In this post I compare the key differences and, more importantly, the similarities between Shimano’s Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets.
Judging by the popularity of my other posts comparing different rungs on the Shimano road gears product ladder, I thought it high time that I looked at the tippity top of the company’s groupset range (Dura-Ace) and how it compares to the next rung down (Ultegra).
So, behold, here are my considered musings (alright, ill-considered musings).
Products Mentioned In This Post (This Shouldn’t Come As A Surprise)
- Shimano Dura-Ace groupset – click here for latest prices
- Shimano Ultegra groupset – click here for latest prices
So What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Groupsets?
We’re talking about bike components.
Specifically the selection of (mostly) crucial bits that are attached to the bike frame in order to help the bike (and it’s rider) perform the essential functions of a bike:
- go forward;
- go forward quickly;
- go forward up a hill;
- slow down;
If you buy a new bike, generally it will come with all of the groupset components attached (unless you’ve just bought the frame, clearly…).
In a groupset, you’d expect to find:
- some stuff on the handlebars: brake levers and shifters
- the paraphernalia down by your feet: pedal cranks, chain rings, bottom bracket and front derailleur
- a few gubbins at the rear of the bike: the cassette, rear derailleur and the chain itself
- Oh and don’t forget brakes, whether they be ye olde calipers or new-fangled (and contentious) disc affairs.
Shimano, like the other major road bike component manufacturers, Campagnolo and SRAM, makes a few different groupset ranges, at a variety of price points.
Dura-Ace is the name of Shimano’s top-of-the-range (and therefore most expensive) line, with Ultegra occupying the next level down.
Shimano also uses these range brand names for other bike components that you wouldn’t normally class as being part of a groupset. Again, the name denotes the level of performance, prestige and price (all the ps…).
You can buy Dura-Ace pedals (which I suppose could be in a broader definition of a groupset) and Dura-Ace wheels (which definitely aren’t part of a groupset).
You can’t buy Dura-Ace chammy cream for your undercarriage, though. Which is something of an oversight from Shimano.
A Quick Word On Numbers
The current Shimano line up of road cycling groupset ranges looks something like (ok, exactly like) this:
(Starting with the poshest)
BUT (Mont shouts), it’s not as simple as that. Okay, it might be.
The extra detail is that each of those ranges corresponds to a 4-digit number classification system (oooh, complex…).
[Mont gets out his Enigma machine]
Shimano Groupsets By Numbers
For a long time this was quite complicated. Right now it’s quite straightforward.
The current Dura-Ace range is also known as the R9100 Series, with the Di2 (electronic shifting) version being the R9150 Series.
Ultegra right now is the R8000 series (again with the Di2 version called the R8050 series).
For completeness, Shimano 105 is the R7000 series.
If you ever need to buy a replacement part (e.g. you knackered your front derailleur like I did), the product code will generally bear some relation to that series number. So a front derailleur (the braze on version) enjoys the code ‘FD-R8000-F’.
Exciting stuff. It’s about to get even more so.
A Short History of Shimano Groupset Numbers
Scratch beneath the surface a little and Shimano’s numbering system becomes a little more complicated.
The Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 brand (range?) names have all been around a fair while. Each time a new generation of a groupset is released, it is given a slightly higher series number.
Since all of the ranges aren’t updated at the same time, the numbers sometimes fall out of sync.
When the upper end of each ‘thousand’ is reached, sometimes the next number in the sequence is already taken (e.g. the last generation of Shimano 105 was ‘5800’ but the 6000s were already occupied by older Ultegra variants).
The net effect: it isn’t always clear from the numbers which product sits where in the range.
I won’t bore you with every previous series number, but since you can still buy them, and many will be still riding with them, I’ll mention a few.
The previous generation of Dura-Ace is the R9000 series. The (current) R9100 series was announced in 2016 and was available to buy in 2017. So far, so easy.
The previous version of Ultegra was the 6800 series (the first 11-speed iteration), with 6700 before that (when it was still a 10-speed system).
