How do you improve one of the best? It’s a constant struggle for competitors and companies at the top of any sport. Shimano is one such company, and they always leave us in eager anticipation of their latest XTR component release. How can they make the best better? More gears? New materials? New features? Improved methodology? Yes to all of the above as we headed to Crested Butte, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains for a couple days testing a near-production version of Shimano’s new M9100 XTR group.
In the past Shimano has relied on a secretive group of product testers to develop XTR, sometimes with mixed results (ie Dual Control levers). You could argue this has helped SRAM become a popular alternative. A few years back, while Shimano was still confident we needed front derailleurs, SRAM stepped in and took drivetrains a new direction with 1X across the board. This time around, it’s either a sign of the times or lessons learned, but Shimano talked to its user group much earlier in the development process—basically crowd sourcing what racers want and learning as much about how they ride their bikes as possible in the process.
Shimano took an early survey of over 200 athletes asking them what they wanted from the new XTR. One thing they learned, for instance, was they had a pretty even split between 11-speed and 12-speed desirability. Moreover, the athletes they worked with are much more gravity oriented. Freerider Thomas Vanderham helped develop the new XTR trail brakes. They also got enduro ace Jesse Melamed and Richie Rude riding early prototype parts plus gravity veteran Andrew Shandro providing more valuable feedback. These aren’t the cross-country racers that we’re used to associating with XTR, so does the “R” still stand for “racing?”
You bet it does, but we all know the face of racing has changed – enduro has become enormous and if Shimano develops parts that can survive a weekend in the hands of someone like Rude then they can survive just about anything. Although the technical specs detailing the new M9100 Group were spilled over a month ago, we travelled to Crested Butte, Colorado to get a first-ride impression.
If you haven’t been to Crested Butte before, it’s a mountain bike paradise tucked high in the Rocky Mountains at 8,900-feet above sea level and surrounded by stunning mountain peaks that climb even higher. Flying in from sea level it took our breath away both literally and figuratively. It’s a stunning place to ride any sort of bike let alone Shimano’s best.
XTR Drivetrain Highlights
Choices For All
While SRAM seems resolved to only offer 1X drivetrains on its high-end kits, Shimano is pushing choices. You could argue fewer choices than in the past—gone is 3X gearing—but with M9100 you can choose between 10-45T or 10-51T cassette range, 1X or 2X front gearing, 12-speed or 11-speed rear, 2- or 4-piston brakes and a host of other bits to adjust just how your build suits you.
Super Light Shifting Action
You can’t talk about choices without mentioning shifting, and although 12-speed is a hot buzzword Shimano wants to point out that it may not be required. Melamed and Rude have both been riding prototypes and both actually prioritized drivetrain stability over 12-speed range. Although the 11-speed XTR is lighter (the 11-speed cassette is 76 grams lighter than the 12-speed 10-51T) its benefits also include a 28mm shorter rear derailleur with a 6-link shorter chain—thereby gaining stability and clearance as well as losing weight.
On the bike, the shifters had great ergonomics with a more inboard lever clamp mount yielding increased side-to-side adjustability, and the shared I-spec brake / shifter clamp declutters the bar nicely. Thumb paddles receive a comfortable textured rubber coating that should be especially welcome to gloveless riders. Shifts require less force than before, creating some of the lightest shifting action we have experienced. When you grab more than one gear the second shift requires a bit more pressure than the first lending some tactile command to the task at hand. In comparison, SRAM Eagle shifters have a more pronounced click, albeit with their spring-loaded fast action. Shimano XTR upshifts can be made with either a push or a pull of the second lever, allowing use of your thumb or index finger for more choices. SRAM Eagle shifters are all thumbs and rely on only a push for either up or down shifts.
Multiple Rear Derailleurs
The new XTR rear mechs received a ground-up redesign to optimize them for their use—choose between the max rear range of 51T, a short cage option for the 45T cassettes, or one optimized for a 2X system. Optimization means the best shifting possible and is ideal for racers, but these parts aren’t cheap so figure out what system you want before making the investment. Swapping from one system to the other would be expensive.
