stooges cutDo good things come in threes?  We aim to find out with a long term review of the 2015 Shimano Deore 3X group.

OK, let me set the stage here.

‘Back in the day’ when I began riding mountain bikes, everyone I ever knew or saw ran three chainrings in front; the ubiquitous ‘Triple Crank’.  I never saw a single speeder although there was this one semi-local guy that used to train on one by riding up into a nearby mountain town from the valley below on a cruiser of sorts.  Big legs, that fellow had.  But that was just an oddity and there were no niche bikes.  We all rode All Mountain bikes…we had one bike and we rode it all over the mountains!

3 legged race cutThrough the years the gearing changed a bit from the 28-38-48 to perhaps a 24-36-46 and then there was the poorly received Suntour Micro Drive, the predecessor of the present compact crank, with a 20-32-42.   And that was the way it was.  Three chainrings, period.  We used to wear out our middle ring 3 to 1 over the big ring or granny ring.  The big ring usually died from getting bashed on something before we wore it out, or at best, it was a 50/50 deal.  The small ring was typically steel (or Ti) and would last a loooong time.  The middle ring was the place to live…low enough to get up most fire road climbs and high enough for cruising single track, around town trips, etc.

three legged man cutThe ratios were close as well.  You could be running in the middle ring and then come up to something steep on the trail.  Dropping to the granny was only a 10 or 11 tooth change and unless the hill was really long and steep, you did not stay in the granny ring all that long.  You had the middle ring to come back to.  And on the other end of things, when the world tilted downwards, a push of the thumb gave you a big gear and took up all the slack in the chain so you did not rattle your chain all over your nice, steel frame.  Zip…zip…zip, across three rings with little shifting required at the cassette to manage it all.

Then I got a 29″er, a Lenzsport Leviathan 3.0, and that 44T big ring seemed a bit silly, spinning out at a speed that just did not make sense on a mountain bike.  So I removed the outer ring and replaced it with a bash ring.  That gave me a 32T ‘big ring’ and, if I recall correctly, a 34T top cog on the 9spd cassette.  I only had a 12T small cog though, so while I was, at times, spun out too soon, it was not all that bad.  And soon 2x was just all the rage.  We got 11-36T cassettes at some point giving us a decent low and high end, potentially, and cranks settled in with a typical 24-38 (or 22-36) type set-up.  Two rings to rule them all.  We gained better chain lines, shorter chain lengths, and less chance of bashing our chainrings into something.  Its all good, right?

stool cutBut I still remember the first ride on a 22-36 crank.  I was running along in the 36T, even though I was near the top of the cassette, as a 36T was a bit tall to be climbing the single track I was on and a 22T was pretty low and would mean I was running way down the cassette, when the trail pitched upwards.  I dropped into the 22T and ZZZZZZzzzz…crazed hamster spinning until I shifted at least two gears down on the cassette, maybe three.  Well this sucks.  A 14 tooth change is pretty big, from outer ring to the inner ring.  Oh well.  It is what it is and you get used to it, and on the road we now have compact 34-50 cranks that are the same way…a big drop into that 34T ring from a 50T.  Hardly optimal in some ways, but OK in others.  Note that Shimano’s XTR 11 spd 2x cranks run tighter chainring gaps…24-34T, 26-36T, and 28-38T and pair them with a close ratio 11-40T cassette.  I bet that feels really good.  A 26/40 combo is about the same gear inches as a 24/36.

As well, a 36T outer ring and a 11T rear cog is not all that tall and I can spin that out pretty easily drag racing the gang down some flattish dirt road.  And, in the same way, a larger 24-38 type crank set-up gives you a barely low enough low-low gear in exchange for that taller overall range.  Its hard to have it all with two rings.