As we’ve already discussed, the current Ultegra generation is the R8000 series because Shimano elected to bestow 7000 upon the shoulders of the latest iteration of 105 (the previous version of which was 5800…).
But get this: prior to starting again in the 9000s, Dura-Ace went through all the 7000s. Armstrong (may or may not have) won all of his early tour victories using the Dura-Ace 7700 and 7800 groupsets. The 7900 version was released in 2009.
Why Should You Care About Series Numbers?
Well you shouldn’t a great deal.
Other than to say, it’s worth being familiar with the fact that there is a potential difference between components within the same family (e.g. Ultegra) but from different generations.
Components from one generation won’t necessarily be compatible if the rest of your groupset is more recent. If you do need to buy a replacement part, or you’re looking to upgrade gradually as individual bits of the drivetrain wear out, do some judicious Googlesearching, or check in with your friendly local bike mechanic.
That all said, you’d have to go some (and be looking in some strange places) in order accidentally to buy vintage Dura-Ace 7000 components when you meant to buy latest generation Shimano 105.
Di Another Day
Ultegra and Dura-Ace have one thing in particular in common that is not shared with other groupsets in Shimano’s line up.
They are both available with electronic shifting, as opposed to the more common mechanical approach.
Electronic shifting uses motors to drive the derailleurs that in turn move the chain from one cog (or sprocket) to another. Shimano uses the letter-number combo ‘Di2’ to denote that the system in question is electronic.
Going back to the numbers. The last 2 digits in Shimano’s product numbering system are generally used to identify variants within a given a family. Di2 is denoted by the last two digits being ‘5’ and ‘0’.
The Di2 version of Ultegra is 8050 and for Dura-Ace is 9150. Simples.
Can You Get Disc Brake Versions of Dura-Ace And Ultegra?
Wash out your dirty mouth, you hairy-legged satanist. You come round here asking about disc brakes…?
The answer is yes though.
Shimano brought in hydraulic disc brakes for Ultegra in 2014 and for Dura-Ace slightly later with the 9100 iteration.
You might see them being referred to as groupsets with the series numbers 8070 (Ultegra) and 9170 (Dura-Ace). As far as I can see though, they’re the standard groupsets, just with the brake levers and brake calipers swapped out (and they give you a disc rotor as well…).
What Are The Differences Between Ultegra and Dura-Ace?
Dura-Ace is clearly positioned at the top of the pile as far as Shimano are concerned. It’s their premium option. This is obviously reflected in the price.
Although the current version of Ultegra is newer than latest generation Dura-Ace by a year or so, (even) the Shimano website describes Ultegra as being a ‘direct trickle down’ from Dura Ace.
Understandably, Shimano will tend to introduce features first on its higher end offering, where it can charge a premium for them, before allowing similar improvements to wash though to the more affordable ranges.
Disc brake technology for road bikes is improving quickly as it finds its way (in fits and starts) into the pro peloton. ‘Power’ is on the verge of becoming affordable for the masses. Shimano is looking to put features into its groupsets that would previously have been performed by third party products, in order to capture the profit for itself.
Tsk, capitalism. Speaking of which…
Dura-Ace Costs More
There, I said it.
Whilst the manufacturers recommended retail price is not what you’d pay online, nor is it what bike manufacturers pay to put it on their bikes, it is nonetheless a useful comparator.
The mechanical version of Ultegra 8000 seems to have a list price of £1099 / $1450 (which comes down to be about half that if you want to buy it on t’internet).
The full Dura-Ace 9100 groupset (again mechanical version) is £1,875 in the UK. I can’t seem to find anywhere in the US that sells a full, bundled together groupset, but the price differential in (rapidly-devaluing) British Pounds still makes the point. The discount available is a bit lower (~40%) right now, presumably because it is Shimano’s premium offering.
Wait But What Weight?
As far as I can see, the total weight of the whole mechanical groupset for Ultegra 8000 is just under 100g more than for the equivalent Dura-Ace 9100 groupset. The difference for the Di2 versions increases to ~300g.
