Ultegra vs. Dura Ace vs. Race Wheels

A version of this article was originally
published in Triathlete Magazine

I want to get a new bike with Shimano’s Dura Ace components and with Zipp 404 race wheels. The problem is that I can’t afford both. Am I better off getting the race wheels and downgrading to Ultegra on the components or should I just get the race wheels later and go Dura Ace now? Amy , OR


We encourage the athletes we work with to consider their race wheel decision and their bike decision independently whenever possible. Race wheels are an investment and you do not want to compromise on other important pieces of equipment, like the frame, fork or (most importantly) the fit, in order to just get a pre-packaged bike with race wheels that might not be ideal for you. In the end, all of the pieces of the bike that make up the whole create the end ride and ownership experience.

This being said, your question is a good one. In order to answer it completely, you should have a general understanding of the primary differences between component levels within Shimano’s offerings. Many of these differences are not isolated to Shimano’s line; all the major component manufacturers tend to share design and material concepts across their product lines and the functional differences between levels outlined below can often be applied to Campagnolo and SRAM components as well. The primary functional differences between the Ultegra and Dura Ace are as follows:

Bearings and Bushings: Dura Ace uses higher grade bushings and bearings than Ultegra. In some components, like the derailleur pulleys and brake pivots, Dura Ace uses low friction bearings where Ultegra uses a more basic bushing. Bearings operate smoother and last longer than bushings and thus have a mechanical advantage. Dura Ace components also often use higher quality seals, higher grade stainless steel ball bearings and harder bearing races (the surface the bearings run upon) than what is found in Ultegra. These all help to minimize rolling resistance and friction while maximizing component life.

Weight: By using more aluminum and titanium, Dura Ace is about half a pound lighter than Ultegra when weighed as a complete group. The majority of this weight difference is found in the cassette, cranks and hubs.

Crank Sizing Options: If you use a 177.5 or 180mm crank length (generally a taller rider), you will need to use at least one Dura Ace part on your bike as Shimano currently only makes Dura Ace cranks in these sizes.

Coatings and Finishes: Dura Ace drivetrain components receive the most advanced and durable surface finishing Shimano offers. These finish treatments are applied to the outside and the inside of the components and are designed to make shifting as quick and smooth as possible while also maximizing durability. Examples of this include the nickel plating on Dura Ace front derailleur cage plates and low friction Fluorine coated link pins on the rear derailleur.

After reading the above, you might immediately conclude that the differences between the groups are substantial and that you must have Dura Ace if you are going to perform to your potential. This would be misleading as Ultegra level parts are still designed for high mileage riders and racers who value high performance and high quality. Furthermore, the two groups share many key elements in regards to materials, features and design and many people do not use Shimano components where some of the differences between the groups are most substantial (like the hubs and wheels). It is also important to note that Ultegra and Dura Ace components are compatible with each other and it costs little to upgrade some important bearing based parts to Dura Ace on an otherwise Ultegra equipped frame kit.

But what about the weight loss? Isn’t a half pound a lot? Remember, bikes do not ride themselves and any weight difference should be kept in perspective and related to total vehicle weight (bike and rider) and not just the bike alone. Even for a very light rider, losing a half pound of weight is still well under half of one percent of total vehicle weight. Furthermore, the difference in weight between a standard training wheelset and a lightweight race wheelset is usually over a pound, so an Ultegra bike with race wheels will be lighter than a Dura Ace equipped bike with more basic wheels. Add in the over four minutes of calculated aerodynamic and rolling resistance benefits (over an Ironman for a rider averaging 20mph with standard box section rim equipped wheels) and it becomes obvious that race wheels have a lot to offer.

What does this all add up to? In a timed event, you would be hard pressed to find a noticeable difference in speed between equal riders riding either group on otherwise equally equipped and well fitted bikes. Taking this into account, for many riders, the most discernable benefit of Dura Ace may show up years later as it can last longer and operate smoother after the miles stack up and the parts wear.

Thus, the answer to your fundamental question regarding race wheels or Dura Ace lies in your end goal. If your end goal is to get the absolute lightest and most durable Shimano parts group you can, Dura Ace is going to win out. On the other hand, if your goal is to ride as fast as you can, an Ultegra (or 105 for that matter) equipped bike with a well matched set of aero race wheels is going to cross the finish line before an equally well fit and ridden Dura Ace bike with more basic wheels every time.

Based on this, when it comes to equipment, if you are concerned with maximizing your performance, efficiency and comfort, pay attention to the following in order of importance:

1)  Fit. Nothing matters more than being well positioned as your body still has to do the work regardless of how nice the bike underneath it is. Working with a qualified professional bike fitter can be a great place to start.

2)  Frame and Fork. The frame and fork glue that holds the rest of the bike together. Find a frame and fork that fits you well and matches your needs as an individual as best as possible. Your bike fitter can help.

3)  Wheels. Race wheels can make a big speed difference for a rider going average to above average speeds.

4)  Components. Dura Ace is great stuff, but no one has lost a race because they were on Ultegra and not Dura Ace…

Do not forget that a little training, proper rest, and recovery can help too! Enjoy the ride and train hard and smart!


May 2007/Copyright © 2007

Similar Posts