Ever since its introduction Shimano’s Deore XT group has been the gold standard in mountain bike component groups. Even after the introduction of XTR and every single SRAM group ever, Deore XT has been the group that most experienced riders I know still agree offers the best combination of performance, weight, longevity and price. Indeed, I’ve known many riders who were perfectly happy with their bikes only to encounter Deore XT for the first time and promptly decide they needed a new bike.
I’m going to make an admission, one that leaves me discomforted. My preference for Deore XT over XTR isn’t just a price thing. I don’t really like Shimano’s XTR group. That’s a counterintuitive assertion for a reviewer who is most at home with high-end gear. When I buy, I buy for quality, longevity and performance. Top-end groups all have in common that they are meant to give the racer a competitive edge. That was especially true when Shimano introduced Dura-Ace 7800 back in 2003. It was notable in that it was the first group that would allow you to shift from the small ring to the big while out of the saddle and in a full sprint. It was a feature I noted that most recreational riders simply wouldn’t appreciate; that is, most of us aren’t fit enough to pedal over the top of a hill out of the saddle and slam the chain into the big ring and keep on digging.
Shimano’s XTR group takes that performance calculus to exceptional degrees, most notably with the brakes. It seems that more often than not I ride XTR-equipped bikes on trail systems with which I have only a passing familiarity, if any at all. As a result, I end up braking more than I would if I was on a trail I knew. And what I end up experiencing is a change in the free stroke of the brake lever. As the mineral oil gets heated to its boiling point that changes the stroke of the lever. So why does this occur with XTR and not Deore XT? The quest to make XTR as light as possible means a smaller reservoir, less fluid and smaller brakes. It’s meant for people who are rad enough they don’t brake much. When I’ve had the opportunity to ride XTR on trails I know, it happens much less, but it still happens occasionally.
I’ve been riding Deore XT 8000 for nine months. I’ve ridden it as hard as I’m able. I’ve crashed, tagged trees, ridden through stream crossings and descended trails steep enough to scare me. In that time I haven’t seen a single bearing fail. The brakes have yet to need a bleed and despite pounding one of the shifters on rocks on more than one occasion, it still shifts flawlessly. The big chainring on the crank (yes, there are two chainrings) is a testament to why forging is a great way to work with metal. I’ve yet to bend a single tooth despite some less-than-charitable encounters with dog-sized rocks. That it can mix both steel and aluminum teeth and remain so durable is proof of how good Shimano’s engineers are.
I’m among the contingent of riders who still likes a front derailleur and multiple chainrings. I may not see the need for three anymore, but I do still want two. Coming over the top of a rise is a time when I want to shift from the small ring to the big, just as I want to drop into the little ring when I hit the bottom of a steep climb. The single biggest reason I still want this feature is because Shimano’s front derailleur continues to work flawlessly in any conditions. Why would you give up something that works that well?
Amazing to me is how many different versions of the front derailleur Shimano has devised for this group. Not only are there 2x and 3x versions, but there are variants within those depending on how the front derailleur mounts to the bike. It’s not something that we as consumers need to be terribly concerned with, but for product managers working to figure out cable routing on increasingly complicated bikes, those choices mean the opportunity to route cables cleanly and still enjoy clearance for plus-sized tires. The big development here is really Shimano’s side-swing design which is largely responsible for that increase in tire clearance and reduction in shift force. I’m amazed that they can keep coming up with fresh ways to cut the force necessary to execute a shift.
The crank comes in three versions: 1x, 2x and 3x. Triples still sell in Europe, despite the fact that there isn’t a single suspension system that works well with triple cranks. The double, which I suspect is what many people will opt for, is available in 38/28, 36/26 and 34/24. I opted for the 36/26 and paired that with the 11-42 cassette, which is what Shimano recommends for their 2x drivetrain. I know that to many riders a 24×42 is a ridiculously low gear, almost 1:2. And while 26×42 is a gear I don’t use very often, I view that much the way I do the 36×11: I want it there for when I need it. I never know when I’m going to encounter a 24 percent grade and because I am the anti-Hulk, I want a low gear to get me up.
Can we just take a moment to talk about Hyperglide? Shimano first introduced the ramped cog profiles in 1989 and they’ve been making refinements to the system ever since. In those early days broken chains were not uncommon if you tried to shift more than two cogs in rapid succession. The difference in the number of teeth is much greater, given how much wider the spread is for cassettes and yet downshifting three cogs doesn’t carry any attendant pops, bangs or grinds. I haven’t broken a chain since some time in the 1990s.
My favorite feature of the 8000-series cassette is the fact that it includes 11 cogs. It comes in two configurations, 11-40 and 11-42. The 11-42 is specific to the 1x version of the group.
Back to the brakes for a bit. I’m reasonably picky about my brake setup. I’m a middle-finger braker; I began doing this years ago when I realized I could get more leverage on the lever with my middle finger than with my index finger, not to mention that I felt I had a better hold on the bar that way. This of course, was in the age of cantilever brakes, but the principle remains intact. As a result, I like my levers adjusted with a short reach and with a fair amount of free stroke, so that I can move the lever without immediately braking. Shimano levers are easy to adjust for this.
You probably won’t be surprised when I admit that I’m a nut for great ergonomics. That the shifters mount to the brake levers—keeping the bar free of yet another clamp—and yet still offer plenty of adjustability fills me with a joy I try to reserve for the release of new sci-fi films.
The text for the product description for the shifters was a comical read: “Ergonomically designed for prolonged enjoyment. Simple, adaptable cockpit.” I thought I was reading a description for a sex aid, but it’s true. With each iteration of their shifting systems they manage to keep reducing the effort required to shift. This version of Deore XT features a 20 percent reduction in rear shift force. The rear derailleur action draws from Shimano’s Shadow+ design; it features a clutch to eliminate chain slap as you ride over rocky terrain.
The other feature to the Deore XT shifters that makes them especially attractive is the push-pull release for upshifting. Push the lever forward and it upshifts one cog, but pull it back with your index finger and you can upshift either one or two cogs. It’s a feature as handy as handy as the bite valve on a Camelbak.
I hail from a time when you had to work on your mountain bike either before or after every ride. I remember being on muddy rides where friends and I would yell back and forth about how many usable gears we still had—”I’m down to two gears!” That was a big part of why I rode my mountain bike no more than twice each week.
Deore XT has an answer to every problem that ever plagued me as a mountain biker. It has better brakes, a wider range of gears, is easier to shift and the bearings don’t rust when sprayed with water in a post-ride bike wash. It’s a group that can be ridden hard and put away wet. And in mountain biking, that really matters. It’s hard to sell someone on the why of splurging for Dura-Ace when Ultegra is so good. I mean, there are pro teams racing Ultegra. But with Deore XT, it’s been that fail-safe solution to infallible mountain bike performance. This stuff always works. Always. I can’t say that I find any other group to be as trustworthy, though I’ve yet to ride SRAM’s Eagle, and that could maybe see me dine on a verb or two. My larger point is this: in lower-priced groups, I see bearings fail, shifters get fussy, brakes give up power. The trade-offs are very real and not the stuff of esoteric conversations over a post-ride coffee.
Because of the existence of XTR and Eagle, Deore XT isn’t showing up on bikes that are crazy expensive, which is a zone of approximate boundaries, but one I generally define as anything north of $6k. I’m seeing this group on plenty of bikes in the $4000 to $5000 range, and even on bikes as affordable as $3000. If there’s a better balance of affordability to performance and durability, I’ve yet to encounter it.
Final thought: Like a Boy Scout: trustworthy, loyal, helpful.
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