It has been an awesome privilege to have been able to install and test the Shimano XTR Di2 system on my bike for the past 3 months, and before I knew it, I’ve covered about 1400km worth of calf-numbing mileage on the groupset. The past few weeks has been a bittersweet period where I looked back and made notes about my experience with the Di2 system, and its now time for an in-depth review.
Our approach for this long-term review was simple: Ride the crap out of the groupset, and see if we can make it explode 😀 Kids, we don’t recommend that you try this at home or ride the same way because our belief is that if you take care of your bike, your bike will take care of you. Having that much time on our hands, we’ve also managed to ride in all sorts of weather. From blistering hot sunny days, to horrid Singaporean-style thunderstorms, we managed to rode it all. We also left the bike in it’s awesome après-ride condition (see photos below) for about a month to see if we could convince a colony of ants to take up residence, but our genius side-experiment was thwarted when Hari Raya Aidilfitri came along and my wife threatened to throw the bike away if I didn’t clean it up.
First and foremost, the groupset is not cheap. It was never meant to be cheap because it was built for cyclists who has zero tolerance for compromised parts and expects top-shelf performance. A quick check online will give you an idea on how much the different parts will cost (here, here and here), and apart from the brakes, wheels and cranks, we urge you to talk to an experienced and capable mechanic who’s willing to help you through the process of purchase and installation. Trust us, it will save you a ton of headache and anxiety. But for those of you who understand bikes and are great with tools and moving parts, it’ll be a piece of cake. Here in SingaporeMTB.com, we build and service bikes on our own, (and occasionally run to our favourite mechanics when we screw things up) and we found out that the Shimano XTR Di2 is a different breed altogether, and we’ve learned alot about the system over the past 3 months.
And now, brace yourselves fellow cyclists, and follow our journey into our prefrontal cortex as we explore our most intimate, deepest thoughts and our frustrations in the NSFW love affair that we call… “50 Shifts of Grey”
Ease of use and performance.
Is it easy to use? That was the first few questions that we asked ourselves during our rides. Like most high-end consumer products today, usability and ease of use is now more prevalent and expected. Users of all sorts of products are bench-marking their needs and expectations even higher than ever before. They no longer expect it to just look pretty and work, they expect it to work beautifully.
The Shimano XTR Di2 is one of those products. It’s flawless, so simple to use and there’s definitely alot that goes on behind the metallic grey covers that make it such a joy to shift, brake and pedal. And especially the electronic shifting performance, and that’s really the core here, is in a class of its own. The XTR Di2 groupset shares some of its components with it’s mechanical sibling, the M9000 series, namely the brakeset, cranks, pedals, 11spd cassette and 11spd chain. The only electronic parts of the Di2 system are the following;
- SW-M9050 Firebolt shifters
- SC-M9050 Display Unit
- SM-BTC1 Battery Case/Mount
- SM-BTR2 Battery
- FD-M9050 Di2 Front Derailleur
- M9050 Di2 Rear Derailleur
So lets talk about the shifting performance. Out of the box, the SW-M9050 Firebolt shifters are pre-configured with a certain shift setting. If you look at the photo below, the smaller paddle shifts into a higher gear while the larger pedal shifts into a lower gear. It kinda felt weird to me since my muscle memory on my shifting fingers are actually the other way round. There were numerous times when I multi shifted on the smaller paddle on the M9050 shifter to shift to the 40T gear only to end up on the 27T or 24T gear. It was frustrating for a bit and it took a while to get used to but it still didn’t feel quite right. This was a personal preference but a couple of buddies who had tried my bike said the same thing, and had confirmed my hypothesis. Fortunately, the Firebolt shifters are programmable.
I plugged it in to the Shimano e-Tube software and all I had to do was to swap the shift sequence and that was all it took. I did the same to my other shifter and it was all good again. I no longer had to think while shifting, and soon, it felt natural once more and I was able to attack the climbs with the right gear. No more second-guessing and it was just shift and go.
The default shift settings might be perfect for others, and it was great that anyone can swap the settings to meet any riders’ preference. You can even tweak the shifter paddles’ reach by loosening the allen bolt and moving the paddle inwards or outwards as shown in the photo below.
