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Industry Insider: the making of Shimano Dura-Ace R9100

Shimano's development team on on the birth of the Japanese firm's latest flagship road groupset

Sometimes it snows in April, even in Spain.

When Takao Harada, Tim Gerrits, and David Lawrence arrived in Puerto de la Morcuerato to enter the final testing phase for Shimano’s new Dura-Ace R9100 groupset, the weather, at nearly 1800m above sea level, was against them.

Gerrits is no stranger to Shimano’s exhaustive, real world testing protocols. Before the launch of the R785 hydraulic disc brake for road bikes in 2013, he strapped on diving weights to descend the Passo dello Stelvio.

– Shimano introduce Dura-Ace R9100 with integrated power meter –

“This time, I was the guy freezing his arse off at the top of a mountain,” he tells RoadCyclingUK.

The man on the bike on this occasion was Karsten Kroon, a former pro cyclist with 16 years in the WorldTour on his palmares, and a degree in mechanical engineering on his curriculum vitae. The perfect candidate.

R9100 is the latest iteration of Shimano’s flagship Dura-Ace groupset (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)

Shimano’s visit to Spain marked the final phase of a four-year development cycle for its flagship groupset. A few weeks later, Team Sky would race with prototypes of the new products at the Giro d’Italia.

“Iconic”, an adjective beloved of the marketing man, is justified in its application to Dura-Ace.

Since its introduction in 1973, and through eight iterations over 43 years, Shimano’s top-tier group has claimed every major prize in cycling, including three of the last four Tours de France (recovering from a slow start at La Grande Boucle; Lance Armstrong was the first rider to ‘win’ the Tour for Shimano, in 2000).

Manabu Tatekawa, the Japanese giant’s global marketing chief, points to the Dura-Ace logo when I ask him to describe the importance of Dura-Ace within the corridors of power at Sakai City, the global headquarters of cycling’s biggest player. The word Shimano is conspicuous by its absence.

“When the original version became available in 1973, Shimano had already decided its priority as the flagship product; that its importance would be the same as the company name. The Dura-Ace logo stood alone.”

The XTR and Saint groupsets, for cross-country and downhill mountain biking respectively, now share equal billing as flagships, Tatekawa continues. Campagnolo and SRAM will doubtless make their own claims to the summit of road bike componentry, but even they might offer a respectful nod to Dura-Ace’s unwavering excellence over five decades.

Four years in the making

May 2012. Kortrijk, Belgium.

A 23-year-old Alex Dowsett, wearing the colours of Team Sky, is the guest of honour and leads a gang of journalists on a ride from the team’s service course.

Dura-Ace 9000 is the product under discussion and on the fleet of test bikes placed at the disposal of those who will ride with Dowsett. Four-arm chainsets and 11-speed transmissions are the hot topics. Yet, even here, Harada and his colleagues have their eyes fixed on the future.

“We were already thinking of the next iteration,” he reveals, this time at the Dura-Ace R9100 launch in Normandy, just days in advance of the 2016 Tour de France.

R9100 has been four years in the making. Its key features perhaps don’t grab headlines as easily as adding another sprocket, or removing an ‘arm’ from a chainset spider, but there is detail here, and evidence aplenty of the hard graft of refinement. Is this a greater challenge for the engineer?

Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)
Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)
Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom_

“In some ways, yes,” says Harada, product manager for Shimano Japan, after long consideration. “We want to improve, of course; it’s our passion. Maybe it’s a different type of difficulty.”

He describes the key words issued to his team: control, confidence, customisation and concentration. Each of these desirable qualities can be located in R9100’s advances.

Customisation, for example, is writ large in further expansion of the programmable shift options offered by eTube, while a focus on greater control can be found in the reshaped STI levers with additional shifting switch, in the Di2 version, at the top of the hood.

The slimming down of the mechanical hydraulic lever to near-identical proportions to its Di2 sister might also be seen as a microcosm of the refining process for the whole groupset. Gerrits singles it out as an example of Shimano’s determination to get things spot on, up to and including the use of pressure mapping gloves.

“I’m a big supporter of [shifting] on top of the hoods for control of your bike; I’ve always been that way,” he says. “The fact that they did it scientifically and actually changed something for the benefit of everyone was for me a big eye-opener, because I still was expecting a compromise for other styles of riding. The approach we took this time really paid off.”

David Lawrence, product manager for Shimano North America, whose role he says is to be the ‘voice’ of that territory to its Japanese parent, offers a different high point.

“The final mechanical front derailleur was a pretty cool transition,” he says. “It went from the basic mechanism to changing cable routing to adding the inline adjuster for the cable tension.”

The consequence? Frame designers no longer need to include an inline barrel adjuster, and mechanics no longer need to make an educated guess about cable tension. Instead, the new front mech contains a neat, 2mm Allen bolt which, as well as removing the need for inline adjustment, allows for complete concealment of the cable.

Shimano have introduced professional-level disc brakes with the launch of Dura-Ace R9100 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)

“The mechanism rotates where the cable is anchored to the derailleur; that piece can move, with a 2mm bolt,” he says. “You have a very nice micro adjustment with which you can change the cable tension. I half expected [the engineer] to come back and say it added too much weight, or it was too complex, and he came back with a pretty elegant solution.”

