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Buyer’s guide to Shimano road and gravel groupsets

A complete guide to the Shimano groupset hierarchy with key differences explained

Joseph Delves
26 Jul 2022

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, 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 Shimano groupset should I buy?

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... 

Shimano Dura-Ace R9200: Flagship race groupset

Photo: Matthew Loveridge

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 cable rim

Launched in 2021, these are the best road bike components Shimano makes. Designed to be as light as possible, R9200-series Dura-Ace is focussed on racing and it’s very expensive.

The groupset you’ll see used by professionals at the elite level, Dura-Ace's value/performance ratio is tipped firmly in the latter’s direction – this is the money-no-object option. This is also where you’ll tend to see the latest features introduced.

This dedication to new technology means the latest Dura-Ace R9200 groupset is available only with Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting.

Photo: Matthew Loveridge 

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 34-tooth 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.

Photo: Matthew Loveridge

While mechanical shifting might have got the chop, unlike its rival groupset-maker SRAM, Shimano has decided to provide both disc brake and rim brake 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 54/40 crankset for fast and flat stages.

Shimano Ultegra R8100: Best buy for racers

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 cable rim

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 indistinguishable from one another 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 weight savings on almost every component, spending the extra £1,300 or so to level up to Dura-Ace will add up to a cumulative reduction of less than 300g.

That’s not enough to sandbag anyone’s racing dreams, and when you add in the ever-present possibility of having to replace a crash-damaged component, Ultegra might be the real racer’s groupset.

So to reiterate, braking and shifting performance is exactly the same as that of 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 54/40 crankest option, but you can always swap one in. Otherwise, the available ratios are now the same too.

Shimano 105 R7100: Electronic shifting at a (somewhat) sensible price

Verdict: With 12-sprockets and semi-wireless electronic shifting, there’s little to separate 105 from its peers except for weight

  • RRP: 105 R7100: approx £1,700
  • Cassette: 12-speed
  • Largest sprocket: 36t
  • Shifting: Electronic only
  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc only

Always thought of as a workhorse, 2022 saw the launch of a Di2 version of what many consider the first ‘proper’ road groupset in Shimano’s hierarchy.

Bringing over wholesale most of Ultegra and Dura-Ace’s essential features, it boasts 12-speed cassettes and semi-wireless electronic shifting. 105 R7100 is also the first Shimano groupset to completely kill off conventional caliper brakes.

Barging into a space formerly annexed by SRAM Rival,

The new 105 is a direct competitor for SRAM Rival eTap AXS, another option for budget-focused riders who still consider themselves too posh to push their own derailleurs.

While the trend for off-road riding hasn’t totally passed 105 by, like its bigger siblings, 105 R7100 remains a road-focused groupset. At the same time, its single rear derailleur option can now work with cassettes as wide as 11-36.

Combining with a compact crankset to provide a sub 1:1 ratio, this should be ideal for those with entry-level fitness or who like to venture off the tarmac.

The first of its groupsets to swap wholesale to disc, Shimano claims to have tweaked the brakes to provide a ‘lighter, smoother lever action and expanded control’, along with less rubbing and easier bleeding.

While this hasn’t been achieved using Shimano’s well-regarded ‘Servo Wave’ technology, which alters the leverage ratio as you pull the brake, almost every other facet of the group will be familiar to Ultegra or Dura-Ace users.

These include the only slightly revised shape of the components and ergonomic interfaces. The semi-wireless cabling that sees both derailleurs connected to a central battery but then communicating wirelessly with the cockpit also carries over.

Weight is one key area of difference. At around 3,000g for the complete groupset, this is about 300g more than the significantly pricier Ultegra.

There’s no native power meter option, but 105 Di2 gets a matching range of wheelsets. These are non-series, i.e. at the same level but not strictly part of the groupset, and they feature all-carbon rims in 32 and 46mm depths.

