We've been playfully pressuring our intern to get himself a road bike. He works in a road bike shop! And it's not like he doesn't ride bikes or has never owned a road bike. He just chooses to get dirty and muddy in the trails these days. One day, he came up to us and told us his plans. It was going to be a lower-mid tier build. First he mentioned aluminium but we quickly told him to go carbon (carbon bikes are pretty affordable these days and he's never owned a carbon bike). Then he mentioned using a Shimano 105 groupset. Immediately the store was buzzing. The store manager said no - an Ultegra would ensure the intern never has to upgrade ever. The sales rep said that 105 is perfectly fine and that the intern should buy whatever he wants to, as long as it works well. The tech department guys were kinda on the fence about it. People were talking over each other. It was a warzone.
Okay, maybe a little exaggerated. But you see, the fact that there were arguments on this topic of Shimano 105 vs Ultegra means that they're both really good groupsets. There weren't any 'this groupset is shit' cases being made. It was only a matter of 'which is better?' and which made more financial sense. And such is the predicament in the recreational cycling world as well. Everyone knows by now that Shimano 105 is an excellent groupset - looks good, works well, easy to maintain and does everything it needs to do at a nice price. And Ultegra, the groupset on top of the 105 in the Shimano hierarchy, works exceptionally well and is only a level under the professional racing Dura Ace, which should tell you something about how well it performs and what standard it's at. Everyone knows that Shimano's a perfect example of a company that utilises the practice of trickle down technology, meaning groupsets lower in the hierarchy get technology from the top groupsets. And everyone mentions Shimano 105 as the 'minimum' level groupset for 'serious' road cycling. Truth is, any groupset can be used for road cycling. However, many cyclists who have used Shimano 105 swear by its durability, servicability and performance. And perhaps in some ways, Shimano's decision to make 105 such a capable groupset may be a double-edged sword as some cyclists would go 105 over Ultegra to save some cash as it performs so well and prefer to skip Ultegra for Dura Ace as an upgrade. However, the availability of Ultegra Di2 changes it a bit and also the price jump between Ultegra and Dura Ace is quite considerable, making Ultegra still a go-to groupset for serious road cyclists.
Of course, that is not to say that there aren't any differences between Shimano 105 and Ultegra. Just like with basically everything else in the world, you get more things with more money. Shimano Ultegra does come with more complex considerations on build and material. Most of it goes towards weight savings without compromising stiffness and durability of course. So the main difference between 105 and Ultegra is a little bit of material, a little bit of build design and a little bit of weight! Under 200g actually. But if you're a weight weenie....
If after reading this and checking our Road.CC's very comprehensive comparison article, you're thinking that there isn't too much difference between Shimano 105 and Ultegra, you may be about right. As mentioned above, Shimano 105's capability and excellent performance may prove to be a double edged sword here. If you were to ask us what the differences are, we'd summarise it as Shimano 105 being a fully capable groupset that's enough for any kind of riding that you'll probably be doing and at a very nice price. Shimano Ultegra is a slight step up of course. It's made with slightly better materials, smarter build designs and engineering which ultimately means that it's slightly lighter, about 200g lighter. Whether you want to take the weight savings and spend a bit more money would entirely depend on you and your needs and wants. Also remember, Dura Ace is still quite a fair bit upwards in price than Ultegra so that means that if you're ever itching to upgrade from 105 and are thinking of going to Dura Ace, that's quite a bit of money.
Our intern still hasn't decided and has since chosen to focus on another non-road bike project instead.