shimano deore xt hydraulic brake caliper m755

Groupset of the month: Deore XT (MTB-Touring)

Deore XT is my favorite, and Shimano’s first attempt to make an MTB groupset. It was first released in 1983, and still going strong, and wildly popular. For me, Deore XT is the way to go, except for the brakes. I love their hubs, love their rear derailleurs, love front derailleurs than anything else XTR included, but must say XTR shifters still beats them by a fair margin. Chains? I never buy fancy chains, but yeah, they are good too, at least Ultegra was, which was the same thing. XT cranksets are awesome, at least until now: they are bombproof, light enough, and not super expensive. When I was building my XTR-equipped bike, I skip XTR in 2 parts: one is the crankset, the other was the front derailleur. Cassette? Well…I used to have XT before. I had very good impressions about it,  but

Shimano Deore XT BR-M739
Shimano Deore XT BR-M739. A great V-brake Shimano produced for a short period of time.

bought a Deore instead because XT cassettes are expensive.

What’s great about Deore XT is, it’s a nice, robust and lightweight groupset you can really rely upon, unlike XTR which can fail you in some instances, because it is designed and manufactured with racing in mind. Don’t get me wrong: XTR is super solid. But they sometimes go too far in shaving weight, like using hollow pins on derailleurs. This saves maybe a gram, or even less, but compromises longevity and durability. This is why I especially picked a Deore XT front derailleur for an XTR groupset. One other annoyance was the older XTR cranksets, especially 10 speeds: they had weird chainrings, that is not compatible with anything else, which made me go for Deore XT at the time, again.

Shimano introduces the newest, bleeding edge tech almost always with XTR, and shortly after for Deore XT: so, if you can wait a year for the best tech available, Deore XT is the best way to get it. Nt because it’s almost 2x cheaper: sometimes bleeding edge tech backfires, which would give you time to dismiss it, or wait for Shimano to fix it.

Deore XT is available for over 40 years now, and it is a stable, full-group set. What does this mean? For example, it didn’t disappear like the Deore LX, which was a dear groupset for tourers for some misconceptions which I’ll come back to a while later. Or, it’s a full groupset, unlike SLX, which sometimes “borrows” other components from other groupsets up or down on the hierarchy.

Until 2015, Deore XT groupset parts were carrying a 7xx designation: like RD-M781, rear derailleur, or FD-M770, front derailleur for 9 speed. “M78x” is always 10 speed, while “M77x” can be either 9 or 10 speed, generally the former. In 2015, Shimano moved the groupset to 11 speed and decided to use the “M8000” designation. Shimano also makes exclusive Touring / Trekking Deore XT groupsets, which is denoted by “T” instead of “M”. Like, SL-T8000-R, latest touring class shifter for Deore XT. The difference was bleak a decade ago, but now 2x / 1x is going mainstream with MTB groupsets, Touring / Trekking line becomes more clear: T labelled Deore XT’s is exclusively 3x: SL-T8000-L 3x left shifter, RD-T8000-SGS long cage derailleur, FC-T8000, a touring triple (3x) crankset. New lineup also includes dynamo hubs, or hub dynamos depending on how you think of them, DH-T8000-3D. Funnily, Shimano did not “upgrade” trekking line to 11 speed, and there is nothing higher then Deore XT, and there never was. If you are building a touring bike from scratch with Shimano components, you have also Deore, still 10s, and Alivio (T4000) and Acera (T3000), which 9s. It’s good to know that Shimano still makes what people want, unlike Sram, who quit making a sensible groupset for casual riders, tourers or riders who want sensibly placed gears.

Why go XTR, when Deore XT is soo great ?

XTR is not getting the love it deserves, solely for marketing. XTR is a racing groupset. It does not have to be durable as Deore XT: it is designed and manufactured to be lightweight as possible, and pretty strong, but not as durable. Yeah, people use “durable”, “strong”, “robust”, or such adjectives, but they are all different. Obviously, English is not my mother tongue, but it is pretty hard to miss the difference. Let me be more specific, in my book it’s analogies with car world mostly: an F1 engine is immensely strong, it can stand enormous heat, friction, and internal pressures unlike any other automotive engine, but it’s not much durable: in the past, an engine was only good for just one race, but I guess they changed the regulations afterwards. On the other hand, still being race engines, rally car engines last much longer, while still being very performant, but not as robust as an F1 engine given the conditions they suffer.

