This Is Paradise: Riding Finale Ligure

You know where this is going, don’t you? Call off the search party, close the Wikipedia entry, stop selling tickets to the debate, because this is it. We’ve found paradise. And it’s called Finale Ligure.

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Words cannot convey the awesomeness. Finale has a huge variety of trails, but they’re all good.
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This photo is taken from the side of an incredible downhill track, which finishes by the beach. Perfection.

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The Shimano Australia crew had rustled together a fine mob for what would prove to be the most memorable mountain biking trip we’ve ever been on. Meet them below:

Left: Damian Breach – Lensman extraordinaire and very (very) proud Canberran. Right: Toby Shingleton – Shimano Australia marketing manager, with a training regime that starts tomorrow/after one more gelato/after one more beer.

Left: Will Levy – Two Wheel Tours head honcho and all-round mother hen. Right: Neil Kerr – Editor of Spoke Magazine and our crew’s dirt abrasion tester.

Left: James Klousia – Token Tasmanian, bends a mean sheet of ply. Bottom left: Chris Panozzo – Australian National Enduro Champion, makes berms quiver in fear. Bottom right: Jon Odams – Pearl Izumi athlete/man model/insurance expert.

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Long-travel bikes are the ticket for Finale Ligure – you’ll do most of your climbing either in a van, or on the tarmac. It’s all about the downhills here.

This flawless little Italian Riveria town is obviously no secret, it’s been the final stop on the Enduro World Series for the past three years, and the destination of choice for thousands of European mountain bikers. But, like the first time you make love, nothing we’d read or seen quite prepared us for the overwhelming reality. We didn’t wipe the grin off our face for a week. Even when our favourite gelateria run out of pistachio, the buzz didn’t die – we couldn’t believe the perfection we’d stumbled into.

"I'll take that one, please."
“I’ll take that one, please.” Ocean, mountains, perfection.
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Atop Monte Carmo di Loano. A few hours later, we’d be back on the beach.

Let us paint the picture. On your left, you have the Mediterranean, sapphire blue, languid and inviting, dotted with white sailing boats. On the coast you’ll find the town of Finale Ligure and its medieval sister, Finale Borgo, both charming spots full of seafood and gelato. Inland just a smidge you hit the mountains, thrusting up to a lofty 1400m above sea level. And etched into the rocky terrain of these peaks, you’ll discover more than 400km of trails, largely accessible by shuttle vehicle.

Did we highlight that there's 400km of trails to play with?
Did we highlight that there’s 400km of trails to play with?
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Every mountain bike town has a trail called Rollercoaster, but few are this good.

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This impossible sandwich of trails, town and sea was our domain for the week, which was ostensibly all about putting the latest Shimano XT Di2 gear through its paces. But to test something properly, you need to ride it a lot. And riding a lot means you need to eat a lot. And eating a lot means you need to ride a lot. It’s a terrible, vicious circle.

The little fella that brought us here. Finale was the ultimate testing ground for the new XT Di2 groupset.
The little fella that brought us here. Finale was the ultimate testing ground for the new XT Di2 groupset. Read our full review here. 
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HOW GOOD IS THIS?!
Riding back into town after a mammoth day. Just a cheeky castle in the background.
Riding back into town after a mammoth day.

Finale Ligure isn’t a trail centre like we’re accustomed to in Australia, where the riding is often fantastic, but the other essential components of a great holiday can be lacking. Here you’ve got a very best of both worlds – world class trails, butted into  a fully fledged holiday town, set up to handle the huge number of coconut-oiled Germans who flock to the sea each summer. There’s no 7:00pm scramble to find a counter meal after your ride (“Mate, kitchen closed at 6:30!”) – waltz down to the town square and you’re spoiled for choice, which just means you can spend more time riding into the late evening.

Cheers, to another awful day in paradise.
Cheers, to another awful day in paradise.

But what really sets Finale apart is the riding itself, and the level of challenge the trails present. “This one we call little Champerey,” explained Peter, our guide, on our first day of riding. “So, it’s steep then? Like the Champerey downhill track in Switzerland?” I asked. “Not so steep, just a little bit steep,” Peter reassured us, before launching off into a trail that was a ‘little’ steep in the way that Trump is a ‘little’ bit offensive. Brakes cooked, perceptions reset, Finale was treating us to a new level of riding.

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Panozzo ripping into another bobsled turn.
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Like many trails in Finale, this one clearly passes through an ancient farming area. The trails flow through old water runs, past ancients walls and abandoned orchards.

There’s no graduated approach to ease you into the trails. You’re all in, or you’re out.

Half way down the insane Monte Carmo descent.
Half way down the insane Monte Carmo descent.

That’s just the way it is – there’s no graduated approach to ease you into the trails. You’re all in, or you’re out. The hand built single track has grown organically over the last 30 years; raw, often unpredictable, nearly always rocky, these trails demand 100% engagement all the time. You’re never on cruise control. Our group suffered a few early casualties, both bike and body, victims of a dangerous mix of jet-lag and over enthusiasm But soon enough we found the rhythm and respect for the conditions, and thankfully everyone made it through the week.