Shimano GRX gravel groupsets

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 components are explicitly designed for gravel bikes, although their features will also appeal to touring cyclists and cyclocross racers.

Offering a mixture of components at Ultegra, 105, and Tiagra-equivalent levels, GRX borrows liberally from Shimano’s road and mountain bike ranges. The hierarchy breaks down like this:

  • RX400 series: 10-speed Tiagra level
  • RX600 series: 11-speed 105 level, plus a 10-speed crankset option to match RX400
  • RX800 series: 11-speed Ultegra level (R8000 series equivalent) with mechanical and Di2 variants

But what sets it apart? For one thing, GRX is only available 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 (with the appropriate derailleurs).

The GRX groupset’s rear derailleurs are also unique in accommodating very wide cassettes up to a maximum 11-42 for the 1× variant.

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 braking feel is tailored to off-road riding. 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.

In 2022 Shimano added a polished silver GRX RX810 variant called GRX Limited

Read our 11-speed Shimano GRX Di2 groupset review.

Shimano 105: Brilliant mid-range groupset

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 cable rim brake

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 premium sibling having gone electronic, 105 has been left carrying the flag for mechanical shifting. Significantly cheaper than any of the electronic options, 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 rim brake versions, 105 is, of course, a bit heavier than Ultegra, but only by around 200g in most configurations.

Things get a bit confusing depending if you compare 105 to the now technically discontinued Ultegra R8000 mechanical groupset or its new R8100-series electronic guise.

Things like the way the brakes work or the hollow construction of the crankset 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.

Shimano 105 R7000 was released in 2018 and it probably isn’t too far off a refresh. If we were 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?

Shimano Tiagra 4700: Affordable 10-speed groupset

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 cable rim

Compared to previous generations, Tiagra 4700 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: first of all 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 52/36, compact 50/34, or easy spinning sub-compact 48/34.

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 Tiagra hydraulic disc or conventional rim brakes remain faultless.

Shimano Sora R3000: Budget-conscious 9-speed groupset

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 rim brake

Closing in on the entry-level, Shimano’s Sora groupset uses nine sprockets on the rear. Still accommodating cassettes with cogs of up to 34-tooth, you’ll get an extensive range of gears if you want them, although the jumps between each might unsettle performance-focussed riders.

While the groupset can be assembled with either rim brakes or disc brakes, its levers are exclusively mechanical. This means you can run mechanical disc brakes, but not hydraulic ones. Sora rim brakes are still a good choice.

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 versus Tiagra, while the whole groupset 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 50/34 crankset option won’t suit some 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.

Shimano Claris R2000: The cheapest mainstream road groupset

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 rim brake

The cheapest groupset Shimano makes 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 (mechanical) Shimano range, but their cables also run neatly 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 crank using a square taper or Octalink bottom bracket.

The smaller number of sprockets also starts to impact the gearing range. The largest rear sprocket drops to a 32-tooth, 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 rim brakes brakes.

If you elect to run rim brakes, you’ll still benefit from Shimano’s excellent dual-pivot design, which is the benchmark for good reason.

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.

Shimano 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.

Dura-Ace is fancier-looking but Ultegra is by far the winner when it comes to cost/benefit analysis.

Shimano Ultegra vs. 105

If the difference between the latest electronic-only 12-speed Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets is now minuscule, the gap between Ultegra and 105 has become a chasm.

For one, it’s now a case of electronic versus mechanical shifting. Not only has Ultegra left 105 behind technologically, it has also been given 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.

Shimano 105 vs. Tiagra

The mechanical Tiagra groupset is pretty closely related to 105, though it does drop a sprocket. With ten gears at the back, this leaves the resulting jumps a bit larger. Less solely focussed 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 cartridge pads if you opt for rim 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.

Shimano 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 11-34 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 slightly larger.

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 by a single tier.

Shimano 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 disfigure 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.

Want to know more about groupsets? Don't miss our buyer's guide to SRAM groupsets and our buyer's guide to Campagnolo groupsets.

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