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Shifting is pretty damn good these days. When everything is properly set up and well maintained, you’re able to shift without having to think or worry about it. And that brilliant shifting isn’t exclusive to the most expensive groupsets, either. Most of us would continue to enjoy cycling if we were forced to ride Tiagra.
Many of us often insist on having the best, often because we believe we need it, but if we’re honest, it’s simply because we can.
Sitting at the second tier, Shimano’s Ultegra may be viewed as a mid-range groupset to those that use Dura-Ace, and yet, it remains easily good enough for professional racing. It’s common to find Ultegra used on the training and backup bikes of Pro Continental teams, or the race bikes of Continental outfits.
In a day and age where most new bikes being released seem to mix hydraulic disc brakes and electronic shifting, it seems odd that tech writer Dave Rome would spend nearly a year testing “old” technology such as a mechanical rim brake groupset. However, it’s going to be many years until disc brakes are the most common sight on the road, and more so, mechanical shifting isn’t going away.
With Dura-Ace being the top dog in Shimano’s range, and 105 holding the title as the “workhorse”, it’s Ultegra that holds the reputation as being the performance groupset of the masses. Has Shimano retained such status in its new R8000 offering? This sample of Shimano’s latest Ultegra mechanical groupset, R8000, has spent the past 11 months covered in grit, dust and mud while gravel riding, and was then trialled on a road bike too.
Spoiler alert: it’s seriously good.
New R8000 in a nutshell
Running on an approximate three-year product lifecycle, the latest generation of Ultegra was released in time for the 2018 season. Including the new options of hydraulic disc brakes, there’s a total of four different groupsets variants on offer. Ultegra R8000 (as reviewed) and R8020 each feature mechanical shifting: the former is paired with cable-activated rim brakes while the latter is designed for hydraulic disc brakes. As a consequence, the brake/shifters for R8000 and R8020 are unique designs with slightly different hood dimensions, however, both employ the same gear-shifter mechanism and parts.
The other two variants — R8050 and R8070 — are Di2 (electronic) groupsets paired with rim brakes and hydraulic disc brakes, respectively. Once again, the brake/shifters are purpose-built for each braking system. Importantly, every variant adopts many of the innovations and refinements first seen for Dura-Ace R9100.
The finer details have been covered before and so I won’t rehash them, but let me cover the basics of what’s new in Ultegra R8000. Shifter ergonomics are refined, gear range choices are further broadened and expanded well beyond the options of Dura-Ace (with a wide 11-34T cassette now available), brake calipers are improved, and derailleur designs are substantially different to previous generations, too. The cassette (except for new size options), bottom bracket and chain are pretty much unchanged from Ultegra 6800.
Weight wise, a complete groupset of R8000 (with rim brakes) is 39g heavier than its predecessor, with the derailleurs, brake calipers and shifters carrying the extra mass, while the new asymmetric crankset saves a few grams.
Worthy of note: the new R8000 components are all cross-compatible with the previous 6800 generation and just about any other Shimano 11-speed mechanical groupset. This means that if you’re on a recent 11-speed Shimano road groupset, you can mix and match many of the components reviewed here.
Why Ultegra is so much cheaper than Dura-Ace
From afar, if it weren’t for the grey aesthetic, Ultegra R8000 would look near identical to Dura-Ace. The price difference between the two is stark: at suggested retail, you’re looking at US$2,219 / AU$2,590 for Dura-Ace R9100, versus US$1,094 / AU$1,499 for Ultegra R8000. Speak to many in the industry and they’ll tell you Ultegra is simply made of cheaper and therefore heavier materials, and that’s where the price difference is. This is certainly true, to a degree, but there’s more to it.
At approximately 300g between Dura-Ace R9100 and Ulegra R8000, the difference in mass isn’t nearly as great as the differential in cost. No doubt, Dura-Ace’s use of titanium, carbon fibre and magnesium — where Ultegra uses aluminium and steel — accounts for some of the difference. However, the biggest difference is in the extra finishing time Dura-Ace receives: Some parts are further machined; some finishes are finer; moving components are made smoother and often with more precise bushings or even bearings; and likely, tolerances are tighter, too.
On the road, the difference is subtle, at best. A sensitive rider may feel a little less shift effort in Dura-Ace. However, for most, the shifting will feel the same. Dura-Ace’s additional friction-beating Sil-Tec chain coatings or smoother derailleur jockey wheels may be felt in the hand, but again, few could tell the difference in a blind test or on the road.
Whether the differences are noticeable or not, what’s clear is that the tighter construction, hidden bearings and more advanced finishing on Dura-Ace will outperform that of Ultegra as time goes by. This has always been the case through many past generations. Where Dura-Ace and Ultegra will often feel near identical when new, it’s Dura-Ace that retains that same feeling many years down the track, whereas Ultegra shifters and other moving components will typically feel a touch less positive.
Now that’s not to say Ultegra isn’t durable; far from it. This groupset is built to handle abuse on a gravel bike, and it’ll laugh off whatever you put it through on the road.
I tested R8000 in various different gearing formats, but most of my time was spent using it on a gravel bike with a compact crank (50-34T), long cage rear derailleur and 11-34T cassette. The rim brake calipers were tested separately after the groupset was installed on a road bike.
As expected, the assembly process is well considered, but derailleur setup is a little trickier, or at least different, than generations past. For example, the rear derailleur uses its own (included) piece of highly flexible housing and so the old housing loop from the chainstay is now more direct. Likewise, the new front derailleur design sees the cable tension adjustment integrated and controlled with a hex key at the derailleur itself, but looping the cable through the pinch bolt is a fiddle on first go.
