If I think back, I remember buying an 11-28 7 speed cassette for my rigid chromoly mountain bike. I was pretty happy to stick to that size even when the 11-30 was available as my Sugino cranks had a 20t little ring after all. Times change, and with the advent of 1×11 (and 1×12) gearing systems, range is king. I think shift quality and the jump between gears should also be king – but most people just want the range. I moved to using Shimano’s 11-speed XTR group set in late 2015 after testing some. It was a no-brainer mostly due to how smooth the M9000 shifting was, even compared to M985. Besides, I was tired of messing around with front derailleurs, and cleaning grime out from between chain rings.
The M9000 setup with a 11-40 XTR cassette was awesome. I had it on my Bianchi Methanol 29 FS with a 34t chain ring – sometimes challenging, mostly perfect. For the Swiss Epic that year Imogen and I both downsized a chain ring, and bought the newly available Shimano XT 11-42 cassette. That extra bit of range made a difference.
Now when the 11-46 cassette came out I was intrigued – that was a lot of range in just 10 jumps. What was really surprising was that it was only the lowest gear where the change occured – essentially the 42t was scrapped and replaced with a 46t. In my head I noticed the difference between how an 11-40 and 11-42 would shift. So I was dubious.
Shimano 11-42 teeth: 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-42
Shimano 11-46 teeth: 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-46
And partly, for that reason I chose to aim to run a 2×11 Shimano XTR Di2 group set with SynchroShift on my Norco Revolver 29 FS for 2017. Earlier in the year my plans included a return to TransAlp, and some other pretty hilly races. a 26/36 chain ring combo and an XTR 11-40 cassette run from one shifter and two little motors would provide a wide gear range, smooth shifting, and little thought.
But before any of that, I was faced with my first big race of the year – The Pioneer. At 7 days long with about 15500m of climbing, it’s a hard week. I was set to race with Subaru-MarathonMTB.com team mate Justin Morris, who casually looked at the profile of the race and thought it looked pretty flat, mostly like a road race. Having been there the previous year, I went about ordering us both an 11-46 cassette and new chain, and a 32t chain ring for Justin too – as I thought his recent purchase of a 34t was optimistic!
Setting up the Shimano XT 11-46 cassette
Fitting was easy – it’s just a cassette. But getting it to shift well was the next challenge. Well, except it wasn’t. My Di2 setup takes care of most of the shift effort, so it was just a case of managing the clearance with some added adjustment to the B-tension screw. Shifting was really smooth, and maybe with the tiniest delay compared to the 42. but I think my head made that up. Pedalling under load up my driveway the combination felt smooth – if not ridiculously low.
I was also surprised the cassette was 439g on my scales. Only about 7g heavier than the 11-42. For some reason, I expected a far greater weight penalty.
Into the fire with the Shimano XT 11-46 cassette
I think The Pioneer was the perfect test-bed for this. I still would have preferred a 2×11 drivetrain, but as my team mate’s Norco Revolver was a 2016 1x specific model, I figure we could suffer together.
And suffer we did! The range was what we needed, and given a lower gear we probably would have just struggled along in it at a lower speed. Under heavy load on steep (think 20% and a little more) climbs, the shift into the 46t did feel a little laboured. And a drivetrain denuded of chain lube by countless creek crossings and lots of fine dust in the New Zealand alps did get pretty loud when creeping up a long climb at 4kmh.
So that bigger gap was noticeable, but at the same time it serves its purpose really well. I wouldn’t want the spread to be wider across the rest of the cassette, and that last shift allows the bail out gear everyone is looking for when faced with a super steep, or really long climb. Whether you have the aerobic fitness to spin up it is another thing entirely, but having a low gear does give some people a sense of security.
Right now, I’m back to running the normal 11-42 on my bike. And that’s fine. but the 11-46 is perfect to have on the shelf for hilly events or big days on a 1×11 bike, and if you’re looking for the extra range from your Shimano 1×11 drivetrain, I would have no qualms about getting one.
Pricing is about $185 in Australia, but it depends where you’re sitting if you’re reading this.