It seems that each year Shimano picks one of its groupsets and takes it back to the drawing board for a thorough revamp. Last year it was 105, this year it?s the turn of Ultegra, but rather than simply revamping the existing groupset, Shimano has used it as the basis for adding a new one.

You may be wondering what the score is with Shimano adding Ultegra SL into a hierarchy that has stood for well over a decade. The word from Madison, Shimano?s UK distributor is that: ?Ultegra SL is designed to bridge the gap between Ultegra and Dura-Ace in terms of both weight and performance, yet most importantly, it still represents incredibly good value for the consumer.?

As there are no plans to phase out Ultegra, three becomes four at the top of Shimano?s road range.

With a couple of months? testing under our belts we have been able to assess how successful Shimano has been in creating a new groupset to sit below Dura-Ace.

The dark side

My first impressions of the highly polished Ice Grey SL components were that they looked classy, not too dissimilar in appearance to Dura-Ace, but just a shade darker, giving the groupset its own unique identity.

There is a downside to this type of highly polished, almost mirror finish, and that is the danger of components looking tatty as scratches and general wear and tear take their toll.

One area particularly prone to this is the crank arms. So far they have survived unscathed but, as we come into the winter months, I fear that the notorious rubbing from overshoes will damage the surface appearance.

Also, it is often the shiniest components that suffer most from corrosion if they are not regularly cleaned. Salty winter road grime will always attack the finish.

But Ultegra SL is about more than just good looks. I could not fault the performance. Hurriedly fitting the SL components onto a bike, just a few hours before I was due to race, was trouble free and the shifting was exactly as we have come to expect from Shimano, bang on the money, straight out of the box.

In fact, the performance of Ultegra SL is almost impossible to tell apart from Dura-Ace. There is a subtle change in the feel and sound of the chain on the larger cassette sprockets as these are titanium on Dura-Ace and steel for Ultegra, and ergonomically the Dual Control levers are bulkier, but these are minor points.

Same old, same old

The chain and cassette are among a few components that remain unchanged from standard Ultegra, along with the front derailleur, pedals and wheels, which have just been given a new appearance to match the rest.

By not making any changes to the front mech the shifting performance remains as before, solid and reliable, and there is no indication that material removed from the chainrings, to shave a little weight, has had any effect on their stiffness.

Similarly, the brake calipers uphold Shimano?s reputation for stiff and powerful braking. They are lighter, with only a small amount of material taken off the arms, and the majority of the weight saved is thanks to an increased use of aluminium hardware.

The SL groupset weighs nearly 100g less than standard Ultegra. Nearly half of the weight saving is in the chainset, and a further 36g in the shifters. As with many groupset upgrades, technology is handed down from above.

The SL Dual Controls share many of the lighter aluminium internal parts that have been thoroughly proven over time in Dura-Ace levers. The chainset is essentially the same as the current Dura-Ace, benefiting mainly from the same billet steel axle design. This brings with it all the stiffness and performance benefits that the Dura-Ace chainset is praised for.

Shimano has also taken this opportunity to make Ultegra SL the first groupset with a dedicated and branded 10-speed compact chainset (50-34T) where previously the firm has only offered a generic product to cover the range. This new compact is also available in the standard Ultegra polished silver finish.

Future shock

You may be forgiven for asking why Shimano would want to bring the level of Ultegra SL up so high and so close to its flagship Dura-Ace groupset. Our best guess is that it is to create the launch pad for the next generation Dura-Ace.

Ultegra SL is a winner and is already specced on some tasty bikes for 2008. It?s affordable ? starting from £502 depending on the exact set-up you choose ? and you are definitely getting maximum performance for your investment.

Mission accomplished for Shimano.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Shimano UK: www.ultimatepursuits.co.uk.