Guide to Shimano Road & Mountain Bike Groupsets
Japanese company Shimano certainly know a thing or two when it comes to bicycle components. Founded in 1921, Shimano has spent almost 100 years meticulously innovating, developing and perfecting design methods in order to produce some of the most renowned and respected products available on the cycling market.
Shimano have grown to become the leading supplier of bicycle drivetrains worldwide, featuring on almost every major bike brand with the highest-spec pro-bikes often kitted out with the latest version of Dura-Ace Di2 and riders of all disciplines from downhill to time trial agree that the Shimano name is something that is synonymous with high performance and reliability.
To the beginner, differences between groupsets and the reason as to why some are more expensive than others can be a confusing topic. That's why we've decided to put together a brief guide that shows the hierarchy of shimano groupsets for both road and mountain bikes. Since 2019 you will find Shimano's high-end MTB groupsets available in a 12 speed variant, which features a massive 10-51t cassette and incredibly slick shifting.
At the top of the pile is Dura-Ace, Shimano's premium road groupset and the go-to choice for professional racers. The latest version, R9200, launched earlier this year and is Shimano's first 12-speed road groupset. Plus, it is now semi-wireless and electronic-only.
Amongst the features that roadies have grown to love with Shimano's electronic groupsets is 'Synchronised Shift', a feature originally taken from Shimano MTB Di2 systems. Synchronised shift allows the rider to change gears on both the front and rear derailleurs rapidly from a single shift, simplifying choice and reducing the time lost during racing when you're searching for the right gear. You can go full or semi synchronised, giving you total control over your gears and taking your riding up to the next level. The tidy, compact control box and Bluetooth ANT connectivity give you access to Shimano E-tube, meaning that you're able to refine your gearing to your exact requirements directly from your phone. The future is now and it's called Dura-Ace.
As you'd expect with their halo groupset, the rest of the Dura-Ace range is of the very highest quality with no expense spared whether you choose rim or disc brakes, plus power meters, shimano derailleurs and shifters.
Launched alongside the new Dura-Ace in 2021, Shimano's latest Ultegra R8100 groupset is 12-speed, electronic only, semi-wireless and available in disc brake or rim brake variations, and offers very high performance at a more wallet-friendly price point. Due to the 'trickle down' effect of technology, the difference between Dura-Ace and Ultegra becomes ever smaller, with the new Ultegra design looking particularly similar to Dura-Ace and offering many of the same features such as carbon brake levers and shadow rear-derailleur.
The weight penalty is minimal, meaning that Ultegra has become the favourite of the amateur racers and all-rounders that require fantastic performance but aren't as fussed about shaving off as many grams as possible. Ultegra is ridiculously versatile, allowing cassettes from 11-23t all the way to 11-34t and ensuring Ultegra can be utilised by racers and adventure riders and everyone else in between! Ultagra is Shimano's entry level for electronic shifting and is a brilliant option for those looking for their first bike with Di2.
The workhorse of the group and the middle point of the road hierarchy, the 105, a shimano 11 speed cassette is the perfect groupset for the commuter, weekend rider or beginner in the world of road racing or TT.
Upgraded to 11-speed in 2014, 105 is ideal for most riders, with all the reliability you'd expect from Shimano, without stretching your budget to Ultegra or Dura-Ace. Due to its versatility, 105 components can be found on bikes across a plethora of price points and are often combined with other, cheaper components. Last updated in 2019, 105 received a facelift with a sleek, angular look and is now lighter and shifts more smoothly than ever before, making this amazing price point groupset a serious contender when it comes to many rider's drivetrain selection.
Updated a few years ago, Tiagra is visually very similar to the previous iteration of 105. Other than weight, the major difference between the two sets is the gearing. Tiagra runs on a 10-speed set-up, resisting the market shift to 11-speed in order to offer a groupset that provides slightly less gears but increased savings on overall cost and weight.
Tiagra is the groupset for the leisure rider, weekend warrior or beginner on the road, giving reliable and quick performance in an easy to use, all-round package. There's also a Tiagra system for flat-bar shifters, so expect to see it fitted onto city and commuting bikes as well as road bikes in the very near future!
Offering affordable performance and value, Shimano Sora offers all mod-cons (Dual control shifters, Hollowtech II bottom bracket etc) as the 4 groupsets above it in the range. Sora offers approximately 80-90% performance of the highest end groupsets, matching many of them visually.
The key difference is the additional weight of a Sora system and the fact that it's a 9-speed - significantly reducing the spread of gears and allowing less customization of cassettes to suit different riding styles/disciplines. That being said, for its target market of sub-£750 road riders, Sora offers good value for money when you consider how much bang you get for your buck.
Claris is the most affordable of the Shimano complete road groupsets, aimed solely at those shopping in entry level, sub-£500 road bike market. Sporting dual-control levers like the Tiagra above, Claris keeps things very simple with a triple, cyclocross or compact cassette set-up that focuses on low gear ratios to make hills relatively easy.
The older yet still very reliable Octolink bottom bracket is still featured on Claris but considering the huge technology advances of the last couple of years, expect to see the trickle down effect in full force when a new version of the Claris is developed.
Mountain Bike Groupsets
The top of the MTB hierarchy, Deore XTR is offered in both mechanical and electronic Di2 concepts that both give the rider incredibly precise and quick-fire shifting that works off a single shifter, allowing you to focus more on the lines and technique without having to concern yourself with finding the right gear.
