01 March 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Shimano SL-M970 XTR shift levers

Shimano lost a lot of mountain bikers several years back with the introduction of their dual control shift levers. Taking direction from their very successful road brake/shift levers, the company's Dual Control mountain shifters combined braking and shifting actions into one lever. Dual Control worked fine for a lot of the people who made it up the learning curve, but few saw them as a step forward from the company's RapidFire+ triggers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dual Control also forced the use of Shimano disc brakes with their shift levers and, while the triggers never went away, were seen as a bit of an Evil Giant kind of move. After letting a generation of the company's flagship XTR mountain group go by without a trigger shifter update, Shimano introduced a reworked range-topping RapidFire shifter with the current M970 XTR group.

While Shimano was experimenting with Dual Control, SRAM was busy taking advantage of customers' dissatisfaction with their X9 and X0 groups. Decidedly more clickety than Shimano product, with a much more industrial aesthetic, X9 and X0 gained widespread acceptance on higher-end bikes. No fools, Shimano saw what was going on and incorporated some of what riders liked about SRAM's efforts into their revised RF+ shifters. The result is easily Shimano's best shifter yet.

Personally, it kills me to see down-spec bikes featuring XTR rear dérailleurs. Why? Put simply, its a silly (though visible) place to spend money. With the first ingested branch or unfortunately-aimed tumble, most rear dérailleurs are toast. Of all of the components on the mountain bike, they're the least likely to die a death from old age. An XT or SLX rear mech will do a great job and save a good deal of money until that angry stick comes calling. Shifters, on the other hand, are a great place to spend. Yes, $250 is a lot of money for a single component, but it is the drivetrain component most often touched by the rider, the second least likely to wear out (after the front dérailleur) and is largely tucked out of harm's way.

As with previous generations of XTR shifters, the SL-M970 is built to last. While it is (probably for the first time) actually lighter than the XT version (220g vs. 260g, thanks in part to its lack of a gear indicator option), it still features honest-to goodness cartridge bearings at the lever pivots and a metal cable pull trigger. The narrow clamp band is easy to position (inboard or outboard of brake levers) and the shifter pod itself can move on the clamp.

Functionally, what really set the XTRs apart from lower-level Shimano shifters are the instant release of cable when the release trigger is either pulled (with the index finger) or pushed (with the thumb). Not only that, but up to two rear shifts' worth of cable can be released with one push/pull of the lever- something that I really wish the company's road shifters could manage. Pulling cable is easy with the long thumb lever and the lever's throw never feels too long or too stiff. The levers are near-perfectly shaped and the thumb paddle is even etched (like XTR brake levers) to increase grip.

Hopping on my own geared bike for what feels like the first time in ages recently, it occurred to me just how good the XTR shifters are. My bike is set up with a Rapid Rise / Low Normal rear dérailleur, so the rear shifting is backwards from most folks'. Once my mind and thumbs adjusted (after 15 years' mountain biking- it took a while), I found that the Low Normal thing worked really well- especially when downshifting for climbs coming out of G-outs. The ability to drop two gears at once (thanks to the two-click release trigger) is fantastic, as that seems to be the magic number for me (three is tends to be too many, one too few). Regardless of where your Normal lies, the Dual Release is a nice feature. Beyond that, the shifters feel solid (there's no flex to speak of in the triggers themselves) and clicky, though in a more metallic way than SRAM's (which can feel a bit plastic-y) do. The index clicks are distinct but not difficult to overcome, leaving no question about what's going on. The aluminum barrel adjuster is easy to grasp and holds its setting and the polished finish looks goos against my Formula Oro Biancos. What more could a guy ask for?

As always, there's room for improvement. As much as I (and many others) poo-poo'd the idea of gear indicators on shift levers, it turns out that they're actually pretty nice to have (and easy enough to remove if they reduce one's manhood by an unacceptable amount). The adjustable perch might preclude their inclusion on the XTRs, but I'm sure that there's a bright individual or two over at Shimano who could make it work. Sencondly, the price seems a bit steep. Yes, they are undoubtedly some of the best-made shifters available (and appropriately come with a three-year warranty), but at a full 2/3rds more expensive than the $150 XTs can be a hard sell to the family accountant. At least they come with Shimano's excellent XTR cables (a $25 value- yours free!) and hold their resale value very well (they'll never be worth less than $75 or maybe $100, if push comes to shove). Of course, one set of XTR shifters make for a far better buy than two or three XTR rear deraileurs and more of an impact than ten XTR front deraileurs and so are worth a look. Given my previous-generation XTR triggers' flawless performance over several years and thousands of miles, for me they're an easy bikefix Pick.



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