Neil's hip went through all the colours of the rainbow over the course of the week following a crash on day one.
Neil’s hip went through all the colours of the rainbow over the course of the week following a crash on day one.
#lightbro
#lightbro

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There’s nothing manufactured about the riding either, the trails feel a natural part of the landscape, with many of them evolved from centuries-old walking trails or watercourses. Quite often you’ll suddenly pop up out into a little village, the trail literally scooting past the front door of a church, or over someone’s doormat. If you’re game to pull your eyes away from where you’re pointed, you’ll see the ruins of farmhouses deep in the trees, or realise that you’re actually riding through an abandoned olive grove or orchard, or over the foundations of a village lost in time.

Very, very much rock.
Very, very much rock.

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An abandoned NATO base is the kick off point for many of the region's best descents.
An abandoned NATO base is the kick off point for many of the region’s best descents.

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It’s up to you how you want to enjoy the trails of Finale Ligure, but you don’t come here for the climbs. The trails pretty much universally point downhill, so using one of the eight or so local shuttle services is a good way to start. The switchbacking roads are thick with vans towing bike trailers, heading out to the various trailheads in the hills. Some of the most popular runs actually kick off from the site of an old NATO base, about 1000 metres above the sea. It’s a surreal place to begin your ride, amongst the graffitied ruins with the huge turbines of a wind farm whirring overhead, and networks of secret tunnels below. If you want to stretch the legs, riding up to the top of the trails is manageable as the road never gets too steep – just be prepared for a long, steady climb of about an hour and a half.

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Early morning shuttles. LIKE.
Early morning shuttles. LIKE.
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Heading up into the clouds, from the beach.

Many, many miles off them, in all sizes, the longest rock garden on the planet.

Heading further out into the range presents another world of trails, rawer still, and even more epic. Perhaps the most memorable day of the journey was spent out here in the alpine area of Monte Carmo di Loano, the highest peak in the region. A long shuttle was followed by a tough hike-a-bike, but the pay off was truly something else. The trail down had only one predictable attribute, and that was rocks. Many, many miles off them, in all sizes, the longest rock garden on the planet. Even with 170mm of travel beneath us, it was a hysterically bouncy experience, the bike bucking about for kilometre after kilometre, line choice irrelevant, breathlessly trying to keep light and save our rims from the pounding. By the time we were deposited back on the coastline, hours later, our hands were raw and our legs throbbing from staying out of the saddle for the entire trail. It was unbelievable, one of the most memorable days riding we’ve ever had.

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Beginning the grind up to the peak of Monte Carmo di Loano.
The summit.
The summit.
Just a few more steps!
Just a few more steps!

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Epic.
Just look at that terrain.
Standard Finale mid-descent church drop.
Standard Finale mid-descent church drop.
A rare moment of buff trail.
A rare moment of buff trail.
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Rim pinging, flat out fun.

Our trip also coincided with the finale round of the Enduro World Series, and getting to see the level of riding at the peak of this discipline was humbling and thrilling. With Enduro still a relatively new part of the sport, few people have had the chance to actually experience an EWS race in the flesh, and it’s hard to convey just how tough it is. The demands are simply enormous. Some of the stages in the Finale Ligure round were full-blown downhill tracks, but preceded by hour long climbs, rather than a cushy chairlift ride. Over four days of practice and racing, the fitness, focus, preparation and consistency needed to be successful is mind blowing. If you had it in your mind that Enduro was a step back from the demands of downhill racing, then think again, because this game is brutal!

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Just some of the amazing crowd lining the final stage of the 2016 EWS.
Giving Aussie Enduro Champ, Chris Panozzo, some loud (distracting) support.
Giving Aussie Enduro Champ, Chris Panozzo, some loud (distracting) support.

We left Finale feeling permanently adjusted, and not just in the waistline, after a week of pasta, gelato and cheese, but in our outlook too. The convention for developing trail centres in Australia follows the wisdom that accessibility is key – start with more moderate trails to get a critical mass of visitors, then build in the technical stuff to enrich the experience for advanced riders. In Finale, that first step has been skipped – the trails will push even the most skilled riders, but that level of difficulty hasn’t hampered the success of this place as a mountain biking destination at all. We’re certainly not advocating that this should be the approach across Australia en masse, but seeing Finale Ligure certainly gives us the belief that the appetite exists for a truly challenging trail centre experience. We wonder which Aussie destination will be the first to emulate the Finale model?

A big thanks to Shimano for hosting us in Finale and giving us a chance to put Shimano XT Di2 through its paces in fine style – it was a week that will stay with us for a long, long time, as will the two kilos of cheese we ate.


Our test sled for Finale - Canyon's Strive CF. Read more about the bike here.
Our test sled for Finale – Canyon’s Strive CF. Read more about the bike here.
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Taking a breather after an hour and a half climbing up to NATO.
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Tight tech, on ancient walking trails.
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Odams gets in the hunt.
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Under a glowing canopy, Breachy grinds up into the backcountry.

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Long-Term Test: Shimano XT Di2

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Our Canyon wasn’t designed specifically for Di2, but integrating the wiring neatly was easy and secure.

It’s now been two years since Shimano first brought their Di2 electronic shifting to the mountain bike universe, during which time we’ve all become more accustomed to the presence of battery power on our bikes – electronic suspension lockouts and dropper seat posts, plus power meters and of course GPS units, plus other gadgets, are improving the mountain bike experience.

