We put the Shimano 105 groupset through its paces over more than 1,000 winter miles to see if it was up to scratch, and were very impressed
Shimano 105 is the Japanese companies third tier offering, below Dura-Ace and Ultegra, but is now so good that few of us really need to look any further for our next groupset.
When 11-speed groupsets first made an appearance, the reaction to them was reminiscent of the arrival of 10-speed: plenty of frowning and sucking through teeth followed by barbed comments on chain angles and the subsequent negative effect on component life.
Do we really need so many ratios? Is it just another manufacturer ploy to keep us addicts upgrading and the wheel-builders in business? The doubters and cynics had a field day, again.
Since journalists first clicked their way through a 9000 series 11-speed Dura-Ace block more than two years ago, we’ve come to accept that 11-speed drivetrains are the norm, while snapped chains are not. The lesson being, the smaller jump between sprocket sizes is actually a worthwhile advantage.
The trickle-down effect has already proved successful through the excellent Ultegra 6800 groupset and, as time rolls on, we’ve discovered that both its functionality and its reliability can be taken for granted.
Now it’s the turn of the Shimano 105 groupset, which is widely considered the entry point to the Japanese firm’s ‘proper’ groupsets. The most obvious visual connection to the 2012 Dura-Ace update is without doubt the sculpted heart of the groupset, the four-arm chainset. This not only looks the business, but also gives owners the option of replacing rings without the need to change the whole chainset.
Find the right groupset for you
If you prefer to run 53/39 but are planning a hilly ride, switching to 50/34 needn’t cost the earth. The latest ‘mid-compact’ size is also available for those looking for the flexibility of 52/36 and there’s even a triple chainset in the line-up to give an entry point for less experienced cyclists working on their fitness.
Other inherited Dura-Ace similarities include a longer pull-arm on the front mech, which provides more leverage to give a lighter shift action. The angular body and knuckle of the rear mech are likewise Dura-Ace hand-me-downs.
However, there’s more to the 5800 series Shimano 105 groupset than a smattering of Dura-Ace-aping components. Shimano’s proprietary Sil-Tec polymer treatment also finds its way into the body of the shifters, the cables and on to the inner plates of the drive chain. This friction-reducing coating has been specially developed to reduce overall effort and speed up shifting.
Bringing all this newfound efficiency to a halt has been made easier too, thanks to a revised brake caliper that Shimano claims is 10 per cent more efficient than the outgoing 5700 version. If you’re lucky enough to own a compatible frame, then the latest two-bolt, direct-mount caliper is also an option.
Putting it to the test
We’ve had the groupset on test for a few months now. Fitted to an aluminium Dolan Preffisio frame running Swiss Side Gotthard wheels, the build is relatively low-tech. We’ve kept it simple, as we didn’t want to impinge on functionality with complications such as tricky internal cabling, which might have compromised the components through no fault of their own. The plan was to run the groupset right through the winter with as little maintenance as we could get away with to see how it stood up. However, after 1,000 trouble-free miles, we felt the need to share our early impressions with you.
Having been less than impressed by the performance of the outgoing Shimano 105 5700 shifters, we’re pleased that the designers have addressed the irritating problems; namely, vague or heavy shifts and, at worst, total failure with the main pivot nut tightening to the point that shifting becomes impossible. The latest shifters feature the same technology as the Ultegra 6800 groupset, which we’ve been consistently impressed with. With the Sil-Tec polymer coating, shifts are light and accurate.
The similarities between 105 and Ultegra don’t end there. While we’ve already touched on the slick shifting, even more impressive is how the whole set-up copes with the more-extreme chain angles.
SRAM has given its 11-speed groupsets a USP in the form of a front mech that ‘yaws’ — swivelling on a pivot to match the chain angle — to give smooth running on all gears, allowing even ‘big-big, small-small’ positions, which were hitherto strictly forbidden. The American firm has underlined this with the ‘22’ suffix for its Red, Force and Rival groupsets — to denote that all sprocket combinations can be used.
Shimano doesn’t claim to offer this feature but because of how quietly the chain runs, with no slap or drag against the cage of the front mech, we’ve found ourselves on ‘big-big’ a number of times — only occasionally realising our somewhat novice error after a fruitless search for a 12th cog (it’s only a matter of time, surely?). Trimming is another highlight of this new generation of 11-speed Shimano tackle, and the light action to move the front mech to suit the chain’s position on the cassette is met with precision every time.
Braking performance is as you’d expect from Shimano — reliable, consistent and assured. Even in wet conditions the extra power generated by the caliper’s new pivot design is tangible and, with the added bonus of less flex through the lever, feel is improved too. The new resin-bodied pedals take a chunk of weight off and offer all the functionality of the outgoing metal items.
Ultegra vs 105
Choosing between Ultegra and 105 is harder than ever before. If you’re buying a complete bike, then it will likely come down to the level of spec on offer — wheels, finishing kit, saddle, etc.
But for anybody about to embark on a build or upgrading an old bike to 11-speed, the huge difference in price (£999.99 v £559.99 — with many online firms offering up to 50 per cent off) versus the tiny weight saving (just under 200g), makes Shimano 105 almost irresistible.
It also frees up spare cash for a better set of wheels — which, based on our experience of these two excellent groupsets, would reap the biggest rewards for the vast majority of road cyclists.
The new Shimano 105 5800 groupset offers improved shifting, faultless braking, and all-round great performance and efficiency as it makes the jump up ot 11-speed for 2015. The performance gap to Ultegra is smaller than ever, and with an RRP of £559.99, it’s a hard choice to make.