The details about XTR were announced back in May, and I was able to get an initial ride on the group in June, but as of right now the only people in possession of the new parts are athletes. That means you'll need to wait a while longer before reading any sort of long-term review, but in the meantime, there were still a few lingering questions related to the new parts, and Shimano's development process in general.
To find out the answers, we sat down with Nick Murdick, Shimano's MTB product manager, amidst the hubbub of Crankworx Whistler.
When will XTR actually be in stores? Have there been production delays?
Nope, we're on target. We had a fire in April that affected some of our surface treatment processes – that bumped it back a month from what it was going to be. Since the launch timing it's been consistent. Richard Cunningham [Pinkbike technical editor] was there in Japan to see when they were figuring out the actual mass production processes on the cranks; we make a couple, and then run QC processes on them, make a couple little tweaks, and all of that stuff is part of the normal plan. It's when it goes through those QC processes, and then we find a big problem that can't just tweaked away, that's where the delays come from, and we haven't really had anything like that.
I don't want to get any more specific than fall delivery, because I don't want to bum anyone out if it's just a week or so afterward. Fall is technically September 21 – December 21, but I would be disappointed if it wasn't shipping until December.
Keep in mind that our factory's in Japan, bikes are generally getting assembled in the US and Taiwan, and it takes a month for them to cross an ocean. So whatever date I give you could be any point along the way – what really matters is when you can go into a bike shop and buy it.
What's the 2019 / 2020 OEM landscape looking like for XTR? How is the group being received by manufacturers?
It's about what we expected – we knew that there would be challenges with how quickly we could make it. When we're talking about model year 2019 spec, it is what we expected it to be, but some big companies often have to hold off until the next model year, so we're not really going to get a full selection of XTR availability in a complete bike package until model year 2020 stuff from some brands.
Anyone who's shopping with somebody who does a kit build, like Yeti or Pivot or Niner, somebody like that, then that's a flexible enough model that they can just start getting kits in, and that just gets added to the menu, and you get whatever bike you want. Those will be available right away, and there are plenty of sizes of companies that will do a mid-year introduction of an XTR bike.
Shimano's Scylence freehub design.
How are you going to translate the freehub design to a lower pricepoint?
We definitely confirmed before locking in that design that we would be able to make at least an SLX price point version of that hub, and that's going to be relatively easy – we should even be able to go a little below that. We wanted to make sure that we weren't going to make something so complicated that you could only do an XTR version of it.
There were some versions early on that were a way more complicated spline pattern. It's a relatively simple design – they're squared off splines and they're machined into the aluminum.
Now we can do a freehub body for the same price as a freewheel, and we continue to lower that pricepoint over successive generations. This year, for anybody shopping for a new 7-speed mountain bike, now you can get a cassette freehub for the same price as a freewheel from us. So that's how low of a price point we can hit with that old spline pattern that's been around since 1978. It's forged out of steel, and there's very little post-machine work that needs to be done to it.
This new one, we could make it out of steel, but it does require a lot more machining after the forging, so it kind of has to be made out of aluminum, because forging it out of steel, and then machining that steel would be more expensive than just making it out of aluminum. So you can kind of picture the price points that would get an aluminum freehub body.
Why invest in a front derailleur? Why spend all that money on the development, tooling, engineering?
There still is a significant part of the world's population that wants a front derailleur on their bike. It's surprising anytime we hear it, especially living and riding in North America. Overall, it's big enough in parts of Europe to get some OE spec.
All of us at some point over the last couple of years were like, “I'll give this single chainring a shot,” maybe for a lot of us, you could see the potential, but it wasn't quite there yet, and now we're pretty much there.
There are still some compromises – your top speed is lower with a single front chainring typically than it is with a double, so if that's something you care about because you're somebody that can sprint at 38mph on a mountain bike, or you just like being able to pedal back to your house.
If there's somebody that still feels like it's the right group for them, then we don't want to be the ones taking that choice away. That's why, from the beginning, it was worth investing the money to try and make an even better version of a double than we had made before. The compromise that I was speaking about was that some of the gear steps have to be a little bigger when you're talking about a 10-51 cassette in order to get that range; if you want that range without the compromise in gear steps, then that's what a double is there for. If a 10-45 is enough range, then that's the cassette with no compromise in gear steps, so you can run that with a single front chainring, and that's considerably more range than our 11-46, our widest cassette currently.
Shimano increased the number of athletes involved with the testing of the new XTR, a departure from their previous methods.
