When it comes to choosing which make and model of gears for your first road bike (or your first ‘proper’ one), there’s a good chance you’ll be deciding between a Shimano Tiagra and a Shimano 105 groupset.
For those that already ride with Tiagra, 105 seems the natural upgrade path.
But which offers the best value, given the relative prices? Is it worth upgrading to 105?
In this post I’ll explain the key differences (and similarities) between the two ‘gruppos‘ and give some thoughts on how best to decide.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and buy something, I receive a commission.
I Say Gears, You Say Groupset (Gears! Groupset!)
Shimano, like competitors Campagnolo and SRAM, produce a range of components for bikes that are designed to be used together.
As well as the parts that make up the gearing system (chainrings, cranks, cassette, front and rear derailleur, chain), a groupset will also include the gear shifters and brakes.
On a new bike, the manufacturer will either specify all of a given groupset or mix and match between different ranges (for various reasons, but generally it comes down to price).
Where Do Tiagra and 105 Sit In The Shimano Range?
Well, Shimano’s lowest cost range is called Claris. Then Sora. Tiagra sits above that, followed by 105.
After 105, there is Ultegra and Dura-Ace, both of which have mechanical and electronic shifting (known as Di2) versions. Professional teams that ride with Shimano components spec Dura-Ace for their pro riders.
Either confusingly or helpfully, each range is also described by a four digit number. Aficionados, looking to confuse us mere mortals, will sometimes refer to a groupset simply by this number.
Even more confusingly, as part of its 2019 update, Shimano 105 transitioned from being a number only (the prior 2015 generation was known as 5800) to being a number preceded by the letter R.
The current generation of Shimano 105 is therefore also known as R7000. This brings it into line with the new naming convention with its two higher end siblings, 2017 Dura-Ace (R9100) and 2018 Ultegra (R8000).
And actually, now I delve deeper into this product number rabbit hole, I see that the newer versions of Sora and Claris also have ‘R’ numbers. Which actually makes Tiagra the odd one out in the Shimano range in not having adopted an ‘R’. Perhaps this means it is due for a “major update”.
Incidentally, in case you’re interested, the version of 105 on my bike (shown in the photos in this post) is 5700 (the 10-speed ‘2011 groupset’, released in 2010 (!???!)).
What Are The Key Differences Between Shimano 105 and Shimano Tiagra
Well, for me, there are two key differences and a few minor ones. Starting with the big kahunas:
Number of Gears (or Speeds)
The current and the prior versions of Shimano 105 are 11-speed groupsets. The cassette has 11 cogs/sprockets of varying sizes, offering a total of 22 different gears (because you generally have two chainrings at the front), although not all of them are useful.
Shimano Tiagra is firmly a 10-speed system, reducing the number of potential gearing combinations by two.
This may or may not be a problem for you. There is a marginal benefit in having an extra rear gear. The progression through the gears is smoother with smaller ‘leaps in hardness’ (another technical term). And, like Dave Brailsford, we’re all for the accumulation of marginal gains.
As far as my tuppensworth goes, I’ve never had a problem riding 10-speed Shimano 105, and I ride in a particularly pointy part of the UK (the Peak District). And I am not the owner of the strongest pair of legs by any means.
You can buy a Tiagra cassette that goes up to 34 teeth on the largest sprocket. As part of a compact chainset, this will be able to get you up even the most offensively-steep of ascents.
Still, some people are always going to want more gears. If you want 11 of them, then you’ll need to go with 105 (or Ultegra or Dura-Ace).
Price (It Always Comes Down To Money)
The most notable difference between 105 and Tiagra is probably the price. They both do the same job and they do it effectively. They are both durable and reliable.
You can find plenty of people online that extol the virtues of the cheaper option. There is enough noise to believe that this isn’t solely down to a desire to get one up on higher-spending (Ineos-Grenadiers-kit-wearing*) cycling brethren
The price difference if you’re buying a groupset on its own (i.e. not as part of a bike purchase) is surprisingly small. A cursory search (and this blog is built on cursory searches) suggests you can purchase the new 105 set for an inner tube less than £500 ($625), whilst the Tiagra groupset (the disc brake version) is at £450 ($560).