I think it’s mostly the titanium that sets XTR apart. Contrary to popular belief, titanium is not lighter than steel, but has almost the same strength at almost the half weight. This means, titanium has better strength-to-weight ratio. But it’s wear resistance and tensile strength is lower compared to steel; that’s why XTR cassettes worn faster. At least, the titanium cogs, as typically XTR cassettes are made up of steel, aluminium and titanium cogs.

shimano sp m730 seatpost
Shimano sp-m730 seatpost…Those were the days that groupset makers made seatpost and headsets…

I had lots of Deore XT hubs, which got a bad rep because of improper service. I don’t have a Deore XT or XTR hubs produced in the last decade, but older versions look identical internally, which sets them apart from the other Shimano hubs. The ones I had have plastic caged bearings and thicker axles. In Deore XT hubs, these were aluminium. I got a broken XTR rear hub, which looked identical to the Deore XT hub internally, except the fact that the axle was titanium.

Even with the same design and materials, byproducts can be different. There may be many factors Shimano does not disclose: are the machinery making the both groupsets are the same, which effects the tolerances? Quality control can make a huge difference in many cases, too. I know some Japanese factories which work like boutique manufacturers, almost anything done manually by a person who is doing the same exact thing for 20 years or more. Even hardening / annealing metals at different durations effects the characteristics of the alloys wildly, so judging whether XTR is that superior is very hard, almost impossible, without a degree in many engineering disciplines and access to a full-blown laboratory with millions of dollars of equipment.

There are some very high-end Swiss automatic watches, and funnily, except for one minor detail, an identical version of the same watch is 2x more expensive. I’m talking about at least 5-digit price tags! What’s the difference then? The 2x more expensive version, sometimes having the exact movement (the mechanism that makes the watch tick, in watch terms) with some minor touches, carries the “chronometer” tag. Yes; it’s a trademark. You have to apply to an institute in Switzerland to get your watch certified, to carry a “chronometer” marking proudly. I won’t dive into specifics, but it’s something like certifies that your watch will be accurate at 6 seconds in a day at worst. (Funnily, a $5 quartz watch can be that accurate in a year, not a day!)

I see no point in buying an XTR groupset when Deore XT is available, except for the shifters, or if you are a competitive racer. In the latter, your team would probably give you a XTR groupset 🙂

Deore XT means business for Shimano

I think Deore XT groupsets have some sentimental value for Shimano because it enabled them to flourish in MTBs, where the real money comes from. Like Corolla for Toyota or Seamaster for Omega, it’s a groupset for Shimano that failure is no option. Yet, sometimes it failed: the notorious ceramic pistons that crack. Shimano struggled quite a lot with brakes, and my older Deore’s were awful in every sense, tried an old set of XTRs that were mushy, then when I decided to upgrade to Deore XT’s, I see many cracked piston issues. Strangely, the best hydraulic Shimano disc brakes I had was Acera.

Buying a Deore XT guarantees a high level of quality, with tried and true technology. For “ordinary” people, it’s E-class that determines Mercedes quality; not an S-class that is driven and serviced properly with huge bills and thrown away whenever a new model comes up. This is a general marketing strategy: big brands show up with a “dream” lineup that has the bleeding edge technology that nobody can – or wants – to afford, but the bling factor creates a rush to one notch below. That is, E-class for Mercedes, and Deore XT for Shimano. Brands focus on this segment: if there are problems with the utmost segment, who cares, they can afford to spoil the very few people that can afford these items, or they don’t even care. But it’s the middle upmost segment that creates the brand image as there are much more people involved. They want them, they buy them, and they like to talk about them.

Deore XT history

First Shimano XT groupset logo includes a deer, which seems what “Deore” means. At least, some people say that. What’s notable about first Deore XT’s that, they first adopted the 2mm inner diameter wires for increased robustness, and thumb shifters. Other then that, whole groupset looks pretty much like the 600 groupset. Admittedly, first Deore XT groupset looks like an afterthought, rather then an MTB-specific groupset, “all terrain” in Shimano-speak at the time. SunTour at the time, with MounTech, seems to get it right. Not just the name, but a more advanced rear derailleur with slanted parallelogram, for example. It’s a 6 speed system, the 700 series, with 3 speed front chainrings.

In 1986, Shimano introduced 730 series. Nothing notable here. Funny to see Shimano making seatposts at the time, SP-M730.

