Shimano XTR M9100

In 2019 Shimano finally joined the wide-range cassette party with their flagship group.

Overview

I’ve been a big fan of SRAM’s drivetrain components since they released the XX1 10-42t group. The pricing was steep but the weight, reliability, longevity and performance of their top tier group has kept me coming back year over year. Yes, there have been some issues, but those quirks have largely come from their less expensive options. In this blog, we do a Shimano XTR M9100 Test to see how it stacks up!

In 2019 Shimano finally joined the wide-range cassette party with their flagship group. I jumped on the bandwagon, eager to give Shimano a play at my drivetrain business once again. The main reason I have not actively run Shimano drivetrains on my bikes the past few years is because their wide range cassettes were significantly heavier than Sram’s and the freehub interface was dated. I also found that the large jump from their widest range XT cassette (37 to 46t cog) resulted in poor shifts which was annoying in race situations.

Over the past 4 months I’ve been testing the XTR 10-51t as well as the 10-45t 12 speed cassettes, an XX1 Eagle 12 speed chain, Shimano’s 12 speed chain, a Raceface 11/12 speed and a Wolftooth M9100 XTR 12 speed chainring. I also purchased their direct mount and traditional mount shifter, long and medium cage derailleurs, so I had a variety of combinations to play with.

The Chain

Since there was such limited availability on the XTR cassette/Chainring, I decided to use Raceface Next R cranks and their 11/12 speed chainring. Shimano’s 12 speed quick link is too narrow to work with most 12 speed chainrings, so you require an XTR M9100 compatible chainring. Or you can take the alternative route like I did initially and use a Sram 12 speed chain. For the record, I was using Sram’s golden XX1 chain and had zero issues over the 2 months I ran it.

After a number of months, I switched chainrings so I could try Shimano’s chain and see if there was any notable difference in performance. One of Shimano’s tech reps claimed that if you could only afford one XTR component, it should be the chain. I wasn’t sure if those were wise words, or overcompensation to sway non-believers back onto Shimano chains, but either way I was intrigued. 

Shimano’s new CN-M9100 chain comes in two different lengths – 116 or 126 links. I purchased one of each so I could eventually have 2 complete drivetrains once I was done swapping parts around. Interestingly, the shorter 116 link version was plenty long enough for my 29er with a 34t chainring, long cage derailleur and 10-51t cassette. Since the 126 link version is more expensive, I don’t see any need to purchase it unless you have a really long chainstay or run a 36t or 38t chainring. The master links are not supposed to be re-used once they come apart so it’s not a bad idea to buy a few extras.

The first thing that I noticed after a few hours on the new chain was the improved downshifting performance. I had heard that there were shifting ramps that help the chain drop down easier, and it was made obvious to me once I was running the proper chain. I can’t say that I noticed it when running the Sram chain for whatever reason, maybe they do in fact work better when paired up. You get a slightly faster and more reassuring “engaged” feeling when downshifting. I have not had any issues with shifting under load, but I’ve also been overcompensating for that since the 1990’s. Shimano says they improved that as well, so I’ll have to roll with their claims on that one. The main benefits this would bring is reducing the chance of breaking a chain, and increased confidence in quickly shifting your gears when under load. When you have a lesser drivetrain, you tend to push the wrong gear because you don’t want to deal with the wrath of a dropped/broken chain. 

I can’t comment on the long term durability as I only have a few months on each chain, but I have not broken any of them and they have loads of life left.

Cassette

Chainrings

Both 10-51t (376g actual weight) and 10-45t (362g actual weight) cassettes shift excellently. The 3 largest cogs are titanium, the next 5 are alloy, and the 4 smallest are steel. The new MicroSpline freehub is required to run the cassette and it is comparable to the weight of the Sram XD freehub. I always take into account the system weight and performance of components, so it’s nice to see Shimano address the antiquated Hyperglide freehub which was prone to being gouged over time by the cogs.

