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
The third tier of groupset from the Japanese component giant, Shimano 105 sits below Dura-Ace and Ultegra, and in is generally considered the entry-point for a “proper” roadie groupset. In recent years that has been challenged by improvements to Shimano Tiagra, but so impressive is 105 that is closing in on the top-end groupsets in pure performance terms.
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 way back in 2012, 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 higher models in the Shimano range is 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.
Other Shimano groupset reviews
The lowest model in Shimano groupset range that uses Dual Control (Tourney comes with a Campag-style thumb shifter), Claris is a common sight on bikes priced below £500. The shifting is reliable and the long cage rear derailleur means it can cope with large sprockets to help you spin up hills, but the eight-speed system can mean big jumps between gears.
Shimano Sora is the only model in the range to come with a nine-speed cassette so the jumps between sprockets aren’t quite as big as with Claris. There is also a wide range of different gear options available, meaning you can easily swap them around if you’re not content with the cassette and chainrings that come with your bike.
Although it remains at 10-speed, Shimano Tiagra now shares similar aesthetics with its more expensive cousins, and to be honest the performance isn’t a million miles off either. The shifting is very good at both front and rear, with the front derailleur noticeable improved over older versions, while the brakes are a real step up from those on the cheaper groupsets.
With performance that is all but equal to Dura-Ace, Shimano Ultegra looks like the smart choice in the Shimano range. The front and rear shifting is pretty much perfect and there is also a complete choice of gear ratios including a 32t which you don’t get with Dura-Ace. If you’re after a high performance groupset and can live without the kudos associated with Dura-Ace, then Ultegra is perfect.
The crowning glory of Shimano’s groupset range, Dura-Ace has recently received a complete redesign that makes what was already an exceptionally good groupset just that tiny little bit better. The all-black look might not be for everyone, but if it’s pure performance that you’re after then it really can’t be faulted.
Shimano 105 vs Ultegra
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.
When will the new Shimano 105 be released?
The last thing anyone wants is to invest in nice new piece of kit, only to find that the manufacturer releases a new model a few weeks later and what they’ve bought is now out of date.
The good news is that this scenario shouldn’t occur too soon with Shimano 105. In general Shimano updates its groupsets every three years, which means that we should see a new version of Shimano 105 released in the summer of 2018, and begin to appear on bikes for the 2019 season.
Although Shimano will already have a pretty clear picture of what that model will look like, the rest of us are still left guessing. An electronic version of the groupset, Shimano 105 Di2, is something that Shimano has talked about in the past, so this could well be in the pipeline, and also expect to see the aesthetics of any new groupset brought in line with the top-of-the-range Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 groupset.
The new Shimano 105 5800 groupset offers improved shifting, faultless braking, and all-round great performance and efficiency that we would expect from high-end groupsets, let alone a reasonably priced offering. The performance gap to Ultegra is smaller than ever, and with an RRP of £559.99, it's a hard choice to make.