The new second tier Shimano road groupset is a big deal. The good news is, a great groupset is now even better.
Words and images - James Raison
Reviewing Ultegra R8000 is both easy and hard. It’s easy because R8000 is excellent. It’s hard because this is an evolution so we’re talking about incremental improvements all over the groupset rather than a revolutionary change. When you make a lot of marginal gains on an already great component set you end up with… er… a better one.
Just a caveat, this is a short term review that covers the groupset’s functions and performance over the first few hundred kms. I’ll do a longterm review in a few months that focuses on what it’s like to live with long-term.
IN YOUR HANDS
In your hot hands are some re-designed shifters. They feel slightly more bulbous at the top which fills out my hands a little better than the 6800. There’s a slightly textured surface too, not that I noticed it functionally.
Up-shift levers are now larger which is a nice. It’s now easier to shift up without mashing the brake/downshift lever, something I did with the 6800. Shifting while wearing thick gloves is less of a problem too. The brake/downshift lever feels nice in the hands and they’ve made some slight ergonomic improvements there
Lever throw to shift has been shortened for both up and down changing giving an added snappiness. My only tiny gripe is the lateral movement can be a little soft when you’re braking. Getting on the anchors had the levers swing inwards slightly. It took me a couple of rides to adjust to the lateral movement of the brake lever - this being the first mechanical rim-brake Shimano set I’ve owned in the last couple of years.
Shimano has made the brakes a lot more powerful than 6800.
My experience is a little unusual because I’m using the low profile pads on Shimano’s C40 tubular wheels. There’s bundles of power but not a lot of feedback with that setup, making it easier to lock the rear wheel than I'd expect with an alloy rim and fatter pad.
The new adjustment levers give a more finite movement as well and tuck into the caliper shape in a nicer way. Shimano’s new “booster bar” rolled out for R8000 and R9100 is the difference maker for the braking. It’s claimed to reduce deformation and thus, increase the consistency of brake application and make it more powerful. It does too. R8000 is awash with marginal gains but the braking performance is substantially better. It's so good I had to go easier on the brakes.
Guess what? It’s fantastic. The grouppo shifts quickly, it shifts under load, and quietly handles cross-chaining with indifference. The newly optimised front chainrings help to keep everything silky smooth up front and the cassette tooth profiles do the same at the rear.
Front derailleur shifting is instant and drama-free. There’s no adjustment or trimming to stave off the cross-chain grinding. The rear derailleur moves quickly too, dancing up and down the cassette with speed and precision. There's really not much more to say. It just works.
Sure, it’s shallow but I’m a cyclist so I care about aesthetics and I think R8000 looks fantastic. I like the aggressive angles and the dark grey matte finish. It’s purposeful and chunky. The shadow rear derailleur looks menacing, and the front derailleur is much sleeker now the swing arm has been trimmed from the previous generation.
WORTH THE UPGRADE?
If you have a functioning set of 6800, no it isn’t worth dropping your dollarydoos on R8000 because the performance is similar.
If you’re upgrading from a lower-tier groupset then Ultegra is a lot of performance for its price. It’s Dura Ace-ish performance for substantially less cash. Going from 105 5800 to R8000 would be quite a leap and one that would feel like a change in generation.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Ok, let’s do some nitpicking now and flag some improvements I’d like Shimano to make. This is a properly fabulous groupset but it’s not perfect. So what do I want to see from Shimano?
Improve the ergonomics. Campagnolo is miles ahead for hand-feel on their groupsets and has been for a long time. Their sculpted hoods sweep inwards and feel like an extension of your hands. Shimano’s hoods just don't feel as good. The brake lever is nice on the R8000 but again, Campagnolo's offering just feels better.
Lever throw is shorter on R8000 than 6800 but it’s still the longest of the main 3 manufacturers. SRAM and Campagnolo both have much sharper up-shifts. There’s still decent lever throw to change gear on R8000. I’d like to see that reduced. I like tactile, fast shifting and R8000 doesn't float my boat like the others.
Multiple up-shifts would be awesome. I love mashing the thumb shifter on my Campagnolo Record groupset and shifting multiple gears up with a single press. You can do it Shimano, I believe in you!
Ultegra R8000 is brilliant. Small improvements abound, and the brakes alone are a big improvement. It's just so much performance for the money. Its function is so close to Dura Ace R9100 and its price is so much less. The only trade-off is 260g more heft for the R8000 than R9100.
This component set will be standard spec on a helluva lot of bikes so you'll be seeing it a lot in the next few years. You'll also see a lot of happy owners. It's a pleasure to ride.