Words by Chili Dog Photos by Paris Gore, Sterling Lorence, Chili Dog
Just about one year ago, Shimano invited us to the mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado to experience a newly redesigned 12-speed XTR groupset. While the trails blew our minds, the performance and smoothness of the new group was something like we’d never experienced before. Shimano’s reinvention of the XTR group was just that; a complete re-design and re-thinking of their entire groupset from square one. The results were impressive, with top notch ergonomics and on trail performance. Sadly, Shimano struggled deliver the new XTR group in a timely fashion and it’s something they made sure not to do again with the new XT and SLX.
We just got home from a couple day trip to Bellingham, Washington for the launch of the new Shimano XT and SLX groupset. As you probably know, XTR, XT and SLX all share the same basic features and feel, but with varied materials, coatings and tweaks to meet various price points.
With Shimano launching both XT and SLX at the same time, there’s enough technical information, numbers, sizing options and confusing Shimano part names to make your head spin. We’ll keep this simple and get into the basic tech of the important bits. If you want more detailed information on any of the specific parts or specific variations for your bike, head to the Shimano website as they have everything broken down.
For those that missed the story from Crested Butte last summer covering the launch of XTR, Shimano completely redesigned their flagship mountain bike group to bring them up to speed with modern consumer demands. And now, one year later XT and SLX are updated to match their high end sibling in the typical trickle-down flow.
ERGONOMICS At the core of the re-design is the cockpit ergonomics. Shimano worked long and hard to redesign the ergonomics of the shifter, brakes and dropper post. Fitting with Shimano’s Make Your Mark slogan, there is substantial adjustability in the system, which allows rider to fine tune reach and fit angles on the bar. For XT, the shifter lever has 30 degrees of rotation from the brake lever, and moves in a 14mm long sliding track to adjust the reach in and out on the bar. Shimano’s new dropper remote follows the same principals on the left side of the bar. The set up is neat, clean and offers much needed adjustment for riders that have large or small hands.
On the XTR shifters, replaceable rubber grip pads are added to the shifters and dropper remote to add grip in wet conditions. To reduce costs on XT, the rubber pads are retained in the paddle, but are not replaceable. With wet Bellingham conditions, we were able to test the function of the pads first hand and can verify the improvement in grip.
The double shift capability is also retained from the previous generation, but with updates. Instead of the equal force clicks the system had before, the new XTR, XT and SLX require just slightly more effort for the second shift, completely eliminating accidental double shifts in rough terrain. It’s intuitive and makes the already natural feeling shift action of the system even better.
BRAKES Shimano’s brake feel and levers have been a polarizing topic, but the new design and feel is sure to please more people than ever. To improve rigidity, the levers now have two contact points with the bar: one at the clamp, and a separate point towards the lever itself. This change improves rigidity and lever feel under hard braking. Shimano also tuned the servo wave curve with a different ramp to improve lever feel. For those wondering, it does decrease the on/off feel that Shimano opponents nag about, but still retains the quintessential Shimano feel. I for one think it’s the best and most natural feeling brake lever out there.
XT keeps the same great feel we’ve grown to love, and has both a two and four piston option. We’re also happy that both groups will offer a two or four piston brake option. This year marks the first time ever that SLX is offered in a four piston design. We hope to see a lot more four piston Shimano brake spec on eMTB’s since the added weight makes the spec very necessary. This year also marks the first time Freeza rotor technology is used in XT and SLX brake rotors, which will also hopefully find its way to more OEM e-bike spec.
DRIVETRAIN Much like the overhaul to last year’s XTR, Shimano started at the drawing board to rethink XT and SLX. Of course the whole reason for the redesign was to introduce a 12-speed option, but Shimano actually broke the 12-speed cassette into two variants. The first is a 10-51 tooth 12-speed Wide Range cassette that offers 510% gear range. If you’re keeping track that’s one tooth more than Eagle. The second option is a 10-45 tooth 12-speed Rhythm Step that offers a 450% gear range with more even gear steps. Shimano also made significant changes to the tooth profile on their cassettes to provide the contact necessary for Hyperglide+. XC nerds can rejoice since the double front chain rings and derailleurs are also retained for XT and SLX. We’re curious to see how much longer that stays true however.
