We look at both the Shimano Ultegra mechanical groupset and the Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic groupset to see just how good they are
First up: Shimano Ultegra mechanical. The latest 11-speed iteration has been very positively received.
The Shimano Ultegra groupset has been highly regarded for a long time, particularly in its 10-speed guise. Along with all other major groupsets Ultegra mechanical is now 11-speed.
Despite the initial concerns that accompany all big technical changes, 11-speed groupsets are here to stay…..until 12-speed groupsets come over the horizon. In short, smaller increments between sprockets is worth the slight increase in weight.
Dura-Ace drip down
Shimano claims its Ultegra mechanical series is “pro-proven” as it is a direct trickle down from its Dura-Ace group. Therefore, as Dura-Ace has improved each year Ultegra should also have made large strides.
Chainset and cassette
The first thing you’ll notice about Ultegra 6800 is that a four arm chainset replaces the former five arm chainset. The theory is that the four arms better mirror the strain the chainset expriences during the pedal stroke. Also, with the four arm you can fit other chain rings without having to replace the whole chainset. In regard to crank length you can choose from the standard 170mm, 172.5mm and 175 mm.
Save for the cyclo-cross option of the 46/36, the Ultegra chain ring options are similar to Shimano 105. You can choose between 50/34, 52/36 and 53/39 which should mean you can find a chain ring set up that suits you whether you are a big gear pusher or a spinner. Dura-Ace mechanical on the other hand, is focused more at road racers who can manage riding a big gear since it also offers 54/42 and 55/42.
Ultegra sets itself apart from Dura-Ace when it comes to sprocket options. Ultegra is available up to a 32 tooth sprocket, whereas Dura-Ace only goes up to 28. That is probably why you’ll see some pro riders using an Ultegra cassette in the high mountains.
Shifters and derailleur
High level, Ultegra uses Shimano’s fabled STI shifters. You use the brake lever to go up and gear lever to go down and vice versa.
Shimano claims that the shift mechanism was redesigned so that, in theory, you get the same shift anywhere up the block, be it 24-28 or 11-12. This is in part managed by the new longer front derailleur which has a longer activation arm.
The rear derailleur is available in both short and mid-cage. The mid-range cage fits the 32 tooth sprocket for when the road heads skywards.
As with 105 and Dura-Ace, Ultegra brakes are now available as a “direct mount brake”. Direct mounts are attached to the frame via two bolts rather than the standard one bolt.
The main advantages of direct mount brakes is that they cannot be knocked out of place and they sit closer to the frame which reduces flex in the system and can be more aerodynamic.
However, if you don’t want to upgrade your frame there is still the standard one bolt option where the ultegra brake unit has two symmetrical pivots which mount to the standard one bolt.
Bikes with Shimano Ultegra mechanical
The latest 11-speed Ultegra chain has the surface technology called Sil-Tec. Debuted last year with the Dura-Ace 9000 chain it is designed to reduce friction.
Having used Ultegra 10-speed on my own bikes for several years, I was particularly keen to see the performance difference.
I have ridden the 11-speed Shimano Ultegra mechanical groupset on various bikes for many miles. The greatest compliment I can give is that I can barely recall a bad gear change. The shifting felt light and accurate even when moving from the big ring to the small ring.
It performed particularly well when shifting under load- for example when I realised I was in the wrong gear up a steep hill.
Like many I often ride with my hands on the hoods. I found the the narrower ergonomically shaped Ultegra hoods to be comfortable even after several hours of riding.
Away from shifting performance I can confirm, as I have to come to expect with Shimano, the braking was reliable, consistent and assured- whether riding in wet or dry conditions. Even on occasions when I needed to brake suddenly the bike came to a relatively secure stop. I particularly noticed the reduced flex in the brake levers.
As said above, the chain uses Sil-Tec. Although the chain ran smoothly even when riding in bad weather it is difficult to confirm that it is anymore slick than previous offerings.
Check out our road bike group sets buyer’s guide
Why Ultegra mechanical?
Shimano Ultegra gives you top end performance- consistent gear changes and reliable braking, is light and robust. Also from a cost perspective it is not as expensive as Dura-Ace mechanical or Di2. Its impressive attributes are reflected by the fact most test bikes we receive at the price point of between £2,000 to £3,500 come equipped with Ultegra.
On the other hand, the latest generation of the Shimano 105 groupset is very good. From a performance perspective the difference between 105 and Ultegra is as small as it has ever been. It is also competitively priced at £559.99 compare to £999.99.
In conclusion, the latest edition of Shimano’s Ultegra mechanical groupset is impressive and will be more than adequate for most riders. It is hard to fault.
Ultegra Di2 electronic
The newest version of the electronic offering, Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870, is noticeably less bulk and carries a much cleaner design than its predecessor. Things like the slimmer rear derailleur and the ability to hide the battery inside the frame are much more attractive.
Similarly, the way the new junction box (where you also plug in the charger) is secured neatly under the stem by a heavily engineered elastic band is much more appealing than the old box that used to dangle down untidily in front of the stem.
These things are important because you don’t want a beautiful set of tubes spoiled with ugly appendages. It’s the equivalent of constructing a carbuncle of a conservatory on the side of Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
Bikes with Shimano Ultegra Di2
In terms of actual shift quality the groupset is beyond reproach after very thorough testing. You might wonder if there could be quite the speed and snap to changes down the rear cassette when really sprinting — could the motor whirr and respond as quickly as a spring releasing tension?
Under the pressure of a full-on bar-heaving dash for an imaginary line the shifts are not only blindingly quick but also smooth. The switch between front rings was even more impressive, never baulking, never stumbling once during a prolonged review period.
This knowledge that the change will always go home is perhaps the thing that’s the most intriguing. There can be a sense of pride in finessing the throw of a lever when changing with a mechanical groupset, but this is never missed with a well tuned Di2 set-up.
Something that will feel missing for some riders is the greater distinction between the two shift buttons, because despite being textured differently they’re very close together, and, particularly with a set of gloves on or over rough ground, it was sometimes less than instinctive to land on the required one. Similarly, the positivity of the buttons could still be improved so that you have a more positive feel and reassuring ‘click’ to let you know you’ve triggered the switch.
In general the lack of thought you have to put into shifts with Di2 is a boon when you’re tired or concentrating madly on the maelstrom of a constantly morphing peloton or sportive group. Likewise when you’re knackered and pedalling squares at the end of a long training ride, even the slightest reduction in movement and effort to swap cogs is sometimes welcome.
The semi-compact 52/36 set-up on the test bike was perfect for almost everything the bike was thrown at.
Leaving the gears aside for a moment, there are two other areas of the Shimano Ultegra 6800 Di2 that are well worth mentioning. First the brakes are superb, being full of power and yet also being easy to modulate.
Then there are the SPD-SL pedals. At first they can feel slightly tricky to engage, because the front portion of the cleat has to drop down through the hole in the pedal rather than being caught by a lip, but riders will soon get used to this and once located there was a fantastic sense of security, stiffness and also stability across the broad main contact patch.
Mechanical groupsets clearly still have their place, but electronic shifting has some clear advantages as well. If nothing else then the complete lack of maintenance and adjustment that Di2 required was a complete joy. The sheer quality of the whole package was also remarkable. The latest edition of Shimano’s Ultegra mechanical groupset is impressive and will be more than adequate for most riders. It is hard to fault.