Around six billion years ago – okay, just the one – we got hold of most of a Shimano Deore XT groupset. I promptly fitted it to two different bikes, a Marin Rocky Ridge, which scored the front mech and a very posh piece of American exotica which landed the rest of it.
The kit’s been used and abused all over the UK, but particularly in the abrasive hell hole that is the Peak District as well as extensively on the dry loose technical trails of Spain’s Sierra Nevada, so this really is a warts and all long-term test.
I’ve delayed writing it for as long as possible, partly because I’m bone idle, but also in the vain hope that I could catastrophically destroy as many parts as possible. Sadly most have survived, but we’ll point out the casualties along the way.
Bear in mind that although I’m a professional journalist, I’m not a professional bike journalist, so please excuse the lack of showy technicalities…
The ’04 Hollowtech 2 crankset took the outboard bearings of the ’03 XTR cranks and made them more silvery. Fitting is surprisingly easy, but bear in mind that you’ll need both a bearing installation tool and the plastic wheel used to pre-load the end cap on the non-drive side crank.
It’s now common knowlege that you need to have the bottom bracket housing faced to ensure that the bearings are perfectly aligned and to maximise bearing life, but I didn’t bother. You probably should though. For full fitting instructions, see this BIKEmagic article
The big advantage of the outboard bearing system is a combination of increased stiffness from the larger diameter bearings and lightness. To be honest, if you’ve come from a half decent crank-set anyway, you won’t notice any blinding revelationary changes, but there’s a solidity to the pedal platform that you take for granted until you try something less stiff.
The other big plus, and one that’s not often mentioned, is the shear ease of crank removal – handy if you’re changing rings for example. No pullers needed, just an allen key for the twin bolts that hold the non-drive crank and the plastic thingee to remove and re-install the end cap.
You’re expecting me to say that the bearings lasted a month or so. Wrong, they’ve finally been replaced after almost a year’s worth of thrashing, with Raceface X-Type alternatives. Maybe we were lucky and we have heard some real horror stories, but ours lasted well until the Peak winter gnawed through the seals and got its gritty teeth into them.
You’ll also be expecting me to say that the OE XT rings lasted about five minutes, and you’d be right. About a month for the granny and maybe twice that for the middle ring, despite largely dry conditions use. The middle went at Mountain Mayhem contributing to race-ending chain suck. Because the shifting with the stock Shimano rings was excellent, the middle was replaced with a stock steel Deore ring – same shifting, much better wear resistance. The granny copped a Blackspire stainless Chuck ring that was lying around, but apparently Deore grannies fit, some with a little judicious filing.
Frankly the wear rate on the standard rings was a disgrace. I don’t know what Shimano is manufacturing from, but a quality high cocoa solids chocolate bar at a gourmet convention would last longer… Come on Shimano, why spoil an excellent crankset for the sake of dodgy rings?
Otherwise damage is limited to the odd scuff and rock impact. No complaints there.
One final observation, the clamp bolt on the non-driveside crank is very short and, in the field, with cold hands, in a blizzard, it’s very easy to strip out the threads in the crank, don’t ask how I know. Fortunately fitting a longer M6 bolt solves the problem as most of the thread is still intact, but I’m not sure why the stock bolt isn’t longer in the first place. Go easy on the torque folks, it’s not an uncommon problem.
Dual Control Shifters
Dead easy, you slide them on the bars and insert the cables. Actually one of the cables requires you to remove a hinged plate from the front of the shifter, but its no big deal. Connecting up the brakes is just the same as other hydraulic brake levers, so no worries there.
I approached the DC shifters with a certain trepidation after years of Rapidfire Plus use. A brief previous encounter had fried my brain and I wasn’t really looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the things. The reality is that I adapted to them really quickly, shifting by pressing the lever up or down becomes second nature surprisingly quickly. The human brain’s pretty adapatable after all and the biggest obstacle is thinking you can’t use them.
Setting the levers up at the right angle for easy up flipping helps ease the transition and there are definite pluses to flippy shifts in my reckoning. First your thumb is always around the bars improving grip on bumpy terrain, next it’s easy to shift and brake simultaneously. Another plus that rarely gets a mention is in cold weather performance. You know that bit when your hands are too numb to press the thumb shifter? Not a problem any more, just press down on the brake lever and bingo. I like that.
Despite the slightly fragile looks of the shifter / lever combo and those plastic case things, the only damage has been cosmetic scuffs. In crashes, and I’ve had a few, the ability of the levers to move in two planes seems to help them absorb impacts, which is nice. Shifting has remained crisp and easy with no obvious wear to the pivots.
Low Normal Rear Mech
Basically just the same as any other mech, though you have to think backwards when setting up indexing.
A lot of riders scorn low normal set-ups because it’s impossible to downshift four cogs at a time as with conventional mechs. Well guys, try thinking ahead because there are other pluses.
The reversed shifting order means that downshifts under pressure are significantly smoother as the spring tension helps pull the chain across and, with practice, a series of quick up flicks allows quick downshifts. The other big plus is when you crest the top of a climb and want to upshift fast for the downhill blast on the other side. Two cranks down on the lever and you’re a full eight gears higher and ready to rocket down.
As with the shifters, the main enemy is habit and if you run LN for a while, shifting soon becomes instinctive. One major no-no, if you run more than one bike, is to mix conventional and low normal mechs with the same shifters on different bikes. Trust me, your brain will not adapt, so it’s all or none unless you want to indulge in an orgy of wrong-way shifts on every ride [Editor’s note: This seems to depend on how your brain’s wired – I’m happily running a mixture of mechs with only occasional mis-shifts – Mike].
