Tested: 2013 Shimano Saint Brakes, Derailleur, Cranks and More
by Brandon Turman
Surely by now you've had time to salivate over Vital's new 2013 Shimano M820 Saint equipped Santa Cruz V-10 test bike. If not, take a moment to catch up on all the tech specs in this gallery, then come back for a detailed breakdown of how each new component performed during a three day thrashing at Whistler Bike Park.
Ready for anything, the Santa Cruz V-10 Carbon served as a great testing platform for Shimano's new goods.
Born in 2003 to meet the durability demands of the freeriding scene, the Saint group has lost weight and been refined with every generation. Now in its third iteration, the new M820 Saint group has shifted its focus to downhill and speed, yet was designed to maintain the same bombproof durability it's known for.
Our goal during our three day stay at Whistler was to put the new parts through the wringer in a short amount of time, and what better place to do that than Whistler? Now in it's 13th year of operation, Whistler has hosted over 1 million riders and is home to nearly every type of trail you can imagine - from rocks and roots to jump trails and high-speed whoops, it has it all. Combined with the high speed lift, it's a phenomenal place to get a really good feel for how well parts stack up in very little time.
The first two days were gorgeous. Think sunny skies and hero dirt. Then the rains came for day three, allowing us to see how the new bits would fare in both good and bad weather. We rode from open to close each day, putting in a total of 25+ lower mountain laps (Garbo was closed, but it's opening soon for those that are jonesing). A typical day consisted of a quick warm up lap on a jump trail, followed by several rock bashing runs on Schleyer, Joyride, Whistler DH, French Connection and the like, plus one or two A-Line variations to give the hands a break. This amounted to sore arms, even bigger calluses, a completely roached rear wheel, and one huge perma-grin that has yet to go away. After three days of punishment the Saint group kept on ticking, but it wasn't without a few hiccups…
We were joined by an impressive pro rider crew, including Geoff Gulevich, Matt Hunter, Darcy Turenne, Katrina Strand, Mike Hopkins, Thomas Vanderham, Darren Barrecloth, and Andrew Shandro. The guys and gals have been riding the new Saint line for several weeks and had nothing but positive things to say about it.
New Stoppers - The Shimano Saint M820 Brakes
At first glance it's obvious that the design of the lever has changed dramatically from the previous generation. It's now very similar to last year's XTR lever, and has a much slimmer, narrower appearance. Most notably, the lever length has changed, requiring you to move the brake mount further outward to maintain proper one-finger positioning. Squeezing the brake tightly with one finger, there is no lever contact with the thumb or other fingers.
Ergonomically, the lever feels great. There are no uncomfortable ridges, it holds your finger tip securely, and the lever pull is very smooth. Reach adjustment was super quick and easy using the tool-free dial adjuster, and we didn't fiddle with the free-stroke adjustment because they felt great to begin with. Because the pivot location is close to the bar, when squeezing the brakes hard your fingers don't want to slide off the ends of the lever, unlike some of the offerings from other manufacturers. The perch also felt slightly stiffer than the previous model, likely because the lever is shorter which results in less rotational force at the clamp.
After a few dozen rolling stops in the parking lot to break in the pads and bed-in the rotors, we headed up the hill. Expectations were high after hearing the majority of the pro riders praise the new brakes during the morning presentation.
Just a few feet down the trail, it was plainly obvious that the new Saint brakes have maintained the same incredible amount of stopping power as the previous generation. We could get LOTS of power, fast. For those that know Whistler, you could hit the GLC drop at full speed, no brake through the deep braking bumps at the very bottom of the hill, and come to an immediate stop once you hit the pavement. What was very readily apparent and obviously different, though, was how controllable the power was. Previously Saints brakes were known for being very "touchy," meaning they were either on or off. Now there's a full range of in-between. As an example, it was possible to come into loose corners with the brakes on without the rear end breaking loose.
In dry conditions, rotor noise was non-existent. In the wet, a very slight howl would occur at slow speeds, but only for a split second - likely long enough to clean the water from the rotor. Shimano chalks this achievement up to improved pad compounds. Whatever is it was, hooray! Having quiet brakes in all conditions is pretty amazing and pretty rare. We're hopeful that they stay that way as the pads and rotors wear.