From the get-go, R8000 revealed a familiar feeling to that of Dura-Ace. Smooth, consistent and near-silent gear changes with each click of the lever, and that didn’t change during the testing period.
The updated hood shape is something I got on with well. It’s not too different to 6800, but there’s greater grip from the textured rubber hood cover. In turn, you get a more secure hold with less hand tension.
Shimano claims that the shift lever throw is now shorter, offering a more immediate shift. It’s not majorly noticeable from 6800 but the change in lever shape is obvious. The greater outward flare at the brake levers improves bar clearance with small hands and also feels more natural during one-finger braking. Likewise, the downshift paddle that sits behind the brake lever is larger and easier to shift.
Where Dura-Ace just offers a short cage derailleur and a maximum cassette size of 30T, Ultegra has all the choice. A big part of the new Ultegra is versatility. In addition to the regular choice of compact, semi-compact or regular chainrings, Shimano offer cassettes ranging from 11-25T through to 11-34T, the latter HG-800 cassette being something I’ve reviewed separately. If you choose a cassette between 25-30T, then the regular GS short-cage rear derailleur is the pick. If you’re using the 11-32 or 11-34T, Shimano suggests using the long-cage GS derailleur.
Speaking of the R8000 derailleur, the new low-profile shadow design is something Shimano borrowed from its mountain bike lineup. It’s less likely to get damaged in a crash or from a bike toppling over and is ready for use with the newer direct-mount dropout design if your frame offers such a thing. Functionally, it retains Shimano’s silky smooth shift operation, and at least to me, has more positive (stronger) springs which lead to a marginally snappier-feeling shift. Likewise, chain retention is improved, most notably over rough terrain, and there’s noticeably less noise as well. Despite riding some questionable terrain, I never suffered a dropped chain.
Since my testing began, Shimano added its Ultegra RX rear derailleur options for additional chain security on cyclocross or gravel bikes – furthering the versatility of the Ultegra lineup. The new derailleur options add chain security through the addition of a clutch mechanism. It’s always nice to have the choice, but the new RX version should only be selected if you’re planning on tackling rough off-road terrain. If you’re sticking on tarmac or even light gravel, you’ll be perfectly happy with the regular R8000 derailleur, which happens to be cheaper and 38g lighter, too.
The new front derailleur receives the most obvious overhaul. The new design allows for increased tyre clearance, a more positive shift and, best of all, simple cable tension adjustment without having to resort to an ugly inline barrel adjuster. Once setup, front shifting in conjunction with Shimano’s chainrings is undisputedly the market benchmark – nobody matches Shimano’s front shift quality.
However, Shimano does retain the need to trim the front derailleur in extreme gears. This is controlled via the micro clicks in the left shift lever, and just like my colleague James Huang stated in his review of Dura-Ace R9100, I too prefer SRAM’s Yaw derailleur which all but removes the need for such manual adjustment as you shift through the rear block.
Shimano’s HollowTech forged aluminium cranks are also a gold standard. They’re super stiff, extremely reliable, easy to service and competitive on the scales.
It’s not all roses though, and Shimano is stubborn when it comes to accepting various frame fitments. In their minds, 24mm spindles and either BB86 or threaded bottom brackets are the gold standard – and everything else is inferior. While I commend such a firm stance, the reality is that a huge number of bikes have moved to larger bottom bracket types, and in these cases, you’re forced to find an aftermarket bottom bracket solution to fit Shimano cranks. Thankfully such things are plentiful, and while rarely as good value as Shimano bottom brackets, it has become a non-issue.
As much as the new Ultegra is about versatility, Shimano still lacks a more adventure-friendly sub-compact or similar chainring setup. Sizes such as 32/48T are becoming increasingly common on modern gravel bikes and, as it stands, bike manufacturers are still forced to look outside of Shimano’s catalogue for such options.
Speaking of sizes, Ultegra is available in a generous range of crank lengths, but Dura-Ace is superior if you need specific crank lengths outside of the normal bell curve.
All of those things can be easily forgiven but Shimano still hides one glaring issue: cable wear. The tight cable bend in the shifter, along with the use of a slightly thicker 1.2mm cable (SRAM uses a more pliable 1.1mm cable), means Shimano still has not fixed its long-standing issue of fraying inner cables with extensive use.
In my 11 interrupted months of testing this groupset, I didn’t get to the point of experiencing this with my sample, but I have witnessed it on other bikes of a similar age. From what I’ve seen, new R9100 or R8000 is better at preserving cables than previous generations, but the issue does remain.
Thankfully the fix is a relatively cheap and easy one: replace your cables every 12 months, as is generally good to do, and you’ll never experience this issue. If such maintenance sounds unacceptable, then there’s always Di2.
On the topic of cables, Shimano does ultra-slick cables well, but not without issue. The slick coating given to the inner cables still has a tendency to fray and gunk up. While they suffer from more friction when new, the cheaper stainless steel cables are sure to last longer.
Finally, there are the newly updated rim brake calipers. These continue Shimano’s legacy of offering benchmark rim brake calipers with a stiff, secure and smooth lever feel. While heavier and using a few bushings in place of Dura-Ace’s bearings, the power is otherwise the same as the top-tier offering (largely due to the same brake pads provided with both).
The dual-pivot calipers are slightly modified from the previous generation, offering a sleeker aesthetic and a stiffer, albeit heavier, build. This extra mass results in an ever-so-slightly stiffer feel at the lever, and on the road, it rewards you with even more secure braking. The brake quick-release is now tucked away too, but no longer indexes: it’s now either open or closed.
As another benefit, the new calipers offer a touch more tyre clearance than those from the 6800 group — they’re now designed to work with up to 28c rubber.