Shimano 105 Di2 R7100 is coming
The death of Ultegra mechanical can only mean one thing.
The death of Ultegra mechanical can only mean one thing.
Shimano’s recent launch of its next-generation Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100 electronic road groupsets was bundled with a rather unexpected and especially bitter pill: the news that the much-beloved Ultegra mechanical was being discontinued. Shimano plans to keep the current 11-speed groupset in production for one more year, but for many, that’s just going to prolong the pain — the proverbial slow peeling of that stubborn Band-Aid, if you will.
One has to wonder, though: what will fill that giant void in a year’s time? There can only be one logical answer: the long-awaited arrival of 105 Di2 R7100.
No one can deny that mechanical shifting has a sizeable advantage over electronic shifting in terms of serviceability and often weight (particularly at anything other than flagship price points). However, in conversations with countless product managers from various bicycle brands in recent months about consumer preferences, the answer is always the same: when given the option, so few people are actually buying the cable-actuated stuff that it’s impossible to justify keeping it around from a financial point of view.
One only has to look at SRAM’s recent product development to see evidence of this trend in real time.
SRAM introduced its first-generation Red eTap 11-speed wireless electronic road groupset in 2015. Four years would pass before it was replaced by the second-generation Red eTap AXS 12-speed version in 2019, but it’s only taken two more years for the company to fill out the wireless range with Force AXS and Rival AXS at the second and third tiers. Fueled by demand from consumers, product managers have flocked to AXS in droves since then.
It’s been a very different story for SRAM’s mechanical road groupsets. Despite plenty of love and loyalty from hardcore enthusiasts, it’s basically a case of the highly vocal minority.
The current generation of SRAM’s Red 22 mechanical groupset hasn’t been updated since its last revamp in 2013. Force 22 and Rival 22 are one and two years newer, respectively, but the sad fact is the bicycle business can be as fickle as the fashion industry. In that light, 6-8 years is an awfully long time to be wearing the same clothes.
From an engineering standpoint, it wouldn’t take much for SRAM to update its mechanical road groupsets to the 12-speed format of its electronic cousins (in theory, of course). A new ratchet spool here, a bit of a nip and tuck there, and — voilà — you’ve got Red 24, Force 24, and Rival 24, all with the same wide-range gearing options as the AXS stuff, but at far more attainable price points and lower weights, too.
In all likelihood, SRAM has the resources to do this, and you’d better believe that if the demand (and profit margins) was there, the company would make it happen. However, SRAM has clearly decided the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, and its OEM partners apparently feel the same way (though that hasn’t kept third-party tinkerer Ratio Technology from doing it on a retrofit basis).
Shimano, on the other hand, hasn’t been quite as bullish with its electronic shifting technology on the road.
The initial Dura-Ace Di2 introduction in 2008 was followed by a lower-cost Ultegra Di2 version in 2011, and both versions have always been positioned as being technically superior to their mechanical counterparts — because they are.
As promised, Di2’s shift performance is uncannily faster and more precise, it’s more consistent over time than mechanical setups, and many riders just prefer the lighter feel of short-stroke buttons instead of bigger levers with more throw. Consumers on tighter budgets have long clamored for a 105 Di2 groupset, but Shimano has instead continued to offered Ultegra mechanical as its preferred choice for that price point.
Objectively, that decision has made a lot of sense. The current Ultegra R8000 works exceptionally well, it’s lightweight, it’s offered in a lot of different configurations, and it’s relatively inexpensive to both own and maintain. It’s been the quintessential workhorse for ages.
But 13 years since that first taste of the first-generation Dura-Ace Di2 Shimano offered in Suzuka, Japan, it seems that consumer preferences may finally be forcing Shimano’s hand. The people have spoken (or, at least, the well-to-do people who are still buying road bikes — more on that in a bit), and what they want is batteries, buttons, and motors, not cables, housings, and ratchets.
Shimano hasn’t confirmed as such — nor have I bothered to ask since I already know what they’ll say — but the writing is on the wall, as plain as day: 105 Di2 is on its way.
It’s not hard to imagine what 105 Di2 R7100 might look like. It’ll obviously be heavier than Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 or Ultegra Di2 R8100 and will use less exotic materials — duh. Think a little more steel than aluminum, more aluminum than carbon fiber, and with plainer-looking finishes. Same as always.
However, I’d otherwise expect it to share the same core features as Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100. This would included revamped Dual Control levers communicating wirelessly to front and rear derailleurs that are powered by a single battery, and a wide-range 12-speed format (that would assuredly focus on more mainstream-friendly gearing options).
But I’d expect fewer of those dozen sprockets to be mounted on to an aluminum carrier out back, and the levers might not have expansion ports for remote shifters or the third set of buttons up top (and maybe no option for a fully wired setup). My guess is that the Servo Wave variable leverage feature on the latest Dura-Ace and Ultegra hydraulic disc brakes won’t make the cut, either, but speaking of brakes, 105 would unquestionably be disc-only.
As for cost, that’s a tricky one. Historically, Ultegra Di2 has been close to mechanical Dura-Ace, and if 105 Di2 were to truly fill the slot mechanical Ultegra is leaving behind, it’d have to follow that trend. However, the new Dura-Ace Di2 R9200 and Ultegra Di2 R8100 have both grown substantially more expensive, and if you assume that jump is due to the wireless format, that means 105 Di2 will be appreciably costlier than current Ultegra mechanical.
To speculate further still, I anticipate that — unlike with Ultegra — Shimano will continue to offer 105 in a mechanical version, which will assuredly also make the jump to 12-speed. If only to keep OEM product managers happy, I would guess that the new 105 mechanical would hold pretty firm on the end cost, or maybe just increase slightly. Nevertheless, it seems likely that — at least as far as Shimano is concerned — 105 will now be the brand’s top mechanical offering.
As for when 105 Di2 might be announced, some time during the summer of 2022 (for the northern hemisphere) seems like a safe bet based on current production timelines for legacy 11-speed Ultegra mechanical stuff.
SRAM’s recent move to go all-in on electronics — and Shimano’s speculated move in a similar vein — is nice from a technology perspective, but it’s bad news from a cost point of view for consumers with more realistic budgets. Assuming my speculation is correct, road bikes will continue to get more expensive on average, not less, and companies have given in to the idea of catering more to existing audiences instead of putting in the hard work to bring in new ones.
Is that a smart decision? On the surface, it’s easy to say no, and for a wide range of reasons. Existing markets won’t stay as-is forever, and as older riders eventually age out of the market, there won’t be enough younger ones to backfill the pile (and certainly not enough to fuel any growth).
However, it also seems clear that the entry point for drop-bar riding is now gravel bikes, not traditional road bikes, so maybe these decisions make more sense in that context. If road riding and racing are steadily becoming more of a niche, then perhaps it’s smart to treat them as narrowing specialties instead of the mainstream option?
Regardless, none of this will be music to the ears of mechanical groupset purists or long-time enthusiasts who simply prefer the shift-for-yourself format. I know there are still a lot of you out there — and I count myself among them — but the momentum has shifted, and not everyone will be happy with the decision.