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. Begin!
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Shimano Ultegra vs 105: Which Is Better? (YouTube Edition)
Want to know whether you should upgrade from 105 to Ultegra but can’t be bothered with all these pesky words?
I have a solution for you: I madez a YouTube on the subject. Sit back, relax, neck an energy gel and get ready to talk groupsets.
(And please remember to hit ‘Like’ on the video – it really helps me out with the YouTube algorithm – many fanks).
Now, back to your originally scheduled article…
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 groupsets 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. These are also the middle names of my daughters.)
I think what I’m about to write is something of a cyclo-cliché, 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.
Even Shimano makes the distinction, with this little grey line on its website:
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 (Model) 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 you have/you’re buying.
This was all quite straightforward (okay somewhat straightforward), until Shimano started adding an ‘R’ at the beginning of some of them, and I got a bit befuddled.
Anyway, to aid comprehension, here’s a little table I knocked up to show the range numbers of the current and prior generations of top end Shimano groupsets:
The dates show the ‘model year’ for when each new generation was launched. Unhelpfully, Shimano released products for, say, 2018, in mid-2017, so there might be the odd inaccuracy. Still, it gives the general direction of travel (i.e. we’re probably due an update of the Dura Ace range next).
You want to take care when buying individual components (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.
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 have 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 wireless eTAP 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).
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 R8050.
And yes, Dura-Ace Di2 is R9150 (it doesn’t take an Enigma machine to work out the pattern – although the fact that the prior generation used ’70’ to denote Di2 means perhaps you do need some codebreaking nouse).
Will Shimano 105 Get Di2?
Well, when Di2 first came out, initially for Dura-Ace then followed by Ultegra, it seemed a reasonable bet to say that 105 would be next in line for electrification.
But the thing is, that all occurred in the previous generation of these two groupsets. Shimano didn’t come out with a ‘105 Di2 5870’. 105 stayed firmly mechanical.
And then the next generation of Dura-Ace and Ultegra came out (i.e. the current ones), again with Di2 options.
Now we find ourselves with R7000 (the current 105) as Shimano’s most recent update (of this higher-end trifecta), and people talking about Dura-Ace being due the next upgrade. No sign of a R7050.
Maybe, for once, the trickledown effect of high spec features gradually moving down the price spectrum won’t apply in the case of 105 electrification.
Given I’m more Nosferatu than Nostradamus, this probably means that 105 Di2 is going to be announced tomorrow.
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. It came with a full Shimano 105 groupset (5700 – model range number fans).
At the time, this was probably at the top end of what you would pay for a carbon frame with 105. Pay a couple of hundred quid more and you’d be into Ultegra territory.
It’s no longer as clear cut. Whether a bike has disc or rim brakes affects price quite considerably. Other features (frame, wheelset) can move the price point of the whole range, independent of groupset.
Case in point, the Trek Domane range is no longer a good example – whatever tech they’ve put into it means the frame is quite expensive and savings are made by speccing the equivalent bike to mine (the SL4) with some Tiagra components.
Speaking to a few data points in the ‘endurance bike’ category (all of which are carbon frames):
- The Giant Defy Advanced 2020 model costs £1,949 ($2,514) with Shimano 105 and £2,199 ($2,837) with Ultegra (£250 difference for the hard of mathing);
- Canyon’s Endurace CF SL Disc 7.0 with Shimano 105 is £2,099 ($2,708) and the Ultegra-equipped Endurace CF SL Disc 8.0 is £2,699 ($3,482).
- The Cannondale Synapse Carbon 105 2021 model costs £2,200 ($2,838) whilst the Ultegra version is £2,700 ($3,483);
- Specialized Roubaix Sport (with 105) costs £2,750 ($3,548); the Roubaix Comp (Ultegra) comes in at £3,500 ($4,515).
(For the USD prices, I just converted the UK prices at $1.29:£1 to give an indication. Showing the actual prices just complicates things further.)
See, I told you it wasn’t clear but. You get some idea of the relative costs though. The Giant Defy is probably the cleanest example of the 105-Ultegra cost differential, with the specifications on the two bikes otherwise being very similar, if not identical. Canyon, Cannondale and Specialized upgrade other components as you move up the range (wheels, for instance).