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The long (very long) and rough descents of Finale Ligure were an amazing testing ground for the XT grouppo. This place is hard on all parts of your bike!

We’ve been riding Shimano’s new XT Di2 groupset for a few weeks now, including for seven days of non-stop riding in Finale Ligure, Italy, where it got a serious work out on some of the most superb trails on the planet. You can read our initial report on our XT Di2 test bike here, including the build process, or get all the details about the different chain ring and cassette options available for XT Di2 here.


Do we need electronic shifting in mountain bikes though?

When low cost, mechanical shifting (like the new SLX groupset we reviewed here) works so well, we appreciate it is hard to justify the extra complexity of electronics. There’ll always be the ‘don’t need it, don’t want it camp’, but we’re not in it.

The instantaneousness and the precision. Every shift happens lightning fast, and because there’s no cable friction, each shift is perfectly accurate too.

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Our test sled.

Di2 has been well proven on road bikes since 2009, and while road racing is different to mountain biking, in many regards it’s in the dirt were Di2 makes even more sense. And with XT bringing the cost of Di2 down a long way, electronic shifting is now far more relevant than in the past.


Explain please. Why does Di2 make sense for mountain bikes?

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Unfortunately the Di2 shifter doesn’t integrate with the brake lever using the I-Spec mounting system like a regular mechanical Shimano shifter can, which makes for a more cluttered bar (especially with the Canyon Shapeshifter system).

Maintenance is a big one. The quality of mechanical shifting on a mountain bike tends to degrade much faster than it does on the road, and Di2 totally removes this issue, as there are no cables to get gummed up or kinked, so your shifting stays consistent and effortless.

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Because the Di2 hits each shift so precisely, you never think twice about shifting under full power.

Consistency of shifting, no mater what the circumstances, is another big plus. On a mountain bike, panic shifting under heavy load tends to happen frequently, whereas on the road things tend to be done more smoothly. With Di2 on your bike, it doesn’t matter if you hit the button desperately as you strain on the pedals mid-way up a steep pinch, the shift will still be perfect and smooth.


So what makes electronic shifting superior to mechanical shifting?

The instantaneousness and the precision. Every shift happens lightning fast, and because there’s no cable friction, each shift is perfectly accurate too.

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Crank the derailleur clutch tension up high for superior chain retention.

Chain retention is improved as well, not just because the shifts are crisp, but because you can crank up the tension in the derailleur clutch without any issue, greatly reducing chain slap. (The new XT derailleurs allow you to do this very easily using a 2mm Allen key). On a mechanical system, loading up the derailleur with heaps of tension would result in a very heavy shift action, but on Di2 you don’t need to worry about this as the motors do the work for your thumbs.

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The end result is more chain security and a quieter ride, and despite blindly riding down some of the roughest trails we’ve ever encountered in Finale Ligure, we didn’t ever drop a chain.


So are there any downsides?

Compared to the mechanical cable systems that most home mechanics are familiar with, installing a Di2 system takes a little more time. You’ll need to decide where you want to store the battery firstly, plus work out the lengths of the various wires required to link it all up, because they can’t be cut to length later like a cable system.

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As we’ve discussed below, installing the battery in the fork steerer tube can present some dramas. We’d recommend you put it in the top tube, or in the down tube. Wrap it securely in some kind of foam or padding to wedge it safely inside the frame and prevent it rattling.

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The shifter paddles are located in a slightly different to spot to a mechanical shifter, but they do slide horizontally to adjust the reach. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.

It took us a small period of adapting to the feel and location of the shifter paddles. You can adjust the paddle positions, but they never felt quite as natural to us as the mechanical shifters we’ve been using for decades.

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We mounted the battery tucked up inside the steerer tube, which was very neat and didn’t rattle, but the PRO stem/headset arrangement needs a little bit of refinement.

One issue, which isn’t a problem with Di2 per se, is related to the PRO Tharsis stem we used with our Di2 test bike. The Tharsis stem is designed to work seamlessly with Di2, and it allows you to store your battery in the fork steerer tube. To do this, it does away with a regular headset star nut and uses a threaded collar system to preload the headset bearings. It’s a finicky system that is prone to coming loose on really rough trails. Until the system is improved, we’d recommend using a regular star nut and running the battery inside your frame.


Is water an issue? 

Unless you’re taking your bike to the bottom of the harbour, you’re not going to have any water related dramas. You can wash your bike as normal, and river crossings or any of the usual water you encounter in mountain biking aren’t a problem.

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How about battery life?

‘What happens if I run out of batteries?’ is one of the questions we get asked the most. Basically, if you run out of batteries, you should give yourself an uppercut. Can you remember to charge your phone every day? Then you can surely remember to charge your bike every few weeks.

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The battery is charged via a little plug into the side of the display unit. Over the course of the week of riding, we dropped just one bar of battery (we started on 3/5 bars, and dropped to 2/5).

The display very clearly shows you how much battery life remains, and the charge lasts for ages – in a week where we rode approximately 20 hours, the battery indicator dropped by one bar. If you’re running a front derailleur, the battery will drain more quickly because a front mech uses more juice, but still a few weeks of normal riding is what you can expect from a charge.

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There is actually a new chain ring design that has just been released for 1×11 XT – our test bike was using the older tooth profile, but even still it hung onto the chain perfectly and operated quietly.