In our opinion the biggest difference in the drivetrain is of course Hyperglide+, which was initially debuted last year on XTR. When shifting from a big cog to a small cog, a chain traditionally wants to eject into the smaller cog. Shimano’s goal is to move the driving force smoothly between gears and thus improve shift smoothness. The Hyperglide system solves that problem by relying on chain tension, and updated tooth design and an updated chain profile with an extended interlink plate and tooth profile. The inner plate is in contact with every tooth of the drivetrain, so it’s not only quieter but now allows better power transfer to hold two gears simultaneously during a shift. In a nutshell, the harder you push, the smoother your shift. It’s the polar opposite to a traditional drivetrain and resulted in a rather rude awakening once I returned home to the current Shimano and SRAM product on our test bikes.
XTR vs XT
Many riders will find themselves trying to decide between XT and XTR. Thankfully both are completely interchangeable, meaning riders can mix and match as they see fit. XTR cranks will work with an XT drivetrain etc. The core difference between the two isn’t features, but materials and coatings. Quite honestly, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two in a blind test, since performance and on the bike feel are so similar if not almost identical. And for that matter, if we were building our own bike, we’d probably select some SLX to save even more money.
Boiled down to the most basic principals, XT simply uses more cost effective materials than XTR, and has different coatings throughout the system. For example, the chainring on XT is an aluminum inner with a steel tooth outer ring. One key area of difference is actually the chain. Shimano offers three chains in three price points at the XTR, XT and SLX levels. All retain Hyperglide+ abilities, but the difference is in the surface treatment. XTR has the most durable surface coatings, and is a worthwhile upgrade even on an SLX drivetrain since it improves reliability along with having lighter hollow pins and has more strength since a hollow pin can be peened more effectively and is thus stronger.
XT and SLX also got two new aluminum wheelset models for each. One is a 24mm inner width rim, and the other is a 30mm inner width rim, Both have 28 spokes, but the 30mm has traditional J bend spokes for easy replacement when things go wrong. Keen observers will also notice that Shimano pulled back on the Sylence hubs launched with XTR because of reliability issues. Instead, XT and SLX wheels come with a 7-degree play angle traditional hub design with 100 points of contact. The tubeless wheels are available in Boost, non-Boost, and pretty much anything else you can dream up.
Since XTR has been heavily delayed (it’s only recently started shipping), and we haven’t gotten a long term test group yet, this XT launch was the first time I’ve ridden the new Shimano product since the launch of XTR in Crested Butte last year. It’s safe to say I’ve forgotten just how much I like it.
Shimano invited us to Bellingham, Washington as the area has a little bit of everything to offer. Serving as our tour guides for the weekend were local legends Jill Kintner, Bryn Atkinson, and Lars Sternberg. Thomas Vanderham was also on hand to show us what the new XT was really capable of in the right hands. Shimano pays him the big bucks to verify that their product works just as well sideways in the air as it does under us mere mortals going straight on the ground.
Our test loops spanned the full gamut between fire road climbs, technical descents, and even bike park jump lines. To say I’m jealous of Bellingham’s local riding would be an understatement— it’s time to move! Weather also ranged from hot and sunny to wet and sloppy, giving us a chance to test the new XT product’s performance when it was loaded up with wet loam and mud. Not surprisingly it never faltered. During my two days of slamming the bike around, I was unable to produce a single mis-shift. To put it mildly, the new Shimano drivetrain will literally alter the way you ride your bike forever.
I’ll start with the big change: Hyperglide+. I have yet to experience shifts on another drivetrain that can compare to the smooth, crisp and surefooted feelings experienced with both XTR and XT. Being able to shift under load both up and down changes the way you ride, and encourages you to grab gears out of or into corners that normally wouldn’t be possible. On trails that undulate up and down with punchy climbs followed by short descents, the benefits are even more noticeable. The harder you pedal, the smoother the shifts become. Shimano even let us have at an e-bike they had on display, and hammering through gears in full boost yielded nothing but increased forward momentum. I’m pretty sure I would have broken something shifting and pedaling like that with any other drivetrain, which goes to show how much promise this drivetrain has for the eMTB world. While Shimano isn’t marketing an e-bike specific product line, all of their products are tested on, and rated for e-bike use.
The brakes are also equally as impressive. Lever feel, modulation and controllable power are all on hand exactly where you want it as a result of the fantastic ergonomics and adjustability. Much like with XTR, the improved servo wave feel at the lever and increased stiffness are immediately noticeable. Both make braking power more consistent and intuitive even on prolonged downhills with high heat build. Even in sloppy conditions where traction was hard to come by, our XT test brakes had power that was easily managed.
The best part? There’s no wait to get product. Shimano has worked tirelessly to make the XT/SLX launch smoother than XTR, with a June 14 start sale date, and product currently in their warehouse. We’re excited to get some prolonged testing in on XTR, XT and even SLX. We look forward to letting you know how the stuff holds up under long term use.
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