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Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace: Part 1.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

What is the difference between Shimano Dura-Ace and Shimano Ultegra? Is Shimano’s flagship Dura-Ace component kit worth the additional cost over Shimano Ultegra? Exactly what are the differences between Dura-Ace and Ultegra and what do these differences mean to the consumer? How good is Shimano Ultegra?

These are good questions if you are deciding between a Shimano Dura-Ace and Shimano Ultegra equipped bike. Understanding the real differences between Ultegra and Dura-Ace is critical to know exactly what you are paying for. The answers are more surprising than you may imagine.

Shimano Dura-Ace 7800 Series for 2008 is Shimano’s highest-end component kit. It is the same kit that has won the Ford Ironman Triathlon World Championships and seven consecutive Tours de France on Lance Armstrong’s bike. When you consider Shimano’s market share versus Campagnolo and SRAM there is no doubt that, worldwide, Shimano Dura-Ace is the most winning component group on the planet.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

Shimano Ultegra 6600 Series is the next level down from Dura-Ace in price and performance on the Shimano good/better/best continuum. Ultegra started life as the Shimano 600 component kit and has had several upgrades/updates including the introduction of new 2008 Shimano Ultegra SL or “Ice Gray”. Shimano Ultegra has no Tour de France wins to claim but likely has won several Ironmans and certainly has won scores of national and local class triathlons.

In our first installment comparing the two groups we focus on the heart of the groups: The front and rear derailleurs. These are the devices that move (or “derail”) the chain from gear to gear when you shift.

This is an important comparison since most triathlon bikes use Shimano Ultegra or Dura-Ace front and rear derailleurs, or a combination of the two, and go to other companies for the brakes, cranks, etc.

One fact worth knowing for triathletes, if a bike has current Shimano 10 Speed components and shift levers in the tips of the aerobars there is only one Shimano bar-end style shifter: the Shimano Dura-Ace SL-BS78 Bar End Shifter. This is the bar end shifter used with all Shimano kits; Shimano 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. The shifters are all the same Dura-Ace SL-BS78 shifter. This is the black vinyl tipped shift lever you see on every Shimano equipped triathlon bike with bar end shifters in the tips of the aerobars. Gray vinyl tipped shift levers denote the earlier 9 speed version.

So, every Shimano equipped triathlon bike regardless of derailleurs uses the same shifter, The Shimano Dura-Ace Sl-BS78 10 Speed Bar End Shifter. The quality of the shift you feel is delivered through the tactile interface between your hand and the shifter. Whether you are using a Shimano 105, Ultegra, Ultegra SL or Dura-Ace derailleur or a mix of those derailleurs you will be shifting with the same shifter. The shift will require the same distance of lever travel and feel the same through the lever. Because of this, it is very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between Shimano Ultegra and Shimano Dura-Ace shift quality when using bar end shifters. We interviewed two bicycle company product managers, three sales reps, two technical reps, several elite level amateur triathletes and one nine-time Tour de France finisher about the difference between Shimano Dura-Ace and Shimano Ultegra when using the bar end shifters and their response was unanimous: They each said they could not tell an Ultegra Rear derailleur from a Dura-Ace rear derailleur on shift quality using bar end shifters.

Greater factors in shifting performance will be how precisely the derailleur cable housings were cut to length and had their ends finished, what type of cable housings and ferrules was used and the cable routing on the bike frame. The cleaner the cable routing and the more precise the assembly job, the better the shifting. These factors make more difference in shift quality than does the difference between Ultegra and Dura-Ace.

Shimano Dura-Ace vs. Ultegra Rear Derailleurs.

For the purpose of our review we are discussing only short cage, or “SS” versions of rear derailleurs, not the touring long cage GS version as used on cyclocross, touring or triple equipped bikes.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

The Shimano Ultegra (short cage) rear derailleur is available in two versions: The bright silver RD-6600 and the new 2008 RD-6600-G in ice gray. The new 2008 RD-6600-G Ultegra SL version is exactly 4 grams lighter than the silver RD-6600 Ultegra “Classic” version. For your reference, three paper business cards weigh four grams. Because of this minimal weight difference the Shimano RD-6600-G Ultegra SL and Shimano RD-6600 Ultegra Classic rear derailleur can be considered equal on performance and 4 grams different in weight, the weight of three business cards. The effective difference is the color. The cast main parts share the identical shapes but the hardware such as the main pivot is different. It is this small difference in hardware that accounts for the 4 gram weight discrepancy.

The Shimano Dura-Ace rear derailleur is the RD-7800-SS short cage rear derailleur. There is only one version of the short cage Dura-Ace rear derailleur.

The differences between the Dura-Ace and Ultegra rear derailleurs are:

Difference

Benefit

The Dura-Ace RD-7800-SS rear derailleur is 12.8% lighter than Ultegra Classic RD-6600 and 10.0% lighter than Ultegra SL RD-6600-G.

