Review: Shimano XTR M9100 long-term test

Why this 12-speed drivetrain is the best on the market

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Shimano’s latest XTR drivetrain is system integration at its finest. Photo by Jason Sumner

Shimano’s latest XTR drivetrain is system integration at its finest. Photo by Jason Sumner

Let’s cut to the chase, because we all know that’s why you’re here. You want to know, gun to our head, which 12-speed mountain bike drivetrain would Mtbr choose: SRAM or Shimano?

Well, the answer is easy. While we’ll forever love and appreciate what SRAM did for modern mountain biking, ushering in the 1×12 drivetrain era and simultaneously killing off front derailleurs, when it comes to actual shifting, Shimano’s XTR offering simply works better than any of the Eagle options.

Shimano XTR M9100 Highlights

  • Smooth and precise shifting, even under pedaling load
  • Logical gear steps, specifically at extreme ends of the cassette
  • 510% gear range covers virtually all terrain scenarios
  • Multi-release function gives the ability to drop two gears with a single push
  • 2-way release allows you to shift gears with lever push or pull
  • Price: $1,700 as tested (not including brakes)
  • Available now
Mule for this extended test session has been the incredibly well sorted and infinitely capable Yeti SB150 with Fox Factory suspension, ENVE wheels, PRO components, a Cane Creek headset, and Schwalbe tires. Photo by Jason Sumner

Mule for this extended test session has been the incredibly well sorted and infinitely capable Yeti SB150 with Fox Factory suspension, ENVE wheels, PRO components, a Cane Creek headset, and Schwalbe tires. Photo by Jason Sumner

So what defines “better”? Think about that friend who’s new to the sport and doesn’t yet understand the basic nuances of shifting. They don’t get that before you fully depress the shift lever you need to ever-so-slightly back off the gas in order to let your derailleur complete the shift. It’s a subtle art that seasoned mountain bikers have grown to understand and accept. It becomes embedded in our muscle memory. It’s not ideal, but it’s the way it is.

Related: New Shimano XTR 12-speed: What you need to know

Well, actually, not anymore. See, with Shimano’s new XTR M9100 drivetrain, you can shift like an idiot. In fact, moving through gears while still mashing the pedals is the best way to shift this drivetrain. Because No. 1 XTR allows you to, and No. 2 that means you don’t have to sacrifice critical momentum.

XTR cranks and pedals are always a good match. No exception here. Photo by Jason Sumner

XTR cranks and pedals are always a good match. No exception here. Photo by Jason Sumner

This is all thanks to Shimano’s innovative Hyperglide+ system, which lets you combine those two critical riding activities when, for instance, you’re halfway up a steep AF, techy climb and a momentarily hesitation would invariably mean a dab, or worse. Not anymore. Just pedal and shift and go. It’s simple and the way it should be.

Combine XTR’s ability to shift flawlessly under high torque with Shimano’s approach to gear steps on what will be the most popular of the three new XTR cassette options (the 10-51 version tested here), and you basically know all you need to know about the latest XTR group. While Shimano and SRAM’s wide range cassettes are identical through the first eight cogs (10-12-14-16-18-21-24-28), Eagle positions its largest jumps at the end, going 28-32-36-42-50. The wide-range, 12-speed XTR cassette, on the other hand, runs 28-33-39-45-51. The key, of course, is that final shift (from the 42 to 50 on versus 45 to 51). One is abrupt and clunky. The other is smooth and crisp.

You can guess which Mtbr preferred. And, no, it’s not because Shimano one-upped SRAM with one extra cog tooth. Honestly, we didn’t even notice. We just noticed the quiet, smooth, and breathlessly precise way Shimano XTR M9100 moves your chain up and down. Every. Damn. Time.

Keep reading to learn more about our XTR test session, and stay tuned for an accompanying post on Shimano XTR four-piston brakes, XTR hubs, and some of the other components on this Yeti SB150 test build, which when added up has been one of the best all-around bikes Mtbr has ever ridden.

The Magic of Hyperglide+

Go ahead. Mash on the pedals and shift at the same time. Shimano XTR does not care. Photo by Otto Maddox

Go ahead. Mash on the pedals and shift at the same time. Shimano XTR does not care. Photo by Otto Maddox

To understand why we’re such big fans of XTR, it helps to understand how Hyperglide+ works. In a nutshell, the tooth shapes on the M9100 cassette guide the chain up and down the cassette, providing faster, smoother shifting in both directions. That’s combined with the M9100 HG chain, which features extended inner link plates that connect seamlessly with new chainring tooth shapes, keeping in contact with each tooth. That quiets side-to-side vibration and results in better drivetrain efficiency because you have improved chain engagement, stronger retention, and a smoother pedaling action.

