Since 2012, the MarathonMTB.com Team riders have predominantly run Shimano group sets. Usually a mix of XT and XTR parts, mixed for the best combination of price, weight, performance and durability. Favour fell to parts from Shimano due in part to their parts availability when away from home, especially in Europe.
Personally, I’ve aimed to ride and race on XTR group sets since 2002, when I bought my first XTR equipped bike (a second hand Cannondale Jekyll). It was set up 2×9 with an optimistic 34/46 front chain ring. With full-length sealed cable outer, the shifting was a dream.
12 of the 14 mountain bikes I have owned since then had a very similar parts spec, with XT/XTR or complete XTR builds. So it made sense when organising bikes for our team, to keep riders on Shimano. We could buy spares in bulk, it was easy to know what worked well, and for spares at events or using race wheels everything was compatible.
Moving to Shimano M9000
After test riding the M9000 11-speed group set in late 2014 I knew it was time to upgrade. 2 part group sets (shifter, derailleur, chain and cassette) were bought for our Bianchi Methanol 29 FS dual suspension bikes, with 1x Absolute Black chain rings for the Cannondale SI Cranks we ran. Soon after, we bought the same for Sebastian Jayne.
In 2016 we equipped our team bikes with XTR M9000 mechanical group sets. M9000 is an astonishingly good group set, with shifting that was a leap ahead of M985 we had used previously. M9000 with XTR Trail brakes and an XT 11-42 cassette in a 1x setup had pretty much become the standard ‘team spec’. It worked. And it was easy to look after
Rolling onto Shimano XTR Di2
For 2017, our team bikes were upgraded to Shimano XTR Di2 with support from Shimano Australia. The Norco Revolver bikes we race on are ‘sort of’ Di2 compatible. The front triangles have internal routing, the chainstay swing arm doesn’t. There are a couple of ‘non-stock’ modifications that have made the builds really slick.
From 2016 to 2017 the Norco Revolver FS frames gained a front derailleur mount. This was ideal either for a chain device, or for running XTR Di2 as a 2×11 setup. Which is exactly what we built for Imogen Smith.
Unfortunately, the position of the front pivot on the Norco Revolver 29 FS frame doesn’t allow the front derailleur to sit low enough. So while the smooth shifting of a light weight 11-40 XTR cassette and 28/38 double ring, along with the big range, was awesome – the drop down or shift up was clunky as the front derailleur sat about 5mm higher than it needed to. The bike was made 1×11 again.
A season of thoughts on XTR Di2
From the outside, XTR Di2 seems super complicated. You have wires, batteries, head units, chargers – things need to be mapped out, wire lengths calculated, and then hidden inside the bike as best as possible. What a nightmare, right?
Well, yes. If you do your first XTR Di2 build under time pressure, it won’t be fun. With a bit more time so you know all the parts you need, and where best to put them for your frame, it’s really easy. As are strips and rebuilds of the bike. The time to tune the gears is really low, and they can easily be tweaked from the head unit if the cassette placement is a little bit off between different wheel sets you run.
Travelling with Shimano XTR Di2
This can also be a bit of a concern, until you’ve done it. Di2 cables are easy to unplug (although easier with the provided tool) and removing the wire from the head unit and derailleur is easy, making handlebar and derailleur removal for packing your bike a cinch. Nothing changes, no tuning is lost – nothing. It’s plug and play at the other end.
Racing with Shimano XTR Di2
For me, this was the biggest benefit. Having a gear range that works the same whether you’re in the wet or dry, mud or sand, is a huge advantage. And in stage races having shifting that doesn’t degrade over the week, or a shift action that doesn’t get slow or hard with grit in the cable is a real plus.
At this point, it’s one less thing to think about and maintain. Sure, clean your chain, jockey wheels, cassette, chain ring. But cable and outer? Slight adjustments to the shifting? Don’t worry about it.
The accuracy and ease of shifting is what won the whole team over too.
“The big difference for me, changing to XTR Di2 this year, is how completely effortless the shifting is,” says Imogen Smith, “In a marathon I shift hundreds of times, and with XTR Di2 I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going uphill or shifting under load. It’s just a perfect shift every time.”
Battery life with Shimano XTR Di2
That’s the big concern, right? I tested my group set to failure, and it was 7.5 weeks of riding and racing. With a 1x setup the battery life really is incredible. The head unit gave me plenty of warning that the battery was getting low (beyond the indicator), with prolonged audible beeps. When it ran out I was left in a mid-range gear and just had to bail on the ride I was doing and get home.
Tuning Shimano XTR Di2
This part was really fun, dialling everything in with the E-tube app you can download to your phone – something that the 2017 head units allow with Bluetooth connectivity. Firstly, we set Imogen’s SynchroShift up with two options to flick through. But we also set the shifting speed to the fastest possible setting. You can change what the shifters do, and I run ‘reverse’ to what Imogen does. You could set up a left hand shifter to work like the right hand shifter if you wanted to. These are small options, but it’s the custom tuning ability which really works for a dedicated racer with specific needs.
Finding the range you need with Shimano XTR Di2
I fitted a Shimano 11-46 cassette to my bike for The Pioneer in 2017. Justin Morris did the same, and then used the same setup on his Norco Revolver for the Mongolia Bike Challenge. The 46 really does help extend the range, and the motor in the Di2 derailleur makes what is a pretty big jump to the 46t a lot smoother compared to a mechanical group set.
In time it would be great to see this extend a little wider. Imogen Smith and I both have 2x setups on our Norco Revolver hardtails and the gear range is great for long training rides, or just for recovery rides where it helps to take the sting out of the steep climbs around Brisbane.
The downsides of Shimano XTR Di2
That’s easy – price. It’s not cheap. Not many top-spec parts are though. You could have a pretty awesome race rig with something like a Specialized Chisel Comp, but for most of us we also want to have something pretty fancy. Be it carbon wheels, lightweight carbon finishing parts, an exotic frame, a 100 gram saddle, or maybe electronic shifting. If you want something premium, then that’s Di2. It’s not a gimmick, but it isn’t cheap either.
There’s a whole lot of cash invested in an XTR rear derailleur. But across three riders and plenty of race days – we haven’t busted one. In fact, across all team riders, since 2012, I can only account for one broken derailleur, when Imogen ripped hers off her frame in France in 2016. And even that was repaired with a new part.
There’s concern about the cables being pulled out, and Imogen Smith did have that happen twice – because she hadn’t plugged them in securely with the tool. That’s user error, and it was on one trip.
And that’s about it.
Is Shimano XTR Di2 for you?
I found XTR Di2 really cool when comparing it to M9000 mechanical. Until The Pioneer in 2017, which was the first week-long stage race I did on it. Then I realised what a difference it made when racing blind, and in a week when you’re racing for more than 30hrs. This is when what seemed like small improvements were huge. The changes in precision, effort, and the ability to shift under load were all amplified.
But is it for you? Well it depends on your goals. It makes shifting easier and more precise every shift. Your maintenance for shifting precision is hugely reduced, to the point of being something you don’t think about. There are limitations with range compared to something like SRAM’s 10-50 cassette if you’re after a 1x setup. Mountain biking is changing, and the industry is continually evolving to keep up. At this time though, XTR gives me and the MarathonMTB.com Team a great combination or reliability, spares availability, precise shifting and high performance. Cheap? No. But you get much of what’s on offer with an upgrade to key M9000 parts, which is what we did previously and I would highly recommend if the price of Di2 puts it out of reach.