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Shimano XTR Trail

The 2 × 11 drivetrain of the new Shimano XTR group has been through a lot this season.

For over five months now I have ridden the 2 × 11 Shimano XTR Trail group on my ROCKY MOUNTAIN Instinct. The Shimano XTR Trail components are pure bred and high-end. It offers the very highest quality craftsmanship and the finest materials along with a very high price. But in addition to the test of the group itself, it occurs to ask the more general question of whether 2x groups are still relevant today. Meanwhile, if you are looking to have a cut and dried answer whether I am clearly for or against 1 × 11 or 2 × 11, you will be disappointed…it is not as simple as it might seem.


Here is my experience from last season with the Shimano XTR group:

SHIMANO is commonly known for a tendency towards engineering perfectionism. The XTR group is both the technology leader and the figurehead as the top most in the range of components and the craftsmanship really speaks for itself. For the most part, the components and performance has been stellar, but some aspects have really left me surprised. The stand-out issue was with the brakes, which is surprising in a line of products that have been the gold standard in the disc brake market:

Shimano XTR TrailShimano XTR Trail

The set of brakes I had on review were a very fine example of high power, great modulation and high heat resistance – just what we all have come to love in SHIMANO brakes over the last few years. So it came as a huge surprise to find that my brakes did have all these positive traits, but one issue I found rather annoying: Whenever I cycled the levers hard – as in pulling, letting go and immediately pulling again, I found the pressure point getting tighter and tighter, moving the lever further and further away from the bar. This was particularly pronounced in the right hand lever where it was downright annoying, while the other one did it too, but in a much milder fashion. This issue even caused me to send the brakes in for inspection. Soon thereafter, the brake came back to me with the comment, “Tested and found to have no abnormalities”. Interestingly enough, after they had been reinstalled, I found the moving contact point when pulling the lever repeatedly was not gone, but considerably less. How is that possible?

Other than that, the XTR Trail brake has always had serious power, never suffered overheating or fading on 1000+ meter deep descents… nothing abnormal, other than the strange inconsistent pressure point. Without this they would have been perfect.

Shimano XTR Trail

Even with the less than consistent pressure point, the XTR Trail brake has always been powerful and was reliable and very resilient.

Another, albeit only visual point of criticism is the weak finish of the crank arms in that it showed rubbing marks after only a short time in places and looked downright scary after the full season of riding. Nothing to be concerned about when talking about function and integrity of the system, but something I would not have expected from such a pricy piece of gear.

Shimano XTR Trail

A purely visual flaw, but something that the SHIMANO XTR Group is not good at – the wear-sensitive finish of the crank arms.

Everything else on the Shimano XTR Trail ended up being really close to the expected perfection. With the wide range 11-speed cassette (11-40) and the small 24T chainring, I could climb anything that my tires found enough traction on with moderate ease. I really have tried to find its limits, towing my 10 year old son on his bike in good faith behind me up a long and steep alpine climb – something I would never even attempt with my SRAM 1×11 set-up on the other bike, but with the XTR Trail I never felt I was running out of climbing gears.  Those low gears feel particularly welcome when climbing something super hard on the final effort of the day, especially after having spent some repetitive, hard days on the bike. It is a treat for tired legs to still have an extra low climbing gear in reserve. With the 24T granny, the lowest gear was actually too small for most of my normal riding, but it was very welcome on  really long tours when it was really called for.

Another thing I noticed with some surprise was how well SHIMANO’s “Driving Gear” philosophy works for me. In my area with lots of sometimes steep forest trails, but never more than 150 HM of climbing at a time, I only used the small chainring occasionally, running almost everything in the 34T chainring. This was particularly interesting, as with my SRAM 1×11 with a 30t chain ring and a 42 rear, I was running the lowest possible gear quite frequently on those identical climbs. So with me riding most of the time on the big ring, I soon learned to appreciate SHIMANO’s reasoning to make the large chainring with the titanium-carbon composite structure extremely durable while the 24T “rescue ring” is aluminum only.

Shimano XTR Trail

As for the ride, there was simply nothing to complain about.

On the fast end of the gearing range, in the 34/11 combination, I was able to deal with it just fine, but for faster marathon races where you need to hustle along shallow descents at a high rate of speed, a 36/26 or even a 28/38 crank combo might be a better choice. For my use, I can attest that the present gearing of the test 2 × 11 XTR really covered 100% of my needs.

I openly admit to really liking the simplicity of SRAM’s 1 × 11 drive trains, but in direct comparison I couldn’t help but notice the finer gearing steps of XTR. Ever since using the Shimano XTR Trail, when I ride SRAM 1X, I sometimes unconsciously change gears up and down to get to the one “perfect” gear I have come to always have with the SHIMANO. It is something fellow riders pointed out to me. So, while I wouldn’t say the wide ratio gearing of SRAM’s 10-42 cassette is way off base, the closer ratios of the SHIMANO 11-40t cassette are noticeable. SHIMANO’S “Rhythm Step” philosophy really seems to be more than a theory.

Shimano XTR Trail

One of the secrets of the performance is the harmonic ratio steps of the 11-speed cassette.