What about durability in the event of a crash? One of the other testers tried his best to take out a tree with the lever and found that it was still intact, unbent, and functional afterwards.
Shimano made a boat load of changes to the brakes in the name of better heat management, including finned pads, finned rotors, a longer banjo, and ceramic pistons. They also came up with a new hose material to improve consistency. Most of our runs were short and relatively light on sustained braking, so it's difficult to weigh in on the impact the changes had. However, there were four or five occasions near the bottom of runs where we'd pull the lever and it would contact earlier in the stroke, and then return to normal one or two pulls later. This caught us by surprise in a few sections as we'd all of a sudden be grabbing way too much brake as a result of the inconsistency.
The new aluminum finned pads are certainly interesting. As the first point of contact, a lot of heat is transferred to the air that rushes by as you're cruising down the trail. However, when Shimano added the fins to the backing of the pads, they also added weight. That additional weight had an unintentional consequence - the new pads make a very slight but audible jiggling noise on smooth trails. Pulling the brake levers a small amount stops the noise. Joe Lawwill, Shimano's main USA marketing guy and all-around pinner, mentioned that they experimented with different pad spring weights to stop the jiggling, but ultimately it was decided to continue to use the same spring as the last generation. Some riders will notice this, others won't.
A Quieter Drivetrain - Shadow+ Meets Saint
By now you're all hopefully familiar with Shimano's new clutch derailleur system, Shadow+. If you're not, you should be. This revolutionary technology is the greatest thing since the dropper post and will greatly improve any ride. At the basic level, the clutch works similar to a coaster brake, which allows motion in only one direction, preventing the derailleur cage from rotating and thereby keeping the chain tight at all times, helping to eliminate chain slap and improve shift consistency. Much like its XTR predecessor, the clutch on the Saint derailleur does its job very well. The chain still occasionally contacts the chainstay, so you'll want to use a chainstay guard, but it's far less frequent than a traditional derailleur.
Now then, after praising the clutch mechanism, we have to point out one fatal flaw that can potentially negate the improvements provided by the clutch. On day one, our test bike was legitimately noisier than a traditional derailleur. How can that be? It turns out that the rather large clutch knuckle/switch portion of the derailleur was hitting the chainstay, not the chain.
After introducing a new direct-mount derailleur hanger at Sea Otter this year, Shimano had to design the new Saint derailleur to work with both traditional and direct-mount hangers. Herein lies the problem. When installed, the direct-mount hanger positions the derailleur lower and further back than a traditional hanger. Because none of the bikes at the launch were outfitted with the direct-mount hanger, compatibility and clearance issues became readily obvious. Nearly every bike without an up-sloping chainstay had the same issue, and some more-so than others, particularly FSR designs. To remedy the problem, Shimano's techs added more b-tension to some bikes and inserted a "mode converter" on others.
The two remedies worked, but at the expense of shifting performance. Adding more b-tension or inserting the mode converter when using a compact cassette increases the distance of the pulley from cassette when in the bigger cogs. According to Shimano, the increased distance that the chain has to travel from the pulley to the cassette can reduce shifting quality. Shimano indicated that "with a direct-mount hanger it's completely a non-issue." Faced by the same problem, the Norco World Cup Team actually had custom hangers made because Norco, like several other frame manufacturers, doesn't yet design their frames to be compatible with a direct-mount hanger. Now then, did we notice a huge change in shifting performance with the b-tension dialed a long ways in? Not really, but then again this isn't a high-end road bike. We're used to downhill bikes shifting poorly in comparison. That's the nature of the beast. The decrease in performance may be more readily apparent if the derailleur was used in an all-mountain application.
With the b-tension adjusted and some mastic tape applied to the contact point on the chainstay, the derailleur was immediately quiet - a very welcome change from the first day. It seemed to completely eliminate chain slap, and the wide links aided in crisp shifts. Time will tell just how durable it is, but so far so good. Clearance issues aside, we were impressed.
