To get a feel for the new drivetrain, Shimano set us loose on the world-renowned trails of Crested Butte, Colorado. With a mix of XC, trail riding and even bike park laps, we had three days to test the new XTR in almost every trail condition imaginable. Thomas Vanderham even came along to reinforce that we all need to work on our style, and to share his insights on the development of the new XTR. Though he played a critical role, it was actually his first time riding the final production versions of several parts.
After a brief presentation on XTR where I was reminded just how hard it is to memorize Shimano’s product naming, we were able to take to the trails on an XC loop to acclimate ourselves to the new XTR’s function, and the 10,000-foot elevation. It turns out the elevation was the only thing that took getting used to. I felt immediately at home on the new Shimano.
The effort that was put into the ergonomics and small details is something that can’t be understated. The controls feel natural and in the right place no matter the rider’s hand size or preferences. It’s the most adjustable single bar clamp we’ve ridden.
According to Nick Murdick, the mountain bike product manager at Shimano North America, “The idea was that, in order to buy into the idea of quicker shifting, you use the flat part of your thumb to glide forward. It’s a quick transition from gripping to shifting.” If that particular style doesn’t suit your shifting preferences, “The shifters are very flexible to accommodate many differences in riding style. The shifters can be comfortable and easy to reach whether you’re bearing down climbing, or on the power descending,” continued Nick.
Shimano still retained the dual direction shifting from the inner trigger, and the textured rubber pads on each trigger make sure you never slip a shift even in the roughest terrain. As further evidence to their attention to the smallest details, the rubber grip pads are replaceable. Another small change that sounded insignificant, but resulted in a welcome improvement was the trigger feel itself. Shimano gave the paddles a more firm “clicking” sensation, and added just enough resistance to the second shift to prevent accidental double shifts. It didn’t happen frequently, but I definitely like the new feel.
Our warm up loop for the Day One ride immediately took a turn uphill from the start, giving us a chance to sample the shifting quality under load. The elevation and lack of oxygen caused most of us to reach for the 51-tooth rear cog in exasperation. That quick hammer was more than enough to realize the precision of this drivetrain. The new 12-speed XTR has lighting fast shifts even into the extreme ranges. We would need to do a side-by-side comparison with Eagle to truly get a sense of which is faster, but it’s a safe to say the Shimano 12-speed is smoother.
The addition of Hyperglide+ is also a major component of the drivetrain’s smoothness and speed. Traditionally when shifting from a large to a small cog, the chain would suddenly drop and the bike would lurch forward. Much like in a car you would have to ease off the power on each shift. However, with Hyperglide+ you are rewarded for staying on the gas. The additional pedal pressure helps the system to power both gears simultaneously for a split second, resulting in a smooth transition. There’s still a solid shifting feel, but the heavy “thunk” and resulting jerk is now gone. It’s something that is noticed right away, but quickly fades into the experience as you ride.
Speaking of fading away, it’s worth noting that this is the quietest drivetrain we’ve ever been on. The Sylence hubs set the stage as they literally glide without a sound, but the chain and driveline are also nearly silent as well. Nick cites the new extended interlink plate chain as a major contributing factor. He explained, “There’s two kinds of links on the chain and two kinds of teeth on the chainring. By extending interlink plate so it touches fat teeth and the skinny teeth simultaneously, it quiets vibration and improves chain retention.”
The clutched derailleur does an incredible job of controlling chain slap even in the 10-tooth cog. Over intense braking bumps or rocks, the only sound was a muffled rattle. We’ve never had a bike so silent that a delicate rattle in a water bottle cage was noticeable. Hikers beware, XTR is your worst nightmare! I’ve always used tire noise as an important indicator of traction, but with the new XTR that sense is heightened.
After our XC loop, we went on an all day epic that tested our fitness as much as it tested the abilities of the XTR group. Thousands of feet of mellow but sustained descending rewarded us with spectacular views of Crested Butte, and provided a punishing environment for the new brakes.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement. My test bike was outfitted with the four piston Enduro brakes and metallic pads. Shimano’s summary of the new brakes was XTR lever feel with Saint power and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description to put it into easily relatable terms. Their efforts to tune the lever feel also made a large impact. Nick elaborated that, “The servo wave track has a big effect on the modulation and tune. We ended up with Saint power but a tune that’s more enduro focused.”
Fast, unfamiliar trails are one of the best places to test brakes since braking points are unknown, and a hard panic brake before an unexpected sharp corner may follow a long, fast braking section. Time and time again, I was impressed with the XTR’s ability to manage heat. At no point during the thousands of feet of descending did anyone on the trip experience brake fade. Modulation and lever feel stayed consistent, even as I stoppied into the parking lot after a grueling, steep segment of trail. Hard braking situations yielded the more uniform lever feel I’ve felt from a Shimano. Nick explained that this was because of the new dual contact point eliminating lever flex, and transferring more finger input to the pads. “It’s a very efficient design that delivers more of your power to the rotor. If you pull hard on the lever, then your engagement point is more consistent with the dual contact point on the new lever design. We also shortened the free stroke in the brake without reducing the space between the pad and the rotor.”
After our all day epic, we decided to do some bike park laps to really put the stoppers and drivetrain through their paces. Again, the XTR group performed flawlessly as I sent my Hightower test rig with reckless abandon. The silence of the drivetrain through deep braking bumps was second to none. Despite my best efforts hammering in the smallest cog, I never dropped a chain or missed a shift. Although truly steep trails and long term testing are still needed, the brakes didn’t miss a beat in Crested Butte.
The Wolf’s Last Word
If you’ve made it this far, you most likely have only one question: Is the new XTR better than the other 12-speed options on the market? As a complete groupset of drivetrain and brakes, I would have to say, yes. As a drivetrain alone though only time will tell. Shimano summed it up best during the presentation saying, “The best bike is the one that you never have to think about while riding.” XTR is the closest I’ve ever been to that ideal. The adjustable ergonomics meant I never had to think about reaching for the levers or triggers in an unnatural place, the silent hub and drivetrain let me forget about the punishment I was giving the bike, and the smooth shifting up and down let me forget about how I was banging through gears.
Though Shimano took their time developing an answer to SRAM’s 12-speed Eagle offerings, XTR is a worthy opponent. We’re excited to put the two head to head in a long-term review to truly decide who comes out on top. Let the drivetrain wars begin.
For a full list of weights and prices, visit the Shimano XTR Website.