Review: Shimano XT M8100 Groupset

Getting this groupset reviewed started out as a bit of nightmare. Originally the XT Groupset was going to go onto a Santa Cruz Bronson and out with one of our experienced reviewers, being put through it's paces on a content trip to Wairoa Gorge before staying on his bike for a long-term test. When our reviewer pulled out at the last minute, Helen (who has never written for us) was the ideal candidate for the trip, for two reasons: One, I knew for a fact that her Juliana would take all the parts with no worries; and two, since she works for the magazine full-time, she couldn’t tell me that she wouldn’t be able to get time off (that said, who’d turn down a riding trip to Nelson?!). The problem here, though, (and looping back to what I said earlier) was that she’d never written for us - or anyone, for that matter. Our solution: Helen would ride the groupset in the Gorge and afterwards, we’d find a bike I could run it on. What follows is an amalgamation of Helen’s thoughts from Wairoa and my thoughts from testing the groupset since.


Shimano XT is best known as a sleek, no-nonsense, no-compromise groupset. It would have been great to come out and confirm what we’d all already assumed but, unfortunately, the groupset was almost impossible to get a hold of, after production setbacks and a fire at one of Shimano’s production facilities. Right at the end of May this year, Shimano released the XT 12-speed and, as you’ll know by now, we managed to get our hands on a groupset. What was even better was that this time around, Shimano also had the groupset available for you to spend your hard-earned dollars on, upon release.


The biggest change to the Shimano XT M8100 groupset is the jump to 12-speed. Two cassettes are available, a 10-45T and a 10-51T, which was something I was pretty stoked to see. I don’t usually use the dinnerplate-sized gear on my cassette at my local trails, but there are times when I can’t quite find the gear I want - one’s too hard and the next one down is too easy - so it’s rad to see Shimano has taken riders’ needs into account and offered a couple of cassette options. There are also two derailleur options – a long cage option to accommodate both cassettes, and a not-so-long cage option that offers more ground clearance, but will only take the 45T cassette. Worth noting is that the not-so-long cage is also 2x friendly if you feel the need to re-live a time pre-dropper post and run a front derailleur. Said front derailleur is available to suit D, E and M-type mounts but I’m not even going to pretend I know what either of those are. Brakes are available in 2 or 4-piston and are more rigid than previous XT models, offering a shorter free stroke.


Right, that’s the tech stuff out of the way. So, how does it ride?


Full disclosure: I run red, not blue, on my personal bike but, in the best way possible, the new XT is just so typically Shimano. Something I’ve come to appreciate with Shimano is that they always deliver a no nonsense, reliable product - and M8100 is no different. The shifting is fast, crisp and accurate and that doesn’t change whether you’re in the saddle spinning up the road for a loaf of bread, or out of the saddle dropping crank-warping watt bombs on the way to your favourite descent. The brakes are also exactly what you’d expect, a firm bite-point with plenty of power on tap to slow you down. Our 4-piston models also felt great at the lever, with a little more modulation than previous XT brakes and that feeling of security, knowing there’s always a little bit of power left in the tank, should you need it.


Anyone familiar with Nelson and/or Wairoa Gorge will know how rocky and steep the terrain down there is, and I’m stoked to report that the groupset was trouble-free the entire time. We rode everything from steep and gnarly Grade 5s that you have to creep down, to wide-open Grade 3s where you’re either not braking at all, or you’re braking with full power. Consistency is important when it comes to riding gravity and even after two days of shuttles, the brakes still performed exactly as they should, with Helen not noticing any brake fade. Obviously, a shuttle-access gravity park isn’t the best place to test shifting performance, but it’s a great test for chain retention and even without a chain guide, we couldn’t once get the chain to drop. All in all, typically Shimano.

Words: Cam Baker

Images: Cameron Mackenzie

Ride Wairoa Part 1

It’s not every day Shimano throw a brand-new XT Groupset at you and ask you to put it through its paces. So, when they did, I wanted to make sure we did them justice and spent a couple of days asking anyone and everyone where we should head. The most popular answer by far (that wasn’t on the other side of the world!) was Wairoa Gorge - and I definitely wasn’t complaining. Can’t say no to a couple of days of private shuttles on some of the best trails I’ve ridden!


