obliged to hide theirs and came up with the new Dura-Ace DCL lever. It and the Ultegra 6700 version are both remarkable examples of ingenious precision engineering and both shift nicely. Neither, however, has that wonderfully light, direct, accurate and communicative shift action both up and down the cassette only to be found on the last of the exposed cable STI levers.

Dura-Ace 7800 or Ultegra SL? I’ll have to get back on this one.


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