Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 first-ride review: More range, better brakes

Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 first-ride review: More range, better brakes

After months of spy shots and teaser information coaxed from the darkest corners of the internet, it’s finally launch day for Shimano’s new Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100 road groupsets. I have yet to ride the latter, but I’ve now got a couple of weeks of riding in on the former. I’ll cut right to the chase: first impressions are very good, but overall, I find the new Dura-Ace Di2 to be a story of continual refinement rather than a dramatic leap forward.

(You can find a more detailed technical description and a lot more images of the new Dura-Ace Di2 groupset in the news feature here.)

An extra gear, but with even-better shifting performance

To be clear, the “continual refinement” comment above is not meant to be an underhanded compliment. The 11-speed Dura-Ace Di2 R9170 stuff is already pretty incredible, so any improvement on top of that shouldn’t be taken lightly. One area where the previous-generation Dura-Ace Di2 already excelled was shift speed, and although the difference is quite subtle, this new version somehow manages to be even quicker.

Chain movement out back to larger sprockets hasn’t changed much. It’s still mostly dictated by the location of the shift ramps, after all. But the revised tooth shaping now makes it easier for the chain to move in the other direction, and coupled with the faster derailleur movement, upshifts happen remarkably fast.

It’s by no means a violent or rough event, either. Even though they’re not quite as buttery smooth as downshifts, it’s still quite incredible to me how Shimano has managed to find gains in what already seemed to be a highly refined process. Sprinters will invariably be pretty stoked. 

The new Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 rear derailleur is an awfully industrial-looking bit of kit.

Front shifts continue to be the best in the business, hands-down, particularly under power — almost as good as rear shifts, just as before. Kudos go to the highly evolved tooth shaping, but also to the carryover stiffness of the hollow outer chainring. Shimano has long been the master of chain movement between sprockets and chainrings, and as far as I’m concerned, the Japanese company still holds the crown.

I should also mention that the entire drivetrain runs incredibly quietly, too. Unless you’re pretty severely cross-chained, the whole lot utters barely a light hum when you’re just motoring along. Add in a good tailwind, and the sound of the tires is louder than the drivetrain. I’ve been told a lot of this has to do with the shaping on the 12-speed chain, and I’ve also heard it might be compatible with the existing 11-speed stuff. If that’s the case, count me in, because I’m all about quiet road bikes.

Tweaked ergonomics

The new lever ergonomics work well for me, though I should mention that I get along fine with both of SRAM’s current AXS lever shapes as well as the mechanical and electronic versions of Campagnolo Ergopower so my hands are apparently pretty adaptable.

Fans of the current levers will still find the new ones to have a pleasantly small girth that’s easy to wrap your hands around. The increase in hood length does provide more room for your fingers as promised — especially if you have medium-to-large hands like me — though the additional length might also mess with your fit. They remind me of the old R785 Di2 hydraulic levers, which were so much longer than other Shimano levers at the time that I needed to go down a stem size. The difference here isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s worth noting, anyway.

The new Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 Dual Control levers bear a strong resemblance to the previous edition for the most part, but the shape has actually been tweaked subtly.

The taller hood height will probably be more polarizing, but I personally like it. I spend a lot of time with my arms outstretched and my palms curled over the peak of the hoods, and the revised shape provides a little more to hold on to, which feels a little more secure. As for the hoods themselves, the texture seems to have just the right amount of tackiness for a good grip without gloves.

Riders who similarly go barehanded but sweat a lot might wish for a bit more texture (though maybe not as much as the super-aggressive ribs on the Shimano GRX Di2 hoods), but these feel good to me. And my word, does Shimano know how to fit the darned things around the lever bodies. Peeling back the hoods reveals a dizzying array of little tabs and dots that somehow make them fit perfectly with nary a bit of squirminess. Surely this is someone’s full-time gig at Shimano HQ.

My feelings are more mixed on the changes to the shifter buttons. Don’t get me wrong; the additional texture and offset are welcome improvements. I’ve always disliked how close each pair of shifter buttons felt to my fingertips, so much so that I always reprogram my Di2 bikes to mimic SRAM’s eTap button logic: harder gears on the right, easier gears on the left, with the inboard paddles controlling the rear derailleur and the outboard ones operating the front.