For those who are hard of maths, that’s a saving (or additional cost) of ~£50.
But… most people don’t buy a groupset on its own. They buy it as part of a new (or second hand) bike. The price differential tends to reflect throughout the full bike, as one equipped with 105 is likely to be slightly higher ‘specced’ in terms of wheels and other finishing gear.
For new bike purchases then, you will tend to see Tiagra specced on models priced at less than £1,250 (or on carbon frames a touch above that price level). 105 is generally found on bikes priced from £1,250–2,000, although the waters are slightly muddied by whether a bike comes with rim brakes or disc brakes (with the latter tending to bump up the price).
A Few Other Random Differences
(Other than the fact Tiagra doesn’t have that ‘R’ we talked about.)
Shimano 105, like Dura-Ace and Ultegra, only features integrated brakes/shifters for drop handlebars. The Tiagra range includes shifters and brake levers for flat handlebars (i.e. that sit parallel to the handlebars).
You can also buy Tiagra with a triple crankset, three chainrings (50-, 39- and 30-teeth) that, along with the 10-speed cassette, provide 30 gearing combinations. The 105 system, like most higher end groupsets, is only available with two chainrings at the front.
Whilst a third chainring adds weight, and many of the added gear combinations will be similar to those that you’d get on a 20-speed system, the smallest 30-tooth chainring will provide a couple more very easy gears. If you have a cassette that goes beyond 30 teeth, that means you’ll have one or two combos with a ratio below 1. Very useful if you want to ease yourself up those steeper slopes.
(If you want to know more about gear ratios – who doesn’t!?! – check out my post on the subject.)
The Trickledown Effect…
… Is not just what happens after an all-out effort to get up that final hill.
It’s also what happens, year after year, as a company updates its product ranges.
Just as we’ll all no doubt have windscreen head up displays in our 2022 Kia Ceed, today’s groupsets inherit features from their higher-priced cousins of yesteryear.
The raft of improvements in the current 105 groupset (lighter, less bulky lever hoods; ability to run an 11-34 cassette; redesign of the rear derailleur to give it more ground clearance) weren’t that long ago added to Shimano’s Dura-Ace and Ultegra offerings.
In a previous version of this post, I noted that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012 riding Dura-Ace (although perhaps it was the non-Shimano assymetric chain rings that made all the difference). By 2015, everyone riding a bike with the new Shimano 105 groupset was effectively riding with the same tech.
All of which is to say, as 105 becomes more like (the previous) Ultegra as each generation goes by, so Tiagra gets improvements in line with the Shimano 105 groupsets of old.
But What Do They Look Like (And Is It Easy To Tell The Difference)?
Ah yes. Now we’re getting into the most important topic. We all want our bike, and how it looks, to say something about us as a rider and our velo prowess (what? you don’t? just me then?).
I wouldn’t say it’s keeping me up at night, but visually the version of Shimano 105 on my bike makes clear that it is not the current version. Indeed, those in the know would recognise it as being from the generation before last:
Nowadays, and perhaps this is a reflection of the ‘trickledown’ effect, the R7000 version of the 105 crankset looks very much like the current generation of Dura-Ace and Ultegra. SirMadam will note the 4-arm design and the chunky crank flavours.
If we compare this to the current generation Tiagra 4700 crankset, you will see…
… that the visuals are very similar. Certainly compared to my version of 105.
Now actually, the Tiagra looks very similar to the previous generation of 105 (5800 – no ‘R’) and Ultegra (6800 – no… you get the picture).
But apart from the fact that Tiagra is written on the crank arm (I’m sure a liberal application of mud could mask this), the casual observer would be hard pushed to tell the difference from recent higher end models.
You’ll note that in this section I’m not talking about other aspects of the groupset: the rear derailleur, the gear/brake levers, the bottom bracket. I’m a reasonably enthusiastic road cyclist and there is no chance I’d be able to tell the differences between model ranges on these components.
As far as the visuals go, it’s all about the crankset (or chainset, depending on your geographical persuasion).
A Word About New Versions And Replacement Parts
Without wishing to sound like a broken (Strava personal) record, we all know by now that I have 10-speed Shimano 105, a range that was launched getting on for 10 years ago.
