Updated: Apr 14, 2020
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