And while we’re on the subject of shifting, the Firebolts shifters are insanely good. All of my shifts felt light and precise and so far, there wasn’t any case of miss-shifts or ghost shifting (it can happen if you have a slightly bent hanger) and the chainlines are still perfect to this day. All that was needed to do was to set it up right, and shifting becomes a dream. It’s buttery smooth, even during multi shifts and mid-climb shifts, both front and rear. And because it was so smooth, I could easily shift more often to maintain my comfort-zone cadence, on lazy days and on hard-charging sessions. And because you don’t have to pull any cables to shift, it felt so light and easy. Even my 8 year old daughter could shift the paddles with her tiny little fingers. It got us thinking that having an electronic shifter made sense for riders with finger disabilities or for riders with old injuries on their shifting thumbs, which can truly help them shift effortlessly.
I’ve been riding 1×10 and 1×11 gears for quite a while now and I had totally forgotten how useful it was to have a double ring up front. I’ve been happy with 1×11 (30T front and 11-42T cassette) and I felt that the gear range was sufficient for my fitness and for most trails here in Singapore. But, for the past 3 months, I realised that I’ve been using ALL of the gear range on the Di2 without realising it and I’ve actually enjoyed having a bail-out front ring. There were numerous times when my legs were at the verge of decoupling, and I bailed out into the granny ring mid-climb and I was able to make the climbs with a gear or two to spare. Yeah! Achievement unlocked 😀 And having a bigger front ring allows me to commute slightly faster to the trailhead too, instead of spinning on a 30t.
I think I’ll stick to double rings for now and you’ll be glad to know that the FC-M9020-2 2X Trail Crankset is totally compatible for a single ring setup, should the fitness allows for it in the future. So that’s good news for ultra fit
mountain goats riders who only needs one ring to rule them all. Except for Sauron, the dude doesn’t even ride a bike.
As for the rest of the groupset, I’ve never been needed to make any adjustments on the wheels or cranks, and the XTR brakes are rock stars in their own right. Modulation was good, biting power was immense, and there hasn’t been any need for a bleed since day 1. The Ice-Tech finned brake pads and Freeza rotors worked perfectly in all the riding conditions that we’ve managed to try, and our only gripe is that the Freeza rotors were only available in centre-lock, which is a bummer since we can’t use it on our 6-bolt wheels. However, we don’t think you can feel any difference in braking power even though you’re using the Shimano RT86 or RT76 rotors or any other good rotors from 3rd party brands. The only difference is the fast cooling action from the fins on the Freeza rotors.
The extra aluminum area on the Freeza was designed for cooling down the rotors during hard braking or long descends. We didn’t manage to see if this truly worked but after barbecuing a couple of rotors on our overseas trips, we’re quite sure that Shimano’s claim of 50° C reduction in heat gives a for greater durability and longer pad life will help riders in those long brake dragging situations.
The fully-sealed, 7.4-volt lithium-ion rechargeable battery unit is the same battery that’s used for both road and mountain Di2 systems. I’ve read very good reports about battery life on road bike applications prior to my test ride and it’s been reported that the battery can last for up to 2000km on one charge. However, mountain biking requires alot more shifting than road riding so there’s definitely a trade-off. So how has it been? The battery life is awesome. Throughout the 3 months, I’ve only needed to charge the system ONCE. And that wasn’t even needed cos I still had one bar left. Being the typical OCD that i am, I decided to charge it when I saw that it had one bar left, which I regretted because I had planned to use all of it’s juice up, and see if I can make it home by charging through a USB powerbank. In theory, I should be able to do that and I definitely will try. So what’s the verdict? In the beginning, I was abit worried about having to charge the damn bike before every ride, but I’ve realised I was just an idiot.
While the battery does not have an IP rating, it has managed to stay alive despite riding it through some heavy thunderstorms. We didn’t manage to take it out for a swim though, and we don’t recommend that you do either. However, alot of pro riders have put these systems through the worst of conditions so I’m confident they’ve designed it for the worst scenarios in mind.
