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Bicycle Components, Upgrading from Shimano 105 to Ultegra; Minimal Weight Savings, Maximum Performance Gains… but is it Worth It?

I have a buddy who upgraded his 2013 Shimano Ultegra 10sp. groupset to 2018 Ultegra 11sp.. I thought he was nuts when he did it, but his upgrade benefited me considerably. He sold me his used 10sp. Ultegra and I was able to upgrade both of my road bikes. The Ultegra went on the good bike and the 105 components went on my rain bike. A win-win if ever there was such a thing.

So let’s get right to the big question; is it worth the money to upgrade from 105 to Ultegra components?

Let me start with this before the blunt answer: the performance gain, the ease in shifting, the crispness of the shift, the quickness of the response, between the two is surprising. And to be clear, I’m upgrading same year 105 to Ultegra, both 2013. Shimano switched to 11sp. in 2014 (105, Ultegra, & Dura Ace). The Ultegra components are really nice next to 105. I was looking forward to taking my Trek up north for an upcoming tour but now that I’ve upgraded the Venge, I’m taking it instead. The Trek is a fantastic climbing bike, especially with the gearing set up as it is, but the Venge is butter compared to what it was with 105 components. It takes a lot to surprise me, and I’m happily surprised at how nice the new components changed the way my bike shifts.

Is it worth the money though? Okay, here’s my experience. I’m well-to-do. Nowhere near rich or even wealthy, but I haven’t worried much about money in years.

A brand new Shimano Ultegra groupset, assuming what I’ve changed – both derailleurs, shifters, cassette and chain – will run you between $500 and $600. The full groupset retails double that (brakes, crank, bottom bracket, etc.). If I wasn’t buying the upgrade used, and saving a considerable chunk of money in the process, I doubt that I’d have done it.  On the other hand, buying used shifters is questionable to begin with – and it wasn’t without problems for me.

I’d never changed any of the cable housings on the Venge.  Everything was pretty much as it came on the bike, but working around a couple of upgrades (handlebar mostly), and when I installed the new shifters I developed a huge shifting problem.  I could dial the derailleur in going up the cassette but then it wouldn’t shift down.  If I dialed the barrel adjuster to go down the cassette, it wouldn’t go back up.

I spent hours trying to figure this out with new cables and lubing the existing housing.  I thought the problem was in the shifters because I actually went so far as to switch the rear derailleurs, putting the 105 derailleur back on the Venge and the Ultegra on the Trek and I still had the same problem.  In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore so I took the Venge to the shop and had them re-run new housings front to back.  That finally did the trick, and after some online sleuthing, I discovered that this is a pretty common problem.  It’s also common to think it’s the shifters.  It’s not.  Check the derailleur hanger to make sure it’s square first, then that the cables are in good shape, if everything else fails, new cable housings, front to back.  I also ended up with a new chain and a SRAM PG-1070 cassette because there was a chance the cassette was worn a bit, also, which is top of the line before the prices get stupid – a Red cassette (PG-1090) goes for $285-$300.  

In the end, the upgrade exposed a problem that I’d had for a while in the Venge.  The housings desperately needed to be replaced.  That done, and the new cassette installed, difference in shifting is incredible.  I put it through the paces last night, hammering out a decent 20 mph pace for about 17 miles before dialing it back and taking it easy the rest of the way home.  It was nice.  On the other hand, figure $200 for the derailleurs and shifters, $70 for the cassette, $53 for a chain, $20 for cable housing, $10 for new cables, plus labor…  What started out as a fairly simple and inexpensive swapping of parts turned into quite the expensive endeavor.

I dropped a little bit of weight on the bike, and it’s shifting better than when the bike was brand new, so in that sense, yes, it was worth it.  On the other hand, if I didn’t have the money (and by “have the money” I mean, no loans, no credit card, no financing of any kind, I mean I had the cash), then there’s no way it would have been worth it.

The 105 line of components is plenty good enough.  The Ultegra line is a little better and a little lighter.  Hardly worth the upgrade without the disposable cash.  With the disposable cash, though…  Oh, it’s the cat’s pajamas.  Considering I upgraded and dropped a half-pound on the Trek, too, well that knocks the deal out of the park.

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