None of which is as obvious as an extra sprocket, but is a refinement nonetheless. As such, the mechanical front mech is another key identifier of Shimano’s approach to R9100.

“For me, personally, it was one of the coolest things,” Lawrence says. “It was something people have always wanted, but because of the way the cable was anchored to the derailleur, it wasn’t physically possible with the old design.”

Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)
Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)
Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 2017 groupset product launch 29-06-2016 (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom_

Power to the people

But Dura-Ace R9100 has not solely been about refinement. Its integrated power meter is undoubtedly the most headline-grabbing innovation of the groupset; it is one of the few genuinely new technologies unveiled in this latest iteration of Shimano’s road flagship.

Harada revealed it had been present on Shimano’s list of goals for R9100 from the very first development meetings. They set store too by its location, believing the chainset to be the right and proper place for a power meter, to achieve the greatest accuracy.

It’s easy to see the commercial potential, too, if the halo effect of professional cycling retains its power. With seven WorldTour teams, including sponsored squads and paying customers, the new Dura-Ace power meter might quickly gain a hegemony not seen since SRM was in its pomp, in the days before Sky partnered with Stages, Garmin’s Vector was placed at the disposal of Jonathan Vaughters’ variously named Slipstream squad (now Cannondale-Drapac), and the likes of Power2Max, Pioneer, Rotor and 4iiii entered the market.

In this regard, the meter’s sleek integration might be seen as a drawback; its only visible aspects are a small LED to indicate power supply and a discrete magnetic charging port. Compare and contrast with Movistar’s green-stickered Power2Max unit, for example. However, “system integration” was the strapline for the launch of Dura-Ace R9100, and the inconspicuous power meter only underlines Shimano’s approach.

Small details, big steps and the mountain bike influence

Power meter aside, R9100 is a groupset where Shimano has very much focused on the micro rather than the macro.

“It’s more obvious from the outside, when you go from 10-speed to 11-speed, but the compatibility remains the same; you might think it’s a smaller step, but it’s not true,” says Gerrits, pointing once against to system integration. “If you see how much was done to make the system work better together and to have full integration of disc brakes and a wider gear range, without losing even the backwards compatibility we had, I think from an engineering perspective, it was a super big step.”

Notably, many of R9100’s subtle, clever developments come from Shimano’s mountain bike technologies: the ‘shadow’ style rear mech, for example, which sits directly below the cassette to protect it from impact. The 12mm, E-Thru axle standard used in a new 40mm deep, full carbon, disc wheel that will be compatible with tubeless tyres. Or how about the new Synchronised Shift, a road-specific version of the customisable, semi-automated transmission debuted on the XTR mountain group?

Shimano will once again offer Dura-Ace in mechanical and electronic versions (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)

“That just happened,” Gerrits says, denying that the infiltration of mountain bike technologies to R9100 was a deliberate ploy to shake up a staid road market, and pointing instead to their proven success off road.

Gerrits accepts roadies are by nature conservative, and believes that this cultural constraint is a greater barrier to innovation than regulation. Attitudes, however, are changing.

“Finally, I think, that the road market sees that you cannot continue to dream of future technology if you’re not willing to change anything,” he says.

Working with an icon

Ask any of the Shimano team about being selected to work on a new Dura-Ace groupset and the response is near identical: a privilege, perhaps even an honour, but with its own pressure.

Lawrence: “I have probably one of the coolest jobs. I’m in Normandy for the Tour de France to launch this, and I was in Spain, just outside Madrid to test it. That’s not a bad gig.”

Geritts: “It’s not something you take lightly. We are not allowed to put the Dura-Ace logo on just anything. It has to be approved by upper, upper, upper management. That brings big pressure.”

Tatekawa: “Pressure? Yes, always. Dura-Ace has to be better than its predecessor. We’re happy to launch Dura-Ace R9100, but the challenge to make the next Dura-Ace even better, maybe in four or five years, has already started internally.”

The launch of Dura-Ace R9100 has seen refinement across the board, including to Shimano’s top-tier pedals (Pic: Wouter Roosenboom)

Events, dear boy

For all of its refinement, it’s hard to escape the sense that this latest Dura-Ace is a groupset which has, to a degree, been overtaken by events.

The hydraulic disc brake, the first to bear the legend Dura-Ace, is described – without irony – at the presentation as “race ready”.  The reality, of course, is that disc brake use in the peloton has been suspended by the UCI, following the injuries sustained by Movistar’s Fran Ventoso at Paris-Roubaix.

Mathieu Heijboer, performance manager at LottoNL-Jumbo, a participant in a Q&A held at launch of R9100, told his on-stage interlocutor that, “We are ready to have it, when it is allowed again.”

SRAM’s wireless eTap transmission might be taken as a further example of advances made elsewhere, while Shimano focused on refinements to existing technology. But Shimano’s people seem sincere when they say they are not unduly concerned by what others do.

Faced with the same question in February, when I visited the global HQ in Sakai City, Japan, Tatekawa insisted that Shimano’s job was not to give the consumer what he wanted now, but what he will want in four years time, and has not yet imagined.

If Shimano placed its emphasis on refinement for R9100, radicalism might be the watchword for the next version of Dura-Ace. One thing is certain: Harada, Gerrits, Lawrence and co will have already started work.

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