It’s still a 6×3 groupset; until 732 series released in 1987 – this groupset has very subtle changes, but offered 7s option: shifters can shift both 6 or 7 speed, and can work up to 8 speed in friction mode. Nice thing about these shifters are, they are both indexed and friction shifters and build quality is stunning.

With the release of Deore XT 735 series in 1989, and a few years after, we start to see a real, MTB specific groupset. Until 730 series, cantilever brakes were the norm for “all terrain” bikes, but with this groupset, Shimano also added U brake option (for rear only), which is used on BMX bikes generally. Notable changes towards a modern MTB groupset includes beefier hubs, which looks like Deore XT’s a decade ago, with thicker body but a narrower flange; and also a slanted parellogram rear derailleur. PD-M735 pedals looks like a new addition, and I don’t know if some company produced a similar pedal before – but this design became a classic. Shimano produced this design for a few decades, and many manufacturers like Wellgo still makes them. I like the design, and have 3 pairs of Wellgo pedals that is quite similar to PD-M735.

Shimano first introduced STI shifters, but not the ones we know that is common on road bikes today; these were the ones that combines the shifter and brake lever that is used on cheap Shimano or Chinese variants used today.

Deore XT M737, released back in 1994, is somewhat interesting. No big visual changes, but Deore XT became 8 speed. Also, smallest sprocket decreased from 12 to 11 teeth, which stayed that way until the microspline introduced, which permit the use of 10 teeth cassette sprockets due to smaller radius. Another important change was the chainrings. It was not uncommon to see 50T in prior Deore XT’s, 48T was also common, and anything under 46 was no option. With M737, 42T chainring is first introduced in the lineup.

In 1995, XT 739 was released, nothing to note, except the gorgeous and wonderful Deore XT BR-M739. Interestingly, these were the first V-brakes in Deore XT lineup, featuring the ingenious

shimano deore xt hydraulic brake caliper m755
Never had a chance to have one, but M755 hydraulic brakes, at least visually, looks like the best hydraulic brakes that Shimano made. I desperately want to try one, if I can find…

design from the XTR 950. What is special about these calipers is that pads are linked with the bosses, thus pads are kept parallel to rim’s braking surface if they setup properly. They also look cool, and if you can find a set in a mint condition, probably will cost you more than a brand-new hydraulic Deore set. Pity Shimano does not make them anymore. I believe it was costly to make, given the complexity of it.

Deore XT goes 9 speed, Mega 9 in Shimano speak, with M750 in 1998. It also includes the first hydraulic brake system ever in entire Shimano line-up. Nothing very specific to talk about, except again, the noteworthy hydraulic disc brakes: XTR adopted disc brakes only after with the M960, and what’s more great about XT is, they had 4 pistons! Then they dismissed the idea, and after 2 decades, 4 pot calipers becoming common again. Unfortunately, I never saw those brakes. If I have only one chance to inspect a hydraulic brake system for a bike, I’d definitely choose this one. M960 hydraulic brakes are interesting in many ways. Caliper is machined from single block of aluminium, which is then used in XTR calipers, which had 2 pistons, though. Another interesting thing is the suspiciously tapered end on the brake levers, very much like Avid, then Sram taperbores, which leads me to think these levers, or “master cylinders” have tapered pistons internally.

M760 series (2003), which looks like a minor update to previous Deore XT generation, has only one notable feature, at least for me. That is the crankset. As far as I know, it’s the first Hollowtech II crankset – which is a misnomer, but it’s essentially a hollow crank. Also it’s a 2 part crankset with external bearings. This is a huge step for Shimano, and the bike industry. I won’t dive into how well it’s implemented. There are various issues with this production technique, especially in the newer generation DuraAce or Ultegra cranks, which tends to split after corroding internally. I wrote a lengthy post about Hollowtech bottom brackets, or other external bearing bottom brackets in general, but M760 crank, FC-M760, is my favorite MTB crankset of all time. It’s not my main crankset anymore, because I moved to 10x. I carried this crankset bike to bike, and is my longest ever used item. It’s beefy, solid, looks gorgeous for my taste, and incredibly well built: later models, don’t know why, tend to have much weaker threads. I left this crank with pedals on for a few years, and obviously, it stuck very bad. To remove the pedals, I had to tighten the crank in a huge vise, and use a cheater bar with a beefy spanner, which normally would destroy the threads. No damage done! Shape-wise, this crankset looks almost identical to XTR 960 cranks, which has flimsy spiders that I never liked. Definitely, it punches above it’s own weight, that’s why mint samples still costs well over 150$.