Does it operate any differently to XTR Di2?

Riding XT and XTR Di2 back to back, you can definitely pick up some small differences – the XTR shifting action is lighter, and the motor in the rear mech a tiny bit faster too. But then XT has some benefits over XTR too, such as the Bluetooth connectivity via the new display unit, which allows you to customise the operation of the shifting via Shimano’s iOS app.

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When it comes to functionality, the XT Di2 system has all the same options as XTR, including the Synchro Shift mode (learn more about it here), so you’re talking seriously marginal differences overall.


So would you recommend it? 

If you’re looking at a new bike, put Di2 down as a big positive. We’ve already started to see a number of manufacturers speccing this drivetrain  on their 2017 offerings, and the performance would be enough to sway us in the direction of Di2-equipped bike versus a mechanical bike.

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Di2 won’t revolutionise your ride, but it will improve it. And despite the system adding complexity to your bike, it actually simplifies things from a maintenance standpoint, which is a big plus.

If we were looking to upgrade to Di2 on an existing 11-speed bike, then you’ll need to decide if the performance improvements are worth the cash. If you’re running a Shimano 1×11 drivetrain already, upgrading to Di2 (a shifter, rear derailleur, battery, display units and wiring) will cost you about $1200, but it will improve your ride and reduce ongoing maintenance. Weigh it up! There really are no downsides, so it’s simply a matter of whether you can justify the expense.

Shimano XT Di2 Long Term Test Bike

What bike have you slung it on?


The bike that got the nod for this build is a Canyon Strive CF 8.9, which we got as a frame only and built up from there. We went for the burly Strive as we wanted something with some serious travel – the first place we’re taking this test bike is Finale Ligure in Italy, home to the last round of the EWS series, so a bike that could take the big hits was mandatory!

The unmistakable sight that gives away the fact that this bike has electronic shifting.
The unmistakable sight that gives away the fact that this bike has electronic shifting.
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From a bare frame grew this dream machine, seriously desirable stuff.

We’ve spent a lot of time on the CF 9.0 Race version of this bike, which you can read about here.

Does that have the Shape Shifter system?


Yes. In its long-travel mode, the Strive CF has 163mm travel out back, and 170mm up front. But Canyon’s Shapes Shifter geometry/suspension adjustment system allows you to totally flip the bike’s character on-the-fly to make it more climb friendly. Hit the button and the rear travel goes to 139mm, with less sag, higher bottom bracket and the geometry is steepened. It’s one of the features that makes this bike a bit of a favourite of ours, giving it more versatility than other big travel Enduro rigs.

The Shapeshifter remote lever, hit the lever and the bike changes between climbing and descending modes.
The Shapeshifter remote lever, hit the lever and the bike changes between climbing and descending modes.
The cable travels up the upper shock area where the Shapeshifter unit hides out of sight.
The cable travels up the upper shock area where the Shapeshifter unit hides out of sight.
From above you can see the adjustable air chamber for the Shapeshifter unit. A tight fit for most shock pumps, so we don't misplace the hose adaptor supplied with the bike!
From above you can see the adjustable air chamber for the Shapeshifter unit. A tight fit for most shock pumps, so we don’t misplace the hose adaptor supplied with the bike!

What was the build process like? 


A little complicated. The first time you build up a Di2 bike, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve, especially if the bike isn’t designed for Di2 specifically (which the Strive is not).

With building a Di2 bike it's all about the wiring, the battery, and where it all goes inside the bike and parts.
With building a Di2 bike it’s all about the wiring, the battery, and where it all goes inside the bike and parts.

Firstly, you need to decide where you’re going to stash the battery. Normally, you’d need to install it in the frame somewhere, but because we’re using the PRO Tharsis Trail bar and stem (read about it here) which lets you run the wiring all internally in the cockpit, we were able to install the battery in the fork steerer tube using Shimano’s neat expanding battery holder.

PRO Tharsis Di2 specific cockpit.
PRO Tharsis Di2 specific cockpit.

Because we opted for a 1×11 drivetrain too, we didn’t need to muck around with a separate junction box to wire up a front derailleur, meaning all the wiring junctions are up front at the display unit and easily accessed should any maintenance be needed.

The wiring with a 1×11 setup is minimal – one wire goes from the shifter to the display, a second wire runs from the battery to the display, and then one final long wire from the display to the rear derailleur. Running the wiring through the frame for the rear mech required a little bit of gentle modification, where we drilled out one of the gear cable ports to allow the wiring to pass through (shhh, don’t tell Canyon).

The thin but tough Di2 wire only sees a few inches of daylight.
The thin but tough Di2 wire only sees a few inches of daylight.
No front mech for this bike.
No front mech for this bike, 32 tooth chainring.

Have you customised the Di2 setup?


Not yet, but we will. One of the cool features of Di2 is that you can customise the shifting speed and controls to suit your preferences – previously this was something that had to be done with a PC, but Shimano now have a iOS app that connects to the Di2 via Bluetooth, making it a less arduous process!

Yes, we know...
Yes, we know…

What about the rest of the build? 


FOX Factory suspension got the nod for this one, including the superb FOX 36 RC2 fork in a beefy 170mm version. We debated about putting a Float X2 rear shock into the bike, but decided the Float X with its three position compression control was the go.

