There comes a time in every road cyclist’s life when it becomes clear* that the quickest way to progress to professional standards of performance is to splash more cash on a random bike component.
(*Not all that clear)
That time occurs before you buy your bike, roughly a week after you’ve bought your bike, then on a weekly basis until you cycle off this mortal coil.
So now is the time to consider whether upgrading from Shimano 105, a perfectly functional bike groupset, to Shimano Ultegra, a perfectly functional bike groupset, will take you from dog-dog to Froome-dog.
But it will be interesting to compare the two. No, it will!
Products mentioned in this post:
What Is A Groupset: A Quick Recap
I’ve shown this photo before, but include it again for reasons of laziness.
Now a (very) quick canter through the different elements of the groupset:
- Crankset / chainset – the bit the pedals attach to – chain rings, cranks – that sort of thing;
- Derailleurs – the bits that move the chain between the different chainrings (at the front) and the various cogs of the cassette (at the back);
- Shifters – attached to the handlebars – the bit you manipulate with your hands;
- Cassette – the bit in the middle of your back wheel – lots of teeth;
- Chain – the, er, chain…
You get the idea.
If you want more of an idea then this article provides a pretty comprehensive overview of the various group sets on the market.
Where In The Range (And Some Naming Conventions)
If Dura-Ace is the top of Shimano’s range of groupsets for road bikes (don’t worry, it is), Ultegra occupies second place in the list; 105 is third.
(For completeness, Tiagra is next, followed by Sora and Claris. And these are the middle names of my daughters as well.)
I think what I’m about to write is something of a cyclo-cliche, but that has never stopped me before, so… 105 is the first of Shimano’s “serious” or “proper” groupsets.
Tiagra and below, despite being perfectly adequate for your first few sportives (probably all your sportives) and for your daily commute, should be eschewed in favour of 105 or Ultegra as soon as your functional threshold power hits 150W.
Or something like that.
In truth, what tends to happen is that you get your first road bike and it comes with whatever it comes with (in my case it was a ragtag set of Campagnolo and Miche components). You finally succumb to the rule of n+1 and you start looking for your first ‘proper’ road bike. Then you start looking into gears a bit more. And you end up getting a bike with 105.
You gaze adoringly at your clean-shiftin’ 105 drivetrain for a couple of years… and then start to wonder, “Would I be faster-stronger-sexier if I had Ultegra on my bike?”. And so the world turns.
We Really Wanna See Those Numbers
If you want to become a Shimano knowledge-sensai, you need to be aware that there is a number that corresponds to each named groupset (okay, need is a strong word).
I imagine there is some sophisticated reason why these numbers are there (like, I don’t know, maybe to identify all the individual components within a given set). It’s most helpful in working out which generation of a given groupset that you’re getting.
Fr’instance: 105’s code starts with a 5. The current model is 5800. This helps distinguish it from the 105 groupset on my bike, which is 5700 – the previous generation of 105.
You want to take care when buying individual parts (e.g. replacement parts, a cassette with different gear ratios), that they’re compatible with the gear bits (technical term) that you’ve already got.
By the way, the current version of Ultegra is 6800, whilst Dura-Ace is 9000.
If You Want Electronic …
… Then you gotta get Ultegra.
(Which I reckon is a song lyric waiting to be put to music*).
(*By Kraftwerk, if there’s any justice in the world).
For the time being, only Ultegra, and it’s pro-sibling Dura-Ace, has electronic rather than mechanical gear shifts. Rather than you changing gear physically by pulling on (or releasing) a cable, electronic shifting uses little motors attached to the front and rear derailleurs in order to make the changes.
The electro-versions of Ultegra and Dura-Ace have Di2 added at the end of their names to make it clear that no cables are required (though unlike SRAM’s recently announced wireless electronic system, Shimano does still require the use of wires).
The origin story of the term Di2 is shrouded in mystery…. (okay, I couldn’t be bothered to Google what it stands for).
Given that technology tends to move down the price range over time, plus I’m sure I read an article about it, I can’t imagine it will be long until 105 gets electrified.