I believe 95% of people will go with the wider range cassette but there are a few arguments for the smaller range which should be considered. 10-45t is still a massive range and is suitable for most riders. If I wasn’t doing endure or marathon XC racing, I’d simply run a chainring that is 2t smaller than usual and go with the smaller range cassette. The smaller range will have a bit smoother transition between some of the gears, it will use a smaller and lighter chain, the cassette is lighter, and the corresponding derailleur uses a smaller/lighter cage which is less likely to get hung up on debris. I’ve always found that a derailleur with a shorter cage and a tighter range cassette is going to have better chain retention and reliability. It’s understandable that most will still spring for the wider range as you get reliable performance without any significant downfalls.

Over the test period, I have not dropped a chain with any of the combinations I’ve been running. I do not use a chain guide on my 140mm Rocky Mountain Pipeline as I only seem to drop the chain two or three times a year typically. Since there is no shifting going on up front, no dropped chains, and no creaking (direct mount round rings), there really isn’t too much to say about the rings. I use either Raceface, Wolftooth, and Absolute Black chainrings on my bikes and have had excellent wear and performance on all of these. I only run direct mount rings because I’ve had creaking issues a number of times with the bolt-on variety. 

Shifter

Deraileur

Both 10-51t (376g actual weight) and 10-45t (362g actual weight) cassettes shift excellently. The 3 largest cogs are titanium, the next 5 are alloy, and the 4 smallest are steel. The new MicroSpline freehub is required to run the cassette and it is comparable to the weight of the Sram XD freehub. I always take into account the system weight and performance of components, so it’s nice to see Shimano address the antiquated Hyperglide freehub which was prone to being gouged over time by the cogs.

I believe 95% of people will go with the wider range cassette but there are a few arguments for the smaller range which should be considered. 10-45t is still a massive range and is suitable for most riders. If I wasn’t doing endure or marathon XC racing, I’d simply run a chainring that is 2t smaller than usual and go with the smaller range cassette. The smaller range will have a bit smoother transition between some of the gears, it will use a smaller and lighter chain, the cassette is lighter, and the corresponding derailleur uses a smaller/lighter cage which is less likely to get hung up on debris. I’ve always found that a derailleur with a shorter cage and a tighter range cassette is going to have better chain retention and reliability. It’s understandable that most will still spring for the wider range as you get reliable performance without any significant downfalls.

There is a long cage known as the “SGS” which is intended for the 10-51t cassette and the short cage “GS” which is ideal for the 10-45t cassette. In the past, I found that the Shimano systems shift significantly better when the clutch is turned off. With the new system, I’d say the gap has closed but still exists. Overall I was happy to see some progress, but I still prefer the no options approach that Sram has – the clutch just works well, doesn’t need to be adjusted, and the shifting performance is great. It seems like the Shimano system comes setup a bit stiff and is most idea for enduro racers who are willing to turn it off for the climbs and on for the descent. I’m sure most riders will just leave it on and live with the increased shifting effort, but if you’re a sensitive guy like me, or had a broken thumb, you might go through the trouble of opening up the clutch to back off the tension slightly and see if you can get away with that and not be dropping chains. 

My main annoyance With Sram derailleurs was the narrow/wide pulleys. The chain would sometime hop and get out our whack and you’d have to reset it by hand. Thankfully I think they’ve gone away from this finally?? Shimano never fell into this trap and it’s nice to see them NOT fall into Srams footsteps on this one! One thing they should copy however is the plunge lever that locks the cage open so that you can easily remove the wheel. I found this model of derailleur to be the most challenging to work with in regards to removing a wheel. I’ve done it a thousand times in the past but look like I’ve been riding for just a week with the amount of struggling. It’s not just the lever that’s missing, it just doesn’t swing out of the way manually. I did not have these issues with the Sram GX and XX1 Eagle derailleurs that were on this bike previously.

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