Less weight to move.
The Dura-Ace rear derailleur is cold forged. The Ultegra Classic and Ultegra SL are forged. Greater durability, 2 warranty on Ultegra, 3 year on Dura-Ace.
The Dura-Ace rear derailleur uses bearings on both pulleys; the Ultegra uses bearings on one pulley, bushings on another. Lower pulley turning resistance for easier chain rotation.
The Dura-Ace rear derailleur has a polymer “push plate” for quieter, smoother shifting. The Ultegra does not. Quieter shifting with lower friction on chain, better shifting under pedal force.
The Dura-Ace rear derailleur has fluorine coated link pins; the Ultegra uses non-coated link pins. Lower friction movement of derailleur during shifts.
The Dura-Ace rear derailleur is made of “Dura-Luminum”. The Ultegra derailleur is lower cost, more standard aluminum. The Dura-Luminum Dura-Ace derailleur is more impact resistant and more durable.
The price of a Shimano Dura-Ace RD-7800-SS rear derailleur as published by Shimano is $159.99 USD. The price of an Ultegra RD-66000-G rear derailleur is $109.99. The price of an Ultegra RD-6600 rear derailleur is $104.99. Ultegra SL and Ultegra are priced 32% and 35% lower than Dura-Ace.

The Dura-Ace rear derailleur weighs 180 grams and the Ultegra Classic weighs 204 grams. The Ultegra SL weighs 200 grams. These are actual product weights measured in our store, not taken from manufacturer’s reference. The Dura-Ace rear derailleur is 12.8% lighter than the Ultegra Classic and 10.0% lighter than Ultegra SL. This 24 gram weight difference is 4 grams shy of an ounce. As a basis for comparison an energy gel pack weighs 38 grams, so the difference in weight between these two rear derailleurs is significantly less than one energy gel pack.

The Dura-Ace rear derailleur is made by cold forging producing a more impact resistant and stiffer outer and inner link. The derailleur is anodized to produce its silver color and provide a durable finish. The benefit is the Dura-Ace rear derailleur will last longer under normal wear than Ultegra before it wears out and will survive impacts that may cause Ultegra to break.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
Look carefully at the difference in machining between the pivots, the round hollow part at the top.

This difference in durability is reflected in the warranties on the Ultegra rear derailleur as compared to Dura-Ace. As described on page 9, Paragraph 1 of the 2008 “Shimano Total Information” dealer reference manual, Ultegra is warranted “free for non-conformities in material and workmanship for a period of two years”. Dura-Ace is warranted for three years.

The Ultegra rear derailleur is also forged, but it is not cold forged. This difference means you can see rough-looking surfaces on the inside portions of the derailleur body. The standard forging process of Ultegra does not produce as durable a component as does the Dura-Ace cold-forging process.

The Dura-Ace rear derailleur is cold forged out of a high quality aluminum known as “Dura-Luminum” whereas the Ultegra is made of standard aluminum. Shimano would not disclose specifics of the differences in materials and bicycle company product managers did not know the differences between the two types of aluminum.

There are two small wheels on a rear derailleur, the upper wheel, known as the “Guide Pulley” and the lower wheel known as the “Tension Pulley”. Shimano achieves excellent shifting performance on both Dura-Ace and Ultegra by using a “Centeron Guide Pulley” with a small amount of side-to-side play that enables the guide pulley to center on the cassette cog more precisely. On Shimano Dura-Ace the upper guide pulley and lower tension pulley rotate on bearings. On the Ultegra rear derailleur the upper guide pulley rotates on a bushing and only the lower tension pulley rotates on bearings. This means both pulleys on Dura-Ace rotate on bearings for lower rotating resistance than the Ultegra which uses bushings and bearings on the guide pulley and tension pulley. No data is available on what the tangible differences in chain rotating resistance are between Ultegra and Dura-Ace.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
The black polymer pusher plate on Dura-Ace.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
The plate reduces friction between derailleur and chain during shifting.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
Another view of the polymer pusher/glide plate on the Dura-Ace rear derailleur. This is missing from both Ultegra versions.

The Dura-Ace rear derailleur uses a black polymer glide surface on the inside of the outer plate. This black polymer surface slides against the chain during upshifts as you are moving the chain up the cogset to the easier gears. This makes shifting quieter. This polymer surface also reduces friction between the guide plate and the chain during upshifts. This feature accounts for the quieter shifting with a Dura-Ace rear derailleur as compared to Ultegra. Shift speed and shift repeatability between Ultegra and Dura-Ace rear derailleurs are the same.