Since I know you were all particularly taken by the concept of each groupset have a name and a number, Ultegra Di2 is also known by its East German spy code of 6870.
And yes, Dura-Ace Di2 is 9070 (it doesn’t take an Enigma machine to work out the pattern).
What Price/Spec Of Bike Gets 105 Versus Ultegra
My bike is a Trek Domane 4.3 (the 2013 version), which at the time cost £1,800. The more recent Domane 4.3 retails at £1,500. Both of these versions of the Domane came/come with Shimano 105.
The caliper-braked 4.5 (as opposed to the disc brake version, which is more expensive) now occupies Trek’s £1,800 price slot and comes with a mix of Ultegra and 105.
This exciting and highly personal anec-Domane is meant to illustrate that, amongst the major bike brands, the 105-Ultegra price fulcrum seems to come around the £1,800 mark.
Continuing to use the Trek Domane as a yardstick, the Domane 5.2 (again, with caliper brakes) at £2,200 comes with full Ultegra.
The Cannondale balance point (for the Synapse – their Endurance road bike) is somewhere between £2,000 (where the 105 version lives) and £2,500 (where the Ultegra resides). Though since they only do a disc-brake bike, this probably adds £300–400 to each of these price points.
To be clear, though, you can buy a new bike equipped with a full Ultegra groupset for a lot less than this. My brother-in-law has a carbon bike from Ribble with Ultegra that he’s very happy with.
I’ll leave to play around with Ribble’s ‘bikebuilder’ feature on its website, but you can easily spec an Ultegra-toting carbon-framed endurance bike, with reasonable wheels and finishing kit for under £1,500.
So Which Is Better? (FIGHT!)
million dollar £400 (or $600) question.
The answer is presumably the Ultegra. The question is whether the difference is worth the money.
Clearly if you want electronic shifting, then Ultegra is, for now, your only option.
The consensus amongst the online cyclo-rati is that there’s not much in it. Indeed, the recent upgrade of 105 from 5700 to 5800 makes it even more comparable to Ultegra, performance wise.
Importantly (very), ‘new’ 105 has the same 4-arm chainset style, a la Ultegra and Dura-Ace, whereas my older version does look different (not as good?).
Wait, What About Weight?
According to Shimano, the full Ultegra groupset weighs a whopping* 2.3kg (2,294g to be precise).
(*Is this ‘whopping’?)
My ‘old’ 105 groupset (5700) tipped the scales at 2,624g – 330g more than the Ultegra. Which in the grand scheme of things (‘things’ being our bellies), is not a huge amount.
And this not a huge amount has been reduced even further for 5800-generation 105. The stated weight figure is 2,445g, essentially halving the Ultegra–105 lard-gap.
To a degree, this is a moot point.
I would guess that most groupsets are bought in conjunction with a new bike. If that’s you, then you’ll be more interested in the price point of the full bike, which I’ve discussed above.
For completeness though, Ultegra (non Di2) has an RRP of £999.99 in the UK and $1,399.99 in the US.
Shimano 105 (the current version) is on at an RRP of £559.99 in the UK and $799.99.
Don’t worry though (who you calling worried?), the actual prices you’ll need to pay are substantially lower. They’re available from Amazon and Wiggle, in some cases for less than half the recommended price.
So Where Does This Leave Us
None the wise, that’s where.
Well, perhaps a little bit wiser.
I’ll certainly be thinking about getting Ultegra (and maybe Di2) on my next bike. But I’m deluded and believe that this might make me a better cyclist.
More rational cyclists might decide to go for the perfectly adequate 105 (and maybe 105 Di2 if/when it arrives) and use the money saved to put towards better (lighter) wheels. This will probably result in a greater overall performance versus a slightly smoother gear change and a 150g weight saving.
If you’re thinking of mixing and matching between the various Shimano ranges, or you’re looking to upgrade one or a couple components on your existing setup, then you might find this arts-icle helpful.
Ult-tell Me About Your Gears
Which is a mangled sub-heading if ever there was one.
As you might have picked up, my trusty Trek is adorned with 105 (5700). Do you ride with Ultegra? Have you tried both?
Share your wisdom in the comments below.
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