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What’s the difference between Shimano's road groupsets?

Joseph Delves
10 Sep 2021

Groupsets Explained: We look at the differences between all of Shimano’s road bike groupsets

Shimano makes a vast range of groupsets. The term groupset generally refers to the parts on any bike that operate its gears and brakes, although they can include other items. Most commonly, a single groupset will supply the bike’s drivetrain (derailleurs, chain, cassette, crankset, bottom bracket), combined shift and brake levers, along with the brakes themselves.

Covering thousands of different component options, all these parts are grouped into different tiers. At the top, you have the Dura-Ace groupset, as ubiquitous on bikes at the Tour de France, all the way down to the Claris groupset found on entry-level road bikes costing a fraction of the price. This hierarchy means the groupset a bike uses is often employed as shorthand for where it sits in its maker’s range.

What’s the difference?

More expensive groupsets will tend to have more gears, better brakes, and offer lower weight. That said, many groupsets share technology, so key areas like braking power are often standardised across several tiers. Below you’ll find a quick explanation of each of Shimano’s major road bike groupsets, along with a list of its key features and variants.

Every Shimano road groupset compared... 

Dura-Ace

Verdict: The best of the best. The electronic-only Dura-Ace groupset is very expensive yet almost identical to the cheaper Ultegra version.

RRP: Dura-Ace R9270 (Di2 Disc without power meter): £3,632
Cassette: 12-speed
Largest sprocket: 34t
Shifting: Electronic only
Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional calliper

The best road bike components Shimano makes. As light as possible, they’re focused on racing and very expensive. The same you’ll see used by professionals at the elite level, their price/performance ratio is tipped firmly in the latter’s direction. This is also where you’ll tend to see the latest features introduced.

Recently updated, this dedication to new technology means the latest Dura-Ace R9200 groupset is available only with Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting. Also upgraded to 12-speed, it’s still aimed at fast riding, yet now also includes some more user-friendly features. Key among these is its ability to accommodate a large 34t rear sprocket, letting less-than-pro riders make it over steep or extended climbs.

Unlike former Di2 products, the system is now semi-wireless. This means that the shifters communicate to the derailleurs without cables. Making for clean and easy installation, both derailleurs are still linked to a single central battery to provide the power for shifting.

Charged via a single port using a micro-USB cable, Shimano claims most riders will manage over 1,000km before needing to recharge. While mechanical shifting might have got the chop, unlike its rival groupset-maker Sram, Shimano has decided to provide both disc brake and conventional calliper versions of its Dura-Ace groupset. A groupset with an incredible range of race-specific options, these include a dual-sided power meter, along with an oversized 54/40t crankset for fast and flat stages.

Read more about the launch of the new Dura-Ace groupset here

For Dura-Ace groupsets and parts, see Freewheel here.

Ultegra

Verdict: If you want Shimano electronic shifting, buy this. All the critical functionality of Dura-Ace at a more moderate price.

RRP: R8170 (Di2 Disc without power meter) £2,370
Cassette: 12-speed
Largest sprocket: 34t
Shifting: Electronic only
Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional calliper

Shimano surprised many people when it released the newest Ultegra groupset at the same time as it did Dura-Ace. Always closely linked, with this latest update, the two groupsets are now almost inseparable when it comes to functionality.

Both are electronic only, both use semi-wireless connectivity, both have 12-speed cassettes, and both offer options covering hydraulic disc brakes or conventional callipers. As has always been the case, despite a reduced price, Ultegra is still very much a racing groupset. In fact, it’s not unusual to see pro teams using Ultegra components, either to save money or to make up a few grams and hit the UCI’s minimum bicycle weight limit of 6.8kg.

However, weight is another area where the two groupsets are again now more closely aligned. With tiny gram savings on almost every component, spending the extra £1,300 or so to level up to Dura-Ace will only bag you a cumulative reduction of less than 300g. Not enough to sandbag anyone’s racing dreams, add in the ever-present possibility of having to replace a crash-damaged component, and Ultegra might be the real racers’ groupset.