Despite that, I have absolutely no problem getting replacement components: cassettes, derailleurs, chain rings.
I can still buy official 5700 parts (the number for my version of 105). I assume Shimano is still making them, even if it isn’t selling them as a complete groupset.
As a 10-speed system, I can also use compatible components from other 10-speed Shimano groupsets: Ultegra 6700 and, yes, current version 4700 Tiagra (indeed I just bought a Tiagra cassette because it had the range of sprockets I wanted). I just need to be careful around chain rings.
This is not the post to go into which bits are compatible with what.
But I do want to make the point that if you are choosing between current 105 or Tiagra, you don’t need to worry about access to components in the future. The user base for both is so vast that it’ll continue to be served by Shimano making replacement parts to serve the aftermarket for many years to come. There will always be a solution here (that feels like a bold statement…).
How Do You Decide Between Tiagra and 105?
If we’re talking about a new bike specification, the choice of gears is not made in isolation. Tiagra often finds itself on an entry-level steed; 105 starts to present itself further up the price spectrum. Tiagra will be allied to other entry-level equipment (the wheels, frame material, saddle).
If you’re looking to spend $1,000/£750 on a bike with 105 (which probably isn’t possible anyway), the manufacturer will have to have cut costs when it comes to the frame and wheels. There is no point having a marginally-improved set of gears if your wheels were made by a blacksmith.
If we’re at the $1,300/£1,000 level and there is a choice between two bikes from good quality manufacturers, one with 105 and one with Tiagra, I’d be minded to select the Tiagra one, on the basis that it’s more likely to have a better frame and other components (though you’d want to check).
If you have a budget of $2,000 – $2,200 /£1,500 – £1,700 then you’re likely to see 105 gearing installed on a good quality carbon frame with wheels and finishing components of a similar level. Stepping down to Tiagra on a mid-range bike like this is unlikely to be worth it.
Applying the savings you make to other areas of the bike won’t get you much of an upgrade. The only caveat to this might be where a manufacturer has used cheaper wheels to bring the bike in on budget (which is common) – spending extra to upgrade the wheels is probably something you would feel the benefit of.
Should You Upgrade From Tiagra To 105?
Maybe. But with a few provisos.
If you have a $650/£500 bike that you bought off the shelf (strong shelf), that wasn’t really sized correctly and doesn’t really fit (essentially the story of my first road bike purchase), then don’t upgrade your gears. Save your pennies and buy a bike that gets all the fundamentals right.
If, on the other hand, you have a frame you’re happy with (perhaps you’ve had it professionally fitted) and you’re starting to think about replacing bits of your drive train, then I think an upgrade to 105 makes a lot of sense.
According to Cycling Weekly, the R7000 generation 105 is so similar to Ultegra in performance that the only thing counting against it anymore is that the name doesn’t carry the same ‘cool factor’. To a certain segment of the population, choosing performance and value, eschewing the bling brand name is in itself a badge of honour. The difference in weight for the full groupset is in the order of 174g (less than the weight of a third full water bottle). The key point is that for 99% of the riding population, 105 will perform admirably.
A word of caution though before pulling the upgrade trigger (typing in your credit card details). Dissatisfaction with the performance of your current gearing set up could be down to maintenance.
I recently overhauled my Domane, in particular fitting new gear and brake cables, and the improvement in ‘shifting crispiness’ (technical term – I guess I could have said ‘precision’) is light and day versus how it used to perform. I’m delighted with it (even if it is an old groupset…). The experience has dispelled any dark thoughts I had about upgrading bits of it to Ultegra. Perhaps a lesson for wider application.
Have You Ridden 105 AND Tiagra? What Say You?
My experience with Tiagra gears (particularly the recent generation) is limited. My old Dawes chugs along on an odd mix of Campagnolo components, made at some point in the Dark Ages (early 2000s).
I’ve been very happy with the 105 groupset on my Domane.
Is there anyone out there with experience of both sets? Or who is a massive fan of their Tiagra and wouldn’t swap it for all the EPO in a Spanish pharmacy?
Let me know in the comments below.