Testing Shimano Ultegra 6800 has brought nearly as much joy as this Colorado mountain view.
Every cyclist evaluates drivetrains a little differently. For some it’s all about price. Others obsess over aesthetics. Maybe weight is all you care about. For me, front derailleur shifting trumps all. If a system can move the chain from one chainring to the other without excessive exertion or tribulation, I’m a big fan. That’s why I’m all in on Shimano’s Ultegra 6800 11-speed mechanical drivetrain, which offers top-tier performance for a second-tier price.
With minimal hand effort and literally no error, the 6800 front derailleur has flawlessly moved my chain up and down during six months of testing on all types of roads and in all types of weather. Like much of the updated Ultegra group, the front derailleur benefits from Dura-Ace trickle down. Shimano takes what it develops for and learns from its flagship drivetrain, then finds ways to bring to a more price-point friendly level. (MSRP of the Ultegra 6800 groups sans wheel and pedals is $1,250. Dig around the internet and you’ll likely find it for less).
Front shifting has been virtually flawless, while the four-arm spider makes switching chainrings simple.
The big change between the previous generation 6700 and new 6800 front derailleur comes in the form of a longer activation arm (more leverage) and a support bolt against the frame (increased stiffness). The net effect is easy and consistent shifting in both directions. I’ve encountered rear derailleurs that took more shift effort. There’s also less required lever throw, which makes it easier for riders with small hands or when you’re changing gears in the drops.
But there is more to this story than just hopping back and forth between the 50 and 34 (or 53 and 39 if you prefer). Options abound throughout the new group. Chainring choice includes the aforementioned standard and compact offerings, plus a tweener 52-36 and a cyclocross friendly 46-36. All four use the same bolt spacing, so swapping requires little more than slight derailleur adjustment. Crank length choices include 170mm, 172.5mm and 175mm, and you can run five different cassettes: 11-23, 11-25, 12-25, 11-28 and 11-32, the later requiring a switch to the Ultegra GS mid-cage rear derailleur, something Dura-Ace doesn’t yet offer. Combine a 34-tooth chainring with a 32t cog and you’ll be able to climb up the side of your neighbor’s roof.
Of course this is also the first 11-speed Ultegra group. For me personally, the jump from 10 offers only minimal performance advantage. But there is at least a rational argument behind making the switch. With the additional cog you get more seamless gear progressions. So for instance if you run an 11-25, you hold on to the 16-tooth cog formally only found within an 11-23 cassette. Even a 28-tooth-equipped cassette (my preference) maintains a relatively close ratio. That means you could conceivably race the local Wednesday night crit, then go for a climbing-laden weekend ride without changing wheels or swapping cassettes.
Standard and GS mid-cage rear derailleurs mean you can run 11-23, 11-25, 12-25, 11-28 and 11-32 cassettes.
First, though, you may need to address the fact that your old wheels are not compatible with the wider 11-speed cassettes. Some wheels (Mavic, for instance) will only require you to ditch a spacer. Others could be more complicated. But if you’re buying a new drivetrain, perhaps new wheels are in order, too. The Ultegra 6800 launch also included a new set of $750 wheels, which have performed admirably during our test, standing up to regular dirt-road beatings with nary a wobble. Our one beef is that mounting tires on these new hoops can be a challenge due to the tight tolerances of the tubeless-ready rims.
There’s yet more Dura-Ace trickle down in the 6800 crankset, which uses the same asymmetrical four-arm spider as its pricier big brother. Besides making chainring swaps easy, Shimano claims the design both strengthens and lightens the crankset. It’s hard to quantify the former, but the 6800 crankset scrubbed 26 grams from 6700, which played a significant role in the overall 35-gram difference between the two groups. (Ultegra 6800 weighs in at 2,274 grams. You can see a full price and weight breakdown on Page 3 of this Review.) The notion behind the unequal spacing is that pedaling force is not equal throughout the stroke, so you can strategically reduce the number of arms (and in turn weight), but still maintain stiffness where it’s most critical.
On the road there was no discernable loss of power transfer due to the reconfigured cranks. And while some might dislike the asymmetrical look, those kinds of things simply don’t bother me. My bike’s a tool, not a prom dress.