I could have sworn someone (or something) was trying to stop the trip from going ahead. As each week of planning went by, it felt like something else we weren’t expecting was thrown our way. The night before we were due to leave, I stupidly thought ‘what more can go wrong?’ Right on cue, my phone started ringing. A member of our content team had a family emergency and could no longer make it. Thankfully our Subscription Manager, Helen, came to the rescue through means of a late-night phone call, giving her about 12 hours to pack her bike, book flights, sleep and make her way to Nelson. All sorted! Nope, wrong again.


Auckland Airport is approximately 20kms from my house and I had to be there by 8:30am. ‘If I leave at 6:45am, I’ll have almost two hours to get there – easy!’ … or so I thought. The morning I chose to fly to Nelson was the same morning a digger fell off its trailer on the motorway, blocking all three lanes and bringing traffic to a standstill for 50 minutes. A couple of hours and $150 later, I was running through Auckland Airport scrambling to make my re-booked flight. I made it – by five minutes. I sat in my seat on the plane and accepted that this trip was destined to keep throwing curve balls our way.


I made it to Nelson and after a day of meetings that all ended with; “we’re going for a ride, if you want to join us?” and me having to turn them all down because I had more meetings lined up (rookie mistake), I made my way back to my hotel dreading what would go wrong next, but also itching to get on my bike. I had planned to get breakfast at the airport that morning but obviously those plans had fallen through and with everything I’d had to do in Nelson, I hadn’t actually had the chance to eat - so it’s safe to say I was starving by then!

Helen had arrived in Nelson by this point, so I picked her up and we went for dinner. On the way to the restaurant, Helen starting chewing on what I thought was nothing. A little strange but hey, each to their own, right? Turns out she was chewing on something – half of her tooth, that had spontaneously broken off. It was around this time I started wondering if we’d even make it out of the Gorge alive. Sounded like a tomorrow problem.


The next morning, we met up with our content team and made our way to the Gorge. The mini-van we’d hired slid all over the icy forestry roads and every time we came across a small creek running across the road, we’d nervously point the wheels at the other side, push the gas pedal in a little further and hope for the best. To our surprise, the van wasn’t deterred and to our shock (and relief) we rolled up to the Gorge carpark with the van still intact. After all the drama on the lead up to our arrival, we were all itching to ride, so we dove into our kit, threw our bikes onto the trailer and piled into the truck, then made our way up the hillside.


It wasn’t until we were in the truck, on the way up the hill that the magnitude of what we were doing hit me. The remoteness, the incredible landscape and sheer rad-factor of the Gorge sunk in and I couldn’t believe that for the next two days we had this Gorge all to ourselves, with a shuttle on-call to take us wherever our hearts desired. It was definitely one of those, ‘I can’t believe this is work’ moments.

Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon, to find out about the riding the Gorge has to offer - and Shimano’s new XT Groupset.

Words & Images: Cam Baker and Cameron Mackenzie

Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy

There’s a bit of a trend in trail bikes. They start life as something short travel, aimed at cross country whippets, then grow up alongside the market. There are numerous bikes that have undergone this evolution, but the latest to join the fray is the Santa Cruz Tallboy. The original Tallboy went into production back in 2009, at which point it had 100mm of travel and geometry steeper than a cliff face. The 2020 Tallboy, the fourth of its name, is a very different beast.


A bump up to 120mm of travel, paired with a 130mm fork, pushes the bike solidly away from the XC crowd and into the all-round trail bike category - a group that has seen a massive resurgence of late. That’s not the only trick up the Tallboy’s sleeve, however. The geometry is rather radical; the most obvious part of this being the 65.5 degree head angle which is exactly the same as it’s enduro-ready big brother, the Hightower, a bike with 20mm more travel at the front and rear. The reach, stack and default chainstay length are almost identical too, although the Hightower gets a slightly longer wheelbase and taller ground clearance by virtue of having a longer fork. They’re remarkably similar on paper, albeit one being aimed at the trail crowd and the other at the Enduro crew. Santa Cruz have set out to make the new Tallboy as capable as a mid-sized bike can be. In their own words, it’s built “for going hecka fast, everywhere”.


