Officially launched at the end of June 2013, the update of Shimano’s venerable Ultegra groupset to become 11-speed could be viewed as somewhat of a formality; nevertheless, there is lots to talk about when it comes to the latest electronic offering.
On the face of it, it may seem like Shimano has taken its time making groupsets available to the press; after all, if your local bike shop had your name on the list from when it was announced just prior to the Tour, you could already be riding a 2014 machine equipped with digital-shifting Ultegra.
It’s an interesting change of policy for the manufacturer who reportedly works on new products up to eight years in advance of launch, but Shimano representative Tim Gerrits explained that the company wanted to ensure that the press were using the full production versions and that when reviews were published they’d coincide with the bikes hitting the shops. Perhaps this is a way to support shops better by putting it in customers’ minds when the product is actually available.
When it comes to the ride we were lucky to get to try out 6870 on Giant Defy bikes, resplendent in Shimano Ultegra livery of course, just in case you were unsure what the groupset was!
With Mount Etna as the backdrop we were keen to get some miles under our wheels and experience the groupset fully. It’s safe to say that at the heart of the Ultegra’s electronic shift experience is the E-tube, the twin-core wire system that supplies power from the battery – mounted externally or internally – to the front and rear mech. In a clever system introduced in the previous ?Ultegra iteration the same twin core cables also carry the signal from the shifters to the mechs.
The shift itself is programmable, you can access the system through a Shimano website with the idea that your local shop will be able to set it up to your preferences; the same software is able to diagnose any problems in the system and run software updates when they become available. As with previous electronic shift systems from Shimano, the activation of the mech feels near instantaneous and with an electric motor controlling the action and silicon chips the amount it moves, is super-accurate too. During the seven hours of testing, much of it on 10 per cent gradients, not one shift was fluffed or problematic in any way – just as you’d expect from Japanese electronics.
While the additional gear is very valuable it’s actually the update of the brake calipers to a similar design and pull-ratio as Dura-Ace that is the biggest change. The new brakes are simply stunning and had me wondering if disc brakes really offer any improvements, but let’s save that discussion for another day.
Shimano claims a 10 per cent increase in the power of the brakes, or looked the other way a 10 per cent reduction of force required for the same stopping power. As we reported with 9000 Dura-Ace, the subjective feeling of improvement feels much greater than 10 per cent and the additional control on offer to the rider gives them the ability to fine-tune their speed and ride with more confidence – especially good on new and unknown roads.
When it comes to the shifters, the ergonomics have remained the same which, given that we’ve yet to hear one complaint about them, is just as well. Personally I’m disappointed that the shift buttons haven’t been upgraded to have a physical click like your PC’s mouse does but perhaps I’m alone in wanting that change.
Where the shifters look nigh on identical the cranks definitely don’t, with 6800 series gaining the four-arm style that comes on Dura-Ace. Now that we’ve had the pleasure of looking at the groupset for the last year or so, the four-arm style has become commonplace – even so, some will struggle with the looks. ?The ability to make the spider just four arms is all thanks to the thicker hollow outer ring, it brings benefit to everyone though as it means that should you wish to run standard 53/39, semi-compact 52/36 or compact 50/34-tooth chainrings you can now do so on the same crank arm, rather than having to buy a whole new set ?of cranks.
So what we have here is a statement from Shimano that electronic shifting is here to stay as far as the Japanese are concerned. Bringing 6870 Ultegra into such a close line with Dura-Ace is an interesting move since, to my mind at least, it's sufficiently good that you don't, for any practical reason, need to invest in the top of the range groupset. Have they made Ultegra so good that it is in ?danger of stealing sales from Dura-Ace? Quite probably, based on our first ride experience.