There are four link pins that hold the entire derailleur body together on both Ultegra and Dura-Ace. These are the pins upon which the entire derailleur body moves in and out while shifting. The four link pins on the Dura-Ace derailleur are fluorine coated. This coating insures the pins will stay in place longer and they move more freely in the Dura-Ace rear derailleur.

When you closely examine a Dura-Ace rear derailleur in comparison to Ultegra you see some interesting differences. Looking from the back the rear link on Shimano Dura-Ace is black in color and has a large hole in it for weight savings. The armature of the inner link is mounted outside the upper body of the derailleur for a stiffer, wider mounting to the upper body. The inner link on Ultegra rides inside the lower body of the derailleur.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

The limit screws on the Shimano Dura-Ace rear derailleur are recessed and therefore protected from damage by impact. On Ultegra these upper and lower limit screws protrude outside the upper body of the derailleur.

The general shape of the two derailleurs (three counting Ultegra Classic and Ultegra SL) as viewed from behind the barrel adjusters is also different. The barrel adjuster on Dura-Ace is closer to the upper body of the derailleur and the entire inner and outer plate assembly is slightly higher when fully retracted on Dura-Ace than it is on Ultegra.

Since the cable barrel adjuster on Dura-Ace is closer to the body the cable mounting point is closer too, riding up higher and tighter to the outer link of the derailleur.

As viewed from the front the diameter of the lower body of the Dura-Ace is slightly smaller at 20 millimeters than the Ultegra at 22 millimeters, likely another of the small differences that account for the 10-12.8% weight difference between the two Ultegra derailleurs and Dura-Ace.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

Conclusion: Dura-Ace vs. Ultegra Rear Derailleurs.

The Shimano Dura-Ace RD-7800-SS is 10.0-12.8% lighter weight than Ultegra RD-6600-G and Ultegra RD-6600 respectively. The warranty difference is one year longer for Dura-Ace. The cost difference is 32% lower for Ultegra SL and 35% lower for Ultegra Classic. There is no difference in shift speed or quality when used with Shimano bar-end shifters since Shimano only makes one bar end shifter. Given the differences in weight, warranty duration, manufacturing and materials, cost and overall performance it is difficult or impossible to detect a difference in performance between the rear derailleurs. There is a difference in durability and weight.


Shimano Dura-Ace vs. Ultegra Front Derailleurs.

This comparison is between the Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800 Braze-On front derailleur, the Shimano Ultegra FD-6600-G and the FD-6600 Braze-on front derailleurs. Long cage derailleurs for triple cranksets are not included in this comparison.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

Front derailleurs assist in performing the most difficult gear shift on a bicycle: Moving the chain from the small chainring on the crank up to the large chainring on the crank. Most bikes are equipped with a 39 tooth small chainring and a 53 tooth large chainring. There is a 26.9 millimeter distance from the small ring up to the large ring on a 53/39 chainring combination. That is a lot of vertical distance for a chain to travel while pedaling without interrupting the transfer of drive forces to the rear wheel from the crank through the chain.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

Shifting from the small chainring to the large chainring during heavy pedal load usually results in degraded shift performance including shift noise, delayed shifting, the crank skipping forward one or more chainring teeth before re-engaging the chain. Every good cyclist knows this shift needs to be performed with practice and finesse. Shifting the front derailleur from the small ring to the big ring is analogous to playing a stringed musical instrument: If you are either too heavy or too light handed you will not achieve the desired result: The combination of optimal tuning, the right equipment and practice results in the best front shifting performance.

The front derailleur plays only one role in the quality of the front shift. The crank, chainrings, chain, bicycle frame, bottom bracket, inner shift cable, cable housing and cable routing also plays a role in the quality of the front shift. We already know that on a triathlon bike there is only one bar end shifter from Shimano. Because of this the front derailleur exerts only a diminished influence on front shifting.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

There is very little difference in finish and appearance between Ultegra SL and Dura-Ace.

Placement of the front derailleur, both height and rotational position on the seat tube of the bicycle whether it is a braze-on style mount or a clamp-on style mount is also critical to derailleur performance. Shimano specifies a 2 millimeter interval between the top of the chainring tooth profile and the bottom of the front derailleur cage for optimal shifting. There is a clear decal template attached to Shimano front derailleurs that assists in setting this interval. Once the interval is set during installation and adjustment of the front derailleur the decal template is removed.

The Shimano Ultegra (short cage) braze-on front derailleur is available in two versions: The bright silver FD-6600 and the new 2008 FD-6600-G in ice gray. The new 2008 FD-6600-G Ultegra SL version is exactly 2 grams heavier than the silver RD-6600 Ultegra “Classic” version (you read that right, the SL version is heavier). For your reference, one and a half paper business cards weigh two grams. Because of this minimal weight difference the Shimano FD-6600-G Ultegra SL and Shimano FD-6600 Ultegra Classic front derailleur can be considered equal on performance and 2 grams different in weight: The difference in weight of one and a half business cards. The effective difference is the color. The cast and stamped main parts share the identical shapes.

