Shimano released its electronic XTR Di2 drivetrain in May of 2014. While those who rode it universally returned from the experience with glowing reports, the $2,800 USD asking price (for the complete 2x11 group) led just about everyone else to shrug off dirt Di2 as something that couldn’t possibly be worth the financial fuss and bother. “I’ll give a damn,” a lot of people said, “when I can actually afford it.”
Which is where Shimano’s new XT Di2 group enters the picture. Released last spring, XT M8050 costs approximately $1,300, well below XTR’s initial asking price, yet brings several key improvements to the table. The biggest of which is this: You no longer have to connect the drivetrain to a PC computer in order to program it. XT Di2 features a Bluetooth-enabled processor that lets you wirelessly connect with Shimano’s E-TUBE program and tune shifting performance via an iPad app or (soon) either iPhone or Android-based smartphone apps. Thanks to a new battery, there’s now also the potential to control other components (dropper posts and suspension immediately come to mind) through the left-hand XT shifter.
Shimano recently rolled into town with both 1x and 2x versions of their XT Di2 drivetrains. The plan went like this: Set up a Trek Slash 29er with the single-ring set up and graft the 2x system to a Pivot Switchblade. Head out for a ride or two or three or four and then roll out this First Look. Once we’ve laid down several months of proper riding and abuse on XT Di2, we’ll post our long-term review.
So, here they are: our first impressions of Shimano XT Di2.
Since Shimano's Joe Lawwill was unsure how much wiring was needed to bring e-shifting to the Pivot, we went long. Yes, there's a ton of wiring hanging from the belly of my bike. It ain't pretty. Amazingly, it all tucked away neatly inside the seat tube. Now, only a couple tidy lengths of wire sprout from the frame.
Installing the XT Di2 drivetrain firmly solidified our belief that a wireless version of this technology can't come soon enough. At first we'd imagined it would be a quick and easy procedure – after all, it's just a few wires and a battery, right? It turns out it's not as quite that simple, and it wasn't long before the workbench looked like a bomb had gone off, an explosion of tools and parts.
The cause of the extended installation time? Tucking everything away neatly inside the frame. Routing the whole system externally wouldn't have taken so long, but when you factor in the time it takes to figure out the correct wire length (which will vary from bike to bike), hide the battery in the top or down tube, and then running and connecting all that wiring, you're looking at a process that takes a good deal longer than setting up a “regular” drivetrain.
The good news is that there theoretically shouldn't be any need to replace the wiring any time soon, especially not at the frequency that you would have to change cables and housing. In any case, a round of meditation and deep breathing might be helpful before diving into an XT Di2 install on your own, or if you decide to have someone else tackle the task, be sure to to tip your mechanic very, very well.
There are a variety of ways to get the electronic deed done. For the Slash, we opted to store that battery inside the top tube. The Pivot, on the other hand, has a battery port integrated into the downtube.
Di2 battery en route to its final location in the Slash's top tube.
Once everything is in place, all that's left to do is set the derailleur's high and low limit screws and fine tune the derailleur's position. That fine tuning is done by holding down a button on the display unit to put it into 'Maintenance Mode', and then using the shift levers to move the derailleur in the desired direction until it's aligned properly without the chain rubbing on the next cog.
As we mentioned earlier, Shimano also has an app that can be connected wirelessly with an iPad (an iPhone version should be available in December), or via a USB cable to a laptop that allows riders to customize the drivetrain to their liking. The app makes it possible to speed up or slow down the shift speed, switch the function of the shift levers, including enabling Synchro Shifting, which makes it possible to use one shifter to control both the front and rear derailleur. We're testing both 1x and 2x configurations of the Di2 drivetrain, in order to experience and evaluate both options.
On the Trail with Mike Kazimer
Even though it's my job to geek out over the latest and greatest mountain bike technology, I still harbor some Luddite tendencies, likely due in part to the years I spent working as a bike mechanic. I'll admit that the idea of needing to remember to charge my bike in order for it to shift makes me uneasy, and I can't say that have any real beef with how the traditional cable and housing works. However, I do live in a part of the world where many of my rides take place in wet, grimy conditions, and not needing to deal with contaminated cables and the resulting sub-par shifting does sound appealing. There's also the fact that the XT battery should be able to go weeks, if not months, without a charge (and RC's experience with XTR Di2
supports that), so the whole remembering to charge my bike thing shouldn't be too much of an issue.
