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First Impressions: Shimano XTR M970, July 25, 2006, part 2

Falling (literally) for Shimano's new group

James Huang continues his first impressions of Shimano's latest mountain bike component group. Part 1 is here.

Brakes

Just about every component
Photo ©: James Huang
(Click for larger image)

Shimano opens up and fights back

What the new XTR shows about Shimano

Let's get one thing straight right now: Shimano is a huge company in bike industry terms. Consider these facts: Shimano operates 30 bases in 22 countries, and 14 factories churn out parts across 9 countries. Projected net sales and profits for 2006 are roughly US$1.5B and US$150M, respectively, and Shimano employs over 7000 people worldwide, including nearly 1000 in Osaka along. By comparison, SRAM, no small player in its own right, puts food on the table for about 2000 worldwide.

With those kinds of numbers, it stands to reason that Shimano can pretty much do whatever it wants and let the rest of the industry adapt as necessary in response. Historically, that's basically what it's done, at least in terms of product development. Shimano has fostered a reputation for itself for conducting nearly the whole of its development work behind tightly closed doors, only to reveal the finished product when it feels ready to present it to the world. Its elusive Skunkworks division is renowned for its ability to keep the lid on products that have yet to be officially introduced, and even in the internet age, spy photos and information about upcoming componentry are rare and usually highly coveted.

For the most part, this "Surprise! Here's what we've been secretly working on for the past few years; you'd better like it" style of product R&D has worked well, yielding such innovations as the SPD off-road clipless pedal and the STI integrated road shifter/brake lever. Sales and profits have fallen off within the last couple of years, though, and while it's anyone's guess as to the true cause, it can't be ignored that the dates roughly coincide with Shimano's introduction of its Dual Control style of mountain bike shifters with the last generation of XTR along with the concurrent introduction of SRAM's triggers. Times aren't exactly dire at the house of Shimano, but certainly it raises a few eyebrows.

"Engineered for the way you ride"

The logo on the new XTR packaging is quite descriptive. Shimano officials recognized early on that something was amiss in their MTB product lineups and that, perhaps, Shimano was falling a bit out of touch with its audience. In response, Shimano marketing and engineering employees were sent out into various corners of the cycling world early on in the development of M970. Their mission was to find out not only what was wrong, but what needed to be done. In contrast to its secretive reputation, Shimano caught innumerable shop employees off guard when representatives showed up for shop rides; locals discovered Shimano employees inhabiting their favorite trails. Over and over, the phrase was repeated: "What the hell are you doing here?"

According to Shimano, everything it learned from its field visits has been incorporated into the new XTR group. Although XTR is still a premier cross-country group, there is heaps more real world applicability here that must have been directly linked to its research findings. XTR's target user has both changed and broadened and so has the hardware in response. The new group boasts no fewer than two wholly different styles of shifters (plus hydraulic and mechanical brake flavors), two types of rear derailleurs in various cage lengths, both rim and disc brakes, and four disc brake rotor sizes. About the only component that isn't broadly applicable to a wide range of off-road usage is the new wheelset, which is admittedly XC-specific.

Shimano is still Shimano

XTR may signal a change of heart in terms of development, but Shimano is still Shimano. For example, during an unscheduled elevator trip down to street level to try out some trick commuter hardware, we made an unexpected stop at an intermediate floor and the doors opened up to a waiting Shimano engineer with a development mule in hand. The doors were shut as quickly as they opened, followed by a terse "Pretend you didn't see that." Similarly, no cameras of any sort were allowed during our factory tour. As Kozo Shimano, head of Shimano American Corporation, put it, "The trick isn't making something that's really cool that works, it's making a million of these things that's really cool and really works and they all work the same; that's the tough thing."

So all is not open and warm and fuzzy at Shimano, but it's a refreshing change nonetheless. Regardless, for all of you who have been speaking up but thought your opinions were falling on deaf ears, rest assured that Shimano is listening. Personally, I'd like to see more of the same, but M970 XTR is a good example of what Shimano is capable of when pointed in the right direction. Kampai!

Hoo-wee… there was definitely plenty of brake testing done on our overseas journey, including a number of extended applications that served as a suitably torturous brake fade experiment. The biggest change here is the overall feel of the new system. The brake lever's revised pivot location produces a shorter lever arm and leaves the brakes feeling much less 'weird', particularly as the shifter pod is no longer an integral part of the brake lever motion in Dual Control garb. As is now Shimano tradition, the brake levers also have a very ergonomic shape with a pronounced "hook" and pleasantly broad blade. A blasted finish on the blade itself also adds a measurable amount of grip, especially when wet. In use, the new brakes feel absolutely fantastic with a smoother lever action, more positive-feeling engagement point, and modulation that is arguably second-to-none.

