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Home » Cycling » A Newbie Comparison of Shimano Shifters…UPDATED

A Newbie Comparison of Shimano Shifters…UPDATED

February 2012
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If you’re anything like I was starting out in cycling – and I started about as low down on the totem pole as one can go without throwing a pair of training wheels on your bike – then you get the basic idea that there are differences in shifting systems:  stem mounted, down tube mounted, brifters (integrated STI brake/shifter) and that’s just for road bikes.  Include mountain bikes and leisure bikes and you’ve got a small mountain of types and levels.  You’re also of the impression that there can’t be much of a difference between a Sora system, a Tiagra system and an Ultegra system – after all, Shimano isn’t going to put out a system that doesn’t work, are they?

For the purposes of this post, I’ll stick to what I know – Shimano.  I have heard very good things about SRAM from a couple of the mechanics of my LBS but those comments were reserved for the higher end components.  That notwithstanding, the answer to the question is no they won’t put out a shifting system for a bike that doesn’t work – but there is a world of difference between the bottom of the line and the top of the line components.

The easiest difference you’ll find is in weight.  The Dura-Ace line – if you’re reading my blog, it’s the one you can’t afford – is expensive, difficult to keep in tune and light as you can get in Shimano (the reduced weight is suggested as the reason for it being so touchy).  On the other hand, Ultegra line is a half a pound lighter than the 105 line and is also reportedly more durable than both the 105 and less quirky than the Dura-Ace line – this is your happy zone where durability and weight meet.  Below the 105 line though, dependability, weight and smoothness of operation drop.

As far as my two road bikes go in comparing components and smoothness in shifting (which isn’t quite fair) on my old Cannondale I’ve got the RX100 Group which ranks in the Tiagra range (just under the 105) for its time.  On my Trek I’ve got the Ultegra Group all the way around.  Without getting snobby – I bought the bike used and Matt took pity on me and gave me a heck of a deal – the difference is night and day.  Just going by how the derailleurs work (taking out the difference in shifting down tube vs. STI which cannot be compared fairly – the DT shifters pale in comparison), the Ultegra Group kills the RX100.  This includes smoothness too.  The Ultegra derailleurs shift better – especially up front.  The difference in the way the cranks feel is huge as well, and in the same way – the Ultegra components are just smooth, that’s the best way I can describe the difference – it’s like the difference between putting cold peanut butter and warm butter on bread.

The purpose of this post, mainly for rooks like me, is to let you know – before you buy something that you’ll want to upgrade later (which costs an arm and a leg – and you’ll need both to ride) – go as big as you can afford.  Shimano’s 105 line is the starting point, or so I have on good authority.  In my case, I lucked out because there’s no way I’d be able to afford a carbon bike with Ultegra components, new.  The differences between the 105 line and the Ultegra line might not be worth it, but the difference between Sora and 105 (or even Tiagra and 105) is.  You may not notice the upgrade too much on the test drive around the parking lot, but you will once you’ve got a few hundred miles on the saddle and try a bike out a grade or two higher.

Which gets me to my one big piece of advice; once you’ve bought the best bike you can afford, heed this simple, humble advice:  Don’t ever ride anything better until you can afford a new bike.  Once you feel the difference you’ll be buying the upgraded bike whether you can afford it or not – trust me on this (or just ask my wife).

UPDATE:  Michael Fioretti who writes at i miei fioretti (and whom I follow intently) adds:

“You have a lot of good analysis and insight in this post. However, I’d like to mention something about differences in “smoothness” across groupset manufacturers. SRAM is known to be VERY “clicky” when shifting, meaning that when you shift, the feeling is very responsive and also a bit noisy. I’ve a few friends who use SRAM and whenever they shift it sounds like (to me at least) like plastic is breaking or something is snapping. But that’s just the way it sounds.