FOX 36 with 170mm of travel.
FOX 36 RC2 with 170mm of travel.
FOX Float X
FOX Float X out the back, superb stuff.

The bike we’re taking to Finale Ligure is fitted out with a full XT groupset (including wheels, not the Wheelworks wheels seen in these pics), and PRO componentry – Tharsis carbon bars, a 45mm stem, and a Turnix saddle.

Shimano XT brakes with the IceTech finned brake pads.
Shimano XT brakes with the IceTech finned brake pads.
PRO Tharsis bars come standard at a whopping 800mm wide, we trimmed them down a touch.
PRO Tharsis Trail bars come standard at a whopping 800mm wide, we trimmed them down a touch.

Reliable rubber is a must if you’re travelling, so we went for Maxxis Aggressors in the new Double Down casing, which are tougher than the usual EXO casings with about a 100g weight penalty.

Maxxis Aggressor tyres, tough and reliable rubber.
Maxxis Aggressor tyres, tough and reliable rubber.

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We’ll be bringing you a lot more on this bike in the coming weeks, with a full review on the performance of XT Di2. Now, it’s into a bike bag and onto the plane it goes! Next stop, Italy.

 

Flow’s First Bite: Shimano XT Di2

What’s the difference between XT and XTR Di2? Not much – a bit of weight and a lot of dollars. XT actually gets some features that makes it an even more attractive offering than XTR in many respects.

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The XT Di2 head unit communicates with your phone or tablet via Bluetooth to let you operate the E-Tube app. XTR Di2 users can add the new head unit to their existing system.

Read all about our experience with XTR Di2 here: XTR Di2 Long-Term Test 

Watch a video XTR Di2 in operation with an explanation of the shift modes here: Di2 Shift Modes Explained


XTR is a racer’s product; it’s all about the incremental gains that most of us wouldn’t really even notice. A few grams shaved here, a few Watts saved there. XT on the other hand, is aimed directly at the trail rider – the person who wants a tough, reliable but still high-performance groupset. So what is the weight penalty? Well, if we look at a 1×11 XTR vs XT setup (excluding brakes), then the weight penalty is about 290g. If you want to run an 11-42 cassette with your XTR 1×11, then the weight difference drops to just 180g. Yep, that’s it. Take a look at the spreadsheet below for the full weight comparison of XT and XTR Di2.

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From a features perspective, XT Di2 misses out on the multi-release shifting found on XTR (the ability to fire off two shifts with one push of the lever), but frankly, that feature is kind of redundant, given you can simply hold down the shift button and shift through multiple gears anyway.

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The XT shifter doesn’t have the multi-release functionality of XTR.

Otherwise, it essentially mirrors the features found on XTR. It has all the programmable Syncro Shift modes, customisable shifter paddle functions and adjustable shift speed features, and like XTR you can get it in 1x, 2x or 3x configurations.

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An 11-42 cassette gives you broad range, or there’s an 11-46 option too.

What makes XT even more appealing than XTR, in our mind, is two things; a broader cassette range and an improved user interface.

Unlike XTR, which only comes with an 11-40 cassette, XT gives you an 11-42 and even an 11-46 option as well. With this extended range out back, we’re sure to see a lot of people going down the 1×11 route with XT Di2, which reduces the expense of the system a lot too.

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The new E-Tube App is a huge improvement over the previous PC-based software.

Finally the Di2 E-Tube interface (the software which allows you to customise the performance of your Di2, or to run diagnostics should a problem arise) gets brought into the 21st century. The previous version of this software was PC only, and required you to physically plug your Di2 system into a computer. It was clunky at best. XT sees the introduction of Bluetooth to the world of Di2, with all new E-Tube App for both iOS and Android devices, allowing you to customise your Di2 from your phone or tablet. Admittedly, once the system is configured how you like it, you’re not likely to use the E-Tube software very often, but it’s still a great improvement. XTR Di2 users can ‘upgrade’ to XT Bluetooth system by purchasing the XT display/head unit.

XT has built its reputation on reliability, that’s what’s made it the go-to for weekend warriors who can’t afford unnecessary trips to the local workshop. Does the introduction of electronics risk undermining this reliability? Based on our experiences, no. We’ve had well over a year of riding XTR Di2 now, and reliability hasn’t been a concern. In fact, with no cables or housing to get gummed up or damaged, we’ve had to spend far less time making shifting adjustments than we would have with a mechanical system.

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Our XT Di2 test sled is a Giant Reign Advanced. It weighs in at 13.1kg including XT pedals.

We’ll be getting our hands on an XT Di2 groupset for a proper long-term test in the near future. For now, we’ve nabbed one of Shimano’s demo fleet, a Giant Reign Advanced, setup with a 1×11 drivetrain. Unlike an increasing number of frames, it’s not specifically optimised for Di2 use, but even still the Di2 integrates into the bike very cleanly, especially as the bike has the PRO Tharsis bar and stem which facilitates internal wiring of the cockpit.

We’ll bring you more on XT Di2’s performance on the trail in coming weeks.

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Tested – 2016 Shimano XT 11 Speed

The new Shimano XT looks, feels and works so damn nice that it’s hard to believe this isn’t Shimano’s top tier offering.

