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Since 1992, when Shimano launched the M900 XTR as a completely new race orientated grouppo, the letters X-T-R have become synonymous with top shelf performance, reliability and innovation. From the first generation of RapidFire Plus and 8 speed STI shifting to the 2003 M960’s unique crankset spider’s design and centrelock rotors, Shimano has always used XTR to launch their latest, and sometimes controversial innovations to the mountain biking world. With SRAM winning a coup by getting a lion share of the bike manufacturers to spec their grouppo in 2005, Shimano has its work cut out for itself to win back the hearts and minds of mountain bikers all over the world.

First Impressions

With each generation, Shimano has given the XTR grouppo a distinct look which every discerning bikers will know even from a distance. From the roadie style of the M900 to the workmanship look of the M950 series and the showroom bling of the M960, the M970s have now gone for an industrial look.

Gone are the fluid look and polished pewter grey of the 960, they are now replaced with polished bare aluminum and angular lines. The whole gruppo’s theme is black anodised with silver highlights, angular machining and a new ‘X’ logo theme on the derailleurs and skewers. The XTR blue exists now only in the new pedals.

Dual Control

The new generation of Dual Control brake/shifters looks nothing like its predecessor. Gone are the bulky pods of the M960, the 970 looks like a mere pair of brake levers attached onto the shifters as an afterthought. Even the brake fluid reservoir is flush with the shifters, one might be mislead into thinking the levers are meant for V-brakes. The levers are more ergonomic, although I feel the lever blades could be wider. The shifting action is also smoother and lighter in action with this generation. There is a thumb button for cable release, and I find it’s indispensible for rapid shifting as pulling the levers upwards towards the rider is rather difficult in certain situations. Shimano recommends Dual Controls to be used with their rapidrise rear derailleur, and the Rapidfire Plus shifters to be mated with their high normal rear derailleur.

RapidFire Plus

Another big news for XTR is the return of the RapidFire levers. The older 960 series only had Dual Control brake/shifters which had mixed reactions among the riding community. However, the newly re-launched RapidFire levers aren’t just cosmetic improvements of previous generations. The first thing you notice is that these levers do not have any indicators, although people who feel a need to know which gear they are in can get optional indicators mounted on the shifter cables. The pods are adjustable laterally, allowing the user to fine tune the shifters position or even run them inboard/ outboard of the brake lever perch if necessary. The cable release lever allows you to activate it in both directions, and can shift 2 gears at once. Shifting is also done instantly upon pressing the release lever. The cable tension lever is made from brushed aluminum, giving it a very expensive feel. However, it would be nice if the cable release levers were made from the same material.

The shifting feel is very smooth but feedback on the cable tension lever is a bit vague. The 2 stage cable release lever also takes a bit of practice if you want to accurately drop only 1 gear at a time. However, now it’s far easier for users of high normal rear derailleur to shift to higher gears much faster and with less effort.

Hydro Brakes

Together with the re-launch of the RapidFire plus shifter pods, Shimano has also launched its first ever standalone hydraulic brake levers worthy of the XTR name. Looking totally unlike any other hydraulic lever in the Shimano range, the first thing you’ll notice (and applaud) is the diagonal exit of the hose. The fluid reservoir is also seamlessly integrated, looking like part of the handlebar clamp. These new levers seem to take up quite a bit of pull before the pads start clamping the rotors. It has a lot more modulation than before, but I find the amount of lever pull available excessive compared to the rest of Shimano’s range. Maybe an adjustable bite point independently of the lever initial position would be good as the lever pull can be disconcertingly long for some.

Another detail which riders might overlook is the choice of post and I.S mounts for the brake calipers. This might not seem like much, but with more forks adopting the post mount standard, and post mounts are can be easily adjusted on the trail without resorting to shims, this is a very important feature for all-mountain riders which shied away from the original incarnation of the XTR calipers for this particular reason. The calipers look very small but braking power is more than enough for XC/ trail use. For XC racers who are seeking more weight savings, a 140mm rotor is available for use in the rear wheel. Larger rotors are also available for riders needing more power and fade resistance in the braking department.