It’s worth noting that some bike makers do an aluminium-framed version of their end above bikes, fitted with Shimano 105. This brings the entry price point for a bike with the 105 groupset down considerably. By way of example, the Cannondale Synapse (non-carbon) 105 costs £1,300. You won’t generally see Ultegra specified on aluminium frames.
Aesthetics (Or Does 105 Look As Nice As Ultegra?)
Well, have a squiz at the full groupset images above. There’s really nothing in it.
Because they’re both in the current ‘design generation’ (is that what we’d call it), they both share the modern-looking chunky crank design.
Purists might point to a little more finesse in the Ultegra front and rear derailleur, but there’s not much in it. And I am not a purist.
Shoot me down if you like, but I’m erring towards the 105 in terms of looks. I think I prefer the proportions of the crankset. The 105 has a bit more ‘heft’.
So Which Is Better? (FIGHT!)
million dollar £500 (or $700) question.
The answer is 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 5800 to R7000 makes it even more comparable to Ultegra, performance wise.
Wait, Does Shimano 105 Weigh More Than Ultegra?
Why yes friend, it does. But also, friend, it doesn’t matter.
The different combos of what might comprise your chosen groupset (e.g disc brakes versus rim) makes trying to come up with a useful summary very difficult.
I’m sure a scouring of the internet would allow you to add up the weight of each individual component. In summary, both of them weigh about 2.5kg.
The difference is approximately 200g (i.e. 105 weighs 200g more, all else being equal), which in the grand scheme of anything other than pro cycling is kind of irrelevant.
Lose your belly then we can talk.
Price Difference: Ultegra versus 105
This is also something of a moot point.
Most full 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.
I’ve had a go at summarising the supposed recommended prices for the various current (R8000/R7000) Ultegra and 105 options in this table. Healthy disclaimer though – the prices seem a bit all over the place. Also, as before, I’ve just converted the GBP prices to USD.
Don’t worry though (who you calling worried?), the actual prices you’ll need to pay are substantially lower if you decide to build up a bike from scratch. They’re available from ‘the internet’ in some cases for less than half the recommended price.
Should You Upgrade From Shimano 105 to Ultegra On A Piecemeal Basis?
In other words, when a 105 component wears out on your bike, should you take opportunity to upgrade to Ultegra?
Assuming you’re working across compatible families, this is certainly possible.
I’ve done this myself, with my 10-speed 105 5700 groupset. When I knackered the front derailleur, I replaced it with the equivalent Ultegra version (10-speed 6700). Then I probably bought an Ultegra cassette and maybe an Ultegra 10-speed chain (my memory is a little hazy). I stopped short of replacing the rear derailleur or the shifters.
This is quite an expensive way of doing things: an extra £20-30 per component soon adds up. And like a cyclist in a pan of gradually heating water, you don’t really notice each incremental improvement. All the more so if the new component’s improved performance is held back by an otherwise, ahem, moderately maintained drivetrain.
For what it’s worth, if you’re looking for a noticeable improvement in shifting quality, a full overhaul at your current groupset (be that 105 or whatever) will give you the best bang for your buck.
I just did this on my Domane – new cables, cassette, chain, brake pads and chain rings – recorded in this series of YouTube videos – and the improvement has been amazing. Way more noticeable than when I upgraded the front derailleur from 105 to Ultegra (I’ve now gone back to 105-only on the Domane).
So Where Does This Leave Us?
None the wiser, that’s where. Well, perhaps a little bit wiser.
I’ll certainly be thinking about getting Ultegra on my next bike. But I’m deluded and believe that this might make me a better cyclist.
I’m also from Yorkshire and therefore have deep pockets and short arms. This outweighs my ‘better equipment better cyclist’ delusions.
I’ll probably stick with 105 on the basis that the 11-speed R7000 version offers a significant upgrade versus the 10-speed 5700 that is on my current Domane.
That said, if I ever feel that getting electronic gear shifting is an absolute must – perhaps you count yourself in this category – then clearly Ultegra is the only choice (assuming I/you don’t have Dura-oodles of cash for the top of the range alternative).
Where Do We Go From Gear?
Which is a mangled sub-heading if ever there was one.
Gravel, or adventure, cycling seems to be a la mode right now. Shimano even has its own dedicated gravel groupset (gr-oupset… no, wait, that hasn’t worked).
Anyway, check out my comparison of the Shimano GRX groupset with 105. You won’t regret it.
I’ve also done a Shimano 105 vs Tiagra comparison, if that floats your leg boats.