Shimano Di2 Electronic XTR M9050

shimoano xtr electronic groupset

It’s got 11 gears and electric motors, but is this technical tour de force a step in the right direction or wide of the mark?

The launch of a new Shimano groupset always involves high drama. This year was no exception. It was an open bike-industry secret that 2014 would be the year the top-flight XTR range was refreshed; you can set trains by the shadowy Japanese giant’s product cycle. Of more interest, and subject of much speculation, was how it would respond to the disruption caused by the launch of the single-ring specific, 11-speed SRAM XX1 and XO1 groupsets. Shimano has always been a firm proponent of multiple ring drivetrains, almost dismissive of 1x set-ups for trail-riding use.

With the release of the M9000 XTR group, some of those questions were answered. The numbers are bumped up to match SRAM, with an 11-speed cassette offering a wide but not SRAM-beating 11-40T range, running on a conventional freehub body. It isn’t single-ring specific, but there is an option with a special but non-narrow wide-tooth profile designed to keep the chain in place, in addition to the traditional double and triple set-ups. A tough, low-friction coating called Sil-Tec has been applied to the chain and other high-wear components, promising even greater lifespan, while the hollow, carbon, aluminium and titanium chainrings on the new cranks are engineering works of beauty.

shimoano xtr electronic groupset

Save the best till last?
One last trick was saved, making everyone who was allowed to see it swear secrecy until now. As well the mechanically shifted option, XTR M9050 has adapted the Di2 electric shifting technology from its highly regarded Dura Ace and Ultegra road groupsets for use by us mucky off-road pups.

There are many advantages to this. Di2 self-adjusts, automatically trimming itself for smooth running even when covered in filth, with sticky or stretched cables simply not an issue. More powerful servomotors drive the front and rear mechs, so that no matter how tired your hands, shifting always takes minimal effort. There’s a small LED display to show which gear you’re in and the battery can be mounted in a number of ways – on a bottle cage, in a seat tube, or in your fork steerer. The wires can be hidden inside a frame without the maintenance hassles of internal cables.

The real party trick is that it can be configured to use just a right-hand shifter to control both mechs, with gears being shifted sequentially on both the rear sprockets and from chainrings, programmable modes controlling the points it shifts up or down a ring at the front.

The new rear derailleur is even lower profile than before, unlike the bulky SRAM design and, as well as being user programmable, the brain can be integrated with Fox’s electric iCD suspension adjustments. It creates interesting possibilities for both home tinkerers and manufacturers in the future.

shimoano xtr electronic groupset

Form over function?
It’s certainly impressive, but some have been left wondering if it misses the point. Test-guru Guy Kesteven says: “There’s no denying that Shimano’s new XTR is a typically stunning piece of technological advancement. Unfortunately it seems to have missed the things I want from a trail-bike transmission. SRAM is gaining fans every ride with bomb-proof, stripped-down, weight-and hassle-saving simplicity, but XTR adds a whole new level of cable, battery and charger complication without even getting rid of multi-chainring and chain-device dependence.”

Ian Alexander of Whyte Bikes says: “There are some interesting features on the 2x and 3x groups, but I think these are becoming less important to the average trail rider, and even less interesting to frame designers who want to chuck away the front mech altogether.”

They have a point. SRAM’s 11-speed 1x set-ups have a gear range that is useable for everyone from XC and enduro racers to novice riders who find the simplicity of a single ring (and shifter) much easier to understand. It’s killed a number of birds with a single stone; less weight, greater performance and increased simplicity. That technology is being brought to the masses, with the new X1 drivetrain retailing complete for R13 000. Shimano’s top-flight groupset offers more complexity and the price is staggering, even by the standards of existing high-end gear. A Di2 rear mech will cost nearly eight grand alone, with each shifter adding R3 000 to the bill. The technology has been available on the road for a while now and has only just trickled down to Ultegra, the equivalent of XT. It’s technology that is unlikely to ever be truly affordable.

Shimano focuses on engineering incremental improvements rather than following trends and XTR is, and continues to be, a showcase for their technology. Steady innovation has paid dividends in the sheer quality and reliability of their products. Whether electric shifting is the answer to the issues of mountain biking is another question; one that can only be answered when the groupset becomes available to ride at the end of the year.

First published in Ride magazine, August 2014.