Well, it happened. I ordered myself an XTR M9000 drivetrain for my trail bike. I had been running Sram X9 on this build for some time and it was in need of a change since the cassette and chain were well worn and the derailleur was starting to show signs of wear when shifting (yes aesthetically it was worn, but functionally it was starting to show some signs of wear that I was just working with and putting up with). Sram has treated me well. My fat bike sports XX1 and I have been thoroughly pleased with the gear ranges and set up overall. Part of what I do (build bikes) and what I ride happens to be rolling examples of my work. I find myself often taking these bikes to shows, using them in catalogs and online. I have to admit I don’t have a strict allegiance to either SRAM or Shimano. I will say I have preferences which is reflective in my builds that show a mix of components that get the job done best for the type of riding and terrain I frequent. But admittedly, it would be really nice to have a Sram build and a Shimano build at shows to display and speak to customers or potential clients. Literally show everyone I’m speaking with the benefits of both, how they compare, what works better than others, why they are the way they are and let the customer decide (with guidance of course!).
The backstory: Truth be told, what stimulated this whole “thing” was my switch some years ago from my trusty Shimano M636’s to a set of Crank Brothers Egg Beaters. At the time, I had been on that set of 636’s for a good 12-15 years. Almost every single ride I had been on was on those pedals. However, in comparison to current offerings at the time, they were big bricks and I was looking to lighten the load some. Enter Crank Brothers Egg Beaters. Light. Simple. Minimal. Just what the doctor ordered. Spring tension? Can’t adjust it… oh well, I’m not that fussy. They worked well and I got a second set for my other bike (so the old ones went off, the new style went on my primary trail bike). That’s when trouble hit. Seemed like the new design’s springs would wear out quickly. They’d rattle 3 months from purchase. This last set, well within 2-3 rides they were rattling and have less than optimal retention. That’s no good. So I was looking to go back to Shimano pedals this season. Well that didn’t happen as suddenly, Shimano had changed their policy towards Frame Builders and I was no longer able to purchase or provide them to clients. That has since been rectified and I can now offer them again to clients. What I ride is what people come to me to build. So being able to ride what you sell is important I think – it’s been vetted, and I KNOW how it works since I thus have experience with it, riding it, wrenching it. So two sets of XTR M9000 pedals arrived late this spring:
O.K. Totally blown away by fit and finish but I realized I didn’t even know what I had been missing. Positive pop in AND pop out. First ride the cleats felt a little sticky as they meshed with the SPD engagement points. That went away in a few rides as things started to mate up and sharp corners got rounded off a bit with use (we’re talking subtle things folks – really subtle). The pedals offer just enough platform to stomp on, but good positive SNAP when engaged or disengaged. And adjustable spring tension to fine tune the release and retention. Something I did miss but again, I like to set things and just ride. I don’t fiddle too much – I like to wrench my bikes but it’s mostly cleaning and the occasional mid season break down of the drivetrain when things get dusty. The only gripe if you can call it that is the lack of a pedal wrench flat on the spindle. Small gripe mind you – but it’s not a deal breaker.
Well after riding them for a few weeks, my mind was made up: Time to order up a XTR M9000 drivetrain! I also was working a plan. Since I build what I ride and then show what I build/ride making my bikes rolling examples of my work, I decided to rebuild my single speed so it had the ability to be run as an SS but also be a 1×11 Sram XX1 or X1 build. This way, I would have options to bring to shows, and compare / contrast the two different builds side by side when speaking with clients. I have been running Shimano XTR M980 brakes for some time. These, hands down, are some of the best disc brakes money can buy. Honestly, there is no competition according to my opinion. So let’s get back to the new XTR goodies…
Shimano announced a while back that they would be handling all the distribution basically for OEM accounts. My order was fulfilled through their new B2B website and was a cinch to use (I’ve used it in the past, but it is well organized and painless). When I have had questions, I’ve called Shimano directly and they have been very helpful. Occasional orders come in several boxes some times from the same distribution center which is odd, but things arrive. My only gripe there would be to ship everything at once and save on packaging materials.
