from road.cc – this is my next purchase – I have old Ultegra on the Lynskey and was waiting for it to wear out but 3800km later it is still as sweet as …. well soon then – interesting point about potentially needing new wheels.
Hot Damn. Shimano’s 11-speed Ultegra 6800 groupset is really, really, really good. That’s this review in a nutshell, but in the spirit of drawing things out I’ll write a few more words on the matter. There’s lots to say. But the bottom line is: for the serious fitness rider or privateer racer, as a package, this is as good as a mechanical groupset has ever been.
It was last May when Ultegra 6800 was unveiled (http://road.cc/content/news/82237-updated-prices-shimano-unveil-ultegra-…) and now you can get a huge range of bikes sporting the gun-metal grey componentry. Ultegra always follows the lead of Shimano’s flagship Dura-Ace gear and this incarnation is no exception. It’s eleven speed, it uses the new four-arm crankset and the redesigned symmetrical dual pivot brakes, the STI levers are redesigned and so are the derailleurs, especially the front one. It’s quite an overhaul. There are even some new wheels to cope with the ever-so-slightly wider cassette. But we’ll deal with them in a separate review. Let’s take the parts one by one.
Shimano have been doing a lot of work on the shift feel, and Ultegra 6800 takes on board what they’ve achieved with Dura-Ace. The shift mechanism has been redesigned so that, in theory, the shift from 24 to 28 at one end of the cassette feels exactly like the one from 11-12 at the other. Shimano call it Vivid Shifting (everything has to have a special name) and it’s quite noticeable that the lever resistance doesn’t ramp up anywhere near as much, although you do need a bit of extra push for the big cogs.
The action is lighter, too. That’s especially true of the front shift thanks in the main to the redesigned derailleur but both shifts are easier, and the throw of the lever is reduced, which is good news for smaller-handed riders and for when you’re shifting from the drops.
Shifting is precise and sensitive. Although it’s light you still get reassuring feedback from the lever. It’s still possible to miss a downshift if you accidentally catch the main lever as the mechanism doesn’t engage, which has been an issue for a number of incarnations of Shimano’s STI system. It’d be nice to see it fixed although it’s not a major problem.
Shifting under load is really, really good: so good that it’s almost better putting the power down when you’re shifting – especially down the block – than easing off slightly like you would with a lower-end groupset. Certainly it’s very hard to make an upshift fail even under heavy load, and it’s nigh-on impossible with a downshift.
The lever hood is slimmer, like the Dura Ace one which in turn borrowed its curves from Di2. That should make it easier to grip for smaller hands; mine are like shovels but I still prefer the new shape, which you can wrap your hands round a bit more, than the old.
Front derailleur 10/10
Shimano have done a lot of work on the front derailleur and it shows. The mech now has a much longer activation arm to reduce the shift effort, and it features a support bolt, like the Di2 unit, that comes into contact with the frame to stiffen up the structure. If you have a carbon frame you’ll want to cover the contact point with the stick-on alloy plate to avoid damage. All that work means much lighter front shifts, with an excellent pick-up from the chain and the chainring ramps on the upshift.
Rear derailleur 9/10
The rear dreailleur comes in short- and mid-cage incarnations, the latter able to handle up to a 32T sprocket for the really steep stuff. The spring rate has been tweaked to give a more linear feel to the shifting. Both mechs have been designed to work best with Shimano’s new polymer-coated cables, which reduce friction in the system. We’ve been to the launch and done the pull-this-one-then-pull-that-one test to feel the difference; in real world conditions it’s hard to say how much the reduced friction makes but it can’t be a bad thing, and the rear shifts are excellent.
Another area to get a complete overhaul is the brakes, and the braking is perhaps the most noticeable improvement in the whole groupset.
The brakes are dual pivot, as before, but instead of using the brake bolt as a pivot the Ultegra units have two symmetrical pivots that are attached to a carrier, that then mounts to the normal point. At least that’s one option: Shimano are heavily touting direct mount as The Next Big Thing, where the two pivots mount directly to the frame. That’s been more widely adopted for brakes with chainstay-mounted rear brakes than it has at the front, or on the seatstays, but those bikes are appearing.
On top of all that there’s a new brake shoe compound, and Shimano’s new polymer-coated cables too. Shimano claim that all those improvements add up to a 10% increase in braking power. I didn’t crack out the accelerometer and the calculator, but these brakes really are excellent. The braking effort to stop you is reduced, and that means less arm fatigue on long rides. Haul them on and they’re both powerful and controllable. The improvement over the previous Ultegra callipers is especially noticeable in the wet, which is possibly down to the new brake compound rather than the redesigned body, but everything works very well together here.