The buttons have a bit more height differential than before so your fingers can more easily tell them apart.

The changes make it a little less likely that you’ll tap the wrong button, but you still can’t just slap the general area with your finger like you can with SRAM levers. It’s not a big deal in everyday casual riding, but I know which one I’d prefer if I was running an electronic drivetrain on a ‘cross bike when I’m bleeding out of my eyeballs. I’ve added little bits of grip tape to my Di2 shifter paddles before, and I suspect I’ll eventually do the same thing here.

I haven’t yet had the chance to try either of the satellite shifter options, but I’m glad Shimano has switched back to dumb buttons for their smaller size. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to install some remote shifters in the near future.

Wiredless indifference

To be completely honest, I’m a little ambivalent on the semi-wireless aspect of the new Dura-Ace Di2. Don’t get me wrong – wireless technology is really neat, and I do a little happy dance any time I have to build up a frameset with SRAM AXS. Past that initial setup phase, however, wireless has never struck me as inherently better save for a few specific usage cases. It’s a no-brainer for any bike you regularly disassemble and reassemble for travel, for example, and I’ve no doubt it’s an absolute revelation for OEM factories that are assembling new bikes all day. 

But from an end-user standpoint, running wires is usually only a real hassle once, and it’s not like Shimano has had reliability problems with its Di2 wires, either. Truth be told, if physically connecting the new levers to the battery and derailleurs really does net a 50% boost in run time, that’s much more appealing in my book. I’m the type of rider who likes to just grab a bike off the wall and go, and if I can go a few more weeks (or months!) without having to attach a charge cable to my bike, sign me up. 

Signals are sent directly from the levers to the rear derailleur. Photo: Shimano.

I do love that Shimano has integrated the wireless functionality directly into the rear derailleur and levers so you no longer need that silly separate D-Fly module, but that’s arguably something Shimano should have done before, anyway.

Regardless of what I think, the wholesale industry migration to fully hidden cabling up front means wireless is clearly where things are headed (at least up front) and it’ll be interesting to see if this has any effect on bike design moving forward. Granted, we still have those pesky hydraulic lines to contend with, but given the option, I’ve no doubt bike brands would prefer to run fewer lines through their bikes, not more.

Drivetrain questions

Availability on these new parts is still incredibly limited, so much so that Shimano wasn’t able to provide my preferred gearing. Shimano built my Low Bicycles MKii tester with 52/36T chainrings and an 11-30T cassette, and even my usual 170 mm-long crankarms weren’t available yet.

At some point, I’d really like to switch to the 50/34T chainrings and 11-34T cassette, not only for the awesome 1:1 climbing gear, but to see if you really can have that kind of spread in a road cassette without dealing with annoying jumps in the middle. Power meters weren’t available, either, but Shimano has promised I’ll be able to switch things up once the bits become available. 

Shimano has attached the six largest sprockets to two mini-clusters to help reduce weight and minimize flex.

In the meantime, multiple rides on the plentiful dirt roads we have around here have me wishing Shimano had taken the weight hit and included a pulley cage clutch on the rear derailleur. While I understand Dura-Ace Di2 and Ultegra Di2 are purpose-built for road riding, even paved roads are often in pretty crummy condition, and I was quickly reminded that I need to put a chainstay protector on this frame before I start knocking off some of this lovely powdercoated finish. Road riding in general has also evolved a lot in recent years, and it wasn’t all that long ago that you had a hard time finding a 1:1 climbing gear on groupsets that were supposedly meant for gravel. 

Maybe we’ll see clutch-equipped Shadow Plus variants in the near future? I’m not sure how many people would really want such a thing, but maybe if I yell loudly enough …

I have questions about the long-term reliability of the driveside crankarm, too. Shimano says the construction method hasn’t changed, but who knows what’s happened in the background. Shimano won’t officially acknowledge numerous online accounts of separated driveside crankarms, but I hope the company has taken the problems to heart and done something about it, even if they won’t say what. Fingers crossed.