Speaking of rotors, the new 2-piece rotors have also been redesigned, with much thicker and stiffer spiders holding on to the rotors themselves. These provide powerful and squeal-free braking performance once the pads have been broken in.

Derailleurs

The derailleurs have also have improvements engineered into them along with the new dramatic look that the rest of the gruppo has been sporting. Wider and stiffer links in the parallelogram design promises crisp and precise shifting, and they are available in both high and low normal versions. The front derailleur sports a new XTR logo cutout on the outer shifting plate itself. When tested with the dual control shifters, the low normal rear derailleur shifted crisply, but somehow it felt a bit more mechanical in the feedback compared to the previous generation rear derailleur. That said, shifting action is still a lot quieter and lighter in action that SRAM’s top offerings.

Crankset

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The biggest improvement in terms of durability has to be the crankset. The M960 series crankset looked like something that came out of a jewellery store, all bling but the finish will wear out within a season of riding. The old chainrings also utilized a unique standard which supposedly helps the stiffness of the chainrings, but hinders aftermarket choices. The new crankset sees the return to the industrial standard 4bolt compact chainring size. The older M960 achieved stiffness at the expense of unique and hard to find chainring bolt sizes. Now, stiffness improvement is achieved instead using a new chainring design and material. For the first time Shimano is using a titanium middle chainring with carbon fiber reinforcement to improve chainring wear life, something which the old 960s were heavily critised for. The carbon fibre moulding in the middle chainring also serves the purpose of shifting ramps. The method of preloading the crankset onto the BB has also been changed. Instead of the plastic handtool, the new crankset uses an 8mm allen key to tighten the crankset on. Another small allen screw on the non-drive side prevents the crankset from being accidentally loosening. However, to remove the cranks you will need a new crank puller tool, which I feel is another unnecessary tool which you have to bring along for long rides if any problems with the crank might arise.

Pedals

The first ever pair of clipless pedals from Shimano that sports the XTR logo, these pedals are an improvement over the 959s by virtue of being lighter (324grams claimed) and having more mud clearance than any Shimano pedal before it. Clipping in and out is very positive, however ultimately it is not as mud friendly as the best of the market. Over the course of the test, the pedals ultimately still fell victim to thick mud and grass clogging them up. The pedal bearings are silky smooth straight out of the box and the axles are made from hollow steel for strength and durability.

Wheelset

The new and lighter XTR wheelset has been completely redesigned, with an industry-first scandium rims. The lacing pattern of the previous generation has been replaced with a more conventional straight pull spokes and 24 spokes in a 2cross pattern. Improvements over the previous XTR wheelset includes having the faster 36 notch engagement titanium freehub for strength and weight savings, 7075 grade aluminum axles for strength and stiffness improvements and angular contact bearings to improve lateral loading strength of the wheelset. The claimed weight of the wheelset is 1530grams, which is very competitive with wheelsets offered by other big industry players. The Scandium rims are UST compatible too, offering riders to utilize the tubeless technology without having to resort to rim strips and conversion kits. With a new black/white/red colour scheme, it has a far more serious racer look, leaving other riders in no doubt of what wheelset you have. For riders seeking 20mm bolt through versions, Shimano also produces a front hub for it, but it’s not compatible with the XTR wheelset as it uses normal hub flanges.

Worthy of special mention, the new laser etched quick release skewers are a real treat to use. Although there might be many other lighter or better looking skewers on the market, few can match the smoothness and clamping power of these benchmark skewers that Shimano has consistently improved from generation to generation. Its the same machined ‘X’ theme of the rest of the gruppo.

Conclusions

Over the past few years, XTR has seen its market being shrunk by SRAM’s XO. With the introduction of the 970 series XTR, Shimano has a complete groupset that can rival the best of the market. While some other component companies lay claim to having the best wheelset, brakes and crankset; none can produce as complete a solution as the M970 grouppo. The numbers of new adopters and upgraders to the new 970 groupset is a testament to its quality and trust in Shimano’s best. All Shimano lacks is a top quality threadless headset to complete it. (Shimano did offer a threaded headset and seat post with their first generation XTR groupset).