So to reiterate, braking and shifting performance is exactly the same as that found on Dura-Ace. You also now get the option to spec a dual-sided crank-based power meter, plus Ultegra now has a new range of matching carbon wheels, just like Dura-Ace. You don’t get the same racing-only 54/40t crankest option, but you can always swap on in; otherwise, the available ratios are now the same too.

Read more about the launch of the Ultegra groupset here

Get Shimano Ultegra now from Wiggle here

GRX

Verdict: A versatile gravel groupset with additional gearing and brake options that will appeal to other styles of rider too

Cassette: 10 or 11-speed
Largest sprocket: 42t
Shifting: Mechanical only
Brakes: Hydraulic disc only

A slight curveball in Shimano’s lineup. The GRX groupset is explicitly designed for gravel bikes, although its features will also appeal to touring cyclists and cyclocross racers. Sitting somewhere between 105 and Ultegra in terms of quality, it borrows liberally from Shimano’s road and mountain bike ranges. But what sets it apart? For one thing, it’s only available to work with hydraulic disc brakes. It also comes in versions based around either single or double chainring cranksets.

In terms of gearing, these cranksets can be paired to either a ten or 11-speed cassette. The GRX groupset’s rear derailleurs are also unique in accommodating very wide cassettes up to 11-42t. Allowing incredibly easy spinning gears for off-road adventuring, the rear derailleurs also include a clutch mechanism that stops the chain from rattling around and detaching itself on bumpy ground. Many other features are tweaked to work better with bigger tyres and wilder conditions. For instance, the front derailleur and cranksets are designed to provide better clearance when used alongside wider tyres.

Stealing technology from Shimano’s mountain bike products, the brakes are also more potent than other groups to match the traction provided by most gravel bikes. There are also unique features like in-line brake levers, which can be added to the top of the handlebars. Cut into the hydraulic brake lines, they provide a second position from which to brake. The ergonomics of both sets of levers have also been tweaked for off-road use. Rugged and reliable, it’s not afraid of a bit of mud either.

Read our review of the 12-speed Di2 GRX groupset here

To buy Shimano GRX, see Freewheel here.

105

Verdict: Shimano’s default mechanical groupset. Good value and very functional. It’s nevertheless probably due an update soon.

Cassette: 11-speed
Largest sprocket: 34t
Shifting: Mechanical
Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional calliper

The workhorse in the Shimano range, and what moderately snobby people consider the first proper road bike groupset (real snobs will say it’s Ultegra). With its richer sibling having gone electric, 105 has been left carrying the flag for mechanical shifting. Significantly cheaper than its electric rivals, it does have to make do with just 11 sprockets. Despite this, we think it’s an excellent groupset and outstanding value. Again available in disc or conventional calliper versions, 105 is, of course, a bit heavier than either Ultegra, but only by around 200g in most configurations.

Things get a bit confusing depending if you compare 105 to the soon to be discontinued Ultegra mechanical groupset or its new electronic guise. Things like the way the brakes work or the hollow construction of the crankest and chainrings are essentially similar, while the ratios available and the maximum largest rear sprocket are now also pretty much identical. However, in terms of the non-electric parts, you’re often getting slight downgrades in terms of missing out on particular treatments or other small touches.

Still, for anyone that doesn’t want to switch to more expensive electronic shifting, 105 represents a safe haven. However, released in 2018, it probably isn’t too far off a refresh. If we were the type to speculate, we might expect an electronic option, plus some wider gearing ratios to appear in the next few years. Historically the difference between 105 and Ultegra has been one of minor differences in feeling and refinement, now comparing it to Shimano’s electronic groupsets means there are considerable differences to point out. In future, who knows?

Get Shimano 105 from Wiggle now

Tiagra

Verdict: More capable than the snobs let on. With hydraulic disc and wide-ratios, it’s a competent if slightly heavy groupset.