Shift Faster - The New Saint Shifter
One of the downsides to the Shadow+ rear derailleur is that it requires more force to shift. To compensate for that, Shimano made a few modifications to the shifter. For starters, they added bearings internally to reduce resistance. Next, they made the levers are slightly longer. This helps with increased leverage, and also allows you to position the shifter better when combined with the new Saint brakes since the brakes tend to be further outboard on the bars now. The levers were always easy to reach and easy to press, even in the wet thanks to the textured surface. No complaints there.
Our favorite feature on the new lever is the increased thickness of the release lever, which allowed us to shift without paying any attention to what we were doing, simply because it's possibly to shift both forward and backward.
Still Bombproof - Saint Cranks
As any rider who has bent a crank will tell you, all cranks are not created equally, and Shimano's Saint Cranks have set the bar for durability for several years. For this new generation, they've simply refined the spider in order to save 100 grams. Oh, and they added some fancy bolt covers. They maintain the same strength you've come to love them for, and still use a steel axle and pedal inserts. Ride wise, they were still as stiff as can be, didn't creak, and spun freely.
One area that we wish had improved is the finish quality. Just like the old Saints, the new crank arms wear very quickly. After just three days of riding the finish is rapidly disappearing.
Minor Changes - Saint Hubs
Much like the cranks, the hubs saw only minor adjustments from the last generation. Besides a new graphic and lock nut system, the front hub is slightly lighter. Both hubs still rely on loose cup and cone style bearings, which are actually better suited for wheel applications than cartridge style bearings due to side loads.
During our limited time riding them, there was no side-to-side play, relatively low spinning resistance (wheels spun for a while with no brake rub), and the 10° engagement system was solid.
Completely New - Shimano PD-MX80 Pedals
When Shimano asked their pro riders what they wanted in the new Saint line, one of the most requested upgrades was a brand new pedal. The PD-MX30, Shimano's previous offering, had a 8.5mm higher profile, 3mm thinner footprint, much smaller traction pins, and were less concave than the new PD-MX80 pedals.
Despite still having a relatively thick profile when compared to some pedals on the market today, we only clipped the new Saints a few times while in the rocks at Whistler. They spun freely, but not out of control, provided good grip when paired with Five Tens or something similar, and seemed downright beefy. One of the other testers did manage to bend a spindle, but from the sounds of it, it was a rather hard rock strike that did the pedal in, so we're chalking that one up to user error.
When you first get the pedals, they'll be equipped with washers under the pins. Do yourself a favor and remove them asap for some extra pin height and improved traction.
What's The Bottom Line?
Is the new Saint group worth your hard earned dollars? Is that even a question? If we had to choose, we'd start with the derailleur, then the brakes, then the pedals. All three have undergone substantial improvements and are worthy investments. Even those with the quietest rides will notice a huge transformation when the derailleur is bolted on - it really is that effective. Save a few very minor inconsistencies, the brakes are the best downhill specific stoppers we've used in a long time. Because the hubs and cranks saw far fewer improvements, they'd be last on our upgrade list. Overall, Shimano has successfully refined their Saint lineup into a complete system that every downhiller or freerider will benefit from. There's no doubt about that.
Riders seeking comparable performance and technology at a better price should take a look at Zee, which will be nearly 1/2 the price of Saint when it hits the shelves in a few months. While we didn't get a chance to ride it, it stems off the success of Saint and certainly looks like it'll get the job done well.
We'd like to extend a quick thanks to the Whistler Bike Park for the amazing trails, Endless Biking for keeping everyone in check, Santa Cruz Bicycles for the incredible test rig,Fox Racing Shox for the on the fly suspension tune,GoPro for enabling us to capture some unique perspectives (stay tuned for those in the long term Saint review), Oakley for the fresh goggles during the mud fest, Sterling Lorence for the great action and studio photos, the techs who worked tirelessly to prepare and tweak our rides, and Shimano for creating a killer new Saint group. Thanks, all!
All the good photos are courtesy of Sterling Lorence / Shimano.