Shimano XTR first ride review

Dialed shifting, well-modulated braking, and silent operation

Components Gear
Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Though it was a very small sample size, Shimano’s new XTR appears to be just what you would expect — awesome. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

What is it

Shimano’s first foray into the 12-speed mountain bike drivetrain world, the new XTR M9100 group is a ground-up redesign that aims to directly compete with SRAM’s wildly popular Eagle set-up. Top line highlights of new Shimano XTR include a 510% wide range 10-51 cassette, smooth Hyperglide+ shifting functionality, Scylence (and silent) freehubs, an impressive dropper post remote, and 4-piston XTR level brakes (plus a lighter 2-piston version for the XC crowd).

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

System operation was smooth and incredibly silent. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

For a more detailed tech rundown of the all the new XTR-level goodies, check out this post on the drivetrain, this post on the new brakes, and this post on the new hubs, pedals and more. Here’s a look weights and prices of key components compared to SRAM XX1 Eagle.

Price Comparison: SRAM Eagle XX1 vs New Shimano XTR
  • Shifter: Shimano $130 | SRAM $162
  • Rear derailleur: Shimano $260 | SRAM $289
  • Crankset: Shimano: $420 | SRAM $455
  • 12spd Cassette: Shimano $380 | SRAM $420
  • Chain: Shimano $65 | SRAM $85
  • Chainring: Shimano $130 | SRAM $99
Weight Comparison: SRAM Eagle XX1 vs New Shimano XTR
  • 12spd Cassette: Shimano 10-51 – 367g | SRAM 10-50 – 360g
  • Rear Derailleur: Shimano Long Cage – 240g | SRAM – 265g
  • Shifter: Shimano – 79g | SRAM – 124g

Availability of the new XTR group is slated for Fall 2018, but no exact date has been released yet. An XT group with similar features and functionality will roll out sometime in 2019.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Dropping in on the famed 401 trail. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

For now the only people riding new XTR are a handful of sponsored pros such as Richie Rude, and a gaggle of journalists (Mtbr included) who got the chance to put the group through its paces during two days of testing in and around the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte, Colorado. Thus everything you read from here forward are preliminary impressions based on one 3’ish-hour XC ride, an afternoon at the Evolution Bike Park, and a longer 5’ish-hour backcountry adventure on the famed Trail 403-401 combo.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

We did a little XTR XC testing on this superb Yeti SB100. Who knew short travel bikes could be so fun. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

For the XC ride we piloted the exceptionally well-sorted Yeti SB100. After that we jumped onto an Ibis Ripmo (which we absolutely loved) for the bike park and trail ride session. Not surprisingly, Shimano appears to have knocked it out of the proverbial park in both form and function, though we’ll need to log far more ride time before we can make any assertions about durability — or cast judgement on if it’s better than SRAM Eagle. Keep reading to find out what we liked the most.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Cassette options for new XTR include the pictured 10-51 12-speed, 10-45 12-speed, and a 10-45 11-speed that will fit on the same Micro Spline freehub. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

  • Finally a truly wide gear range option from Shimano
  • Able to smoothly shift under heavy load
  • Exceptionally quiet system operation
  • Superb brake modulation
  • Tighter gear steps where it counts
  • Well defined shifter clicks
  • Low force requirement when shifting
  • Yet another freehub “standard”
  • Expensive — bring on XT
  • Big gear steps in the middle of the cassette
  • Encountered some brake lever pump on extended descent
  • Not available until fall
Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Navigating Boulder Mason at the Evolution Bike Park. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Mtbr’s Take

Perhaps the most telling moment of my recent encounter with Shimano’s new XTR drivetrain and brakes came several days after my two-ride test session. On a sunny Sunday morning, I headed out for a 3-hour spin aboard this Shimano XT equipped Santa Cruz Hightower. It wasn’t a bad ride by any means, but the difference between old and new was profound, especially the shifting and braking performance — and overall noise.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

The new XTR hubs are dead silent when coasting. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Indeed, while many if not most people will cringe at the idea of yet another freehub “standard,” Shimano’s new Micro Spline Scylence freehubs are blissfully quiet, silent in fact. And while this isn’t something I’ve been pining for, after just a few rides I quickly grew to appreciate the lack of noise from the rear hub, or even the slightest hint of chainslap. Instead I was acutely aware of rattling cables, squishing suspension, tire traction, and the greater world around me, which in the case of Crested Butte was a really nice place to be. Who knew you could enjoy birdsong while shredding serpentine singletrack?