Cassette: 10-speed
Largest sprocket: 34t
Electronic version: No
Brakes: Hydraulic disc or conventional calliper

Compared to previous years, Tiagra components look great. Allowing less expensive bikes to copy the appearance of top-end bikes, many of the features from Shimano’s groupsets also carry over. Let’s first look at what you don’t get. Tiagra is 10-speed only, so you get a sprocket less than 105 and two less than Ultegra and Dura-Ace.

However, Tiagra is the level where you start to see more weird and wonderful gearing options. Stick to a standard double crankset and you’ll get the conventional choice of pro-compact 52/36t, compact 50/34t, or easy spinning sub-compact 48/34t. There’s also the option to fit a triple crankset with three rings and a matching front shifter to unlock an even more comprehensive range of gears.

Of course, with only ten sprockets at the back, the jumps between gears will be more significant, but the range you can attain is the same or bigger. All of this means that Tiagra is a versatile groupset that’s great on a cheap racing bike but can also handle lots of other duties. As we continue to slide down the hierarchy, most components put on a bit of weight. Solid rather than hollow, the crankset is a particular offender, adding just under 200g.

Some less glamorous components also get downgraded. For instance, the durable bottom bracket found on the 105 and Ultegra groupsets is jettisoned for one that’s a similar weight but less robust. The ‘shadow’ design that allows the rear derailleur to closely follow the cassette on posher groupsets is also absent. Happily, other functions like the operation and power of the hydraulic disc or conventional calliper brakes remain faultless.

For Tiagra groupsets, see Wiggle here

Sora

Verdict: Gaps between the nine gears begin to tell, and no hydraulic disc option. Still, Sora works well and looks the business.

Cassette: 9-speed
Largest sprocket: 34t
Electronic version: No
Brakes: Cable disc or conventional calliper

Closing in on the entry-level, Shimano’s Sora groupset uses nine sprockets on the rear. Still accommodating cassettes with cogs of up to 34t, you’ll get an extensive range of gears if you want them, although the jumps between each might unsettle performance-focused riders. While the groupset can be constructed with either conventional callipers or disc brakes, its shifters are exclusively mechanical. This means that you can only use them with cable-actuated rather than hydraulic brakes. Resulting in less sharp stopping if you go down the disc route, the system’s regular rim brakes are still excellent.

Obviously, the weight of all the components again goes up slightly. Still, it’s worth noting that the total effect is only a couple of hundred grams vs Tiagra, while the whole assemblage generally is still within an incredibly respectable distance of Shimano’s top-end groupsets. It’s a fact that means, if you boil it down to pure physics, the amount you save with each push up the hierarchy comes with diminishing returns.

Of course, there are some drawbacks besides the lack of sprockets, cable-only levers, and slightly increased weight. Aimed at marginally more leisurely users, the single 50/34t crankset option won’t suit racers. The system’s ergonomics aren’t quite as nice in the hand, while the action of the levers is a little more agricultural. At the same time, the durability of components like the chain, bottom bracket, and cassette remains excellent.

For Sora parts, see here

Claris

Verdict: A great introduction. Claris lacks some key features and can vary in how it’s assembled, yet offers reliable quality.

Cassette: 9-speed
Largest sprocket: 32t
Electronic version: No
Brakes: Cable disc or conventional calliper

The cheapest groupset Shimano make with integrated ‘dual control’ levers, the 8-speed Claris groupset is a dependable entry-level option. Updated a few years ago, not only do its shifters follow the same basic configuration as that found across the whole Shimano racing range, but their cables also run cleanly underneath the handlebar tape. Resulting in an extremely clean look, especially if you opt for the version without the slightly pointless gear indicator windows, they’re a great addition to any budget-friendly bicycle.

However, elsewhere many technologies found across other Shimano groupsets fall away. For instance, although the crankset still comes in a two-piece design with an external bottom bracket, you might find your bike fitted with a more lumpen three-piece formation using a square taper or Octalink bottom bracket. The slack of rear cogs also starts to impact the gearing range. The largest rear sprocket drops to a 32t, meaning if you want to go for a wide range of gears, you’ll need to use a more cumbersome triple front crankset.

