Gravel Grinder News: New Dura-Ace, Ultegra Show Hints Of Gravel Tech Future

Gravel Grinder News: New Dura-Ace, Ultegra Show Hints Of Gravel Tech Future – by Guitar Ted

A view of a new 12 speed Shimano Ultegra Di2 rear derailleur and cassette on a road bike for our gravel tech feature
Shimano Ultegra Di2 12 speed: Image courtesy of Shimano

Today Shimano made a big announcement with their debut of the new Dura-Ace and Ultegra components. Now 12 speed groups, the electronically shifted components, (no word on any mechanical groups), brakes, controls, and wheel sets are sure to make waves in the road world. But what does any of this have to do with gravel tech?

Shimano used to rely on its road componentry to deal with the rigors of unpaved road riding, but there were certain shortcomings in doing so. Gear range, ergonomic concerns, and the ability to withstand dust, dirt, and grime being some of the top issues. Shimano did research both in the lab and in the field, coming to the US and riding in several gravel events, to gauge and mold what they eventually came forward with in 2019- the GRX gravel component group. We wrote about why that was an important milestone here. Since 2019, there have been no updates to this groundbreaking gravel tech, but we may have some hints as to what the future holds for GRX. This news of 12 speed Dura-Ace and Ultegra may show us some hints of what to expect in gravel components for the future.

Shimano has traditionally used new rounds of its top-tier groups, namely Dura-Ace and the mountain bike group, XTR, as platforms for debuting new technologies and features which eventually ‘trickle down’ to lower tier groups over time. Shifting technologies, ergonomic features, and engineering details of Dura-Ace and XTR often end up informing the newer sub-groups and thus affecting more riders as these lower tiered groups are more affordable and end up being used by more people.

So, with that historical backdrop, let’s take a look and speculate a bit on what, if anything, these new road groups might be telling us in terms of what to expect in the future for GRX upgrades.

The new Ultegra 12 speed cassette
The new 12 speed cassettes are stil Hyperglide free hub compatible.

12 Speeds, 2X Cranksets: Obviously, the move to 12 gears on the cassette is a big deal in road riding circles. We’re betting that this will be a part of the next GRX as well. But more than that, there are two crucial details which will affect us as gravel riders in the future which the new Dura-Ace and Ultegra are showing us now. One- That Shimano still believes in and has demand for, 2X crank set compatibility. In their press release, Shimano makes mention of the PRO road riders requests for taller gearing in their 2X crank set Dura-Ace offering. That’s probably going to translate over to a new GRX at some point, and what is more- Shimano has already done the homework to make 2 X 12 for gravel a reality. Two- Cassette cogs start at an 11T size. This is huge for anyone that has a nice wheel set that wants to hang on to it for several years. Shimano states specifically that the Ultegra 12 speed cassettes are retro-fittable to current 11 speed Shimano free hub bodies. That’s maybe a relief since many thought that Shimano would go to its Mountain Bike Micro-Spline free hub bodies when it went to 12 speed road components. I say it is a “maybe” because, well, Shimano could decide that gravel riders need lower gearing and that the 12 speed XT cassettes for Micro-Spline will be used to accommodate the next gen GRX. If they do that, then all bets are off.

It’s interesting to note that Shimano uses one derailleur cage length now to cover all 12 speed road cassettes As of now there are only two choices in range. Those are 11-34T and 11-30T. This leaves out the deeper gearing for gravel riders, so I would expect that a 12 speed GRX would feature cassettes up to 40T for the low range. Perhaps Shimano will carry over current 11 speed standard HyperGlide compatibility with free hubs and make a new GRX 12 speed retro-fittable for those with 11 speed wheels. Let’s hope so.

A frontal look at the redesigned Ultegra Di2 12 speed levers on a handle bar
The new Di2 levers were completely redesigned with new ergonomic features.
A top view of a left hood/lever grip shape for the new Ultegra Di2
The slightly curved, ergonomic shape of a new Di2 Left Ultegra lever.

Better Ergonomics: Shimano has done a full redesign of their Di2 levers to make them wireless compatible. Interestingly, the derailleurs are still wired, albeit with no junction boxes and a smaller gauge wire. Beyond the electronic tech, we see an ergonomic change as well. Taller hoods with a slight inward curvature are now part of these changes. I would suspect that a new GRX upgrade would also feature something along the same lines. Not only the wireless component, but perhaps the new shaping as well. It would make sense to offer a more ergonomic, more secure grip in the hoods. Shimano also altered the reach (length) of the lever body to accommodate more lever throw in the brakes. The brake calipers have more pad-to-rotor clearance as well. Both things probably will show up in the next gen GRX in our opinion.

Finally, Shimano made the feel of the shift paddles different by making them stand more proud from the lever body and made an effort to help riders discern between the two by feel. These paddles were also made more accessible from the drops. All things we fully expect to see transferred to a new GRX DI2 in the future for gravel tech.

The new Shimano Ultegra C50 Carbon wheel
Shimano is offering the new Ultegra wheels in carbon- a first for Ultegra.

