Shimano Dura-Ace vs Ultegra: Clash Of The Groupset Titans

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)

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;
  • stop.

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.

Dura Ace 9100 groupset
Dura Ace 9100 groupset Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9100 groupset (the mechanical version) in all its glory…

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)

  • Dura-Ace
  • Ultegra
  • 105
  • Tiagra
  • Sora
  • Claris

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.

Confused? Good.

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.

Shimano Ultegra 6800 groupset
Shimano Ultegra 6800 groupset And here’s the full Ultegra groupset. Quite different to the Dura-Ace no…?

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.

Performance Parp

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?
  • And is the extra cost over Ultegra worth it in order to buy this incremental performance improvement?

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. This is certainly the impression that has been given.

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.

SRAM RED eTap groupset
SRAM RED eTap groupset This is what a fully wireless gear shifting system looks like (SRAM’s RED eTap)…

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:

Conclusion

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…)

And Finally…

Sportive Cyclist is free to read (frankly, who’d pay for this crud?).

It does cost money to run though. If you’d like to help me out, you can buy stuff through one of my links and I earn a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything (and might even give you a warm glow inside…).

To that end, please consider clicking the following links and see if there is anything that takes your fancy:

  • If you’re in the market for a new bike: Wiggle has a fine (and well-priced) selection; Ribble Cycles are amazing value and their ‘Bikebuilder’ feature allows you to change components to see the effect on the price.
  • If you’re looking for bike components or clothing, again Wiggle is my go-to website.
  • Finally, if you buy anything on Amazon, I’ll get a commission if you do so after clicking through my link. All you have to do is click here and then forget about it!

Many thanks – every click means a lot to me!

Muchas gracias!

12 thoughts on “Shimano Dura-Ace vs Ultegra: Clash Of The Groupset Titans

  1. Excellent review Monty!
    I currently ride on (used) Campagnolo Chorus (mechanical) which I believe is the equivalent to Shimano’s Ultegra (although die hard campy fans will argue that point)… top of the line components are nice, but some will point out they have a tendency to last a little less longer (weight saving factor in the build, perhaps)… something to consider, since most of us aren’t sponsored… 105 and/or Ultegra is definitely sufficient for most of us, unless of course money is not an issue 🙂

  2. i use both Monty, dura-ace di2 and mech ultegra, biggest plus with di2 is the sprint shifters, so nice in the drops, shifitng in rolling terrain.
    But di2 is a pain with having to charge, when the battery runs out, the front derraileur goes, leaving you with about 100 shifts in the rear. The cold makes it the battery drain.

  3. Nice summary, Monty. I’m currently on 10-speed SRAM Red (mechanical) since it came with my Trek Madone, but replacement prices are shocking — e.g. $270 for a cassette, and I go through at least one a year. Luckily I purchased a 3-year Trek CarePlus warranty with the bike, and they’re covering (with extreme reluctance) all my replacement parts — cassettes, chains, handlebars and a rear deraillleur I broke in a crash, etc. When the warranty expires, I’ll replace the drive train with mechanical Ultegra, since I’ve had good results with that in the past. (I already replaced the crappy first-generation Bontrager direct-mount brakes with Ultegra.) Dura-Ace is nice, but I don’t see it being worth the extra dough. I’m also not excited about electronic shifting, although SRAM Red eTap seems like a step in the right direction — i.e. it’s actually potentially better than mechanical shifting, rather than just an electronic replacement of it. And I’m not in any hurry to get disc brakes, although maybe if/when I upgrade to carbon wheels designed for disc brakes so that there’s no weight penalty.

  4. Hey, I’ve been scouring google for good reviews and comparisons between DA9100 and Ultegra or 105. Here’s my deal. I have a KTM Revelatory purchased in June 2015. 105 equipped, I’ve replaced the cockpit and wheels but kept the drivetrain until I “wore it out” as I told myself. The problem is, 105 is bulletproof! I mean it just gets it done. I preferred the color scheme of the 105 anyway. ANYWAY, I’ve made a few bucks at my new job, and want to upgrade my drivetrain. I firmly don’t believe it’s worth to buy Ultegra if I have 105. But do I want the DA upgrade? I say I do, simply bc I have Dura Ace C24 wheels and DA pedals. I don’t manage a bike shop so I don’t get discounts anymore, but Merlin is offering DA for $1350 shipped right now. That’s an incredible deal. You ride 105. If you pretended to be me in my riding situation, would you think it a worthy upgrade? I

  5. Hi All,
    Very interesting discussion. I’ve a question and thought that you could help me, which one should you choose, the Ultegra Di2 or the Dura Ace Mechanical one? Excluding their prices from the comparison.
    Thanks,

  6. No point in paying twice to have same number of gears and features. Dura ace was actually behind 105 at one point as it didn’t have dual pivot brakes and still have 7 speed freewheel but back then it was true to its name so it was durable, now it should be changed to lite ace as it’s all about weight. It only matters in professional racing.

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