The mountain bike scene is a little different in Japan compared to, say, the United States. How do you take the lab work from a place that's not known for having a strong mountain bike culture and validate and learn from it?
There's a lot to it, and I'd say it's very different from the way a lot of other people do things. Our R&D department in Japan has really come a long way in the last couple of years. We have one program where engineers will get sent out to work some place in the market somewhere, and just kind of learn about what it's like to work on bikes in a bike shop. I just met the current people that are in North America this year at Mont-Sainte-Anne – they'll bring them out to events too. There's an engineer working at a bike shop in Minneapolis, and one in Toronto; there ends up being a lot of bike builds and derailleur adjustments, to help understand why it's important to make it easy to get the cable out of the shifter and stuff like that, firsthand stuff.
The advanced version of that is we have engineers that will come over and work in the US office for maybe two years. The guy that did that a couple of years ago ended up being, a couple of steps later, basically being in charge of R&D of the XTR group, so he had a really good understanding of the US market and riding style, and it really heavily influenced the technology they came up with for the group.
They'll start collecting this technology, the lab work, for years ahead of time, and when they feel like some technology is ready it'll get put on the spec sheet for potential inclusion on the next group. Some stuff makes it, and some stuff doesn't, but the new brake lever design, with the inboard clamp and the extra bracing position, that was one of the things that came out of that R&D project, and basically specifically from that guy who was able to come into our market and recognize what the problem was and how to fix it.
He's led the charge of getting his team out and riding on weekends. Where a couple of years ago maybe a couple of them had bikes and you could see there little bike workshop area, it wasn't anything really impressive, now you're seeing a fleet of cool Yetis, Pivots, Intenses, and stuff like that. Those guys are going out and shredding pretty hard on the cliffs of Kobe, Japan, on the weeekends; they've taken me down some of those trails and they're pretty terrifying – slippery and steep and roots and rocks coming out of nowhere at you. So that has helped a lot, and I'm pretty stoked to be working with a team like that now instead of a bunch of people who just live inside a computer.
Athletes had more involvement in the development of the new XTR than they typically have in the past. Can you explain that a little further?
We've got a couple of full-time test riders that basically live in secrecy; for forever we've had two legendary guys, Joe Murray and Paul Thomasberg, and we added another guy in Europe this year that's a former World Cup cross-country racer, Emil Lindgren. That's the core team of full-time, super secret test riders. We'll get together and then product managers like myself will hop on and ride some stuff too; I can't push as hard as Jesse Melamed can, but I can tell if something sucks, and Joe Lawwill helps us a pretty good amount with that kind of confirmation.
We really did try to make it a focus this time around to do a lot more athlete testing than we normally would have. We didn't just want to use athletes for confirmation of the final product – we wanted to get people who could push at the current top level harder than somebody who's a retired pro, whether that's Joe Murray or Joe Lawwill – neither of them is Jesse Melamed. So the early brake test was with Andrew Shandro and Thomas Vanderham, they did a lot of back and forth testing of prototype brakes to figure out what the right amount of power and right amount of modulation was.
The brake testing ended up being the most important thing – for whatever reason, it seems like you can develop a drivetrain in a computer a lot easier than you can develop a brake in a computer. It's almost like developing a drivetrain is a science and developing brakes is an art. You kind of just have to make a couple and rely on trial and error.
Did increasing the role of athletes pay off? Will that continue to be the trend for the future?
We want to go even further in that direction. Saint would be the next thing that's got new technology going for it. We'll have a lot of questions about if that brake is still up to the task of modern World Cup racing, because things have evolved a lot – bikes, riders, courses have all changed over the last couple of years. We ask a lot of questions, and then we come up with some theories, and then the next step is to come up with some prototypes and let the athletes start playing around with them.
The price of XTR puts it out of reach for many riders, so when will we see new XT components hit the market? Has the timeline that Shimano traditionally follows been altered at all?
We have a really predictable product cycle – you can kind of expect that we're going to launch something every spring.... and that's about as much as I'm allowed to say.
I think it's just really hard for us to change. We would love to be able to have our delivery of new product match up perfectly with the launching of a new Trek or Specialized bike or something big like that, but from the day that we make the final decision, which is on a pretty set schedule it's realistically, if we wanted our timing to line up we'd have to delay stuff. There's no way you can bump it up...
And we don't want to be holding back on product in order to make it line up with those kind of cycles – I think that would bum people out even more. Maybe we miss half of a model year, but like I said, then it's just early for next year.