Wider Rims, Carbon Wheels: In the area of wheels, the GRX offering wasn’t too notable. Sure, it was a solid wheel set, but it is relatively heavy, aluminum in rim material, and not all that inspiring. With the new Dura-Ace and Ultegra offerings, Shimano has stepped up things to offer three rim depths and Ultegra is now offered in carbon for the first time. Could a Carbon GRX wheel be far behind? Also notable is that both the Dura-Ace and Ultegra wheels have 21mm internal rim widths. That’s not ground breaking from a gravel rider’s viewpoint, but it does show that Shimano is willing to make a wider rim now for road riders and hints at what might be for a future GRX wheel. The current GRX wheel has a 21.6mm inner rim width. Perhaps a future GRX offering will also be in carbon with the Dura-Ace/Ultegra rim’s aero benefits and have a slightly wider inner rim width as well. We’d like to see Shimano go to a 24mm inner rim width here. Will they? It would be a bold move on their part if they did as Shimano tends to live on the conservative side in terms of wheel tech.

The new Di2 Shimano Ultegra 12 speed rear derailleur
The new Di2 12 speed Ultegra rear derailleur

Smaller, Lighter, Faster: Finally, the new Di2 derailleurs are amazing. The rear Shadow derailleur doesn’t even look like an electronic derailleur. The front derailleur has been reduced in size as well, making it even more appealing as a gravel component since it now has a smaller profile which would catch less mud and grit in severe riding conditions. All the while Shimano claims the shifting speed has increased a whopping 58% at the rear and 45% faster up front over the current wired Dura-Ace group. Just think of the implications for a new GRX Di2 12 speed group that this shows.

A smaller front derailleur in GRX Di2 could be an excellent move giving more clearance for bigger tires and less ‘mud-shelf’ effects in severe conditions. Faster shifting is always welcomed, but the new Di2 is programmable for shifting speed, so we take that to mean that you could slow it down some, if you wanted.

Wish List: So, does any of this news today mean anything for us gravel riders? What might a new 12 speed GRX have in store for us? Well, we have wishes for the future of gravel tech, and here is our short list to consider:

  • 12 speed Di2, but don’t forget us folks who like mechanical group sets!
  • A ‘next tier’ GRX that remains 11 speed and has both Di2 and mechanical choices.
  • GRX 800 had a new lever pivot placement. Can the next Gen GRX get that throughout the range?
  • The new, slightly curved lever ergonomics of Dura-Ace and Ultegra in a new GRX format.
  • Keep Hyperglide+ free hub compatibility so we can still use our fancy wheels we have now.
  • Bring over that new brake technology for better pad to rotor clearances. This would be a boon in poor conditions.
  • A new range of crank sets with one having a closer ratio than currently offered. Not everyone likes that big jump from big to small rings.
  • A new carbon GRX wheel set with a 24mm inner rim width.

That’s our look at the new Dura-Ace and Ultegra 12 speed and what- if any- implications it may have for a future GRX offering, and gravel tech in general. Now that you’ve read our take, what would you want to see from Shimano in a new GRX group? Tell us in the comments below. Let’s keep it fun! We will address the comments which cross the lines of decency with no impunity. Look for a folow-up to your thoughts from us on a future Riding Gravel Radio Ranch podcast. Thanks!

Note: All information and images were sent to Riding Gravel courtesy of Shimano North America.

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Author: Guitar Ted

Guitar Ted hails from Iowa. Home of over 70,000 miles of gravel and back roads. Co-creator of Trans Iowa in late 2004, he has been at the forefront of the growth of gravel events and riding since then. Creator of Gravel Grinder News in 2008, he produced the premier calendar of gravel and backroad events. GT joined forces with Riding Gravel in late 2014.

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6 thoughts on “Gravel Grinder News: New Dura-Ace, Ultegra Show Hints Of Gravel Tech Future

  1. I think the biggest takeaway is the effect on frame design. Road bikes of a certain level now no longer to consider gear cable routing at all – it will be interesting to see where this goes along with the possibility of wider wheel/tyre combos. I guess the top/mid end of the market has spoken regards electronic shifting and Shimano weren’t seeing enough sales to make mechanical worthwhile.

    Regards GRX – I would agree with your wish list but that lack of mechanical options on the road groupos will not suit all if translated to GRX – especially bike packers and adventurers. I’m not sure where the driver to develop mechanical options will come from – might we see a divergence between the groups, or MTB/GRX converge as a result?

  2. It would be great if all Shimano drivetrain parts worked with all others (like SRAM). Mix up a GRX Brifter and an XTR RD. That might let them get away with fewer SKU numbers, too. I too like mechanical shifting. I get concerned about electronic stuff inadvertently draining the battery or failing to work because of needing a software update. [That happened to my tandem set up with Di2. We showed up to a group ride and found we couldn’t shift the FD. Took it to the LBS and they had to update the firmware which fixed it. That’s a bummer on the group ride, but dangerous out in the boonies.] Overall, though, I LOVE Shimano stuff. I think Ultegra/GRX 800 are essentially bulletproof gear!

    1. “It would be great if all Shimano drivetrain parts worked with all others (like SRAM).”

      We don’t know yet how a future wiredless GRX will work with the new Ultegra/DA. Only time will tell.

      But it’s not as though there is any compatibility between Eagle and the new AXS road/gravel drivetrain parts (chains/chainrings/cassettes). You are giving SRAM a pretty big pass there.

      1. Indeed SRAM AXS shifters are mix & match with the derailleurs. However the cassettes & derailleurs are not interchangeable as Eagle parts use a ‘normal’ chain and road/XPLR parts use the Flat Top chain.

        Then there are limitations like XPLR rear ders being 1x only but not able to work with the 10-50/52 cassettes.

        I honestly don’t understand SRAM adopting the Flat Top chain for strength and durability reasons on the road when Shimano and Campy have 12 and 13 speed ‘conventional’ chains and MTB is arguably harder on drivetrain components.

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