Shimano increases performance
Photo ©: James Huang
(Click for larger image)

I don't know if the new radial master cylinder or the more direct fluid path should be credited here, but regardless, they work quite well. Brake fade was virtually nonexistent on the Kumano trail, even on super long downhills with the brakes firmly clamped hard and long enough for the rotors to audibly protest with a cacophony of pinging and tinging at the bottom. If I could ask for anything, it'd be for just a bit more power, especially given our use of sintered metallic pads during our trip. The new XTR brakes are still quite powerful, but it seems like I've used a handful of brakes with a bit more bite, particularly when trying to dump a lot of momentum at high speed. As previously reported, though, rotor sizes up to 203mm in diameter will be available and a 180mm front rotor would almost certainly cure my woes.

Wheels

Not even the rotor
Photo ©: James Huang
(Click for larger image)

The new XTR wheels are quite possibly the gem of the whole component group. Shimano's engineers managed to lop roughly 200g off of last year's version, and added a stiffer scandium-enhanced rim and a titanium freehub body that engages 125 percent faster than before (alas, Shimano says it can't be retrofitted to other XTR hubs or wheels). UST-compatibility is retained, although the rim could use a deeper center channel to assist in tire installation. Mounting my set of Schwalbe tubeless tires by hand was next-to-impossible as compared to my other Mavic or Bontrager UST-compatible test rims, but inflating the tires using a floor pump was pleasantly easy.

The new wheels exhibit a particularly snappy feel on the trail that should be ridden firsthand to completely understand. In spite of their bantamweight 1525g, the torsional and lateral rigidity of the wheels was outstanding with near-instant pedal response. The new freehub body is a huge improvement over the relatively sluggish standard Shimano system and is particularly welcome in stutter-pedal situations or when attempting to restart on climbs. In spite of the rough terrain, both wheels remained arrow-straight.

Leaving Japan only slightly battered and bruised

Our motley crew
Photo ©: James Huang
(Click for larger image)

It's doubtful that M970 will have quite the same impact as M950 did back in the mid-90's, but Shimano has still managed to step to the plate with an impressive package. XTR continues to carry Shimano's typically high levels of fit, finish and precision and the new group is roughly 400g lighter in total (when wheels are included) while improving on the function and offering a wealth of user options. The bold new design looks better in person than in pictures, and the rich double-anodized, machined, and laser-etched combination finish is admittedly complicated and expensive, but super pimpy.

Never fear, XTR is still a premier cross-country racing group, but its versatility has been expanded to include 'normal' folk who just want to ride around with nice stuff (and have the income to afford it) as well as some mildly hardcore applications. It'll remain to be seen how the new XTR kit will be received by the public, but personally, I'm definitely looking forward to putting some more time in on the stuff.

Photography

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by James Huang/Cyclingnews

  • I think this goes somewhere around here…
  • XTR parts go through a number of finishing steps before the final result is achieved. Keep in mind that this sequence doesn’t even include any forming steps.
  • The new XTR group is serious kit with serious looks and function to match.
  • The new rear derailleur gets wider and stiffer links plus a bold new industrial look.
  • M970’s new chainrings are very rigid to provide excellent shifting under load. Though it will likely be taken for granted, it was apparently no small feat to get the carbon finish of the middle chainring to visually match the rest of the anodizing on the rest of the gear.
  • Not even the rotor was spared from the milling machine. Check out the edges of the disc brake rotor spider. The new wheel retains the use of straight-pull stainless steel spokes.
  • A supplementary thumb lever remains on M970, but it’s even more of a vestigial nub than before as I didn’t feel the need to use it even once during our rides. Cable changes on the Dual Control setup are now far easier than before, with no tiny screws to lose.
  • Just about every component in the new M970 XTR kit is not only anodized at least twice, but also machined and laser-etched to impart the unique finish.
  • Our test components were all etched “PROTOTYPE”, but any planned changes between what we rode and production bits were to be purely cosmetic.
  • Shimano increases performance and saves some titanium from the recycling bin by using center cutouts from its titanium cassette cogs as backing material for the new XTR metallic disc brake pads.
  • Nope, I haven’t become one of Shimano’s coveted Skunkworks riders, but I at least have the sticker…
  • Our fleet of XTR-equipped bikes at rest on a very rare smooth section of the Kumano trail…
  • …the rest of it was more like this, and this was a relatively tame section.
  • Our motley crew - ready to ride, and sweating our asses off. Joe Murray is deep in thought, while Mike Ferrentino puts on his best “tough man” pose.
  • Lots of rain in Japan equals lots of greenery as we put the new XTR through its paces.