Some things in life are constants. The old pairing of ‘death and taxes’ is now to be joined with ‘Hungover British journalists on a press launch, complaining about stems being too long, bars too narrow and tyres not sticky enough’. You’d have thought that we’d be happy just to be in Austria for a couple of days to try out this year’s hottest new product range – 2011 Shimano XTR. And, yes, we were all very keen to get on with riding it – which makes the stem-length and tyre durometer bleating a little understandable: if you’re going to be testing a high end – perhaps ‘the’ high end groupset, then you want to be able to get rough with it without wondering if your tyres are going to skitter you off that cliff-edge path you’re riding…
Most of these complaints were soon dealt with (thanks to Jeff Kabush for lending us some of his Maxxis tyres…) and we were let loose on the Austrian countryside in search for singletrack. This proved rather harder to find than expected, but we eventually found that the next village had a ski-lift and a lone ‘freeride’ trail, which turned out to be pretty challenging, especially given the steep and rooty nature of the terrain. Throw in some rocks and a fair amount of moisture and we were set…
The bikes at our disposal were all from Scott and ranged from the hardtail Scale with 2×10 XTR Race, through the XC/Marathon Spark and finally the ‘trailmountain’ Scott Genius. We managed to get out for three days, despite some changeable weather and got some good miles in…
So, how does Shimano’s top-end groupset perform?
As you’d expect, having brand new components (we were the first journo group of the fortnight) and a freshly mechanic-set up bike should mean that it all worked as it should. Pads were new, as were cables, so it was all very smooth operating. So, let’s go through each bit…
Part of the new Dyna-Sys revolution is to improve shifting response. There’s still the same instant release on the rear shifting as current XTR, and you can still downshift two gears at a time with the trigger; either with thumb or forefinger. The shifting, though it’s always pretty light on XTR, has been made more even throughout the range, so that as you get up to the lower gears, the effort to shift to the next easier gear is as light as it is from gear 10 to 9. This works so well that it’s easy to forget, but well worth bringing attention to. There’s still a tactile and audible ‘click’ so you know you’ve shifted, only it’s easier on the thumb. Rear shifting seemed precise and accurate throughout the range, with the cassette doing sterling service despite some awful conditions.
One other quick ergonomic feature is the addition of little dimples both on the face of the thumb-shift lever and on the brake lever itself. A small touch, but one that really improves grip and feel in the wet while not being that obtrusive. It looks more like the modification a pro might make to their own race bike, so it’s another little feature that makes the shift/brake experience a little more ‘factory racing’.
Front shifting is XTR smooth again as you’d expect. I mainly rode the triple, which now features a smaller range (42, 32, 24 rather than 44, 32, 22), and found it very reliable and swift. On my brief ride on the new ‘race’ double setup, shifting was very swift. Without a SRAM XX system to A-B compare it with (yet), I’d say that XX still has the edge on smoothness and speed of front shifting, but there’s very little in it (and I may still change my mind when I get to try both back to back…) This’d be a good time to talk about Shimano’s gearing thoughts. They’re expecting most people to go for the triple setup, with only racers going for the double (in 44/30, 42/30, 40/28). There is a more freeride granny-and-middle chainset coming out (38/26), though we didn’t get to try it. This won’t come with a bashguard and the bolt circle is different enough that the aftermarket folk are going to have to get busy. We saw with Mark Weir’s bike on a recent visit that he’s running a single 1×10 setup, but Shimano currently has no plans to cater for the ‘one by’ market just yet, arguing that Saint is the gruppo of choice for such people.
Forget the ten speed shifting, the brakes are the gem of the new group – and definitely where they’ll win fans over SRAM. They’re tiny, yet powerful (and both versions feature an optional one piece shifter/brake mount). Current XTR brakes are good, but not brilliant, especially when you’ve tried Saint. New XTR goes some way to bridging that gap with strong, fade-free power from tiny, tiny levers. I spent two days riding freeride trails on a Scott Spark with the XC brakes and 160mm rotors and didn’t feel that I was lacking power – Shimano claims a 10% improvement over 2009 XTR). Another great feature was the lack of fade; given the descending nature of our testing, I was hanging on the brakes for the whole ten minutes or so of each descend and there wasn’t a hint of pump. Given that they were prepped and bled by a Shimano mechanic, they should be good, but it was a great sign for the brake-draggers among us. And remember, these are the XC race brakes – so they’re the stripped down ones with ‘normal’ brake pads. On my try with the Trail brakes, you really notice a further increase in power (Shimano claims 25% stronger than 2009 XTR) with the ServoWave feature (and the 180mm discs) and again, despite slightly hungover brake dragging on the final day, the braking was consistent and seemed reasonably bake-proof. Some of this praise should go to the ‘how did they do that’ Ice-Tech rotors, which use a sandwich of steel/aluminium/steel to draw heat away from the brake surface, as well as the new finned brake pads on the Trail brakes.
Another winner (and one where Shimano wins big over SRAM) is the mighty SPD. The new pedals are lighter again with some judicious trimming of material and some machining of bits that will scuff anyway. The new version of the classic SPD is the standard by which all other pedals are measured. Simple as that. But, not content with that, Shimano has made a hybrid trail version of the pedal by combining the reliable SPD clamp with its own bash guard. Although the central pedal bit doesn’t pivot, like Shimano’s M647 DH SPD, the mechanism is still easy to find and engage, while the (non replaceable) bash guard keeps the mechanism safer and offers a lot more clipped-in and non clipped-in support to the shoe.
There are new XTR wheels too, coming in two versions: The XC versions will be UST tubeless and some in QR/QR or QR/15mm. They feature a scandium rim with 19mm rim bed. The All Mountain wheels will come with a 21mm rim bed and in 15mm or 20mm front and 12mm or QR rear (with a 142.5 ‘standard’ too.
All-up, if you factor in the wheels too, new 2011 XTR is 300g lighter than its previous version. There’s an extra sprocket in there, more powerful brakes, sweet and light shifting and some good wheels and pedals too… Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but this is the top-end groupset from an engineering giant, and so represents the pinnacle of current bike components, so it ought to be the stuff of dreams, afforded only by the sponsored, the well-heeled or the obsessed amateur.
It’s going to start appearing around October and we can’t wait to see it. How about you?