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

The new XTR rear derailleur boasts decreased tension at the low gear position to prevent high chain tension in low gears. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Key observation No. 2 — and the one that will likely garner the most long-term attention — was the ability to shift like a complete idiot but suffer no negative consequences. This is thanks to Shimano’s Hyperglide+ system, which aims to let you to pedal and shift gears at the same time, say halfway through a steep, techy climb when backing off the gas likely means a dab or worse. I put this technology to the test several times, intentionally grabbing gears while cranking the cranks. Without fail, the chain quietly and smoothly moved into the desired next cog. And this was true whether climbing at a snail’s pace or mashing tall gears on the flats. It’s a more pleasurable (and more efficient) riding experience, as you never have to slow your cadence to get into the right gear.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Single chainring options include 30t, 32t, 34t, 36t, and 38t. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Along those same lines, Shimano took a slightly different approach than SRAM Eagle to the gear steps of its 10-51 cassette (one of three options, and the only one we tested). Both Shimano and SRAM cassettes are identical through the first eight cogs (10-12-14-16-18-21-24-28), but Eagle saves its largest jumps for the end, going 28-32-36-42-50, while the new Shimano XTR cassette runs 28-33-39-45-51. The key, of course, is that last Shimano shift (from the 45 to 51 versus 42 to 50), which is smoother and much less abrupt. Being a rider who spends a lot of time spinning, I definitely prefer the 45-51 approach, though a stronger rider (who doesn’t need the bailout gear as much) may lean the other way.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

Shifting under load while climbing was no problem. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Overall, shifting was just what you’d expect from the Japanese component maker, exceptionally smooth with well-defined clicks and minimal required lever force when moving into an easier gear. Shimano also carried over the ability to shift down two cogs with one lever push, but also made that second click a touch harder to help prevent accidental double shifting. Also of note is the position and shape of the shift lever, which is set-up in such a way that your thumb motion is more of a natural glide than a push with the tip. It’s a subtle difference, but one you definitely notice.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

We loved the ergonomics and light feel of the new dropper lever. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Same goes for the new dropper post lever, which mimics the XTR shift lever and has a natural light feel, making it easy to maintain a firm grip on the bars while moving your saddle up and down. And both shifter and dropper levers are coated with tactile traction enhancing rubber pads, lessening the chance of finger slip.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

The 4-piston brakes offered great modulation and not the on/off feel of some other Shimano brakes. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

Last, but certainly not least, a few words on the new brakes, which were terrific. Gone is the sometimes disconcerting on-off light switch feel that I get on the aforementioned XT-equipped Hightower, replaced with well-tuned modulation, making it easier to stay in control on steep and/or loose terrain. Shimano also made the enduro brake levers slightly taller for a more reliable hand feel, and they went back to an alloy lever blade, increasing the chances that they’ll survive a bad crash (fortunately a feature we did not test).

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

The true lack of drivetrain noise was refreshing. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

The new XTR brakes engagement point is also more consistent because the new mounting position lessens, if not eliminates flex even when pulling with all your might. I did, however, experience a hint of lever pump on the 4-piston set-up near the bottom of one particularly long steep section of Trail 403. When I mentioned this to the Shimano tech team afterward, they said that the set-ups we were testing were not final-final production product, and thus the hint of inconsistency.

Shimano XTR First Ride Review

The enduro brakes have tool-free reach adjust, while the XC versions do not. Photo courtesy Shimano/Sterling Lorence

That will certainly be something to keep an eye on when long term testing begins, which we’ve been told will commence near the end of the summer (fingers crossed). The bottom line for now, though, is it appears that while very late to the wide-range, 12-speed party, Shimano has come to market with a high functioning drivetrain that delivers new levels of precision — and silence — along with the requisite wide gear range that’s come to define the modern mountain biking experience.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (for now – more test time needed)
Price: See breakdown below
More Info:

Shimano XTR Pricing

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • Andy says:

    Find me a brake that will descend 403 and not fade. A single top to bottom run there will cook whatever braking system you are using. Back in ancient times we would have to stop to let the rims cool so we didn’t blow the tires.

    • Jason says:

      If you descend 403 like me, crashing several times on the way down give the brakes time to cool!

    • john says:

      M820 Shimano Saint, rotors with cooling flange.
      I do not burn the dry grass when I am down so the rotors must be cool enough.

  • a says:

    XTR shifter and derailleur with Eagle cassette – I wonder how that would work.

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