Campagnolo is a different story altogether. Campy is also very responsive, but it doesn’t quite feel like SRAM. There’s no snapping-like click, but there’s definitely a “ching!” noise that I especially enjoy. And the lever click feel, in my opinion, is a nice middle ground between SRAM and Shimano. It’s very responsive, yet also very smooth. You can actuate the way that the shifting feels by changing the way you put pressure on the levers. It’s very subtle but noticeable over time.

There are lots of people out there who can’t stand the outstanding smoothness of Shimano because it hardly feels like you’re shifting at times. Of course, it’s all relative. I know that I love my Campy and that I’ll never use anything else. Each to his own!”

[Ed.]  I’ve always wondered what the attraction is with Campagnolo.  Micheal’s explanation makes a lot of sense – in fact, my buddy Tim’s bike, the Lefty Cannondale with SRAM Components, is really snappy when he shifts – I didn’t want to mention that yesterday because I’ve never ridden SRAM and we all know what usually happens when we noobs comment on that which we know nothing about (which happens to be a lot)…

UPDATE:  I broke my own rule an bought a very nice Specialized Venge with Shimano 105’s rather than Ultegra (the savings were considerable).  After almost 1,000 miles on the bike I can say with utter certainty:  The Ultegra components are vastly superior to the 105’s in terms of smoothness of operation.  Don’t get me wrong, 105’s are great, it’s just that Ultegra are that much better.  In the end, I’m very pleased with the new ride – it far exceeds my expectations, but for the sake of this post, I can absolutely tell the difference between the two.  If you can afford it, go with the Ultegra line.

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28 Comments

  1. lampenj says:

    I ride SRAM on my mountain bikes and would say that your analysis correlates well along the price progression there as well. I also notice that as you pay more, the more responsive the equipment is. X-9 shifts quicker/cleaner than X-7; X-0 shifts quicker/cleaner than X-9…for the most part. Some upgrades are worth the money, some are not. I think that’s why you see a combination of component grades on stock bikes packages (the new Epic I’m looking at comes with X-9 rear derailleur but X-7 shifters and front derailleur). I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’ve also noticed that road bikes tend to come equipped with Shimano while mountain bikes come primarily equipped with SRAM.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I’ve got a friend that is VERY into mountain biking, in fact he sold me my Trek (it was his back-up for his back-up), and his main ride is a Cannondale Lefty (carbon) with the SRAM X-9 components – he suggested that the main reason for the large shift to SRAM in mountain bikes was the fact that they came out with the under-under trigger shifter first (rather than the over-under that Shimano had earlier on). I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but he liked not having to shift with his forefinger and that’s why he opted for SRAM.

      That last point, about road vs. mountain is something I’ll look into.

  2. You have a lot of good analysis and insight in this post. However, I’d like to mention something about differences in “smoothness” across groupset manufacturers. SRAM is known to be VERY “clicky” when shifting, meaning that when you shift, the feeling is very responsive and also a bit noisy. I’ve a few friends who use SRAM and whenever they shift it sounds like (to me at least) like plastic is breaking or something is snapping. But that’s just the way it sounds.

    Campagnolo is a different story altogether. Campy is also very responsive, but it doesn’t quite feel like SRAM. There’s no snapping-like click, but there’s definitely a “ching!” noise that I especially enjoy. And the lever click feel, in my opinion, is a nice middle ground between SRAM and Shimano. It’s very responsive, yet also very smooth. You can actuate the way that the shifting feels by changing the way you put pressure on the levers. It’s very subtle but noticeable over time.

    There are lots of people out there who can’t stand the outstanding smoothness of Shimano because it hardly feels like you’re shifting at times. Of course, it’s all relative. I know that I love my Campy and that I’ll never use anything else. Each to his own!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thank for the comment – you cleared up a lot of questions I had about Campy and its popularity… You’re right about the light touch in Shimano – though it seems as though they cleared that up quite a bit in the Ultegra line… Mine has just a little bit of a snap.

