By Simon Smythe
As of today, Friday March 12, there’s a week and a day to go until Shimano’s 100th anniversary. Shimano’s teaser website, built especially for the occasion, gives away precisely nothing. But with a reasonable amount of certainty based on what we’ve seen so far, we can say that the new flagship road groupset, Dura-Ace, will launch to coincide with the celebrations – in time for 2021's marquee races if not on the day itself.
How do we know? First of all, because it’s a year late. The usual four-year product cycle should have given us new Dura-Ace in 2020.
As early as last summer the rumour mill started to turn following an unconfirmed Instagram video leaked by Remco Evenepoel. Then, in November, US patents filed by Shimano and uncovered by CyclingTips seemed to confirm that the new Dura-Ace groupset would be 12 speed, it would be either wireless or semi-wireless (there were two embodiments in the patent application) and it might also use a piezoelectric element in the shifters instead of batteries. The documentation also appeared to confirm that, in line with the flagship groupset’s traditional naming and numbering convention, it would be called Dura-Ace R9200, with R9250/9270 the electronic/hydraulic disc versions.
So, let’s take a look at what we can expect based on what we've seen so far.
Will new Dura-Ace be 12 speed?
The patent application included a detailed drawing of the cassette in which 12 sprockets can be counted. In the drawing there’s a 10t sprocket, and 48 teeth can be counted on the largest one. Clearly there there will be various ratios available. No road groupset would use a 48t sprocket.
SRAM also introduced a 10t sprocket for its X-Range gearing introduced with the AXS 12-speed groupsets. Four new chainring sets and four new cassettes covered all riders’ needs from WorldTour to endurance and gravel, according to the US brand. Could Shimano be preparing to do something similar, rolling out its new 12-speed system to lower-tier groupsets in the imminent future? That could explain the wide-ratio cassette in the drawing.
Hub compatibility remains an unknown. SRAM’s 12-speed AXS groupsets require an XDR driver body, which maintains sprocket spacing and fits 11-speed road hubs. SRAM licenses the XD and XDR interface to 170+ companies which makes them, according to SRAM, the most widely adopted 10t start freehub body design in the world. Shimano of course already has 12-speed mountain bike groupsets but introduced a new freehub standard – Micro Spline – to accommodate the 10t sprocket. New Dura-Ace could follow.
To conclude, it is all but certain that new Dura-Ace will be 12 speed.
Will new Dura-Ace be wireless?
Applications placed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appear to confirm that Shimano is adding wireless technology to its groupset ecosystem, seeing it catch up with SRAM which introduced the capability back in 2015.
The arrival of wireless for Shimano would solve a lot of internal Di2 routing quandaries, making cleaner front ends much easier to achieve whilst also being applauded by all pro and home mechanics.
The documents confirmed that Shimano’s new wireless shifters, and wireless front and rear derailleurs would use Bluetooth LE and ANT+ wireless tech, as well as featuring a third party radio frequency named ‘SHIMANO ORIGINAL’. This would allow for a private wireless network, similar to the system SRAM uses to prevent interference.
However, the FCC documents only confirmed a wireless shifting module and a wireless rear mech rather than a completely wireless groupset. In one of the embodiments in the patent application, both derailleurs were operated by a single battery: “The second battery can be integral with the first battery and provided as one battery,” reads the patent.
However, there’s an alternative version that places a battery in each derailleur. There was no document referring to a wireless front mech, so it’s possible that Shimano may opt for a wire at the front. It’s also possible that a rear mech wired to a central battery will serve as the operator, with a radio transmitter doing the job up front.
The rear derailleur testing referenced via the FCC documents notes “the test was performed with the New Battery”, this is referenced as BT-DN300 – notably a departure from the current Di2 battery BT-DN110.
Since no patent has been found relating to a completely wireless system, it seems likely that new Dura-Ace will be semi-wireless: the shifters will work wirelessly while the derailleurs will be wired in a configuration that remains unknown.
Will the shifters be batteryless?
The patent application, which was filed on July 22 this year and discovered by mechanical engineer Alan Coté for Cyclingtips, suggested that Shimano was looking into piezoelectric technology, as used by ‘electronic’ cigarette lighters. It reads: “The electric-energy generation element generates the electric energy using pressure and/or vibration… caused by a movement of at least one of the brake operating member, the additional operating member, and the button element. Examples of [this] electric-energy generation element include a piezoelectric element.”
Piezoelectric effect works by applying mechanical force to certain materials, such as crystals and ceramics. Under stress, the crystal produces an electrical charge – which would be used to send a signal to the derailleurs.
An alternative version of the shifter in the patent describes the use of a more traditional coin-cell battery.
We think piezoelectricity might be a click too far and predict a safer coin cell-powered solution for the wireless shifters.
Will new Dura-Ace be disc brake only?
The shifter descriptions in the document include both the mechanical cable-operated and hydraulic types, which means the Ineos Pinarello Dogmas could continue to win Grand Tours in their traditional format for the next four years at least.
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