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Tech review - November 18, 2004

On test: Shimano Dura-Ace wheels

Tougher than tarmac

Along with a new ten-speed Dura-Ace group for 2004 came the first wheels from Shimano to carry the Dura-Ace name. With 2,000km under them, John Stevenson is impressed by their toughness.

Dura-Ace rear wheel
Photo ©: Paul Mirtschin
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Shimano added wheels to its line of components in 2000 but it wasn't until 2004 that any of the Shimano wheel line carried the Dura-Ace designation. With the introduction of the ten-speed Dura-Ace for 2004, a new pair of hoops to match was inevitable, but the WH-7800s are quite a departure from Shimano's previous wheels.

The company's top-of-the-line clincher wheels for 2003, the WH-7701s were a paired-spoke design with 16 spokes front and rear. The Dura-Ace wheels use evenly-spaced spokes with 16 up front but 20 at the back. That design change has allowed Shimano to lop quite a bit of weight off. Paired-spoke designs require stiff rims if the large unsupported spans between spokes pairs are to stay round, and therefore the design works best with relatively deep rims - which are unavoidably heavy. With evenly spaced spokes, Shimano has been able to go to a less deep rim - 24mm instead of 30mm.

Shimano has also saved weight with an aluminium rear axle and freehub body. The practical upshot of all this is that our pair of Dura-Ace wheels weighs 1585g, or a shade more than the similarly-priced Mavic Ksyrium SSC SL, perhaps the benchmark in this category of race-worthy clincher wheels and typically 1550g/pair.

The rear hub is ten-speed only
Photo ©: Paul Mirtschin
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The rims
Photo ©: Paul Mirtschin
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Left-hand spokes mount in special flanges
Photo ©: Paul Mirtschin
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The front hub
Photo ©: Paul Mirtschin
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However, while the Dura-Ace wheels are a bit more conventional in the departments of spoke count and layout, they're very non-standard in other respects. The nipples and threads are at the hub so the wheel is a bit sleeker and more aerodynamic at the point where it cuts the air fastest, the rim. And the rear wheel has its crossing spokes on the left side, with radial spokes on the right.

Finished in polished alloy with bladed steel spokes and reflective patches on the rim, the Dura-Ace wheels match the rest of the group, and, to these ayes at least, look terrific.

But how do they work? Pretty darn well. For starters they're a good fit with a range of tyres - fitting without tools is possible without excessive effort or swearing, but neither are they a loose fit. Our sample set were tight and true out of the box with even spoke tension and they have stayed that way despite almost 2000km of Sydney potholes.

Shimano's wheels have always had a reputation for toughness and the Dura-Ace wheels carry it on. I've clobbered these wheels over the urban moonscape that Sydney's traffic authorities jokingly call 'roads' and they have resisted admirably. The rear wheel even shrugged off a high-speed pinch flat that happened when I was slip-streaming a bus across an intersection and didn't see a pothole in time (and if my wife's reading this, I really don't do that sort of thing very often, honest!). Despite being bounced violently to a halt across a succession of potholes and a low kerb, the rear wheel was completely intact at the end of this unplanned torture test. However, I'm not going to make this part of our standard wheel test protocol.

It has to be said that if you're looking for super-light clincher wheels, then you should look elsewhere. There are plenty of wheels that are lighter than the Dura-Aces and we've tested some of them over the years. However, some of those very light wheels have a rider weight limit that, well, let's just say I exceed it. Not, I'm happy to say, by very much these days, but I'm never going to be a skinny 20-year-old again. There's no such limit on the Dura-Ace wheels and there's an air of 'bring it on!' toughness about these wheels that more than makes up for the weight if you value durability over gram count. Shimano will intoduce new wheels in the second quarter of 2005 - provisionally called WH-7801SL - that will weigh 1500g/pair and will be compatible with the coming tubeless road tyre, according to Shimano.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the Dura-Ace wheels is that they are compatible only with Shimano's ten-speed cassettes. The freehub body is stepped to exactly fit a ten-speed cluster and nothing else, not even Shimano's own nine-speed cassettes, will fit. For the most part, I don't mind Shimano's tendency to abandon one way of doing things when it thinks of a better way. This often orphans the previous incarnation, but it means the following parts work together better. Matching the new ten-speed cluster and freehub body exactly does mean that the sprockets don't mark the freehub body the way they do if you fit them to an alloy-bodied nine-speed hub, but still it'd be nice if the new hubs and wheels were retro-compatible the way the change from eight-speed to nine-speed was.

Overall, though, these are great wheels for heavier riders, bad roads and mile-eaters looking for reliability.

Recommended retail price:
Measured weight: 1585g
Pro: Tough, great-looking
Con: Not the lightest, ten-speed only
More information: www.shimano.com
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