Also it is no secret that with SHIMANO’s higher end groups (XTR and XT) you can drop two cogs at once AAAANNNDD you can drop both the front chainring and the rear cogs at the same time, and that can be an advantage over SRAM 1x as well.  So while I can ride happily with the small built-in restraints of SRAM’s 1X, “The better happens to be the worst enemy of the good”, is it not? :-).

What I should also note as praiseworthy are the excellent ergonomics of the shifters, which repeatedly struck me as positive on long trips and in very rough terrain. In fact, from the shift levers to the Shadow Plus rear derailleur to the Side Swing front derailleur, I can report that it has been no fuss, no muss with very little cleaning or maintenance.

Particularly positive to me is the strength and reliability of the Side-swing front derailleur in combination with Shimano chainrings which simply always ensures that the chain migrates to where it should go. In this regard, Shimano remains unchallenged.

Wear: Towards the end of the test, with dingy autumn weather still in full force, something remarkable happened – I began to see some slippage in the forward drive. AHA! So wear finally says hello! But instead, it was a defect in the freehub of the AMERICAN CLASSIC hub (incidentally this was the first AMERICAN CLASSIC hub we received and one I have been on for over 2 years of regular use and abuse). Once that was resolved, the XTR again was just as accurate and reliable as ever. Wear-related signs, even after 5 months, are there, but so far have had no effect on the system’s performance – you really have to look closely at the chainrings and the sprockets to see signs of their intensive use. The chain elongation or chain wear remains well within SHIMANO’S typical standards.

Shimano XTR Trail

Functionally the Side-Swing front derailleur belongs to the highlights of the XTR group.

Shimano XTR TrailShimano XTR Trail

The integration of shifters and brake levers by I-Spec II is a thing open for debate. No doubt, it has its advantages – a very tidy cockpit and little width taken up by clamps. Also, with all that the brake and shift levers still being individually adjustable I found that, despite the integration, it was easily possible to tune things to an ergonomic optimum. In combination with additional switches and levers, such as the one for a dropper remote, there might be issues, especially if used in conjunction with a Rock Shox Reverb, but that is the often the case when combining components from the other “Big S”. However, with the slender lever of the THOMSON Elite Dropper that I use on my bike it was never an issue, and as described above, I used the left lever for the chainrings far less than expected, running the bike in the 34T most of the time.

Less than ideal though – especially in light of the fact that the new XTR brakes are just not quite perfect – is the fact that thanks to I-Spec II, the shift lever can not be used without the Shimano brakes and a costly reconstruction of the cover unit.

Shimano XTR TrailShimano XTR Trail


Shimano XTR Trail

Whether Touring, Marathon or an evening ride – with a Shimano 2 × 11 drivetrain one is (almost) covered for all things.

My personal long term verdict:  Now, after more than 5 months in harsh testing use and with almost no maintenance, the Shimano XTR Trail group has cut deep into my biker’s heart. Even after all the kilometers of riding I’m still amazed at how much I really ride in the 34T big chainring, how little I really go to the small 24T chainring, and how efficient it feels to be using the SHIMANO group. As opposed to the SRAM 1x drivetrains, which to me still are very good and viable options, those few additional gears you get from SHIMANO’s 2×11 over SRAM’s 1×11 make you more ‘prepared for anything’.

A possibly overlooked aspect is the weight: The XTR Trail group also weighs quite a bit but more than a SRAM XX1 group, yes, even more than the X1 to be precise. It also costs roughly 200.- (SRAM X1) to 600.- Euro more (SRAM XX1), so $220-$660 respectively. Decide for yourself if those figures matter to you more than the luxury of being truly prepared for every riding situation. I do not know about you, but for me it’s those 5-10% differences in the end – when it comes down to it – that turn a ‘good’ ride into ‘great’ ride … but everyone needs to decide this for themselves.

I admit that I would like to lose the additional left shift lever, but things like the excellent Shimano “Rhythm-Step” gear ratios of the 11-speed cassette, the excellently performing side-swing front derailleur, and the great durability of the XTR group put out some strong arguments to persuade me otherwise. Overall I am really impressed by SHIMANO’s XTR 2×11 offering. As said above the XTR Trail brakes were typically powerful and never failed, but I had problems with a inconsistent contact point, so the one component I had least suspected to find fault in, actually turned out to be the weak spot this time.

Shimano XTR Trail

Trail Surfing with the Shimano XTR …

Conclusion: Even after this review  I am somewhat torn. Depending on the priorities you set for yourself: Weight, purchase price, simplicity, shifting performance, gear ratios…the pointer at times moves more in favor of SHIMANO’s XTR Trail, sometimes more for the SRAM XX1/X01 and etc. In the end, it is a question of preference and priorities but it needs to be said: You cannot really go wrong with either.

What I can definitely say in conclusion is that SHIMANO, with the 2016 XTR (and by analogy with the new XT), has made a contemporary push and stood true to its roots. Although many initially had turned up their noses because SHIMANO has gone its own way with the 11-40 cassette and the narrow gear jumps at the chainrings (including myself 🙂 – in practice, the philosophy rings true. In any case, my months of riding a 2×11 drive train has proven that multiple chainrings are far from outdated, but rather remain as modern and relevant than ever.

RIDE ON,
c_g

Note: Shimano provided this review product at no charge to Twenty Nine Inches for test and review. We are not being paid, nor bribed for these reviews and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.