Brake shoe wear is decent; they’re not the hardest pads but it’s always a trade-off between pad life and stopping power, and the Ultegra pads are in the happy middle ground of great performance and acceptable wear.
It’s fair to say that Shimano’s new four-arm design divides opinion as far as looks are concerned. Personally, I think it looks smart, but what’s not in doubt is that it’s a very stiff, configurable, and light unit.
The idea behind the unequal spacing on the four-arm chainset is that the arms are placed to deal with the stresses that a chainset endures from your pedalling. You don’t apply equal pressure all the way round the pedal stroke, so by moving the arms and reducing their number by one, you get the same stiffness but for a lower weight.
That big gap between arms two and three wouldn’t really work with a standard single-piece alloy chainring, as the gap is too big and the ring would flex. But the outer chainring on the Ultegra 6800 groupset is two alloy plates sandwiched together, with a hollow centre. As such it’s much stiffer, and able to bridge the gap effectively.
The other thing that’s changed significantly is that the same spider can cope with all the combinations of chainrings that Shimano offer: that’s Rider Tuned, naming-things fans. There’s a 50/34 compact, a 53/39 standard and a 52/36 that we don’t really have a name for. Semi-compact? Faux-pro? Anyway, there’s that. And a 46/36 cyclocross one as well. All use the same bolt spacing, so switching from Standard to Compact is just a case of swapping the rings and nudging your mech. I’ve swapped between a compact and standard set of rings with no issues and minimal faff.
In use the chainset is very stiff, and the shifting at the front is excellent. You can choose 170mm, 172.5mm or 175mm cranks. A chainset is the kind of component you only really notice when it’s doing something bad. This one was stiff, silent and stealthy throughout testing. Examination of the chainrings after a couple of thousand miles shows minimal wear. I’ve used it with press-fit bearings and a standard Hollowtech II external bottom bracket with no issues at all.
You can have your Ultegra cassette in one of five flavours: 11-23T, 11-25T, 12-25T, 11-28T or 11-32T. It’s ever so slightly wider than a 10-speed one which means that you need an 11spd compatible wheelset. Mavic wheels since 2001 should be fine, just lose the spacer. Other wheel manufacturers may be able to supply you with a different freehub for your existing wheels, some (Zipp for example) will want you to send them back for re-dishing, too. You might have to bite the bullet and get some new ones.
Is it possible to just bolt the 11-speed cassette on to a 10-speed freehub anyway? Well, as the new cassette is 1.8mm wider the issues are getting the splines on the smallest cog, and the threads of the locknut, to engage. And after that you might have an issue with your chain rubbing on the frame in the 11T as it’s closer to the dropout. In short: probably not. There’s no official upgrade path for Shimano’s own wheels, either.
Anyway, assuming you have the right wheels to fit it to, the cassette works splendidly well and you can bask in your extra ratio, which in all cases is an 18T cog between the 17T and 19T. Does it make much difference? Not noticeably in everyday use. If you do a lot of time trialling you might be glad of an extra straight-through jump but for most mortals that extra sprocket isn’t that significant a leap. The other changes to the groupset are much more worthy of note. Still though, incremental gains and that.
Shimano teased us with directional chains for a couple of years, which I always fitted the wrong way round, and now we’re back to symmetrical ones that any ham-fisted home technician can get right. The big news is that the chain has a new surface coating called Sil-Tec that reduces friction between all the moving parts. In the swing-this-one-then-swing-that-one test at the launch the difference is noticeable and impressive. It’s unclear how long that treatment is supposed to last, although I’ll wager that 2,000 miles in and several scrubbings later, it’s a memory. The chain wear is good though, with the Park CC3.2 suggesting there’s loads of life left in it even after a harsh winter. The chain joins with an extended pin that you snap off, like all Shimano chains do; I’ve replaced that with a SRAM 11spd connector as I find that a much simpler way to join and re-join a chain. It’s probably not allowed, but it hasn’t impacted on performance.
As a whole package, and assuming that you’re not going to be fuming over your wheels not working with it, Shimano Ultegra 6800 is everything you want from a mechanical performance groupset. It’s light, the shifts are crisp and quick, the braking is truly excellent. At the RRP of just under a grand it represents a significant but worthwhile investment if you’re upgrading; the fact that you can have it for not much over half that online makes it the go-to groupset for anyone building up a nice bike at home. For everyone except the true racers, the difference between Ultegra and Dura-Ace at the moment is so small – both in terms of weight and performance – that you’re effectively giving away nothing by speccing the second-tier kit and saving yourself a bunch of money. Do that.
Top-end performance from Shimano’s second-tier groupset: great shifting, fantastic braking.