Gear
The clutch on the XTR rear derailleur can be made...

Reviewed: Shimano XTR 9000 Trail group

Butter-smooth shifting is one of the highlights of Shimano's top-tier mountain bike drivetrain.

A full season on Shimano’s XTR 9000 mechanical group, set up as a 2×11 with an 11-40 cassette and 26/36 front chainrings, reveals what we already knew: the Japanese brand has the best front shifting in the business by a significant margin. It’s good enough to shift under pedaling load, under mud, through just about any condition you can imagine, without worry. But the broader debate is whether all that excellence is desired at all. Because if it’s not, if the simplicity and security of a single ring setup pulls at the heartstrings, then Shimano’s top-tier mountain bike drivetrain becomes a lot less appetizing. It goes from a must-have to a maybe.

Let’s take a look at the group piece by piece.

Front derailleur — 128 grams
$120

I can’t say I missed you, front derailleur, particularly when I realized that your bottom-pull routing arm would attempt to punch a hole through the Yeti SB5c I rode for this experiment. So I had to amputate that useless bit of aluminum. Not the best way to begin our relationship.

The new side-swing, D-Type design that Shimano touts as providing extra tire clearance doesn’t fit on the Yeti, either. This is mostly because of Yeti’s own distaste for front derailleurs (it doesn’t even have a mount on the SB4.5). Yeti doesn’t really take front derailleurs into account when designing its frames.

The top-pull D-type derailleur that I ended up hacking to fit works marvelously. Its ultra stiff cage matches with Shimano’s patent-protected chainring profiles to provide shifts under heavy load in any condition. If you told me 10 years ago that front shifting could ever be this good, I’d have laughed in your face.

Shimano also deserves commendation for its plethora of front shifting options. While SRAM XX1 is only available as a 1x system, XTR can be set up with no front derailleur, a 2x front derailleur, or a 3x. This is good — for the wide swath of riders in this world, all of whom can find an XTR drivetrain to their liking.

Shifters — 221 grams with cables
$240

The first thing you’ll notice is a rather dramatic reduction in shift resistance. XTR’s signature click is still there — you know when you’ve shifted — but the amount of pressure required to initiate derailleur movement is far lower than it was both in the previous version of XTR and in any of SRAM’s offerings. Super slick cables and housing and revised leverage ratios are to thank for the butter-smooth feel.

Dimpled, textured lever surfaces provide good grip and feel, even with gloves, and the large upshift paddle will snag four cogs at a time. The smaller release paddle allows for two shifts with a single swipe. Getting all the way up and down the cassette takes little time — the only system that’s faster is GripShift.

Rear derailleur – 223 grams
$240

The clutch-enabled rear derailleur is beautiful, and more importantly, stiff. That provides crisp shifts all the way up and down the 11-40 tooth cassette. Sliding into that big 40-tooth cog is much quieter, and feels more solid, than the final shift into SRAM’s 42-tooth big cog, which can feel a bit grindy.

The clutch, which holds the lower pulleys in place to prevent chain slap and chain drop, is now adjustable via an external bolt. The stock setup is a bit soft and resulted in some chain slap on extremely rough trails, and even the occasional chain drop off the big ring (hence the scratches now visible on the crankset. More on that later). When dialed up to a stiffer setting, the slap and drop stopped.

Cassette – 327 grams
$350

The only option is 11-40, which fits on a standard 11-speed freehub. You don’t get the 10-tooth of SRAM’s cassettes (though the whole drivetrain does work with a SRAM cassette, albeit not quite as crisply) but there’s no need for an XD driver, either. It’s a tradeoff.

11-40 is massively wide by the standard of even a few years ago, but seems narrow with today’s 42-tooth options. If you need a lower gear, Shimano sells an XT-level 11-42 cassette.

Shimano says the cog sizes are carefully selected to provide close to 10rpm cadence jumps, and shifting up and down does indeed feel very linear. The 40-tooth cog is aluminum, and triplets of cogs sit on aluminum spiders, keeping weight low.

Crankset and 26/36 chainrings – 650 grams
$600

That beautiful, shiny finish isn’t the most durable, and it only took a few chain drops early in the test process to leave it permanently scratched.

Aesthetics aside, the XTR crankset and chainrings are the beating heart of Shimano’s whole system, and they are the primary argument for keeping a front derailleur in your life. Those chainrings, heavily protected by patents, are what allow the system to shift so smoothly and so confidently.

And by golly, do those chainrings work. Front shifting is, dare I say it, perfect. Push the shift lever, get a different ring. Every time, instantly. If you want a 2x or 3x system, Shimano XTR is the best ever.

The Trail version of the crank eliminates the bonded left arm that the XC crank gets, adding a bit of weight and strength, and the Q-factor increases 10mm to 168mm.

The same arm is used for 1x, 2x, and 3x applications.

Trail brakes — 448 grams
$600

Unless you’re racing, don’t bother with the cross-country version, which loses the external reach and free-stroke adjustment. The XTR Trail brakes are more powerful, stay cooler, and have more adjustability for a minor weight penalty.

The new 9000 Trail brakes are a bit more powerful than their predecessors, but still feel just a bit underpowered on a trail bike with big, grabby tires, even with 180mm rotors. For a cross-country bike, with less traction, they’re perfect. I’ll come right out with it: I prefer XT brakes. They’re more powerful and are proven to be exceptionally robust. Plus they’re far cheaper, at a slim weight penalty.

The carbon lever blades on the XTR Trail brakes are a nice touch, both in terms of aesthetics and for the firm, stiff feel the levers impart.

Bleeding is easy, as with all modern Shimano brakes. I bled my test pair twice — once after cutting the lines during installation, and again at the end of the season when I began to get a bit of lever pump, and the throw began moving around in the middle of a ride. The bleed fixed the issue and it hasn’t returned in the weeks since.

The takeaway

There is a reason why many bike brands are combining SRAM’s XX1 drivetrain with Shimano XT brakes. Consumers put their hands up, demanded the simplicity of 1x, and the industry responded.

Shimano did so half-heartedly. Who can blame it? Its front shifting is so much better than anything SRAM can put forth. It’s a competitive advantage. Perhaps this is why SRAM pushed to do away with front shifting to begin with.

Behind-the-scenes motivation aside, Shimano needs to put more effort into a 1x system. XT, with its 11-42 cassette, is close. But the narrower gear range on the flagship XTR makes little sense. It’s fine for cross-country racing, but XTR should extend well beyond that. The Trail version should be available with a wider cassette.

These are the complaints of an admitted single chainring devotee. I couldn’t wait to take the front derailleur off my Yeti — I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to have to adjust it. And yet I think back to a summer of testing and all those times my riding buddies were envious of my 26×40 low gear, as I spun and they slogged up the long, steep climbs we seek. Doubles and triples have their place, and for those who want a wider gear range (and there are many of you out there), nobody is doing front shifting better than Shimano. If the company would just make a slightly wider cassette, they’d have the best 1x package, too.