The top three tiers of Shimano’s impressive groupset range guarantee exceptional performance. But how do you know which one suits you? It’s all down to riding ambitions, fitness and budget…
Carbon frames, deep-rim wheels, close-fitting clothing that scythes through the wind like Cavendish through the competition – there are an array of aerodynamic innovations designed to send you faster and longer. But spare a thought for the humble groupset – essentially your gears and brakes – that must cope with saturated roads and tarmacked detritus, and still shift seamlessly to keep you powering forward and braking reliably. They rarely grab the headlines, but they should, as they can make a huge difference to your performance and enjoyment. That’s where the largest groupset manufacturer in the world, Shimano, comes in.
History of Expertise
The respected Japanese company, that celebrated its 96th birthday this year, feature a range of groupsets at different prices to suit all abilities – and bank accounts! Broadly speaking, the more you pay, the lighter the groupset, which is down to more advanced materials. The more expensive groupsets also offer smoother gear shifting and better braking performance.
Shimano’s range includes seven mechanical groupsets – Tourney, Claris, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace – plus electric versions of their Dura-Ace and Ultegra models. Each is lighter than the previous and forged from better-quality materials. Plus, you also get more gears. The most affordable Tourney range is 7-speed (meaning seven sprockets on the rear wheel), while the Tiagra model is 10-speed.
All will improve your cycling, but we’re going to focus on the 11-speed varieties: 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Why? When your cycling shifts up a level to 11-speed, you mean serious business. Yes, that means greater outlay but each is worth every penny. But, you might ask, what other factors come into play when looking to purchase 105, Ultegra or Dura-Ace? Let’s work through each groupset and see which one could be your next upgrade…
Shimano’s 105 range is immense value for money, and as you’ll find in the hierarchy of groupset models, features trickle-down technology from the higher Dura-Ace and Ultegra models, specifically the front derailleur – the FD-5801. (Sidenote: groupset manufacturers have a habit of loading their range with more numbers than pi!) The FD-5801 loses the long arm of the FD-5800 (we told you it could get confusing!) to remove the chance of cables rubbing on tyres. (The FD-5801 is expected to arrive in stock at Evans Cycles in early 2018).
105 is seen on many mid-range bikes. It’s slightly heavier than Ultegra but that’s princess-and-pea stuff. There are four options of Shimano 105 at Evans Cycles, the one but important difference deriving from the size of those 11 cassettes. A higher number of teeth upfront and lower cassette ratio outback means slightly higher resistance, so is aimed at strong, powerful riders. These would choose the 52/36, 11-28 option. If you like a greater choice of gear ratios or are facing hilly rides, go for the 50/34, 11/32. The 105 also comes in a disc-brake version for those who’ve opted for caliper-free stopping.
The newest model on the Ultegra block is the R8000. This is an upgrade on the 105 and is for those who are seeking to shave weight and unleash their potential without the extra cost of Dura-Ace. Again, the 11-speed R8000 enjoys technology first seen on the higher, Dura-Ace offering thanks to the impressive sleek Shadow rear derailleur. The R8000 also enjoys similar design cues to Dura-Ace and even revels in a splash of lightweight carbon thanks to the ergonomic and comfortable brake levers.
Like the 105, Ultegra’s a versatile soul, with a 52/36, 11/28 combination for demon racers out there to a 50/34, 11/32 mix for the sportive riders. For real tech-heads out there, highlights include the industry-leading HollowTech II cold-forged four-arm hollow cranks for maximum power transfer at minimal weight, and the Hyperglide EV sprockets that feature refined tooth shaping for more accurate shifting and increased longevity. The Ultegra model also comes in electronic (Di2) and disc-brake versions.
‘And on the seventh day, God created Dura-Ace…’ Okay, mild hyperbole but Shimano’s 11-speed Dura-Ace are the pinnacle of groupsets. They’re also the most expensive so why would you splash out the extra cash? Firstly, the weight savings. These are the lightest around. That means less mass to propel, which comes in particularly useful on climbs. Those weight savings are predominantly down to carbon, which dominates. Throw in slipstreaming styling and you have a groupset that’s desired by all but particularly beneficial for racers whose fitness is at a level that these marginal gains make a maximum difference. The fact the 11-speed cassette maxes out at 30-teeth highlights its top-end race potential.
Shimano’s latest Dura-Ace model is also available with a power meter so you can measure and maximise each and every ride. So impressively svelte and light is the power meter that it’s barely noticeable. Look ever so closely from behind and you’ll notice the driveside crank has a very small lump in the centre. Unbelievably, this micro-storage is the brain of the system, while strain gauges are placed in both crank arms.
Also, Shimano’s Dura-Ace family stretches to pedals and wheels for total elite performance. And, like Ultegra, there’s also an electronic version – the Dura-Ace Di2. So good is the Dura-Ace Di2, that it projected riders to stage victory in every single one of the 21 stages at this year’s Tour de France. The race began with Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas winning the Dusseldorf time-trial via Shimano’s R9150 Dura-Ace Di2 TT set-up and finished with LottoNL-Jumbo’s Dylan Groenewegen on a R9150-equipped Bianchi. Like UItegra and 105, Dura-Ace also comes in a disc-brake version.
So which one should you choose? Ultimately, there’s a clear budgetary difference between the three, so if you’re using Shimano Tiagra or below and are looking to upgrade with a nominal budget, the superb 105 is for you. Reliable, sharp shifting and quality components will make you a stronger, faster cyclist.
Those of you who’ve slightly deeper pockets and value peak performance can’t go wrong with Ultegra. Looks and functionality are similar to the Dura-Ace but at a more wallet-friendly price tag. Ultegra are also the real sign that cycling’s not only strengthened your muscles but captured your heart. Ultegra’s damn durable, too, so will see you through many a winter.
Then finally there’s Dura-Ace. The lightest, most aerodynamic, most reliably beautiful groupset around. Yes, it’s not cheap but this premium performance. Hence, why it adorns the likes of Chris Froome’s race-winning Pinarello. Some of the upgrades are subtle but when you consider how many times you shift, pedal and brake in a 3hr ride, subtlety morphs into prime importance before you reach the mid-ride café stop. If you’re serious about your racing and have the money, Dura-Ace is simply the ultimate.
Finally, you might ask: can I mix and match groupsets, buying a brake lever from one model and derailleurs in another? Well, as long as the gear configurations of a groupset – in other words, all 11-speed – yes you can. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but, in our puritanical way, our preference is to run with the same model throughout.