Campagnolo might have the heritage, and new boys SRAM might have the innovation, but when it comes to road bike components, Japanese brand Shimano still rules the market. Here we look at the company’s range of road bike groupsets and explain the distinctive qualities of each.
Claris (catalogue number 2400)
There are less expensive Shimano components available but Claris is the starting point among Shimano’s complete road groupsets. Despite being found on bikes priced from just £300, Claris is actually a very impressive system with decent braking, excellent gear change performance and proper Dual Control STI integrated brake and gear levers; in fact, the brake calipers recently received an update and now generate 30% greater braking force than previous models. Its chainset is also a beautiful bit of kit and belies the budget pricetag. Of course there are compromises, mainly its eight-speed nature — so you can only have eight sprockets on the cassette. However, the rear derailleur can cope with sprockets featuring anything up to 32 teeth, so there is still a very broad range of gear sizes on offer. And just to help climbing even more, there is a choice of compact chainset — with chainrings featuring 50 and 34 teeth — or a triple chainset with 50, 39 and 30 teeth.
Updated in 2016, Sora has traditionally been the utilitarian workhorse groupset in the Shimano road bike family but now it comes with some snazzy details too. In operation there are noticeable improvements, not least more powerful dual-pivot disc brakes, optional mechanical disc brakes, and the chance to use a wide-ranging 11-34t cassette. In terms of aesthetics, the new Sora features a four-arm crankset and a smart finish like its posher siblings, while internal cabling keeps everything looking clean and tidy. One area where there has been no change is in the number of gears available, with Sora remaining resolutely 9-speed. However, that should mean it retains its reputation for bombproof performance.
Shimano Tiagra underwent an upgrade in 2015, bringing it slightly more inline with the groupsets above it. Tiagra has traditionally been seen as marking the crossover point between leisure road bikes and enthusiast road bikes — that is to say, it has always outwardly displayed many of the qualities of Shimano’s better groupsets, but never quite matched the performance. New Tiagra also follows in that trend to some extent, with a very pretty four-arm chainset, sleeker Dual Control STI levers and a rear derailleur that can cope with sprockets of up to 34t, which is great for climbing. However, Tiagra remains a 10-speed system, meaning it can’t match — and isn’t compatible with — 105, Ultegra or Dura-Ace. Upfront you have the option of a double chainring, which comes in a multitude of options – 52-36T, 50-34T, 48-34T, 46-36T and 46-34T – to suit all abilities. There’s a triple option of 50-39-30T. Meanwhile although gear changes are good, Tiagra’s dual-pivot rim brakes aren’t quite as impressive, which means the Tiagra hydraulic disc brakes released in 2016 are a welcome option.
The newest version of Shimano 105 appeared on 2015 model year bikes and it was a true revelation, offering essentially all the ability and performance of Ultegra with only a slight weight disadvantage justifying its lower place in Shimano’s groupset hierarchy. As with its posher siblings, 105 is now 11-speed and gear changes are supremely impressive, with the chain switching from sprocket to sprocket almost imperceptibly. There’s the option of using up to 32-tooth sprockets, meaning easy riding up the hill. Meanwhile, 105’s new dual-pivot rim brake calipers are superb and not only offer excellent power but also very good modulation, meaning you really can feel just how much braking force you need to exert. A recently upgraded front derailleur’s also welcome, losing the long arm of the previous incarnation to scrub any chance of the cables rubbing on your tyres. They also come in direct mount versions for integrated and aero frame designs. In fact, all in all 105 is possibly the best value for money road groupset in Shimano’s stable.
Traditionally seen as the benchmark groupset for high-end but not necessarily racing road bikes, Shimano Ultegra is an 11-speed system with a lot of the same technology as Dura-Ace, just wrapped in a less weight-conscious packaging. It’s still lighter than 105, though, and features the same performance benefits such as smooth gear changes and excellent braking. The rear cassette will work with sprockets of up to 32-tooth, and again the dual-pivot brake calipers also come in direct-mount versions. So it’s a great system that’s only been slightly overshadowed by the emergence of the cheaper 105 set-up and the newer Ultegra (8000).