Out of the box, XTR M9000 is spectacular. Smooth. Sexy. Refined. Ease of set up. Some include instructions for specs/setup, others you have to go online. One thing I noticed was unfortunately the chain does not come with directions for recommendations on how much chain is required for overlap when wrapping it around the largest cog/chainring. I had to go online for that. I thought it was two, but had to confirm. If they included this as part of the graphic on the packaging or as a small graphic on the wrapper (which they do do for chain orientation) I think that would be pretty slick. Again, small gripes, not deal breakers. Got the brake set up, lines shortened and all back together. No bleeding necessary. I used the existing rotors (XT ISO 6-Bolt) that were on my Industry 9 wheels – so no ice tech rotors here unfortunately, just XT down low from when I was running XTR M980’s which were still in really good shape with little wear. Here’s the cockpit all set up:
One thing I noticed is iSpec II is indeed different and not available here yet. That would have been nice to rid myself of that extra clamp, but it’s very minimal and doesn’t take up much room. You’ll note that I’ve used some heat shrink tubing around the housing end caps. One small step more to seal out the weather – I do this at both ends. Aesthetically the only thing “OFF” to my eye was the relatively square look and feel of the shifter body in relation to the brake lever body. Most likely due to the nature of the shift mechanism, but it did feel a little different – when mounted up things mate up well. First ride was to bed in the new pads and stopping power was back to what I would expect. Shifter and shifts at first felt a little stiff and clunky. Speaking with a friend, apparently the previous shifters were thought to be too soft? I don’t know or have experience there. But the shifter itself felt kind of cold and hard between shifts. What has been interesting though is that “feel” has really gone away and smoothed out as I’ve been out each time. I’d say last nights ride things were down right crisp and snappy without having that tough feel I first experienced. Things meshing and improving as you use them? Maybe so! Big change for me from the M9000 vs the M980’s is the lever being carbon vs alloy. When temps get colder here in NH come winter, my fingers can get prematurely cold on rides due to the levers getting cold. The switch to carbon is mostly weight savings, but it will be REALLY interesting how this effects the feel in colder weather for me. Back to the shifter: Shimano offers this as a “2 Way” shifter. So you can push or pull one of the levers to drop down the cassette. I’ve carried over from Sram that “push-push” tendency. I did note it’s a little cumbersome to pull when the shifter is rotated to how I like it – basically the handlebar is in the way to really pull it all the way. Maybe once the iSpec-II mount is available this tiny aspect will improve. But I’m very happy with the ability to push-push my way up and down the cluster.
Personal setup wise, here’s how I like things: I align the start of the lever body of the brake with the edge of the grip. I don’t like them slammed up against the grips (ODI Yeti Lock-on Speed Grips for the win kids – nothing finer! And… Made in the USA). I like about .75-1″ space between grip and clamp which puts that lever body in the single digit “just-so” position. For the shifter, I align the tip of the thumb lever with the grip’s edge as well. I have longer fingers and wide palms, and prefer to run my hands almost to the very end of the grips when Shredding, this puts my thumb just in the right spot to snap off shift up or down the cassette using Shimano’s 2 Way shifter setup. So if you wondered, that’s how and why I set my own shifter/lever up.