The difference in finish of the inner and outer plate between the Ultegra FD-6600 and Ultegra SL FD-6600-G gives the Ultegra SL FD-6600-G a shinier appearance that is easier to wipe clean.

The Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800 front derailleur is slightly trimmer in size and shape than the two Ultegra front derailleurs partially accounting for the weight difference. The Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800 front derailleur weighs 72 grams while the Shimano Ultegra FD-6600 weighs 88 grams and the Ultegra SL FD-6600-G weighs 90 grams. The Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800 front derailleur is 19% lighter weight than the Shimano Ultegra FD-6600 and 20% lighter than Ultegra SL FD-6600-G.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
Hollow link pins on the Dura-Ace front derailleur save weight.

All three derailleurs use Shimano’s new “Wide Link Design” for improved shifting under load. Shimano reports a 10% improvement in loaded shifting performance with the Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800 front derailleur as compared to both Ultegra front derailleurs. This means the front derailleur will shift more repeatedly and dependably under hard pedaling, although no front derailleur performs optimally under loaded pedaling.

As with the rear derailleurs the Dura-Ace front derailleur body is cold forged, whereas the Ultegra front derailleurs are forged.

There is a two year warranty on Ultegra SL and Ultegra front derailleurs and a three year warranty on the Dura-Ace front derailleur.

Shimano lists the price of the FD-7800 Dura-Ace braze-on front derailleur as $119.99 USD and $59.99 for Ultegra SL FD-6600-G while the Ultegra FD-6600 is listed as $54.99. There is a printing error in the new “2008 Shimano Total Information” dealer manual that incorrectly reports the price of the Ultegra FD-6600 as $69.99. We notified Shimano of this error and they have confirmed that information is incorrect and the correct Ultegra FD-6600 price is $54.99 for the braze on front derailleur.

As with the rear derailleurs, it is nearly impossible for anyone to detect a difference in actual shift performance between Dura-Ace and Ultegra front derailleurs, especially when used on a triathlon bike with bar end shifters- unless the shifting is done under pedal load. The 10% improvement Shimano reports in loaded shifting performance are a tangible distinction between Dura-Ace and Ultegra front derailleurs. There is a difference in materials and manufacturing processes that makes the Dura-Ace front derailleur more durable, stiffer and lighter.

The differences between the Dura-Ace and Ultegra front derailleurs are:

Difference

Benefit

The Dura-Ace FD-7800 braze on front derailleur is 19% lighter than Ultegra Classic FD-6600 and 20.0% lighter than Ultegra SL FD-6600-G. (all braze on models) Less weight to move.
The Dura-Ace front derailleur is cold forged. The Ultegra Classic and Ultegra SL are forged. Greater durability, 2 warranty on Ultegra, 3 year on Dura-Ace.
The Dura-Ace front derailleur body is made of “Dura-Luminum”. The Ultegra derailleur is lower cost, more standard aluminum. The Dura-Luminum Dura-Ace derailleur is more impact resistant and more durable.
The price of a Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7800-SS front derailleur as published by Shimano is $119.99 USD. The price of an Ultegra FD-66000-G front derailleur is $59.99. The price of an Ultegra FD-6600 rear derailleur is $54.99. Ultegra SL and Ultegra are priced 50% and 55% lower than Dura-Ace.

Conclusion: Dura-Ace vs. Ultegra Front Derailleurs.

As with the differences in rear derailleurs, the differences between the Shimano Dura-Ace front derailleur and Ultegra front derailleurs are a one year longer warranty for Dura-Ace, lighter weight, higher cost. There is the added distinction of Shimano’s 10% better shifting under load. While there is a 10% reported difference in shift quality under load the majority of front derailleur shift performance is contingent on additional factors such as the chain, chainrings, crank, bottom bracket, cable and housings and frame cable routing.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace

The slightly lighter, trimmer profile of the Dura-Ace derailleur on the right.

The bottom line is that if you are deciding between a bike equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace and Ultegra front and rear derailleurs that both work adequately for even the best athletes to win world class events on. The Dura-Ace derailleurs are slightly lighter and more durable, but provide similar shift performance. You likely won’t be able to tell the difference in shift quality alone. The Dura-Ace derailleurs will likely out last the Ultegra but you are paying a premium for one additional year of warranty coverage. If you don’t mind spending significantly more money on the front and rear derailleur you will get improved durability and lighter weight. It is worth noting that few customers ever use a derailleur enough to actually wear it out.

Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace
Especially as viewed from the front there are few differences between
an Ultegra front derailleur and a Dura-Ace front derailleur.

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
No text or images from this article may be duplicated without expressed written permission.
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