Now, think about out-of-saddle shifting while under full pedaling load. Normally you wouldn’t. You’d hesitate, shift, and resume spinning. And if you did shift under load there would be a jerky feeling and loud clunking noises as the chain jumped from one cog to the next. Not with XTR. It’s smooth, quiet, and fast, making for the most pleasurable shifting experience we’ve had to date.

The multi-functional and talented shift lever quickly became a favorite piece of the XTR puzzle. Photo by Jason Sumner

The multi-functional and talented shift lever quickly became a favorite piece of the XTR puzzle. Photo by Jason Sumner

Controlling all the precise movement is a Shimano RapidFire Plus shift lever, which is claimed to offer lighter operation force and more versatility thanks to an I-Spec EV lever design that features greater flexibility in mounting for a clean and ergonomic cockpit. Indeed, Shimano says their latest XTR lever delivers 20% quicker shift activation with 35% less shifting operation force compared to XTR M9000. Mtbr obviously couldn’t precisely validate any of that, but we can say that the lever action is indeed quick and easy. No delays or tired thumbs here.

Related: Shimano XTR first ride review

Combine that with the multi-release and 2-way release functionality, and add in well-conceived ergonomics and small rubber grips on the paddles, and there’s a lot to love about these shifters. I actually shifted more just because it was such a pleasant (and reliable) experience. And because the second shift of the multi-release function requires a touch more input than the first, there were no accidental shifts.

Cadence Counts

We really appreciated the tighter gear steps at the top of the 10-51 XTR cassette, seen here dusted in red Moab dirt. Photo by Jason Sumner

We really appreciated the tighter gear steps at the top of the 10-51 XTR cassette, seen here dusted in red Moab dirt. Photo by Jason Sumner

Then there’s the whole gear steps thing. Instead of having to sometimes toggle between porridge too hot and porridge too cold, Shimano engineered reasonable gear steps where it matters most, at the top of the cassette when you’re likely in the hurt locker. Indeed, this addresses what was for me among the biggest issues with SRAM Eagle, that you often end up climbing in a gear that’s too easy because you don’t have a better option because the 42-tooth cog is too tall. But with Shimano XTR there’s a sweet spot in the 45-tooth cog — and when the trail does get steeper, the jump to the easiest gear is far smoother.

Durability and Dependability

The M9100 HG chain utilizes extended inner link plates that seamlessly connect with a revised chainring tooth shape. Photo by Jason Sumner

The M9100 HG chain utilizes extended inner link plates that seamlessly connect with a revised chainring tooth shape. Photo by Jason Sumner

Be honest. How many times have you had to adjust B tension on your SRAM Eagle group? The guess here is more times than you’d like. And how about that little red plastic set-up tool? Probably not your favorite tool.

Well, Shimano gets the nod here, too. They smartly printed a little mark on the back of the outer pulley cage that makes it easy to set B-tension without the need for a red plastic tool. More importantly, once set-up, I’ve yet to have to mess with the B-tension. This stuff has just kept working properly over a test session that’s entering its fifth month of regular use.

Nothing is Perfect

Shimano’s multi-material 12-speed 10-51 cassette isn’t the lightest option out there, but it may well be the best. Photo by Jason Sumner

Shimano’s multi-material 12-speed 10-51 cassette isn’t the lightest option out there, but it may well be the best. Photo by Jason Sumner

Outside the fact that it took Shimano way too long to bring this drivetrain to market, it’s hard to find too much fault here. Weight weenies may still decide to opt for SRAM XX1, which with its blingy carbon cranks and other fancy bits is a fair bit lighter (and more expensive). Indeed, XTR’s weight and cost is more in line with X01 Eagle, which is actually about 50 grams lighter if you add up the cranks, derailleur, chain, cassette, and shifter. I personally don’t care. I ride trail and enduro bikes, and prefer good shifting over saving an inconsequential amount of weight.

Related: What’s best mix of 12-speed Shimano XTR, XT, and SLX?

The other knock, and this one will be tough for some, is that the XTR cassette requires use of Shimano’s new Micro-Spline driver body, which utilizes 23 rectangular splines, allowing for use of a multi-piece cassette with a 10-tooth cog. The cassette employs what Shimano calls its Beam Spider construction, where a combination of aluminum (3 largest cogs), titanium (5 middle cogs), and steel (4 smallest cogs) are used for the best blend of weight savings, rigidity, and durability. And in case you’re curious, the 10-51 XTR cassette weighs 369 grams, or about 10 grams more than a 10-50 Eagle X01 cassette.

