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Stress Test: Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 long-term review

Two years, over 10,000 miles, one conclusion: Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000 mechanical group is the best human-powered drivetrain the world has ever seen.

If you’re a weight-weenie, look to SRAM, home of the best weight/cost ratio in the industry. If heritage and beauty are paramount, there can be nothing but Campagnolo and its striking carbon curves. But if clever, precise engineering and absolutely flawless performance gets you flush in the face, Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 is the group for you.

One can argue cost/benefit ratios and aesthetics and personal ergonomic preferences until the cows come home, but to do so is to miss the point. In the 9000 drivetrain, Shimano has a kit so impeccable it rivals the company’s own electronic groups. Shift performance — and that’s what really matters here — is in a class of its own.

How do we know? We’ve been living with it for over two years. That’s the idea behind Stress Test reviews, which you will see more frequently on VeloNews in the coming months.

Normally, gear moves through the VeloNews tech department relatively quickly, out of necessity. A few months on a single product is all review schedules allow. But for this round of Stress Test, we put Dura-Ace on the machine of a separate tester, who thrashed it across two full seasons. He reported back, and we combined those notes with our own opinions formed from shorter test periods.

In this review, we will skip long lists of features in favor of a narrow focus on those we feel matter. There are already plenty of stories that can tell you what Dura-Ace 9000 can do; we want to tell you what it does.

This is the first of three Stress Test reviews of top-tier mechanical groups, a category we still feel merits close inspection. SRAM Red is up next — expect that in a few weeks — and Campagnolo Record will follow. We want another few months of riding on the Record group before forming firm opinions.

Shimano Dura-Ace 9000: What we love

A good group doesn’t distract with gimmicks. It simply works, when and how you want it to work.

Swipe the left shifter, in either direction, at any time, under any load, and the shift is perfect, instantaneous, and reliable. It’s uncanny.

The updated front derailleur now features a longer arm for more leverage. Combined with the new ultra-stiff chainrings and the front shifting comes incredibly close to the power and accuracy of Di2, with the added benefit of human-touch finesse.

The one-size-fits-all spider is so clever that it’s been widely mimicked in the two and a half years since its debut. Racers love the freedom to swap between standard and compact chainrings on the same crank, to alter gearing to suit various courses. Pro mechanics now travel with piles of rings, not boxes of cranks.

The chainrings used to be incredibly expensive, more costly than many complete cranksets, but have recently plummeted in price (read into that what you will, relating to Shimano’s product cycles). They are impressively durable, too. Rings were changed once, at 7,000 miles, though they still had quite a bit of life left.

Rear shifting quickly becomes an act of muscle memory, requiring no thought or planning. Tap and go. No second-guessing, no easing up a gear. Shimano’s slick cables and housing keeps rear shifting smooth for a very long time — perhaps too long, as you will see below.

Both front and rear derailleurs are designed for even lighter action than before, harkening back to the glory days of Dura-Ace 7800. The ideal weight behind each click of the shifter is a matter of personal preference, and some testers did make it clear that 9000 felt a bit too light, particularly for those used to the hard click of SRAM or Campagnolo.

The brakes are standout performers amid a sea of excellence. SRAM’s cam-actuated Red brakes offer great power and modulation, but are finicky to keep adjusted properly. Dura-Ace offers more power (but only just), even better modulation, and easy setup. 9000 brakes are designed for today’s wider rims, though they do lose some power on rims over 25mm or so (outer width). They are heavier than SRAM and Campagnolo, too, but they also work better.

Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 durability

Over more than 10,000 miles of riding, through wet, salt-covered Colorado winters, muddy Belgian springs, and hot summers, Dura-Ace proved admirably durable in most areas.

During that time, our long-term tester replaced two chains, one set of chainrings (swapping to sub-compact 52/36, not changed due to wear), one cable (see below), and one cassette. The threaded bottom bracket had to be removed twice, threads cleaned and re-greased, and then re-installed. That was the extent of the mechanical service. The object was to ride this group into the ground. That still hasn’t happened. It even survived a car crash.

The shifters have not developed any extra play, and the rubber hoods are still in excellent condition, sticky and comfortable as ever. The internals have never been thoroughly cleaned, yet still function flawlessly.

The rear derailleur pulleys spin perfectly and are only lightly worn, despite receiving zero maintenance.

The rear derailleur body is still firm, with none of the lateral play that some old Shimano derailleurs begin to show after a few years of rough treatment. The front derailleur functions as if new.

The cassette, with its set of titanium cogs and carbon body, does not last as long as it should. In fact, just buy an Ultegra cassette, which offers all the shift performance for one-third of the price.

There has been talk in various corners of the Internet of Dura-Ace cassettes creaking, caused apparently by fractures in the carbon body that holds the cogs together. We had no such issue, nor have we encountered any such failure firsthand. But, again, we suggest an Ultegra cassette.

The lone problem: Shifter eats cables

It took 7,000 miles, but a small point of failure in the otherwise spotless record of Dura-Ace 9000 did finally raise a nasty, ragged head. The shift cable frayed and almost snapped on our right shifter.

The problem centers on the cable routing as it exits the shifter. A small plastic plug slots into the shifter around the exiting cable, forcing the cable into a tight bend. After many thousands of shifts, the cable begins to fray, and can then snap.

First, shifting suffers, as the cable can no longer move freely. Then, it can snap altogether. (We pulled out the cable, hanging on by a single thread, before it had a chance to completely sever.)

It’s a problem we’ve seen elsewhere — a mention on social media here or a link to a forum post there. As it did with our system, it seems to take a minimum of about 6,000 miles on a single cable before fraying begins, and many are running cables far longer than that without issue.

The fix? Shimano sent us new cables, with an updated outer coating. The cable that failed on us was from the first generation of 9000. Shimano representatives also recommended adding a bit of the company’s grease on that tight corner.

We applied the grease, and replaced the cable, and all seems to be well. The lesson: Simply replace your cables at reasonable intervals, and the fraying issue should not present itself.

It is important to note that the brake cable has no such problem. A broken shift cable is certainly a nuisance, but a broken brake cable would be downright dangerous.

Trickle-down

If Dura-Ace 9000 has a flaw, it isn’t in the drivetrain itself. It’s in its little brother, Ultegra 6800.

Ultegra is a bit heavier, sure. It doesn’t look quite so classy, either; the lines on the crank are a bit chunkier, the rear derailleur less graceful. But the performance is every bit as incredible.

Front shifting with Ultegra is as good as Dura-Ace. Tap the left shifter, even under heavy load, and the chain pops over without argument. The ultra-stiff chainrings and clever leverage ratio translate well to the cheaper group.

Rear shifting is equally crisp, and the Ultegra cassette seems to last longer than the Dura-Ace version.

The question, then, is why go Dura-Ace? If you are consumed by weight-weenieism, you’re probably already salivating at Red or Record. The answer is simple: if you can afford it, there is nothing better. The improvements over Ultegra are slim, but we ignore the law of diminishing returns every day, when buying cars, groceries, and certainly bike parts. If you must have Dura-Ace, buy it. Just throw an Ultegra cassette on there, please.