As for the rest of the components, overall durability has been excellent. I’ve had some minor crashes a couple of times, and all of the parts are still in one piece. So far, nothing has came loose on it’s own and all of the moving parts are still working like they’re supposed to. Mud, sand and trail debris haven’t been much of an issue at all. The whole build seems really robust and we’re confident that all the electronics will last for a really long time. Cosmetic damage was to be expected and a few scuffs here and there are just your typical battle scars. The chain and carbon/ti cassette are still working like new and there wasn’t any need for any major maintenance work other than the usual clean up and chain lube. And oh yeah, the XTR chainrings are strong. Like really strong. I’ve accidentally bashed them into rocks, roots and they remain undamaged to this day. There are some minor visible wear on the teeth but that’s only expected with metal grinding on metal.
That awful bashing sound of metal vs rock at 0:08 sec mark. XTR wins!
Be careful with the display unit’s screen though, and never wipe the screen with a gloved muddy finger. An innocent swipe of the screen during a ride with my muddy gloves resulted in some really nasty scratches. If you’re the sort of rider who looks after his parts for maximum mileage and enjoyment, keep that in mind. It’ll be awesome if Shimano releases new versions of the display unit made with Gorilla Glass.
The XTR M9020 27.5″ wheels are amazing to say the least. The rims are actually constructed from alloy and are laminated in carbon with a cool looking grey on black carbon layup finish. They’ve been jumped over roots, skidded into tight turns, and bashed into rock gardens and they remain true. The wheels were bolted on straight out of the box, and there wasn’t a single need for me to touch the spokes. The hubs use Shimano’s classic cup and cone bearings, which are well sealed and spins ultra smooth when I’m out on the trails. The freehub body used to be really quiet, but it’s a little bit louder now with all that mileage. Even though there’s only 28 spokes per wheel, they have held up well under a rider that’s above the national average in terms of weight and size. I know, I’m getting fat. Stop rubbing it in.
Flex was non-existent (and even if there was, I couldn’t really feel it) with its 27.9mm wide rim with an internal width of 26.4mm, and mounting up tubeless tyres was amazingly easy with my floor pump. The wheels are tubeless ready out of the box and there’s no need for any tubeless conversion kits. All you need a little bit of sealant after you’ve mounted the tyres, and you’re good to go. I started off with a pair of Maxxis Minion DHFs and now I’m on Shwalbe’s Muddy Mary and Hans Dampf, and swapping out the 2 brands of tyres was a non-issue. While not as flashy as some other carbon wheels, the XTR trail wheels are just as good, or even better in their own right. Serviceability is a huge plus with the XTR wheels, and with the right care and maintenance, Shimano hubs can roll for the longest time.
Our Final Take
Did we make it explode? Not even close. So is it for everyone? Nope, Tidak, 没有, எந்த. We believe the XTR Di2 groupset was designed and built for cyclists all over the world who has zero tolerance for compromised parts and expects top-shelf performance and absolutely nothing else. If you’re a serious rider, a committed racer, a bike geek or this guy, you’ll be able to appreciate and immensely enjoy the tangible benefits of electronic shifting. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t use it. Of course we can, and there’s no stopping anyone from using whatever components they choose to. But if you’re looking for the level of performance and durability that Shimano is famous for but you’re not willing to splurge, you’ll be glad to know that trickle down technology has already made it’s way into the new 11spd XT groupset, and we’ve been hearing good things about them.
And so, it’s been an amazing 3 months and we’ve learned alot about how the XTR Di2 can change the multi faceted dynamics of mountain biking. In a nutshell, it’s smooth, brilliant, precise engineering and full on performance is what makes us flash teethy white grins like a crazy psychopath in the middle of Bukit Timah. It’s insanely impressive how Shimano has managed to cram all that performance and digital technology into these tiny works of art, and at the same time allowing multiple levels of custom setup. The XTR Di2 is a huge refinement of an already amazing mechanical groupset, and it has proven to be so much better than we had expected. And as long as nobody is turning bikes into T-800 Cyberdyne Systems Model 101’s, the future of electronics in mountain biking is definitely looking awesome.