I'm a big fan of 1x drivetrains, and these days it's getting harder and harder to remember the last mountain bike I rode that had a front derailleur on it, so it seemed fitting to go with the single ring version of the XT Di2 drivetrain, with a 32 tooth chainring and an 11-46 tooth cassette. After some tinkering with Shimano's E-tube app to get the drivetrain set up to my liking – I set the shifting into the Fast mode, and set it so the front paddle shifter moved the derailleur up the cassette to an easier gear – it was time to start putting it to the test out on the trails.
That first ride had a number of extended logging road climbs, which gave my mind plenty of time to wander, and I started wondering why the shifter had to be so similar to a traditional layout. What if there was a toggle switch of some sort, maybe something with a shape similar to the remote for a KS Lever dropper post? Or even just two triangular buttons, one pointing up and one down? I'm sure there are reasons for this design, but it's entertaining to think of possibilities for the future.
As far as the shifting performance goes, so far, so good. Every click of the shift lever was met with a 'zzzt' noise that meant the derailleur was moving with robotic precision to the next gear. One of the benefits of an electronic drivetrain is that each shift is the same, and once the shift lever is pushed that derailleur is going to make its way up or down the cassette no matter what.
It didn't take long before I was accustomed to the slightly different ergonomics of the shifter, and the fact that you hold down the lever to shift multiple gears in a row. There's a smooth jump between gears, even when it's the massive, 9-tooth span up from the 37-tooth cog up to the easiest 46-tooth gear. Shifting through that jump wasn't an issue, but the change in cadence did feel a little strange - maybe I'll get used to it one I have more rides under my belt.
On the Trail with Vernon Felton
As a product tester, I’ve spent decades wrangling and wrenching on “the latest and greatest” products—and it’s an experience that’s left me with abiding distrust of the untested and novel. But there’s also a point when refusing to accept anything novel simply becomes an exercise in close mindedness. And, to be fair, Di2 is hardly new-and-untested. Shimano’s electronic drivetrains have been kicking around on consumers’ bikes since 2009 and were in development long before that. The question, for me, is this: Does going electric actually improve the ride?
Though I haven’t run a front derailleur on my personal bike in almost four years, I opted to build the Pivot Switchblade with the 2x version of Di2, knowing that some readers will gravitate towards the extra gear range this option can provide and because the Synchro-Shift function is intriguing. Shifting both the front and rear derailleur through just the right-hand shifter? It sounded cool. I was curious to see if it actually worked out on the trail.
The first ride, as Kaz mentioned, consisted of a decent chunk of fireroad climbing, followed by its polar opposite—a singletrack descent with its share of mud and roots. I followed that maiden voyage with another four or five rides. Almost all of it in the rain and goop. Though we’re months away from having enough ride time to give a thorough review of this group, we’ve had a healthy first introduction with it.
Shifting up the rear cassette, the jumps from cog to cog are clean and quick, even under heavy loads. Should I want to make those shifts happen even more quickly, I have that option. Or, rather, I will have that option shortly when the iOS app hits the market next month. At this early stage, I need an iPad or PC computer to get the E-TUBE deed done and I have neither device.
Shimano’s tech guys, however, did run me through the Bluetooth-enabled tuning process on their iPad and it was both surreal and kind of awesome. Though it sounds complicated, changing shift speed and shift maps (the particular points in the gear range at which the front derailleur automatically shifts from the large to the small chainring) seemed fairly straightforward. We also reversed the role each paddle played on the righthand shifter. It only took seconds to accomplish. I’m looking forward to the smartphone app. Shimano has been rightfully slagged, in the past, for limiting the degree to which riders can customize their drivetrains, but that’s far from the case here.
As it stands, the most crucial derailleur adjustments are easily accommodated with a couple button clicks of the handlebar-mounted visual display. That’s a good thing because, after a couple rides, I started dropping chains on Synchro shifts, from the large to small chainring. A bit of button pushing, however, seems to have put that to rest. We’ll see how it fares in the long run.
How will Di2 fare over the long run? That’s another big question. Fortunately for us, we’ve got several months of shitty winter weather in store for these bikes that will help add some wear and tear to the answer. Look for a long term review once we put in a whole bunch of muddy miles.