The Pearson Guide to Shimano road and gravel bike groupsets
Shimano offers a massive range of components for your bike, whether you’re riding road, MTB, gravel, cyclocross, track or an e-bike. Here’s our run-down of Shimano groupsets for road and gravel bikes from the pro-level Dura-Ace, found on bikes costing up to £10,000, to Tourney, fitted on bikes costing a couple of hundred pounds. We’ve also demystified the GRX gravel groupset options.
What is a groupset?
A groupset is made up of all the mechanical parts needed for your bike. That includes the chainset, derailleurs, chain, rear sprockets, shifters and brakes.
But within that, there’s a huge range of different options available including whether a groupset has rim or disc brakes, the number and span of gears in the cassette, number of chainrings, length of rear derailleur cage and how the derailleurs are operated.
It’s important to get all these factors right when choosing a groupset, to get a set-up that fits you and your bike and that works effectively together.
The greatest complexity is in the chainset. That starts with the number of chainrings and the number of teeth they have, but extends to crank length and the bottom bracket type used on the bike.
In higher spec groupsets, Shimano offers other components like time trial brakes and shifters and satellite shifters you can mount on the tops of the handlebars. We’ve focussed on the core components of each groupset, but Shimano also sells items like pedals and wheels badged for some groupsets.
Shimano groupset hierarchy
Shimano offers a broad range of groupsets at different prices, ranging from the very expensive Dura-Ace, which uses the best available technology and materials, through its popular mid-range series through to inexpensive groupsets seen on entry level bikes.
Periodically, Shimano updates its groupsets, with different generations of a groupset denoted by a series number, like Ultegra R8100. Usually, the updated components are backward compatible with older versions of the groupset, but that’s not always the case, and not the case with the latest Dura-Ace and Ultegra 12-speed groupsets.
There’s some ability to mix and match between Shimano’s higher spec groupsets, so you could, for example, run an Ultegra 12-speed cassette cassette with a 12-speed Dura-Ace derailleur. Further down the groupset hierarchy there’s less interoperability, as each groupset has a different number of speeds and uses different pull ratios for the cables which operate the derailleurs.
Shimano’s top spec groupset is Dura-Ace. The latest Dura-Ace R9200 comes with 12 speeds and is exclusively electronically operated using Shimano’s Di2 system, where motors in the derailleurs change gears.
Shimano’s boast is that Dura-Ace offers “system supremacy” and Dura-Ace is the groupset run by the majority of WorldTour pro teams. Premium materials used include carbon fibre and titanium and electric wires link the derailleurs and the battery which powers them, which is hidden in the bike’s frame. The shift levers are powered by coin cells and communicate wirelessly with the derailleurs, although there’s also the option to wire them into the system instead.
The Di2 system is highly configurable, so for example you can set up which shifter buttons do what and set the front derailleur to change automatically when you get to a certain point on the cassette. It also trims the front derailleur automatically to avoid chain rub and you can add small satellite shifters under the bar tape.
Dura-Ace has the option of hydraulic disc brakes or cable operated rim brakes.
There’s a dual sided power meter chainset available and Dura-Ace offers a larger 54/40 tooth chainring option for racers and time trialists, which isn't available in other groupsets. You can get the more usual 52/36 and 50/34 options too.
12-speed Dura-Ace cassettes come with either 11-30 or 11-34 teeth; an 11-28 option is likely to be added. As an example of the high spec materials used, some sprockets are made of titanium to keep weight down.
Dura-Ace has the lowest weight of Shimano’s groupsets too. As an expensive groupset, Dura-Ace tends to be found on pricier bikes. Dura-Ace Di2 is an option on our road bikes like the Objects in Motion titanium bike and the Minegoestoeleven aero bike.
Dura-Ace has the lowest weight of Shimano’s groupsets too. There’s not much difference in weight between Dura-Ace mechanical and Di2 at around 2300g for a disc brake set-up. What does differ is the price, with a mechanical Dura-Ace groupset with hydraulic disc brakes costing around £2000 against the equivalent Di2 at £3000.
Switch to next-down Ultegra and the groupset costs roughly £1,000 less than Dura-Ace. As with Dura-Ace, the new 12-speed Ultegra R8100 is Di2 electronic only - there’s no mechanical version, although Ultegra now includes the option to add a power meter.
Ultegra is often called the sweet spot groupset in Shimano’s hierarchy; it’s not too expensive but offers light weight and excellent shifting. Shimano trickles down its tech through its groupset hierarchy, so although some of the expensive materials used in Dura-Ace are missing from Ultegra, it’s almost as light at 2700g or so with disc brakes and still has a very light touch to braking and shifting too.
There’s a hydraulic disc brake option as well as direct mount and single bolt rim brakes. Ultegra electronic components are intercompatible with Dura-Ace as well. Cassette options are currently 11-30 or 11-34.