There is a M9100 front derailleur, but the bikes we rode had pre-production parts and were limited to the 1X 10-51T transmission so we didn’t get to ride it or the 11-speed system.
The 510% gear range of the M9100 group is made possible by the new 10T high gear and the Micro Spline freehub body found on the rear hub. Although we’re excited that Shimano finally evolved their freehub body after over 25 years they didn’t just stop there. The 10T high gear will appeal to racer types and those whose trails are wide open, but what you’re likely to notice more are the sounds of your tires biting into the ground, the rebound damper in your fork, or the wind blowing through your helmet.
XTR’s new Scylence hub internals decouple completely when you freewheel, eliminating noise and allowing you to hear more of your bike and the trail. They have the super smooth bearings that Shimano is known for and a quick 7.6-degree engagement. We’ve used silent hubs in the past from brands like Onyx and always enjoy being able to hear so much more of the bike experience than the buzz of our rear hub. Now Shimano has brought a silent drivetrain mainstream—just bring a trail bell to warn hikers you’re coming through!
The Micro Spline Freehub body is very cool, but it makes M9100 incompatible with many wheelsets, including the ones you probably currently own. That’s just the price you have to pay for keeping up with the latest technology unfortunately. Shimano is making their XTR hubs with both J-bend and straight-pull flanges. If you have an older non-Boost frame you only get the J-bend option. There is also a special Boost rear hub with the drive-side flange moved 4.7mm outboard and only for use with the 11-speed rear cassette. This is the super strong setup for racers like Rude, who demand the strongest build period and prefer 11-speed.
Aftermarket wheels were on display from Stans, Race Face, e*thirteen, and Enve using the Micro Drive freehub body, so we’re sure more will follow to increase build options—discerning viewers may note there are no XTR rims this time around like there were with the previous M9000 group.
Better Chain Security
The M9100 chain features an extended inner link plate that better fits the chainring tooth profile. The new design reduces natural vibrations that occur as the chain moves on and off the ring teeth. This yields better engagement, more chain security, and a smoother ride. Thankfully, this 12-speed chain uses a tool-free quick-link connector like the M9000 model instead of the old pin method. We didn’t experience any dropped chains in three days of riding and don’t recall any of the other riders in our camp having any chain problems, so retention appears to be really good.
Smoother Shifting Cassettes
Shimano Hyperglide cassettes have always included shift ramps for downshifts so that the chain smoothly moves to a lower (bigger) gear without a rough jerky motion. Now, for the first time, M9100 includes a Hyperglide Plus system with shift ramps for upshifts as well, yielding smoother shifting when reaching for a higher (smaller) gear too. In use, the system is subtle but very smooth and more noticeable under hard acceleration. When you drop into a higher gear you experience less of a clunk as the chain drops, something that you won’t find on SRAM drivetrains currently.
The new cassettes have something called Beam Spider construction that are hollowed out like SRAM cassettes, except instead of being milled out of one chunk of stainless these gears these are built with a mix of aluminum, titanium, and steel materials for a blend of light weight, stiffness, and longevity. The cassette also has a better interface with the freehub body so it won’t gouge out the hub under torque like in the past.
In comparison to SRAM Eagle, the XTR 10-51T cassette that we rode has the same gearing until you get to the last four gears. Once you get there it moves a little faster and more consistently into the low climbing gears. In use, we never had problems finding the right gear or RPM while climbing the steeps—this is also where you tend to get more out of breath and panicky about gear choice, especially at 10,000 feet altitude! On occasion with Eagle it is sometimes hard to find the right gear in the steeps, but we’ve learned to adjust—XTR should take riders less time to adjust and provides a slightly easier gear combo. Shimano is also making the cassette with a 10-45T range in both 11- or 12-speed.