Ultegra Di2 (6870)
All the benefits of Ultegra but with the excitement of electronic shifting. That means there are a few more components and options, such as frame or seatpost-mounted batteries and remote gear shift buttons designed specifically for triathletes or sprinters. The beauty of electronic gears is that the derailleurs self-feather, giving perfect, quick shifting every time. They make a rather satisfying little ‘zip’ noise when they move, too. And that’s not the only exciting thing about Ultegra Di2: you can also specify Ultegra Dual Control STI levers which come with a hydraulic capability, meaning Ultegra Di2 hydraulic disc brakes are available, too.
Traditionally seen as the benchmark groupset for high-end but not necessarily racing road bikes, Shimano Ultegra had an evolutionary upgrade in 2017. Mainly this was a case of tidying up the component range, so Ultegra now has its own official hydraulic disc brakes — rather than the previous ‘Ultegra-level’ hydraulic discs; Synchro Shift (as available with Dura-Ace Di2) which moves both derailleurs with the push of one button comes to Ultegra; Ultegra’s rear derailleur now gets a low-profile Shadow design like Dura-Ace; and Ultegra’s chainset has also been redesigned to look a little more like Dura-Ace. More practically, gear capacity with the widest long-cage rear derailleur can now accommodate 34-tooth sprockets while the front derailleur has been redesigned to accept wider tyres and wider gear pitch. Weight wasn’t reduced significantly in the 2017 refresh, but it’s still lighter than 105 yet features the same performance benefits such as smooth gear changes and excellent braking.
Ultegra Di2 (8050)
The updated and latest Ultegra electronic groupset features trickle-down technology from the top-end Dura-Ace version. The new Di2 front derailleur’s designed to elicit the smoothest shifts under the most extreme of pedalling torques, while the rear derailleur is incredibly compact, sporting the same low-profile Shadow design seen on the Dura-Ace R9100. The Di2 (8050) comes in 11-speed for both road and time-trial/triathlon. A new pair of dual-control Ultegra ST-8060 levers provides a simple and tactile shifting solution for time-triallists and triathletes, using just one button each side and utilising Shimano’s Synchro Shifting technology (seen above). There’s also a hydraulic disc-brake option.
Now we get to the very cream of the crop — Dura-Ace, Shimano’s finest mechanical groupset range. While Dura-Ace Di2 rules the roost absolutely, there is still a very definite market for a sublimely built mechanical groupset. Dura-Ace is Shimano’s lightest and most refined cable-operated option for road bikes and it really does work about as well as anyone would expect, with smooth accurate gear shifts and superb brake feel. It’s an 11-speed set-up with dual-pivot caliper brakes or hydraulic disc brakes, and a range of chainset options. However, the rear derailleur has a maximum capacity of a 30t sprocket, so it’s slightly higher geared than Ultegra and other Shimano groupsets, hinting at its race-orientated nature. An update in 2016 saw a host of tweaks and improvements, including the introduction of an integrated power meter built into the crankset, meaning Dura-Ace is still pushing boundaries.
Dura-Ace Di2 (9150)
Making the best just a little better (if you like the idea of electronic gear shifts), Dura-Ace Di2 is the flagship Shimano groupset and demonstrates the current zenith of groupset technology. It’s light, it works well, and it’s used by pro riders in the world’s biggest races. Of course, it’s not cheap and, as with Ultegra Di2, there is a need for batteries and different STI levers. But it’s as close to perfect as you will find, especially after its 2016/2017 facelift which has seen a slight reduction in weight; new connectivity abilities with Garmin and other electronic devices; and improved shifting that includes manual, synchro and semi-synchro options which moves both derailleurs at the same time via single shifter to maintain efficient chainlines. Clever stuff! Like Ultegra, there are time-trial/triathlon shifters and hydraulic disc-brake versions available.