The argument against top-tier components

Shimano’s Dura-Ace 7400-series “25th Anniversary” groupset, on display at Shimano Cycling World in Singapore. Note the headset and seatpost at the far right, as well as the Seiko wristwatch.

Shimano Dura-Ace. SRAM Red. Campagnolo Super Record. All of these three groupsets are the pinnacle of what each of the three big bicycle component manufacturers offer, and can confidently be considered the state of the art.

And yet, today I’m going to tell you a few reasons why you may not want them on your bike.


As with many things, becoming a technological showcase is going to cost you a pretty big coin. As simple as a bicycle may look, a top-tier groupset mainly exists to present to the world just how much it can improve in terms of performance, many of them frequently being refinements or marginal gains over the previous generation, as was the case with Dura-Ace 7900 over 7800.

This is why I believe top-tier components are really meant for sponsored professional athletes, who will appreciate these marginal gains more – not amateur enthusiasts like many of you reading this decidedly amateur publication.

I feel this is most onerous with Campagnolo Super Record. Campagnolo already isn’t cheap to begin with, at any level; for some people, the exorbitant purchase price of Super Record over even Shimano Dura-Ace or SRAM Red just adds insult to injury.


Much like used supercars and luxury sedans may appear like bargains up front, the high costs of a top-tier groupset do not stop with the initial purchase. You still have the maintenance aspect to look at. As the parts wear away with time and usage, when the time comes that a chain, cassette, or chainring requires replacement, the sticker price may be a source of unwelcome financial “aftershocks.”

Why is this the case? Like it or not, part of the technological advancement brought on by a top-tier groupset is down to the use of unconventional materials, such as carbon fiber or titanium. One example is the titanium cogs on a typical Dura-Ace cassette. These materials are chosen mainly to save weight, longevity be damned. When hub manufacturer Chris King moves away from titanium as a material for its R45 rear hubs’ ratchet mechanisms, one should already suspect that something is up with the material. Titanium is great for making bicycle frames, but plays a distant second or third fiddle to good ol’ steel for wear items.

Exploded view of a SRAM Red 10-speed PowerDome cassette. Photo credit: Glory Cycles/SRAM

Apart from unconventional materials, sometimes it is the manufacturing methods themselves that are unconventional and lead to the greater expense. SRAM is the poster child for this, its trademark PowerDome cassettes CNC-machined from a single, solid steel billet. This feat of engineering is expensive to replicate, and so replacing a worn PowerDome cassette like-for-like is also going to mean at least a US$279 hit to your wallet.


Somewhere along the way of searching for marginal gains and shaving every last gram possible from a component, bad news starts to happen. Worryingly, this isn’t restricted to just top-tier stuff – sometimes even second-tier components have problems, too.

A cut-away Ultegra 6800 crank arm, showing off the construction that makes it hollow. Photo credit: Shimano Cycling World/Hands On Bike.

A few years ago, Shimano started to hype the lightweight construction of its Dura-Ace 9000 and Ultegra 6800 crank arms. These are made hollow by forging them in two pieces, which are then bonded together. This is in contrast to the one-piece solid forging technology used on Shimano’s cheaper or lower-tier cranksets.

For comparison, the non-series Shimano FC-R565 crankset uses heavier solid-forged arms, hollowed out from behind for some weight savings.

While this newfangled construction should be all well and good from a stiffness standpoint, numerous reports of Ultegra 6800 crank arm failure have also come in. And they’re not pretty.

Photo credit: Carlin the Cyclist.

As you can see above, this particular Ultegra FC-6800 crankset cracked just above the pedal thread area, then totally came apart precisely where the two crank arm halves were bonded together. John Carlin’s experience isn’t the only one, either. This has been a worryingly common issue with Ultegra 6800 cranks – one that I hope Shimano have addressed with its R8000 successor. While the problem isn’t as widespread with the contemporary Dura-Ace FC-9000 cranksets, it has also happened to a few riders using these top-tier cranks.

A little worrying for me is that this “Hollowtech Crank Arm” technology has trickled its way down to third-tier Shimano 105 level. That said, trickle-down technology usually means it’s been proven at higher tiers, and that same technology is made more reliable and more inexpensively in order to reach a larger audience, so we’ll just have to bet that the manufacturers have indeed done their homework. At the very least, I haven’t yet heard of any 105 FC-5800 hollow crank arms separating from each other…


At the end of the day, people are going to buy what they want. I have no illusions of making people change their minds, nor was my intention to scare people off. However, my only request is to know what you’re getting into, and not be immediately dazzled by the new tech on offer. Compare and contrast, and study the pros and cons. When it’s your money on the line, you might as well make it so that you maximize what you get.


One thought on “The argument against top-tier components

  1. Top-tier hubs are worth the money because they roll extremely smooth and those hubs DIRECTLY translate circular motion into linear motion. Some people are not even aware of it.
    With silky smooth rolling hubs I can cycle longer distances with less effort. Complete top-tier groupset is nonsense and it isn’t needed. However hubs play very important role when riding. I also use using top-tier chain and lube it frequently. The whole drivetrain is very efficient that way.
    Brakes, crank, shifter, derailleur(-s) – that doesn’t influence efficiency of pedaling so it can be much lower groupset.
    Some people say that aerodynamics is the most important but it isn’t the truth. If You preffer to ride longer distances You must slow down a bit to ride at speed where air resistance isn’t blocking You as much, You are wasting Your power for those extra 5-6 km/h like dumb man if You fight with air resistance. I mean it seriously – air resistance grows rapidly above 30 km/h so it’s better to guarantee silky smoothnes rolling of wheels (thanks to good hubs) and tolerate moderate speed.
    In case someone wants to lose weight on bike when fightinig with air resistance I say – eat less, it’s that simple!


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