Ultegra chainsets come with 52/36 and 50/34 chainring combinations and the four arm shape of the chainset is carried down from Dura-Ace - in fact most Shimano chainsets look similar right down the groupset hierarchy.
The upspec of Dura-Ace and Ultegra to twelve speeds has left 105 as Shimano’s only 11-speed groupset option. 105 groupsets offer a pretty light action and good, precise shifting. Again, there’s a small jump in weight.
There’s a good range of component options to suit different bike configurations, so you can buy both standard and direct mount rim brakes and there are cassette options from 12-25 up to 11-34 teeth, to pair with 53/39, 52/36 or 50/34 chainsets.
You’ll find 105 components specced on bikes that typically retail for between £1000 and £2000.
Tiagra drops the number of available gears to ten, so there’s a slightly greater jump between ratios as you move up the cassette, although it’s hard to discern as you ride and shift quality is pretty much on a par with 105. The Tiagra rear derailleurs don’t have the more wrap-around “shadow” design of the 11-speed options though.
Other features cascaded down from Shimano’s 11-speed groupsets include under-bar tape routing of shifter and brake cables. Shimano offers Tiagra hydraulic disc brakes, but you’ll quite often find bikes with Tiagra shifting mixed with cable operated disc brakes from other brands.
With Tiagra aimed at a wider audience, not just performance-minded riders, it’s the first groupset down the hierarchy to offer a triple chainset as well as two-ring ones, with the 53/39 option dropped in favour of a 48/34. Tiagra also includes shifters and brake levers for flat bar bikes.
Tiagra groupsets are typically found on bikes at around the £1000 mark. There’s an increased tendency to mix and match with components from other makes or cheaper out-of-series Shimano options on lower priced bikes, so you’ll quite often find Tiagra shifting mixed with a non-Tiagra chainset and/or brakes from brands like FSA and Tektro.
Continuing down the groupset hierarchy, Sora offers nine speeds. Like Tiagra, there’s an increasing emphasis on non-drop bar bikes and more casual riders, with flat bar shifters and triple chainring options available.
Sora doesn’t offer in-series disc brakes, although the shifters can be paired with mechanical disc brake calipers.
There aren’t a lot of bikes sold with Sora. Brands tend to jump from Tiagra to next-step-down Claris, but we’ve specced Sora on our Flat Iron urban bike.
Claris components tend to be specced on entry level bikes priced between £500 and £800. Claris has eight speeds and includes cassette options up to 11-34. That’s going to give you quite large jumps between gear ratios, but does mean there’s the range to tackle hills more easily.
Even at this level, Shimano offers gear and brake cabling from the shifters that runs under the bar tape for a clean look and shifting quality is still pretty good. There are options for flat bars and even an old school down tube gear shifter.
Finally there’s Tourney, which you’ll usually find on sub-£500 bikes. With seven speeds, it carries over features from older Shimano groupsets like external cabling and a gear indicator window built into the shifter body.
GRX gravel groupsets
Recognising that gravel riders need something a little different from road riders, Shimano has a range of four different gravel groupsets in its line-up as well, with three 11-speed options and a 10-speed. They're badged either GRX 810 series or GRX 600 series.
There are single chainring configurations available for riders who prefer their simplicity, as well as two ring options. All the GRX rear derailleurs include a clutch which helps keep the chain under tension on uneven surfaces, avoiding chainslap on the chainstays and helping to keep the chain meshed with the gears. You can disengage the clutch if you’re riding on more even surfaces, which lowers friction in the drivetrain.
All GRX groupsets incorporate hydraulic brakes too, with two spec levels available.
Top dog in the gravel range is GRX 815 Di2, which as you’d expect offers electronic shifting. We have it as an option on our Off Grid gravel bike.
11-speed GRX 810 with mechanical shifting shares many of the same components as the Di2 version. Confusingly, there are two series of 11-speed mechanical components: 810 series and 600 series, with parts like shifters and chainsets offered in both, which can be mixed and matched.
Our lower priced All Mod Cons gravel bike is kitted out with GRX 600 11-speed, whereas we offer our Summon The Blood titanium gravel bike with either GRX 810 mechanical or GRX 815 electronic shifting.
To add versatility for gravel riders, there are also options available like a combined brake lever/dropper post lever and hydraulic in-line bar top brake lever.
GRX components can be mix-and-matched with some mountain bike components, so in single ring configuration you can have a Deore XT or SLX 11-speed cassette with up to 11-42 range. With a double chainring you can fit a cassette up to 11-34.
GRX 11-speed chainrings are smaller than road ones to give you lower gearing. They’re available in the 810 series with 40 or 42 teeth single ring or 48/31 two ring configurations. GRX 600 series offers an 11-speed 40 tooth single chainset and a 46/30 double.
The GRX series also includes a ten speed option. There’s a 46/30 10-speed chainset (which needs to be run with a 10-speed chain), ten speed shifters and a rear derailleur with capacity for a cassette between 11-32 and 11-36. This is called GRX 400.