Shimano’s workhorse component group has gone under the knife in a big way. Front to back, everything has received some love, with the most notable change that it’s now an 11-speed drivetrain. Highlights of 2016 Shimano Deore XT M8000 include:

– 11-42 wider range cassette. Previously only going as low as a 36 tooth sprocket, Shimano’s 11 speed XT now has 11-40 and 11-42 tooth cassette options, giving riders a huge useable range of gears.

– Single, double or triple chain ring options.  XT retains a wide range of options for all riders, and is still available a triple and double chainring setup, as well as single-ring options.

– Crisp new shifters.  The new shifters look a lot like the premium XTR models and feel lighter and crisper under the thumb than before.

– Derailleurs.  More options for the front derailleur (including the new side cable pull version, for bikes with tyre clearance issues) and a sleeker, tougher rear derailleur with an adjustable clutch tension.

– Refined brakes. Dropping a few grams, the new XT brakes also look a lot more like XTR in their shape.

– Pedals. Revised pedals offer more support around the cleat area in both Race and Trail configurations.

For more background info on the new XT, read our first impressions piece here: XT First Impressions.

Shimano XT (1)

Shimano XT 11 Speed 11
Shimano’s Shadow + derailleurs do a great job of hiding away out of harm, tucked underneath the dropout. In comparison to SRAM they certainly look a lot slimmer from the side profile.

Riding XT

We’ve had the new 11-speed XT drivetrain fitted to our Yeti SB-5 for a few weeks now. Previously this bike was fitted with a SRAM X01 drivetrain, so we opted to run the nearest XT equivalent, a 1×11 setup with 32-tooth ring. Here are our early impressions.

Drivetrain:

The single-ring drivetrain we fitted was equipped with the 32-tooth DCE (Dynamic Chain Engagement) chainring and the super-wide range Rhythm Step 11-42 tooth cassette out the back. The two big questions that we brought to the this test were: would the 11-42 cassette provide an adequate spread of gears for 1×11 use (especially compared to SRAM’s 10-42 offering)? And would the chain stay on without a chain guide?

The second question is easy to answer. Did the chain drop off the chain ring? No, not once. During our testing we didn’t experience any dropped chains, not even a hint of it. And after a few rides bedding in the system, the chainring and chain were a quiet and smooth duo, gliding along with zero noise or feedback.

Did the chain drop off the chain ring? No, not once.

The SRAM narrow/wide chain ring system has proven to be near flawless – we’ve only dropped chains with narrow/wide rings a handful of times or in muddy conditions – so effective chain retention was always going to be vital in ensuring uptake of Shimano’s 1×11 system. Many other chain ring manufacturers have been jumping aboard with the alternating teeth thickness design (Race Face, Wolftooth and E13 are just a few), Shimano’s take on the single ring design however is very different. The teeth are consistent in shape/width but they are much taller and squarer than on traditional rings. Said to increase chain retension by 150%, the new teeth profile has us convinced.

Shimano XT 11 Speed 1
The new DCE (Dynamic Chain Engagement) ring, available in 30, 32 and 34 tooth options.

Even still, the old debate applies: would you run a chain guide for added security and peace of mind? You only need to drop the chain once for it to become a problem… It’s up to you to decide. Thankfully there are many neat, lighter upper guides coming out that do a great job of making sure the chain won’t wander off the teeth when you don’t want it to.

Shimano XT 11 Speed 3
The Rhythm Step cassette. Steel construction on an aluminium spider, and a dark grey aluminium 42 tooth cog.

Changing gears with the new shifters is so very precise; they have a much more positive and solid feel to the click, but with such a resounding click does not come increased effort, the action is really very light. In many respects, the new shifters feel like the perfect mix between the solid of Shimano’s beefy gravity group, Saint and the lightness of XTR.

Shimano claim shifting action to be 20% lighter overall, and with a new OPTISLICK coated gear cable, the effort to shift is reflected in the way the derailleur unmistakably selects gears, providing you with a very easy system to use.

Our test kit uses a 32 tooth front chainring and the super-wide 11-42 tooth cassette. We found the range to be highly effective, and at the low range we could ride up steep pinches without wishing for any lower gears. If you’re particularly keen to gear your bike lower or taller, you can opt for a 30 or 34-tooth ring, or of course XT is also available with a double or triple ring. In comparison, SRAM’s single rings are available in a much wider range of sizes (even going as low as a 26-tooth), but the most popular size is a 32-tooth.

As many have noted, SRAM’s XD Driver allows for a wider range cassette than Shimano (10-42 vs 11-42), but in our opinion we never missed the slightly higher gearing at the top end – we think having adequately low climbing gears is much more important than a higher top gear. Admittedly, we aren’t exactly cross country racers, but our thoughts are that if you’re going that fast you’re likely to be on tarmac, so just chill and watch out for cars.

The Rhythm Step cassette comes in two variants: 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-27-31-35-40 (optimal for 2×11 or 3×11 use) and 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-42 (for use with a single front chainring).

Shimano XT

Brakes:

It’s safe to say Shimano’s hydraulic brakes are known as being the most reliable and consistent options over the last few years. But no brakes are perfect, and we’ve had our fair share of issues from both the SRAM and Shimano parties – SRAM have often proven inconsistent and requiring frequent bleeding, while some Shimano’s have had weeping piston seals.