The Dura-Ace systems shaves off a little weight by using, for instance, aluminium for the front derailleur cage, rather than steel in the Ultegra version.
To be honest, though, I think the weight differential between Dura Ace and Ultegra is a moot point for the vast majority of riders. This probably includes you.
Unless you’ve got your body fat percentage down to 5% and, Bradley Wiggins-esque in 2012, you’ve shed virtually all of your upper body muscle, I’d suggest there are cheaper (and more performance enhancing) ways to reduce weight on the bike.
The 10 million mile question: how much better Dura-Ace is in performance terms? (Is Dura-Ace better in performance terms?)
People expend a lot of hot air (kilobytes?) trying to answer this (or at least trying to persuade others of their view). There is a more relevant question (or two):
- How much better will Dura-Ace make me in performance terms?
- Is the incremental performance improvement worth paying the extra cost over Ultegra?
Speaking personally, I find it highly unlikely that making the jump to Dura-Ace will increase my performance, or indeed enjoyment, on a ride. I would find it extremely hard to persuade myself to spend the extra moolah to go full Dura Ace.
Power To The (Prosperous) People
A key difference between the current generations of Ultegra and Dura-Ace is that the latter is available with an integrated power meter option.
I was about to say that this is the first time that a drivetrain manufacturer (Shimano, Campagnolo, SRAM) has offered a power meter as part of its groupset offering. Shimano, in its marketing bumf, certainly gave this impression.
Wrong though, as it happens. SRAM owns Quarq (purveyors of power) and they offer a chainset (or crankset) with integrated power meter as part of their top-of-the-range RED groupset.
Shimano probably represents the greater threat to 3rd party power meter makers though, given its market share and the potential in the future for power options to filter down to its Ultegra and 105 offerings.
Still, if you want an integrated Shimano power meter as part of your groupset purchase, then right now you have to go with Dura-Ace.
The Electronic Elephant In The Room
Finally, and since we mentioned the SRAM RED groupset (yes, we did…), there is a further similarity between Ultegra and Dura-Ace that you’d think Shimano would have rectified by now.
SRAM’s eTap system, which is only available with the Red groupset, is fully wireless. The shifters send wireless signals that control the derailleurs. Indeed, there is even a wireless hydraulic brake system, to further reduce the amount of cabling on the bike.
Both Ultegra Di2 and Dura-Ace Di2 use wires for their electronic shifting.
Cables run from the front shifters, through (generally) the bike frame, to the front and rear derailleurs in order to send the electronic signal that commands the motors there to shift gears.
There are some wireless elements to the newer generation Di2 systems (9150 and 8050). These can connect via private ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart to head units (i.e. Garmins) and smartphones and tablets, in order display current gear selections, configure the system and download firmware updates.
As part of this, as far as I can see, you can set the system up such that you simply choose whether to change up or down a gear. The system itself decides how it does that (i.e. whether it changes gear at the front or rear derailleur, or both…).
But Shimano still hasn’t introduced a fully wireless shifting system (yet…).
Show Don’t Tell
Ok, I appreciate I’ve thrown a lot of words at you. Perhaps you want to see a little vid-yo on the topic? Bring it all to life a bit?
Say no more Rodders. Mange tout, mange tout.
Here’s a useful summary of the Ultegra versus Dura-Ace differences, courtesy of the GCN Youtube channel:
Look. This is a website for sportive cyclists.
Unless I win the lottery, I’m unlikely to buy Dura-Ace for my bike and I’m guessing you’re in the same boat (which isn’t a super-yacht).
As you may have picked up from previous posts, I’m in the (glacial) process of upgrading from my current 105 setup to Ultegra (so far I’ve bought a whizzo new rear derailleur, cassette and chain).
I’m unlikely to recommend that you should choose Dura-Ace over Ultegra.
Still, it’s interesting to look at what you get when you go right to the top of Shimano’s range. Maybe some of those features will trickle down to 105 before too many years pass.
Right, who rides Dura-Ace and who rides Ultegra? Have you ridden both? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! (please…)
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