Gone is the familiar layout that Santa Cruz aficionados have come to know so well, with the new lower link VPP system keeping the weight close to the bottom bracket for better balance and handling. This system is being rolled out on all new-season bikes, including the Megatower, Hightower, Bronson and Nomad. Only the 5010 and Blur retain the old system. As effective as this system is, I must mention that it’s a pain in the a-hole to set sag on, with the shock shaft disappearing off inside the seat tube. This is one of the few times where I would love an on-the-frame sag meter to be incorporated in the bike’s graphics package. Speaking of which, I’m not sure if the colour choice really cuts the mustard for me, but there’s a more conservative black and dark purple option available in any case. 


There’s variable geometry built into the Tallboy in the form of adjustable chainstays. A pretty nifty trick: they allow you to alternate between 430mm and 440mm of stay length, to make the bike a little more stable or wheelie-friendly, depending on your preference and choice of terrain. For my test I left it largely in the 440mm setting. 


My test build was on the money, with a SRAM XO1 Eagle group-set, the new G2 brakes and a swanky feeling under-bar lever for the Reverb dropper. Santa Cruz’s Reserve Carbon wheels were also a highlight, with plenty of width and stiffness to play with. I have no doubt they will live up to their strength claims. It’s not an especially lightweight bike for the money, I’d pick something different if I were looking for something to serve double-duty as an amateur marathon racer’s bike.


The influence of the Tallboy’s longer-travelled sibling is evident from the get-go. It’s a well-balanced bike that’s a breeze to wheelie, even in the longer setting. I found it easy to lift the bars and get the rear wheel pumping through terrain, on demand. The low weight and bottom bracket certainly do it favours in the corners, as long as you remember to get your lean on. It’s so capable, in fact, that I often found myself double checking that I hadn’t been given a Hightower to test instead. I was expecting a trail bike, but what I got instead was a mini enduro bike with 130mm of travel. Santa Cruz have hyped this thing up to be a warp speed wagon wheeler and in that respect, it delivers.


As we know all too well, what goes down must go up, and the Santa Cruz is a traction-rich pedaller. I doubt you’ll have issues with spinning out on all but the wettest roots. It’s efficient, but I never felt compelled to leap out of the saddle and charge the hills on this bike. Some 130mm 29’rs encourage that (my own bike is one such example) whereas others are a little more planted. The Tallboy fits firmly in the latter category. To its credit, I never had issues with the front end wandering despite a slack head angle, short stem and wide bars as standard.  


I found that to get the most out of this bike I had to send it on some really steep stuff, but in doing so I couldn’t help wondering that with the main difference being 20mm of travel, would I be better off just riding a Hightower? 


Santa Cruz have a place in their range for a 29’r all-rounder’s trail bike and the Tallboy was built to fill it. But does the Tallboy skirt too closely to the Hightower to justify itself? To me, the thing that makes a great trail bike is its ability to make the rider feel equally happy entering a stage race as he/she does lining up for a bit of light enduro racing. Most importantly, in my mind, the defining characteristic is being incredibly fun to ride on a range of trails. In this respect, I feel the Tallboy is very single-minded: it’s fixated on speed (and certainly offers that) but has lost some of the liveliness of its old self in the process. Given the Hightower is very similar to ride on the tamer trails but can huck bigger stuff when the going gets tough, I feel the Tallboy becomes a very specific tool for a very specific job, rather than a true all-rounder. Maybe I’ll look back in a few years and declare it was a bike ahead of its time, but for now it’s progressive for the sake of progression. 


If you’re wanting to set the KOM on your local flow trails but still have something to spare for the steeper stuff, look no further. This is a very fast, capable, confident bike worthy of the Tallboy name. Just be sure a mini enduro bike is what you’re after and it will treat you well.

Words: Robin
Page Images: Cameron Mackenzie