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.