Impressively the shifting, which was commendably crisp to start with, stayed that way despite some play developing in the mech cage bushes. There’s the odd rock impact scuff and the jockey wheels went into ninja throwing star mode after about nine months to be replaced by more of the same, but that’s about it – quite impressive.
Shimano rationalised XT front mechs for 2004 with a Deore-type shimming system meaning the mounting bracket will fit any common seat tube. One other change, apart from the sharp, angular styling, is that the cage – previously held closed with a screw – is now rivetted shut. That means you’ll be splitting the chain whether you want to or not if you’re fitting a replacement mech.
I always reckoned that front mechs were much of a muchness, but the XT mech with its more substantial, riveted cage shifted noticably more crisply than the Deore mech it replaced, partlcularly on downshifts when the spring seemed snappier. Result.
Remarkably zilch, zip, zero. Despite a fair amount of heavy use, it’s still on the bike and shifting as well as ever.
The 2004 XTs really are a breeze to fit. The post-mounting system means that caliper alignment is just a question of jamming on the brake and tightening the two mounting bolts. You may have to make fine adjustments by eye, but compared to the hassle of shimming out calipers, it’s a walk in the brake park.
The Shimano brake hose fittings are also easy to connect if you follow the instructions and we found bleeding problem free with the use of paint-friendly mineral oil a reassurance too. All in, pretty straightforward, so no complaints there.
First, chuck away the resin pads, they are near useless in the wet and evaporate on sight anywhere abrasive. The sintered alternatives – you get a pair of each – are ideal for general UK use with great bite, good power and decent feel combined with okay wear rates. Dead reliable, no-nonsense brakes that simply do what they’re supposed to with good power and feel.
The 160mm discs are more than enough for most UK conditions, but for serious downhill abuse and riding abroad, it’s easy enough to fit 203mm rotors along with a matching adapter which is a direct swap for the original. Contrary to some web gossip, it’s straightforward to use earlier model six-bolt mount Shimano discs, which means you’re not limited to the latest Shimano hubs with their new-fangled splined rotor mounting system.
Shimano brakes have a reputation for being fuss-free and these ones have been, bar a single lazy piston which is only an issue over the last sliver of pad wear on one caliper. That’s it, lots of dead pads thanks to the Peak grit, but no drama or fuss. No need to bleed, no sogginess, no fade on flat-out mountain downhills, nothing. Dull eh?
They’re hubs right, so no real problems onced you’ve made them into wheels. The major deparfture is the new disc mount system. The Shimano rotor is held in place by a lockring which is tightened using a cassette lockring tool. Easy enough except that you need quite a deep tool to fit the rear, so you may need to beg, steal or borrow a suitable one.
The hubs include a neat rubber cap which fits over the disc mount section if you’re using vees, but may want to upgrade in the future. While the brakes can be used with old-style IS six-bolt hubs provided you source a suitable Shimano rotor, the hubs can only be used with the Shimano XT CenterLock rotors. Note too that the Saint rotors use a different, larger interface, so there’s no cross compatibility there.
Shimano hubs use traditional ball bearings with a cone and locknut to adjust tension. If you’re used to ‘fit and forget until they’re dead’ cartridge bearings, it’s a bit of a faff and, to be honest, setting the required amount of slack is a hassle. You need enough so that the bearings are snug once the QR is tensioned and it’s very easy to get either too much or not enough. It’s also advisable to clean out the bearings and races and regrease occasionally.
Really it’s a question of personal preferences. If you can be bothered to look after the XT hubs the bearings will last well, but neglect them at your peril.
The hubs were fitted to a combination of bikes and ended up on a singlespeed hack over the winter. This was bad news for the rear hub, which at some point loosened off enough to allow the Peak grit access to the bearing race. The result was a set of trashed bearings, but more expensively, a marginal bearing race surface which may write off the hub. If you ride a lot in really abrasive conditions, you may be better off with a cartridge-bearing hub. The front hub, however, has been fine so far.
Overall End Of Term Report
Yes, we’d all like a full XTR groupset, but in the real world, I reckon that XT gives 90% or more of the function at 50% or so of the price. Overall a year with XT has borne that out.
On the plus side, the Hollowtech 2 cranks are stiff and ridiculously easy to work with, the shifting has remained creditably smooth and snappy and nothing has broken catastrophically. The brakes are strong and reliable and the combined brake/gear levers work fantastically well once you get used to them and my feeling is that eventually, most riders will get used to anything. I do reckon they have real advantages though and wouldn’t trade them for trigger shifters now. The same’s true of low normal, though I definitely wouldn’t mix those and conventional mechs on two different bikes with the same style of shifter, it wlll boil your brain, definitely.
Negatives? The chainring wear is almost comic, it’s so rapid – I’m not going to slur the good name of chocolate with comparisons – and the resin-based pads have no place in the UK, outside of a heatwave anyway. I’m also less than impressed with the seals on the HT2 crank bearings, though to be fair they lasted okay, and in the rear hub at least. The bottom bracket items can be replaced with Race Face, but only time will tell if they’re more durable [Editor’s note: From what feedback we’ve had, there doesn’t seem to be much in it – Mike].
The Peak District’s a nasty, vicious environment if you’re an innocent bike component, so overall I reckon XT’s delivered the goods pretty well. Personally I prefer cartridge bearing hubs for their fit and forget-ness and but other than that, I’d be happy to fit XT to any bike of mine and generally have. And with technology like Hollowtech 2 now filtering down into lesser groupsets for similar performance with a few more grammes, you really can’t lose.