It gets even worse with 1X.  Most 1X set-ups are not low enough for the average guy in steep places with long climbs.  To get the gearing I want on a trail bike, I would need a 28T ring with that 42T rear cog and that gives me a pretty sucky high end, even with the 10T cog on back, not to mention the way you need to run up and down the cassette a LOT to get into higher and lower gears as the trail demands…no small ring dump or big ring upshift…AND you are spending a lot of time turning that chain around a very small cog/ring which never feels as ‘good’ as an equivalent gear-inch in a larger set of drive gears (IMO).

candy bar cut

Now I am not getting all retro-grouch here.  I am not all that interested in giving up 2X and I can see the appeal of 1x for a trail bike for sure, even though I have not yet dedicated one bike that format.  Maybe some day.  But along the march to the sea of lesser gearing options, we lost some stuff too.  It was not all gain.  We lost, what I heard Shimano call, the “Driving Gear”.

The Driving Gear, that middle ring that we used to wear out faster than any other ring, the one that allowed us to span the cassette with good chain line across every cog, was really useful.  It also allowed us, with three rings, to have a very low low gear (22T) and a decently big ring, all with closer tooth counts so the gaps are not monstrous, and still keep a potentially smaller cassette too.  And it brought back something to mind that I had forgotten about, that Driving Gear concept.  It was really good to have and we tossed part of the baby out with the triple crank dipped bath water.

XTR tripleBut do we care anymore?  Most MTB riders today have never ridden anything other than 2X and some only 1X.  To get them to move back to a triple…you might as well try to get them to go back to tubes or get rid of disc brakes.  And many types of riding and/or terrains do not need any more than 1x.  So when I saw that Shimano was bringing out the new XTR 11 speed continuing with a triple crank option (along with the 1x and 2x XTR), I was really surprised.  Who would want that in this day and age?  Sherman just set the Way Back Machine to 1990.  And, after some poking around, it seems that we here in North America may never even get to try a 3X XTR group as it seems to be a Euro thing primarily for that market.  If so, then I suspect it is due partially to entrenched ways of ‘doing things’ and partially that they are, well shall I say it…more sophisticated than we are as cyclists here?  Or perhaps they use their bikes differently there, choosing to ride it around town, to the trail, up the trail, down the trail, across the Alps, to the next country and back again.  Not sure.

But we do have a 3x choice here in the U S of A in the Deore line of products  (as well as XT 3x and SLX 3x).  It sits below SLX, putting it 4 rungs down the ladder for general purpose MTB riding with XTR at the top rung.  Now when we at began thinking about all this triple crank stuff, JeffJ got all fired up.  Being a large guy, he likes a good low gear choice and as a powerful rider, he appreciates a big top end gear.  Plus he is old enough to remember what it was like with a triple set-up.  So here we are, in the beginning of a journey back to options many riders have never even considered, but with a modern take on things and at a budget friendly yet off-road functional level.

DSC06354The cassette of the Deore group is the standard 11-36T 10 speed deal, but the crank rings mimic the Suntour Micro Drive of old with a close ratio 22-30-40T.  As well, the Deore rings are quite elaborate compared to the chainrings of old, what with the computer designed ramps, pins, and forging/stamping shapes we have now.  Obviously the Deore group is not focused on being a race weight group of parts, so you can feel the heft in parts like the Shadow Plus rear der compared to XT or XTR, but the cost is quite a bit less.

We will be installing the Deore group on JeffJ’s personal bike, a Trek Stache hard tail 29″er so he will be the main tester for this run.  When he picked up the boxes from my house, you would think he was taking delivery of the Holy Grail.  Stay tuned as we see if, indeed, good things come in threes.  Meanwhile, some details below, weights, etc.

  • Brake Rear:  300g
  • Brake Front:  286g
  • Shifters (both…no housings):  273g
  • Crankarm Drive Side:  606g
  • Crankarm Non-drive Side:  259g
  • Front Der:  159g
  • Rear Der:  329g
  • Pedals M520:  375g
  • Cassette CS-HG50-10 11-36T:  384g

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Note: Shimano sent over the Deore Group  for test/review at no charge to Twenty Nine Inches. We are not being paid nor bribed for this review and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.