There's plenty of buzz surrounding Shimano's upcoming XTR 12-speed group, but most of that speculation is based on the photos and information that were released back in late May, rather than real-world experience with the new parts. (If you missed it, RC covered all the details in his First Look article
). Even now, there still aren't that many groups out in the wild, and it's looking like it'll be late fall before there's any sort of widespread availability.
Despite the production delay, Shimano was able to build up a fleet of bikes with the initial run of parts, and invited a group of journalists to Crested Butte, Colorado, to try out the new components for themselves. Crested Butte may be short on oxygen (most trails begin around 9,000 feet above sea level) but the trails are incredibly scenic, with fast, flowing singletrack that winds through aspens and across open meadows. I was able to get in four days of riding, which was enough time to start forming some early impressions of this exciting new component group.
You Can Change Gears Whenever You Want
When Nick Murdick, Shimano's North American Product Manager, was giving the brief rundown on the new drivetrain, there was one point that caught my attention – the Hyperglide+ cassette is designed to shift well under load. Theoretically, the shaping of the teeth on the cassette and the chain design should make it possible to crank up a steep climb and shift whichever way you want without needing to soft pedal, and without causing horrendous metallic noises to come from the derailleur and cassette.
To test that theory, I purposely shifted poorly, waiting until I was in the middle of a climb to shift the cassette into an easier gear. The result? Quick, smooth, and precise shifting every single time, and it never felt like I was doing any damage to the drivetrain.
The shift up into that 51-tooth cog from the 45-tooth cog felt just as smooth as all the other jumps on the cassette. I was aboard an Ibis Ripmo, and the chain stayed securely in place even when I backpedaled more than I ever typically would. Shimano has a well-deserved reputation for paying attention to the steps between gears (although their 11-46 M8000 cassette might not fall into that category), and the new XTR cassette is a prime example. The tooth count difference between the cogs makes a lot of sense, with the bigger jumps positioned closer to the middle of the cassette, rather than having one monster shift into the easiest gear. Shifter and Dropper Lever Ergonomics
Each click of the shifter is positive and well defined, and it takes less force on the lever to shift up into an easier gear than before. I'd say that SRAM's Eagle X01 shifter has a lighter action, but the XTR shifter has a more solid, distinct click when pushed. You can still shift down two cogs on the cassette with one push, but the second click is more noticeable than before, which makes it easier to avoid inadvertent shifts.
A new dropper post lever may not be as exciting as a 12-speed drivetrain, but the SL-MT800 lever has a nice feel, with a lever shape that mimics that of the XTR shifter. It was mounted up to a Fox Transfer post, a pairing that worked very well – even if none of the other new products described here pique your interest, this could be an upgrade worth considering.
The lever has been designed to provide better modulation, while the four piston caliper provides more power.Saint Power With More Modulation
All of my ride time was spent on the four-piston XTR caliper, although there is a two piston version for cross-country riders who don't need massive stopping power and want to save some weight. The increased amount of modulation was immediately noticeable; there's not as much of an on / off feeling, and it's much easier to feather the brakes, which can come in handy in loose, slippery terrain.
The lever feel remained consistent over the course of the four days of riding I got in, but keep in mind that that the trails didn't have that many sustained super-steep sections – I'd need more time and a wider variety of conditions to make any sort of call as to whether or not the changing feel at the lever that was present in previous versions has been fixed. As far as power goes, I never felt undergunned, even in some of the steeper rock garden sections found in Crested Butte's Evolution Bike Park, but it'll still take more testing to really see how they stack up.
The only thing that's still missing is some sort of pad contact point adjust – I'm pretty picky about where my brakes start to grab, and even with the updated amount of free-stroke on the XTR levers I still found myself wishing they engaged just a little bit quicker. The Sound of Scylence
The vast majority of freehub designs currently on the market make some kind of noise when freewheeling, ranging from a quiet 'click, click, click', to what sounds like a swarm of angry bees. Shimano's new Scylence freehub sounds like... nothing.
That's right, the rear wheel is completely silent when you coast, and it might just be my favorite feature of the new gruppo. It's amazing what happens when those clicking sounds are eliminated – it was almost disconcerting at first to not have an audible speed indicator, but within seconds I was reveling in the silence. The lack of noise makes it easier to hear the sound of your tires grabbing at the ground, your brake pads contacting the rotors, and the rest of the world around you.
Sure, there's no longer an early warning system to alert hikers of your presence, but that's what a bell is for. I'd rather have the option to be noisy instead of being forced to make a racket all the time. And if you really miss the sound of a loud hub, a baseball card and a paperclip is all it takes.