Shimano vs SRAM 12-Speed Cassette Comparison
- XTR M9100: 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 28, 33, 39, 45, 51 tooth cogs (510% gear range)
- SRAM GX / X01 / XX1 Eagle: 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 28, 32, 36, 42, 50 tooth cogs (500% gear range)
Improved Brake Modulation & Less Lever Flex
Many enduro racers have been using Shimano Saint brakes for their incredible power, but according to Shimano, riders unanimously requested more modulation so that was the aim of the new 4-piston XTR Trail models. These Trail brakes receive a new brake pad shape but are compatible with current Saint pads. The dual-piston XC brakes include resin pads while the 4-piston Trail models come stock with metallic stoppers for an extra bit of bite. If you want even more modulation on the Trail brakes consider swapping to resin pads. The Trail brakes with metallic pads that we rode were very quiet, even when wet and had exceptional modulation—just grab a handful of brake at the last second and you get a ton of power and control. There's no thinking about it, they just work.
We touched on the brake lever mount when discussing the shift lever above as they both use the same clamp, but it’s worth going into more detail because this is one of the highlights of the group. Braking is very important on a mountain bike and the previous revision of XTR had some flex in the lever. Shimano has eliminated the flex with M9100 as they moved the clamp inboard and—this is the critical part—added a little handlebar rest near the grip at the base of the lever. It’s like the equivalent of making the clamp two inches wide—it simply won’t flex, which adds to the exceptional power and improved modulation.
In Crested Butte our bike was equipped with the new XTR Trail pedals with a larger machined platform for greater foot support and bike control. While these can be used with any SPD-compatible shoe it makes perfect sense that they are optimized for something like Shimano’s ME7 with its Torbal carbon midsole to give you the best control and feel. We dig the ME7 and think it rides even better with these pedals. Shimano has the longest history making clip-in pedals in the MTB world and these are some of the best we’ve used–they work effortlessly and provide a nice platform for excellent bike control.
There were a couple of extras included in the new XTR group. First off there is a minimalist chainguide—it isn’t required, but for 1X riders who want the added insurance of a guide Shimano is making one with three different mounting options. We didn’t have these on our bikes, but Thomas Vanderham did. Another cool extra is an XTR dropper post lever—it works with most cable-actuated dropper posts including Shimano’s own Koryak model or the FOX Transfer post that was on our bike. The lever mounts right where you’d find the front shifter so it’s positioned to actuate effortlessly and adjust easily without any extra bar clamps.
The Complete Package
M9100 is a great performing package that elevates Shimano back into the top realm of component manufacturers. For the masses, however, XTR is far too expensive so we are already hoping many of M9100’s features trickle down into the XT and SLX groups. Prices are lower for OEM spec parts that come on a complete bike, but purchased individually, as we rode it, our group price exceeded $2,800! The good news is it sounds like Shimano knows this and is prioritizing XT and SLX over XTR with Di2 for their next big release. If they want to compete with SRAM they have to offer more affordable options soon. Let's just hope they can follow through with that!
Towards the end of the M9100 product presentation Shimano’s MTB Product Manager for North America, Nick Murdick, summarized the new group when he said, “The best bike is the one you never have to think about when you are riding it.” Based on our ride experience in Crested Butte it certainly seems like Shimano has achieved that goal plus added a host of racer-oriented options. Improving on the best parts in the world is always a challenge, but it’s an exciting one and we’re glad Shimano took so much rider feedback into account throughout the development process. The new XTR performs fantastically, albeit at extravagant costs, but for the best racers and most discerning riders, these parts make sense and should deliver.
Pricing, Weights & Availability
Shimano's M9100 XTR components are planned to be available this fall. Visit www.shimano.com for more details.
About The Tester
Alan Davis - Age: 45 // Years Riding: 31 // Height: 6'0" (1.83m) // Weight: 165-pounds (74.8kg)
Alan has been a professional mountain bike journalist and photographer for over fifteen years. He’s been riding MTB since the late 1980’s when a bright green Stumpjumper caught his eye and he knew he had to upgrade from his BMX. He’s a huge fan of riders pushing the limits of what these simple, wheeled vehicles we call bicycles can do, whether on the cliffs of Rampage or local singletrack.
Photos by Alan Davis and Sterling Lorence // Video by Anthill Films