      • There are many variables to consider when looking at a group. The first is probably ergonomics. For me, the shape of the hoods and brake levers on the 11 Speed line of Campy stuff fit perfectly to my hands. The curved shape and smaller overall profile work for me because I have smaller hands. Of course, the do offer a “larger hands” insert for people with large hands.

        On the topic of hoods, the shifting mechanism for all three is of course different. Another reason I prefer Campy is because of the thumb lever and shift lever. It fits me well. I don’t like having to shift with the entire brake lever in the way of Shimano. It’s somewhat difficult for me. SRAM’s system is very innovative, with the double tap thing. I actually like this but I’m not a fan of their stuff overall for reasons I won’t get into here.

        Aside from functionality (you’ll hear wide-ranging stories on ALL the groups about this issue), there are a few other things. Looks is one. I love the way Campagnolo styles their groups. Lots of carbon fiber, curvaceous lines, and just an overall beautiful appearance. I’m not a fan of the “spaceship” look of the Shimano stuff, nor the billboard approach that SRAM takes with their components.

        There’s also the issue of longevity. SRAM is known for being the cheaper of the groupsets, but this comes at a price: their stuff is almost made to be warrantied. With a company of that size, they’d rather deal with warranty issues and replacing stuff than raise prices and eliminate their buyer base. This is a big contrast to Campagnolo, which has higher prices but is completely rebuildable and often starts to work “better” as it is used more often. Campagnolo has a reputation for this. You can ride a Campy groupset for years and years and years and never worry about having to outright replace things (unless you crash devastatingly) because of the fact that it’s all completely rebuildable.

        Of course, there’s also the 11 speed/10 speed thing, but as Shimano is planning on release an 11 speed Dura Ace, that dichotomy will soon be diminished.

        There’s also weight, which is a perpetual battle year by year. I think Shimano tends to be the heaviest of the big three.

        Overall, I think what it really comes down to is a) how the group feels for you and b) how comfortable are you operating the system. Aesthetics are never out of the picture, but it comes down to personal comfort and preference. I chose Campagnolo because of the reasons I stated above, and it makes me feel better that I’m supporting a smaller company that really has a passion for the products they produce. It’s also personal preference, but I think you will find that Campy owners are the most fanatical of the bunch. I’m definitely in that category, and I really don’t think that’ll ever change.

  3. bgddyjim says:

    Brother, overall my choice came down to what I could get away with – without getting a divorce in the process. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The shifters I have are awesome – especially compared to what I had before though you’ve got a point about fit. My hands are just a touch too big for the hoods I’ve got but I’ve got a feeling that my problem is more with location on the bar than with the hoods themselves (and I’ll be getting that situated this spring).

    What I like about your knowledge (and your willingness to share it – thank you) is that these are the kinds of things that noobs like me don’t take understand yet so we can’t take them into account until we’ve already bought something and we’re stuck.

    • I was and still am in the situation for buying what I can get away with. Everything–or near everything–is either a) used or b) substantially discounted from team deals/sponsorships. I’ve always hounded eBay and Craigslist for the best prices and I absolutely refuse to pay more than I need to.

      That said, yes, Campagnolo is more expensive. BUT, with the bike that will eventually replace my old bike, the group will be “used” (it’s really the shop demo…looks almost brand new IMO) and so it costs much, much less than a new group, and it actually ends up being cheaper than getting comparable new SRAM or Shimano. And that’s for Campy Record too!

      Being the English major nerd that I am, I tend to just read, read, read, and read about stuff. When I was a noob (I still think I am a noob actually), it excited me to learn about everything, and it still does. The Internet is a wonderful resource. Hell, it’s what got me here in the first place!

      • bgddyjim says:

        I tried to go the internet route once or twice… I had the rear derailleur so jacked up, I actually had to print out Sheldon’s instructions and take them out to my bike to get it right. It was hilarious…of course, I know what I’m doing now but it was ugly at the time. Then I ended up with a $300 hunk of aluminum that would be awesome if I were only 3″ shorter. If you’re a noob, they have to create a new category for me. I shudder to think what I’d do to a couple of new STI shifters.