And let’s get to the rear end now:
First note: Yes I am not using a direct mount hanger. Paragon Machine Works is currently out of their direct mount hangers in black. Clear anodized is out of the question! Not on this build… I spoke to Donna Norstad at PMW and they are about 4-6 weeks out till they come back into stock. No problem Donna! I’m a patient man. I have used them on other customer builds and it drastically improves dropping the wheel when needing to pull the rear wheel off. So admittedly, I did miss Sram’s Cage Lock mechanism. I won’t lie. Spring tension is controllable and tunable which is interesting. Set up was a little different than Sram’s set up steps but it’s small things in terms of alignment of cogs/pulleys, how much tension to put on the derailleur cable, how things are routed, etc. Just different – not necessarily bad. First ride out I noticed a little odd clicking far up on the cassette. Few adjustments later that night and clicking went away to be replaced by an odd click-creak-click-creak. It has been REALLY dry here in NH the past few weeks. The trails are very dusty this early in the season and I had a hunch maybe it was the cranks interface with the bottom bracket that might need cleaning/re-greasing. Pulled that after the 3rd ride, cleaned, re-greased, assembled and tested in the yard outside the shop. Halfway through my ride last night, well that clicking odd noise returned and it definitely was coming from the cassette. The cassette’s carriers is made of a individual clusters mounted / riveted to a carbon composite spider. XT apparently sports alloy spiders. I noted that the very last cluster sits and meshed on part of the next in lines composite spider and just pushing on this with one finger I was able to replicate the noise (which basically sounds like you get sticks or small grit/gravel between things) and I want to say my ear is hearing this. Next step is to take this apart and apply a really thin layer of grease on these two mating parts to see if that abates the noise. IF it does not, I’d actually consider getting an XT M8000 cassette which has alloy spiders. Anything plastic/composite etc. on the drivetrain is just waiting to creak or explode (My own opinion). I don’t know if anyone else is experiencing this same problem, but it’s literally only happening on the 31t and 35t cogs. (EDIT: Appears many others are experiencing the same thing… My grease theory may work – and I’ll try the carbon paste too.) For the record, I’ve wrenched my fair share of bikes in the past and know all too well how noise can travel. This REALLY sounds like it’s coming from the cassette and my initial thought or hunch that it might be coming from the carrier interfaces was brushed aside since “It’s brand new, that CAN’T be it” and hence looking at the crank first!. But, everything else is just dandy. Transitions between cogs is amazing. Smooth and usable all the way through that range from 11-40t. I really, really like that 40t when you just need to sit back and pedal up a steep climb.
I recently switched over to a 30t chainring (Wolftooth Drop Stop to be exact – and yeah, ignore that Egg Beater as this is an older picture…):
For years I ran a 32t chainring up front. It really was that perfect or near perfect trail setup 1x ring for me. The only problem was I noticed I was mostly in the upper range of my cassette over the course of the ride. The terrain here in NH and the Northeast typically is made up of short, steep technical climbs. So my drivetrain was crossed over most of the ride on any given ride. Not bad per say, but it did lend to wear more readily. Admittedly, I felt like a big time puss for going down to a 30t. But, instantly I noted I was able to use practically the entire cassette and now for the majority of the ride I was in the middle of the cassette. Good for the drivetrain and I also noted that when in the 40t, to me, it really felt like a granny again which is good for my aging lower back… 10 speed, it really felt like they got the transitions right. 11 speed even more so and as I mentioned above, XTR M9000’s cassette cog transitions are pretty close to heaven if there is one.
As an aside, my build above is sporting the new metallic sparkle silver top mount decals from SSSink. Really digging the little things and these really bring the build together.
All in all, with exception to the small clicking noise I’m still working through in the 31t / 35t cogs which happens only out of the saddle for the most part, (seated climbs seem ok) Shimano has nailed it, again. Consider me transported home. I don’t think I’ve run a Shimano drivetrain since 1998, and I want to say my own full shimano drivetrain wasn’t present since my very first mountain bike, a florescent yellow Trek Antelope 830! Good grief… Even then in ’98, it was a mix of the then Shimano LX and a set of Grip Shifts and a pair of Shimano M636’s – I had the very first set of Shimano SPD’s which were a hand me down from a friend. I then got a set of 737’s for my road bike and got those 636’s for my mountain bike. They all treated me well over the years and carried me on practically every ride up until my switch some years ago. But I always preferred the snappy “POP” of Sram’s shifter and the push-push nature of things, hence why I was riding it. But, it’s nice to return to Shimano and have this build in the quiver. I’m very pleased with it and I’m looking forward to sharing it with clients when they pay a visit at the shop to talk bikes and decide. Whatever the case may be, in the end, I’l have builds to show them both sides of the coin (SRAM and Shimano) so we can speak to both advantages/disadvantages of both setups and why choosing one over the other or using a mix of components to fine tune the ride can be a good thing.
More later once I’ve had more time on this set up mid season or late into the fall. Till then, keep pedaling and as always: Swear to Shred.