Like the rest of the groupset, the XT brakes have had a complete overhaul. Looking more like XTR brakes than ever before, the slim shape and stumpy lever takes up very little space on the bars, and with the I-Spec mounting option, combining the brake and shifter to neaten your cockpit even further is a possibility.

What we look for in a good brake is a consistent lever feel at all times and powerful bite that can be modulated with one finger on the lever. The XT stoppers score top marks in this regard, they feel absolutely fantastic under the finger. In many regards they are on par, if not better feeling, than the more expensive XTR brakes.

The two external adjustments let you decide exactly where you want the lever to sit and how far you want it to pull into the bar before the pads contact, and they work a treat.

These brakes provided perfect modulation and power whilst never feeling grabby, delivering a sweet amount of power consistent with how hard you squeeze the lever.

Shimano place a real emphasis on heat management, using a variety of technologies to ensure heat doesn’t become an issue. A trick aluminium rotor with a steel braking surface makes the most of the best properties of both materials, dissipating heat whilst proving a durable braking surface. We had no chance in heating up these brakes to a significant degree on our usual test grounds around Sydney, but we tried our best with no sign of fade or power loss. Top marks once again.

The new brake levers are slimmer in shape and look and feel a lot more like their expensive brother, XTR.
The new brake levers are slimmer in shape and look and feel a lot more like their expensive brother, XTR.

Verdict:

Shimano had definitely lost some ground to SRAM over the past couple of years as single chain ring drivetrains have become more and more popular, but with the new XT we’re seeing a turning of the tide. Shimano now have an affordable 11-speed option, and with XT’s 11-42 cassette, they can offer a viable 1×11 drivetrain for the masses as an alternative to SRAM. Because XT 11-speed will fit just fine on a standard Shimano freehub body, we also think it’s going to be incredibly popular with riders who’d been holding out on going to 11-speed because they didn’t want to have to purchase a new rear hub/freehub/wheel.

We don’t have any set-in-stone pricing for the new XT drivetrain yet unfortunately, but Shimano have indicated that prices will be within 5% of current XT.

This makes the new 11-speed XT considerably less expensive than SRAM’s X01 drivetrain, which we’d pick as being an equivalent item in terms of placement and performance.

If you’ve been thinking it was about time to give your bike a drivetrain upgrade, or if you’ve sitting on the fence of going for a 1×11 drivetrain, we can highly recommend the new XT group, or if you’re eyeing off a new 2016 bike that is specced with the 11 speed XT, snap it up.

Shimano XT 11 Speed 25

Shimano XT 11-speed with new 11-42 cassette

TOOT TOOT! The Shimano Trickle Down Express has arrived at Working Man’s Station.

Yes, all those lovely evolutions debuted with the XTR 11-speed groupset have made their way down to a level that is well within the grasp of much more of the mountain biking population. With the launch of XT 11-speed (and the recent unveiling of SRAM’s GX 11-speed groupset too), 11-speed is a truly affordable proposition.

XT 11-speed 8
11-speed Shimano at prices that won’t force you onto a packet rice and canned tuna diet for six months.

There’s no Di2 version yet, but given the popularity of Ultegra Di2 on the road, we can’t imagine Shimano will wait too long before offering us a battery-powered version of XT. We certainly hope so, because we have been loving the bejesus out of our XTR Di2 groupset! By our reckoning and market research, Shimano XT continues to be the most popular groupset in Australia. It’s real bread and butter stuff – light enough for racing, but really built to be enjoyed by trail riders, reliable year after year, harder to kill than one of those massive flying cockroaches. So how have Shimano improved their XT groupset to make sure it remains competitive in this new era of 11-speed drivetrains and single-ring fever?

11-42 wider range cassette: Shimano have seen the light! It might seem like a small thing, but Shimano’s decision to offer a 42-tooth option with the XT 11-speed cassette is going to be massive boon for lovers of 1×11 drivetrains. For many riders, the 11-40 range of the XTR 11-speed cassette was just a little too tight for 1×11 use, making it hard to get a low enough climbing gear without sacrificing the top end. But with an 11-42 tooth option, those concerns will definitely be reduced.

XT 11-speed 6
This fella is an 11-40, but an 11-42 will be available too.

Yes, compared to a SRAM drivetrain, you do miss out on the 10-tooth high gear, but we’re less concerned about this top end than we are about having a good swathe of climbing gears. XT will be available with either an 11-42 or 11-40 tooth cassette; the 11-42 is designed specifically for 1×11 use, while the 11-40 is designed for 2×11 or 3×11 configurations.

XT 11-speed 5
The cassette is concave on the rear to clear the spokes without requiring a new freehub design.

For now, XTR will continue to only be available in an 11-40 tooth configuration. The justification is that XTR is a racing product, and racers are more concerned with tighter, smoother gear ratios, rather than a massive spread of gears. Ho hum… we’d rather see XTR in an 11-42 as well, but we’re sure it’s only a matter of time. The new 11-speed XT cassette will fit any existing Shimano freehub body too. We see this as another big plus, as it’s easy to upgrade to 11-speed without forking out for a new freehub (or hub/wheel) to do so.