  4. joehmr says:

    Good info .. I’m ultegra and well happy with in and probably for awhile.

    I feel as if the triple chain ring struggles with such a long throw.

    I should probably think compact double next time ( whenever that is).

    • bgddyjim says:

      I was thinking along the same lines but I don’t like that the compact doubles generally only come in 50 tooth big rings but after climbing some real mountains (and loving it) I’m sticking with the triple. I spoke with the owner of my local bike shop just after and he agreed with my assessment – at least for now.

  5. Chatter says:

    I know this is an older post, but when I recently went to buy a bike I could tell an immediate difference between Sora and Tiagra and 105. Immediately you will notice the odd hand position you have to put your hand into tot use the shifter., you have to move your hand to shift then bring it back to the natural position. I went for mostly 105 components with a few Tiagra pieces like the front derailer. Very happy.

  6. Dicta says:

    Thank you all for these posts! I am a newbie, about to buy a cannondale caad8 with sora components for $1,437.5, I guess I’ll be going for something better so I don’t get “stuck” and upset!!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Cannondale’s are awesome! I loved my first one (now my wife’s). Depending on how much you ride though, you’ll probably be happier with 105 components. Good luck.

  7. BrianC says:

    I have a bike with 105, one with Ultegra and one with Dura Ace. My daughter (age 11) also has a Sora rig. The Sora is a bit slow shifting and I would not recommend it beyond pure recreation. I put about 6000 km/yr on my 105 bike and it works flawlessly. I also put about 5000 km/yr on my Dura Ace and find it is also flawless and does not require frequent adjustment. The difference between them for me is that I am aware of shifting the 105, but the D-A shifting happens sub-consciously … less effort, less chain clunk. This is important in an “aggressive” group ride or a race where you cannot come off the power even for a brief instant, but not important otherwise. The Ultegra is relatively new and feels similar to the D-A, but I have not ridden it long enough to know.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks for leaving the comment… The warning about the touchiness of D-A came from the owner of my local bike shop… He’s been building bikes and award winning frames for decades so I took him at that. I ride with plenty of guys who use those components too and have never heard a complaint… I can also say that the Ultegra components that I run are still flawless… They are fast, and have just enough ‘clunk’ to let you know you’re shifting.

  8. Dicta says:

    Yippee! Finally took delivery of my Caad8 105! After a very long arduous wait! I must say the ride is surely better, smoother and faster compared to the back trail I was using and tons lighter too! Thank you all for the write ups!

    The C8 already has it’s own space in my living room (to my wife’s chagrin 🙂
    It’s time for Rule V to take hold!

    In it’s reserved space:

  9. […] in the mountains, but your weight is more important.  Pick the best component set and frame you can afford. The high-end components (105 and Ultegra) are really that good.  I didn’t discuss wheels in […]

  10. Dicta says:

    Just wondering, what’s the difference between shimano 105 components and sram rival? which performs better?
    Thank you.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I’ve only ever ridden Shimano so for me to comment on a comparison wouldn’t be right. I’ve heard the SRAM components clunk into gear while the Shimano are smooth.

  11. isaac976 says:

    Have been using 105 for the longest time. . Been biking for 15 years and I started at the bottom and that’s how one appreciate the technology put into the grouppo.

    Am using Reds on one of my bike and the Ultegra on the other. If there is any advice I can give is save the money and get a good grouppo. 105 being the minimum. You got an awesome bike by theway

  12. […] A Newbie Comparison of Shimano Shifters…UPDATED […]

  13. […] With 18,700 hits, A Newbie Comparison of Shimano Shifters…UPDATED is a look at Shimano’s line of components from back in February of 2012.  Not much has […]

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