Kitted with a shadow plus derailleur and unrivalled hydraulic braking systems, Deore XTR is available in a range of options depending on personal preference, intended use and model type. Deore XTR sets itself apart from Deore XT by being the lightest Shimano MTB groupset available. Now available in a 12-speed format, with a wide range cassette of 10-51t and a twin-pot brake caliper option, the 12-speed cassette requires use of Shimano's new "Micro Spline" freehub body, which allows for a wider gear range.
Deore XT comes with matching wheelsets and pedals, completing a huge range of componentry within the Deore XT family that is both versatile and ultra-high-quality. Offering many of the same awesome features of Deore XTR, expect to see shadow plus rear derailleurs, double or single chainsets and a re-designed 12-speed design, with a wide range cassette and a twin or single pot brake caliper option.
Plus, Deore XT is available in an 11-speed Di2 version to take electronic shifting to the trail for a little less than XTR.
In essence, the difference between XTR and XT is simply weight and customization possibilities, with XTR being the lighter and more changeable option of the two (and thus the most expensive). In reality, they're both brilliant and there are very few MTB groupsets out there that come close to matching the performance of Shimano's top-range Deore systems.
Our old friend trickle down technology has worked its magic on the SLX. Equipped with many of the best features from the Deore XT and XTR groupsets, SLX is another that can be run with triple, double or 1x chainsets based upon an 11-speed cassette.
The 11-speed set-up ensures a huge gear range of up to 42t, enhanced further by the inclusion of a Shadow RD plus rear derailleur improving shifting considerably. The 12-speed version can use up to a 45t, utilising Shimano's Micro Spline hub technology. Furthermore, the new version of SLX has improved hydraulic disc brakes that are both lighter and more efficient than the previous version.
In short, SLX is a fantastic, highly capable MTB groupset for those who are looking for good performance without splashing out on the more expensive groupsets.
Shimano's Deore groupset got a major upgrade in 2020, moving from 10-speed up to 11- and 12-speed like it pricier XT and XTR siblings. Available in a 12-speed, single chainring variant or double chainring, 11-speed version, both are capable of swallowing a wide-range cassette to get you up any climb.
Shadow RD plus rear derailleur, strong hydraulic disc brakes and Hollowtech II cranksets completes a truly excellent off-roading package that balances versatility, durability and performance brilliantly to offer a smooth and responsive riding experience. Deore is available in triple, double and 1x front ring set-ups depending on preference and the intended use of the bike.
Consider Deore to be the entry-level for a mountain-bike specific groupset suitable for proper off-roading.
Alivio and Acera are often spotted on entry-level mountain bikes designed for canal paths, light singletrack, and low-level off road riding. Often mixed around with aftermarket components as well as each other, Alivio and Acera are built for strength and reliability.
Offering a 9-speed cassette able to fit sprocket sizes up to and including 36t, Alivio groupsets are available with hydraulic, mechanical (discs) or V brake set-ups and double or triple chainsets.
With the growth in popularity of gravel bikes, it was only a matter of time before Shimano introduced a specific gravel groupset, unveiling their GRX groupsets a couple of years ago. Designed for gravel and adventure riding, bikepacking and cyclocross, GRX borrows some of the best parts of Shimano's road and mountain bike groupsets with a few added tweaks to offer a full range of groupsets perfect for mixed terrain riding. Plus you can mix and match a lot of the components to best suit your requirements, with hydraulic disc brakes across the board and options for dropper posts and narrow- or wide-range gearing.
The range tops out with the RX800 group. Essentially equivalent to Ultegra, RX800 comes with 11-speed gearing and both mechanical and electronic, Di2 versions with options for a single or double chainset. GRX600 is mechanical shifting only, with 11-speed gearing and again, the option to choose between one or two chainrings. Lastly, RX400 is essenitally a Tiagra-equivalent groupset, with 10-speed, mechanical shifting paired up with a 10-speed, RX600 double chainset.
Other Shimano groupsets
In this article we have only really covered the most common Shimano groupsets found on mechanical road and mountain bikes. Shimano have groupsets for pretty much every cycling discipline you can think of including :
- Shimano Saint/Zee For Downhill riders, Shimano offer these two groupsets built entirely for strength, normally around a low geared, simple 1x system that is suitable for the immense forces of downhill riding.
- Shimano Steps E-Bike drivetrains Shimano have their own specifically designed groupsets for electric bikes to cope with the different requirements demanded of the componentry on electric bikes.
- Shimano Alfine and Nexus hese are two groupsets that are based around an internal hub. Hub gears are often seen on city or 'Dutch' style bikes and, although heavy and low range, they offer excellent strength and longevity and essentially remove the need for maintenance on your gears.
- Shimano Tourney Tourney is often seen on kids bikes, low level MTB and entry level hybrids. With a lower gear range from a 7-speed system, the Tourney offers simplicity and strength but at the cost of versatility, speed and shifting efficiency.
- Shimano DXR A groupset that is single speed is suitable for urban riding, commuting and leisurely riding. The lack of gears will cause issues in hilly areas though (Unless you've got legs stronger than steel!)
- Shimano Altus Altus components are often seen on entry-level MTB and hybrid bikes, regularly combined with Alivio or Acera components, whilst very rarely being presented as a full groupset.
For more information on these groupsets, visit Shimano's latest fully up-to-date groupset guide by clicking here.