The issue with the Micro-Spline freehub requirement is that it has not been licensed to many other wheel makers yet, meaning DT Swiss, Mavic, Industry Nine and a few others are your only options at the moment. You can also purchase an XTR hub and build up your own wheel, which is what we did here, utilizing a set of ENVE M735 carbon wheels, which have been bombproof thus far.

Shimano XTR Verdict

Shimano XTR has been a reliable companion over five months of testing all around Crested Butte and beyond. Photo by Otto Maddox

Shimano XTR has been a reliable companion over five months of testing all around Crested Butte and beyond. Photo by Otto Maddox

No buried lead here. We told you our verdict in the second paragraph of this post. But in case you somehow missed it, the bottom line is that Shimano’s latest XTR and first truly purpose-built 1×12 drivetrain is awesome. And if it’s out of your price range, don’t fret; the XT and SLX versions that were released earlier this year are almost just as good.


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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  • Mike says:

    While I do agree, that the new XTR shifter is way better than Sram XX1/X01 Eagle one, I cannot agree with everything that’s written down in this article. I’ve been using M9100 in XC races for half a year already and here is my feedback:

    -M9100 shifter is worse than the old M9000. Why? Because once You reach the lightest gear, the lever just blocks (identical to Sram), while in M9000 it went “loose”. The latter is better, cause it clearly shows You’ve reached the end of the cassette, while the other You have to try pushing it harder to realize it won’t move further (I still don’t know why Shimano changed that)

    -The rear derailleur feels less stable and more “squishy” than the previous one. And the “don’t have to touch B-tension screw again” argument is not valid at all. I had to put loctite on it and only after 3 corrections it stayed the way I set it up.

    -Sram derailleurs work better with oval chainrings – since the clutch is not friction based, it doesn’t need to be maintained often. Oval chainrings make the cage move constantly, which wears out the clutch and it starts squeaking, unless cleaned and lubed regularly.

    -Sram XD cassettes are easier to clean, since they’re more “open”, also almost fully made of steel, so they wear slower

    Overall – new XTR is still a great drivetrain, however I liked the previous one more in terms of how it felt. And if the weight is a problem (compared to XX1 Eagle), then go for full XTR with RF Next G5 cranks + Shimano 12s specified NW chainring.

    • Mike says:

      Thank you for pointing out the “Loose setting” when at the top of the cassette. I love that feature. I’m on M9000 shifting with XX1 cassette because I’m a low key weight weenie and I prefer Shimano shifting. I have XTR 9120 brakes and was thinking about getting XTR 12 speed for Christmas, but now I have doubts. I almost never wish I had a lower or higher gear, I really dont want to add 150 gr, and now this. I think I will hold out longer. Thanks for saving me $1300!

  • Michael says:

    Jason, have you tried the new Sram AXS stuff? Wondering how you would compare the Sram X01 AXS to the Shimano XTR M9100 groupset? Pricing is pretty close between the two…

  • Suns_PSD says:

    Can one retrofit (assuming we have Microspline) the XTR cassette and chain while keeping their AXS parts and have the best of both worlds.
    Shimano had a 9-46 option I believe with a short cage that was cancelled I think? Any changes with that? I have little use for a 50/ 51.

    • Mike says:

      Shimano never had any cassette starting from 9 (E13 made those). Also – the 9-46 has almost the same range as 10-51 (511% vs 510%) so what’s the difference… You use smaller chainring up front with it and get exactly the same.

      They do however have 10-45 cassettes, but I wish they got rid of the 18->21t cog jump, instead of just shortening the jumps between big cogs.

      As for mixing Sram 12s with Shimano 12s – possible and working good (tested on many setups). The difference in cassette’s cog spacing is like 0,05-0,1mm (multiplied by 11 jumps gives You max. of 1mm), which doesn’t matter in real life – the chain has more side movement on jockey wheels). Also – Sram derailleurs work well with Shimano shifters and vice versa. The only thing is that if You’re using shimano cassette, go for SH chain and SH chainring as well.

  • Al says:

    I’ve been on the XT 12 speed drivetrain for a couple of months after coming off SRAM XO 11, and while I agree that the shifting itself is the best I’ve ever experienced, the shifting effort is much heavier, even with the clutch off. Maybe it’s the XT vs. XTR shifter?

    • Mike says:

      Nah, it’s how Shimano 12s shifters work. I have 10s XT on one of my bikes and this thing shifts so lightly I sometimes push it unintensionally.

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