That said, I find the new cranks to look great, and I prefer the more symmetrical shape to the previous asymmetrical one. Crank aesthetics are always polarizing — what new crank design hasn’t been lambasted as being the worst ever, right? — but I think this one will catch on faster than some other Shimano designs from the last few years.

I still wish there was a polished silver option since so much of the groupset is made of forged aluminum, but I know that’s just a pipe dream. Maybe one of these days I’ll put aside enough money to have Chris Howard at CycloRetro go to town with his polishing wheel. My god, this stuff would look so good.

Opinions are bound to be mixed on the aesthetics of the new crank, but when has a new crank ever been received with universally open arms?

Subtle brake improvements

Power has never been lacking in Shimano’s hydraulic road disc brakes, but it often came on a little stronger than some might prefer, and I was never able to shorten the lever stroke as much as I wanted. The new Servo Wave variable-ratio lever design has fixed all of that.

As promised, the pads contact the rotor with less lever movement than before, but the levers then have a lighter and more progressive feel from there so the ample power is now a little easier to control. On the road, I found this translates to finer control when traction is at more of a premium (like when on dirt or less-than-ideal tarmac), but even in ideal conditions, I always appreciated the less binary feel.

I can’t say I noticed a hugely tangible benefit to the claimed 10% increase in pad clearance. I could get the pads to rub just a hair when aggressively muscling the bike from one side to the other, and I also still got a hint of that annoying “ting, ting, ting” sound up front on longer descents when I intentionally got things hot. It’s perhaps a little better than before, but it’s not a dramatic difference — 10% more of very little is still very little, after all. I’m all for marginal improvements, but this probably isn’t the night and day difference that some might have hoped for.

Servo Wave technology doesn’t seem to have changed the overall power available, but it’s designed to make it more accessible.

I haven’t had a chance to try out the new bleed port (nor do I have the new bleed kit yet), but I’m confident the new design is a big step forward from what I’ve seen. Stay tuned.

Shimano steps it up in the wheel department

There are reasons why pro teams often haven’t been seen on Shimano wheels in recent months despite being Shimano-sponsored: they just haven’t been competitive with other top-end offerings. 

I’ve only had the chance to try the new 38 mm-deep Dura-Ace carbon clinchers, but so far, I’m quite happy with them. While the claim of increased “drive rigidity” in the freehub body is a little lost on me, I can say that they do feel wonderfully responsive: stiff and reactive under power, with sharp handling, just the slightest bit of buzziness, and exemplary balance at very high speed. Riding at 80 km/h legitimately feels the same as 18 km/h in terms of calmness and stability. 

Both Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100 offer three all-new wheelsets, and they seem far more competitive with similar models from other brands than they did before.

Speaking of stability, swirly crosswinds haven’t been an issue at all, and I have nothing but confidence in the long-term durability of the cup-and-cone bearings. I’m also happy to see the two-to-one lacing pattern on the rear wheel for the more balanced spoke tension, which also bodes well for wheel life over the long haul. 

I dare say we’ll be seeing a lot more of these wheels in the pro peloton sooner than later (and in fact, we already have). 

The first bite’s pretty tasty

Again, take all of this with a small grain of salt since my saddle time on the new Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 stuff has been pretty limited, and I also haven’t been able to try the configurations I’m most interested in just yet. That said, it seems evident to me that Shimano’s engineers continue to sweat the details, and the result of that collective effort is a small-but-significant improvement over what was already an outstanding groupset. 

Are the improvements enough to justify an upgrade over 11-speed Dura-Ace Di2? That depends. 

If you’ve found yourself wanting just a little more gearing range on the current Dura-Ace stuff, then yes, the new 11-34T cassette will probably be a big draw (it sure is for me). Are you especially sensitive to changes in cadence during the weekly group ride? Then that extra sprocket in the middle will probably be a big deal to you, too.

The brakes are better, but more from a tactile perspective than a clearance one in my opinion. And the whole semi-wireless thing? It’s neat, but not necessarily a massive game-changer when all is said and done.

Time will tell if my feelings change on this, but right now, I think Shimano’s biggest issue with Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 is that the previous stuff was already so good. 

Stay tuned for a proper review of this fine Low Bicycles Disc MKii, too.

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