XT 11-speed 7
As you can see from the packaging, Shimano don’t recommend you use a 11-42 tooth with a double or triple chain ring setup. Why? We’re not 100% sure, other than saying you probably don’t need gears that low!

Single, double or triple chain ring options: While we’re unashamedly most excited about an XT 1×11 drivetrain (available with 30, 32 or 34 tooth rings), for those seeking a broader spread of gears there is a suite of double chain ring options available (28/38, 26/36 and 24/34), as well as a triple option (22/30/40)  in case you need to tow a trailer up Mt Kosciusko.

XT 11-speed 15
XTR-esque. The XT grouppo is only available in one colour scheme now, not the silver or black of previous years.

Visually, the crankset takes a lot cues from XTR, with the same funky rectangular bolt pattern for the chain rings. The double and single ring cranks are interchangeable (i.e. you can buy a single and then convert it to a double or vice versa), but the triple is not – it’s #tripleforlife.

XT 11-speed 14
Sculpted! Almost makes us want to run a double ring, this looks so nice!

As usual, the technology poured into Shimano’s chain rings is pretty amazing. In a double or triple chain ring setup, the large ring is a carbon/aluminium mashup, while the single ring gets stainless steel teeth to cope with the chainline demands of using one ring across the whole cassette spread.

Slick shifters: Along with a claimed 25% reduction in shift effort, the new XT shifters get some of the same ergonomic tweaks as XTR. Knurled and dimpled shift paddles provide more grip for your digits when changing gears, and a revised I-Spec II brake/shifter mount system gives you more customisation of the shifter placement. If you already have Shimano brakes, and only want to upgrade your drivetrain, you’ll be happy to hear the shifters come with the original I-Spec mounts too, so they’ll work fine with existing I-Spec brake levers.

XT 11-speed 1
More grip for your thumb, plus more versatile I-Spec mounting. The cable has a new impregnated coating too, for slicker operation.

Derailleurs: XT front derailleurs now come in 106* different variants, including the neat side swing configuration that was released with 11-speed XTR, which once again makes more room for large rubber and shorter chain stays.

XT 11-speed 10
The clutch lever is hidden away for supreme slickness.
XT 11-speed 9
The little rubber cap hides an external adjuster for the clutch tension, should you want to really stiffen things up (which is a good idea if you’re running a single ring).

The rear mech gets the same XTR-inspired clutch configuration, with a more streamlined clutch lever and externally adjustable clutch tension too.

Brake it down:  Shimano XT brakes are pretty hard to improve upon, so the aside from a slight diet (-10g), there haven’t been too many changes here. The bar clamp is lighter and slimmer, and the lever body has seen the surgeon’s scalpel.

XT 11-speed 2
A leaner and more angular XT brake lever.
XT 11-speed 3
Not seen here, the caliper is of course compatible with Ice Tech finned pads.

Boost compatible: With the advent of the new Boost (un)standard for hub spacing, things get once again more complicated, with new variants of hubs and cranks to suit. All new XT cranks and hubs will be available in Boost mode, which doesn’t give you extra powers like some kind of Nintendo power-up, but does mean the cranks have a 3mm offset spider for more chain clearance around big tyres and a straighter chainline.

XT 11-speed 12
M8000-B: the B signifies this crank as being Boost compatible.

In the coming weeks we’ll be bolting the new XT 11-speed drivetrain onto a test bike to garner some initial ride impressions. In the meantime, we feel this is a really hard-hitting salvo back at SRAM in the 1×11 drivetrain market. Game on!

Fresh: New XTR Brakes, XTR Carbon Wheels, and 27.5 XT Wheels

For 2014 Shimano has updated the XTR XC brakes (including a carbon lever), introduced new XTR carbon tubular wheelsets, and added 27.5 to the XT range of wheels.

XTR – Light weight XC racing brake update

Light weight for race specification, subtle control with improved lever design, and more consistent brake feeling.

New XTR lever with carbon lever.
New XTR brake.

 

  •  Optimized material and structure for light weight
    • Magnesium BL/BR ,carbon lever, titanium small parts
    • 40g lighter than BR-M985
  •  Refined piston with sealing construction BL
  •  Optimized power curve, improved master cylinder & piston design (free stroke, rigidity)
  •  Ergonomic lever shape
  •  Total design of heat management
  •  I-spec compatible
  •  Ice-Technology pad compatible
  •  Reach adjust (tool)
  •  Easy and clean bleeding
    • One way bleeding caliper
    • Funnel bleeding

XTR “Freeza” Rotor

The new XTR rotor using “Freeza” technology.
  • 40 degree C more reduction in heat (vs SMRT98)
  • Aluminum Radiator fin
  • Clad rotor blade
  • Rotor size: 203mm /180mm /160mm /140mm

 

XTR Carbon Tubular Wheelset

Tubular wheel with super light weight carbon rim, optimized design for XC race.

New XTR Carbon 29er Wheel (Rear)
  • Super light weight full-carbon offset rim
  • 28pcs of straight black spokes and aluminum black nipples
  • *Quick engagement freehub body (36/360 degree) for perfect traction
  • High rigidity with front 15mm and rear 12mm E-thru axle
  • Easy maintenance and longer durability
  • CENTER LOCK rotor mount for easy and quick installation

 

XT 27.5 Wheelset

XT wheels now in more size options.