First Look: Shimano XTR 9000 Prototypes

First Look: Shimano XTR 9000 Prototypes

As a rule, writing about parts that don’t yet exist violates one of my prime directives. Star Trek references aside, there are reasons to draw lines in something harder than sand. Getting people excited about something they can’t have is a fundamental evil. That’s my problem with strip clubs. Well, that and the absolute political incorrectness of ogling naked women dancing to Ted Nugent. I’m sure if they were dancing to Morrissey we’d all feel very differently. Or not.

My belief is that, generally speaking, I should write about gear that’s actually available. The case study for this was the Browning transmission back around 1990. It was allegedly better than every form of front shifting ever known but the only people who ever rode it were either pros or journalists. So far as I could tell, they didn’t fill a single order. It’s worth noting that Shimano hasn’t produced a single piece of vapor wear in its history.

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Given the improvement that Dura-Ace 9000 presented over 7900, I’ve been curious what this next generation of XTR would deliver. When you consider that as excellent as SRAM’s XX group is, and how everyone universally agrees that XTR shifting is better and that XTR brakes are far superior to everything else on the market, it’s hard not to be curious what the 800-lb. gorilla from Osaka will deliver. I mean, what do you do to improve on the industry standard?

Well, for starters, given the continuing fragmentation of the mountain bike market, Shimano’s 9000-series XTR will come in two variants. The 9000-series parts will focus on the more race-oriented cross country riders, while parts slugged 9020 will address the requirements for trail-oriented riding. Generally speaking, the 9000 parts will be a bit lighter, not quite as stiff and offer a narrower Q-factor. The 9020 parts will feature more technology to address heat buildup in the brakes and offer better power modulation at the lever. There will also be more choices of chainring configurations.

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All of the 9000-series rotors will use Shimano’s new Freeza technology to improve heat dissipation. The rotors will also be available in 140, 160, 180 and 203mm sizes. Shimano says the Freeza technology will cut temperature by 122 degrees F. The 9020 brake will get Shimano’s ICE Technologies radiator pads to further address heat buildup.

I recently attended the press introduction to what the XTR 9000 will be. We saw working prototypes and clay mockups. Getting a feel for the functionality of the new parts is distinctly interesting. As many have guessed, the new 9000 series parts take many of the ideas found in Dura-Ace and adapt them to this off-road edition.

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The shifting enjoys the same variety of mechanical overhaul that we saw with 9000 mechanical on the road. Derailleur geometry was changed to increase the size of the parallelogram and accordingly increase the mechanical advantage behind the shift. With the addition of slicker cable housing and coated cables, mechanical shifting is slicker than a Southern politician.

The shifter will offer multi-cog release by pushing the upshift lever forward, but when pulling it back toward you, the trigger will release only one cog at a time. It is still possible to downshift three cogs in a single lever push.

I can’t say that mechanical shifting has ever been overly difficult, but there have been times where the peculiar combination of cadence, the difference in the number of teeth between cogs and whatever dirts was in the system that as I was executing a shift I began to despair that I was pushing the system so hard that I might be in for another broken chain. And I’ve broken my chair of chains even when I didn’t think it should have happened.

I think this new version of XTR 9000 will solve that.

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Talk to nearly anyone who has used both XTR hydraulics and Avid’s Juicy brakes and you’ll hear near poetic exclamations about how much better the XTR brakes are, both in modulation and overall power. And I write that less as someone who agrees than a person who has been riding the Avids without complaint.

Riding around in a parking lot is a lousy way to test ride anything, unless you’re a sprinter and the parking lot is 300 meters long. And in that case, knock yourself out, kid. What I can say was the absolute power was enough to make the front end dive even under low speed roll, while modulation was much greater than many other brakes I’ve ridden. The real test will be the first ride on the trail, but this was enough to intrigue me. I loved how these prototypes looked more finished than some CNC-machined parts on the market. Comedy for engineers.

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Prototypes don’t make for the prettiest bike. Tiny details like making sure you’ve got the perfect cable length end up not meaning much when the derailleurs, shifters, crank and brakes end up not yet showing final finish and may not even sport the final shapes.

You’ll notice that the shifter clamp is very narrow. Shimano engineers devoted some of their effort to shrinking the clamps for both the shifters and the brakes in order to give riders more choice in lever position. Those riders who add other clamps for items like dropper posts and suspension lockout won’t have to reach as far in order to get a finger on the button.
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The front shifting on this bike was quick and perfect as the transmission on a Ferrari, despite the fact that the cage was almost a centimeter from the big chainring. Of course, riding around a parking lot is way different than grinding up single track with a cadence in the teens, but previous experience suggests they’ll get this right. The front derailleur will come in a great many flavors—top swing, bottom swing and more, but what’s particularly interesting is the cable routing on this version above. Without the tight bend and the shorter overall cable length, front shifting is just that much cleaner.

The crank comes in three versions, including an utterly archaic setup using three chainrings. Of course, the meat of the market will go for  single and double chainring options rather than the triple.

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The rear derailleur doesn’t look like much yet, but I’d trust it for a hard ride. The clutch found in the derailleur means that chain catching devices will be unnecessary for those who wish to run a single chainring. And a new chainring tooth profile will help retain the chain for those who decide to go with the 1x option. The teeth are also cut from titanium, so chainrings should be longer-lasting as well.

The 9000 chain receives Shimano’s Sil-Tec surface treatment which coats the plates of the chain with a low-friction compound to better shed mud, reduce friction and increase chain life. XTR will offer but one cassette: 11, 13, 15, 17,19, 21, 24, 27, 31, 35 and 40t. With that 40t pie plate, riders who have avoided going to a 1x setup due to the loss of low-range gearing can seriously consider it now.

No word yet on what this new group will cost. It won’t be cheap, and while this might seem a challenge to believe, one of the things Shimano’s engineers considered in the design of this new group was how to hit the level of performance they desired while reducing cost when possible.

I’m still a kid at heart. I love new toys, but where components are concerned, I’ve never been interested in new just for the sake of new. What continues to fascinate me is the way a number of incremental improvement can alter our experience on the bike. It’s that ability to help make the bike disappear beneath us that keeps this business interesting. I look forward to riding this stuff once it’s in production.

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1 comment

  1. Peter Lütken

    For trivia and entertainment purposes, here are the top three Shimano Vaporware items (from the top of my head):
    3) PRO (aka the Shimano sub-brand) 50mm Ultegra-level carbon wheels & disc rear wheels (Delivered to shops about a good year after they were promised)
    2) FC-7800 carbon crank (This thing was promised for at least a couple of years before it turned up in a limited production run)
    1) 7900-series Flight Deck computer (Never made it past the initial press releases and dealer catalogs)

    I have previously worked for Shimano in Norway, and all these three happened during my stint there around ´07-´09

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