Depending on the configuration, weight jumps are noticeable, while you’ll again be restricted to cable operated discs or conventional calliper brakes. If you elect to run calliper brakes, you’ll still benefit from Shimano’s excellent dual-pivot design, which is streets ahead of anything else on the market. Obviously, things are clunkier, but having dropped five levels from Dura-Ace, perhaps what’s most surprising is how much remains familiar.

How does each groupset compare with its immediate neighbour?

In a kind of groupset top trumps, we’ve listed the main differences between each groupset and its nearest neighbour in Shimano’s hierarchy. Helping you decide whether it’s worth spending a little extra or saving your pennies to spend elsewhere, here’s how they match up.

Dura-Ace vs Ultegra

Now with all the same features and only 300g difference in weight, it’s pretty hard to think of legitimate reasons you’d benefit from choosing Dura-Ace outside of WorldTour level competition. From a raw physics point of view, you’ll save a tiny bit of mass, while the profile of some parts is marginally more aerodynamic.

However, with the brakes and electronic shifting functioning in precisely the same way, a blindfolded tester would struggle to tell them apart. Part of the cost is probably recouping the firm’s development expenditure, plus some people will always want the very best regardless of the price. Still, Ultegra is by far the winner when it comes to cost/benefit analysis.

Ultegra vs 105

If the difference between the latest electronic-only 12-speed Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets is now minuscule, the gap between Ultrgra and 105 has become a chasm. For one, it’s now a case of electronic vs mechanical shifting. Leaving 105 trailing technologically, it’s nevertheless given it a massive leg up in terms of comparative affordability. Plus, it’s not just Luddites that aren’t entirely sold on mechanical shifting. However, sticking to the old ways will see you lose out on the much lusted-after 12th sprocket found on Ultergra. There’s also the 200-300g of extra weight to be reconciled. However, in terms of mechanical function, the basic design of many components is still quite similar. These include elements like the ‘shadow plus’ derailleur design and the way the disc brakes work.

105 vs Tiagra

Pretty closely related, the mechanical Tiagra groupset drops a sprocket compared to 105. With ten gears at the back, this leaves the resulting jumps a bit larger. Less solely focused on road racing, there’s actually a more diverse range of parts to pick from. However, most suffer a little relative to their more expensive peers. This sees the rear derailleur employ a more basic design, while the shifters are a tad less ergonomic. Also, although the hydraulic disc brakes are excellent, you lose out on small touches like replaceable insert pads if you opt for conventional calliper brakes. When taken all together, Tiagra is only a bit heavier than 105, although some components like the crankset are notably lardy versus those on the more expensive groupset.

Tiagra Vs Sora

Maybe it’s the fact that its top two groupsets have gone electric, but both Tiagra and Sora are looking quite spruce these days. Of course, by the time you get down to Sora, you’re looking at 9-speed, which rich roadies first got their hands on in 1996. However, other valuable features have trickled down faster, one of which is the 11-34t maximum cassette range.

This means you’ll be able to find gears to get up most hills, even if the gaps between them will be quite chunky. In common with Tiagra, Sora carries quite a bit of weight in the cassette and crankset; not that this is annoying, we’re mentioning it more to point out that there’s little benefit to upgrading these parts a single tier.

Sora vs Claris

Offering quite a range of different fitments, the Claris groupset can be built up in many ways. It does a passing imitation of the more expensive Sora in its most racing-style format, albeit with an 8-speed cassette and a slightly reduced range of ratios.

However, if it comes made up with some alternative parts, you could lose out on the light and stiff two-piece crankset and end up with unnecessarily bulky shifters with gear indicators that disfigured their otherwise clean lines. Still very competent for an entry-level groupset regardless of how it arrives, durability is excellent, even if the operation is slightly clunky.

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