M770 is one of the landmark models of Deore XT lineage, which released in 2007, 25th anniversary of the groupset. I tend to think that Shimano focuses on only one or two key parts in each release, each time testing one or two critical technology, application, or fashion, depending on how you look at it. For this release, it’s obviously 10 speed, but more important one is the Shadow derailleurs. This is a transition phase, so we can see both 9 and 10 speed components that looks almost identical. I’ ve owned M770 9 speed shifters. I also had 2 RD-M771, sold one and broke other, one of the best rear derailleurs I had, including XTR’s. It’s identical twin, RD-M772 is 10 speed. Before 2010, M770 is 9 speed; 2010 onwards, it’s 10s. This means Shimano does not produce 9s and 10s at the same time. This groupset includes the old style, ugly hydraulic disc brake levers, contrary to the older M960 brake levers, master cylinder placed perpendicular to stem. This design is quickly dismissed in M780 line.

M780 is not a huge improvement over its predecessor. A decade ago, hydraulic brakes was still a hot and debated topic, and back then, Shimano released IceTech disc brake rotors along with fancy, finned brake pads. But let’s not forget 10 speed rear derailleur, RD-M786, a clutch rear derailleur, hence Shadow Plus.

2015, and Shimano decided to go 11 speed this time, Dyna-Sys 11, and also employed a new naming scheme, M8000. Another interesting thing to note here is the 3D composite chainring construction. Hmm..Well, that is basically a carbon fiber reinforced plastic carrier fused with steel chainring. Shimano says, “stainless steel coated”. How? Rather than an improvement over the existing and great construction, this seems like a cost cutting measure to me, and although “carbon fiber reinforced plastic” sounds cool, we don’t know exactly what it is. Is it Nylon with carbon fiber? If so, it’s basically a nylon with chopped, carbon fiber leftovers that cannot be recycled or reused anymore. Obviously, it’s not a resin impregnated carbon fiber, which is very expensive to make and not fit for the job. What exactly is this material? Given that the Shimano seems to suffer from glue problems, I’d be very, very suspicious. I don’t know what the oils, heat and oxidation would do to this material. Instead of fancy marketing words, I’d like to hear out more “real specs”.

In the last 5 years, Shimano and Sram seems to dedicate themselves to profiling chainring and sprocket teeth, and how to make chains incompatible as possible. Do they shift any nicer ? I don’t know. I never owned a 11 or 12s groupset, and probably won’t in the next decade. I do not doubt they are marginally better, like %0.00023 better. Or maybe more.

Deore XT went Di2 with M8050 in 2016, and adopted 12 speed in 2019. Latest Deore XT is M8100 series.

Deore XT trekking line has a..cassette problem. And a few more.

Not all things are great about Deore XT’s. For example, the trekking groupset, which is usually preferred by bike tourers. For example, Deore XT T8000, which is the latest groupset for trekking, is too far away from being a complete groupset: a great deal of components are from previous generations, and some of them are nearly 20 years old. FH-T780 hub:I owned this hub for a few years, it’s great, but the “best” current cassette for this hub is Deore CS-M4100-10. You are getting the best available groupset for trekking, and settling for something middle-range? It’s also not suitable for bike touring, you have only 2 options available: 11-46T, 11-42T. Anything under Deore is still 9 speed, so basically, you don’t have a proper Shimano cassette option for 10 speed. Guess what? They make 10 speed Tiagra for road, with no 10 speed cassette option! Let’s try GRX then: 2 cassettes listed, CS-HG50-10, 11-36 MTB and CS-HG500-10 advertised as a “road” cassette with few options, 11-25T, 12-28T, 11-32T,  and 11-34T. This caters for almost all use case scenarios, but it’s an all-steel cassette. If I’m correct, I bought this cassette back in the days when it was advertised as “out of series” cassette. Looks like the same thing in photos, if so, I did not like it. I still have it in my box somewhere, it is heavy, not machined well. Not a cassette you want to pair with a Deore XT groupset.

The only crankset for trekking line is FC-T8000, 48-36-26T, looks like a modified FC-M780, which is probably the worst XT crankset ever. It’s not better with front and rear derailleurs, I suspect each one of them are rebranded, older Deore XT’s from M780 line. Why not “make 10 speed great again”? Let’s face it, no MTB rider these days will go out and buy 3×10 Deore XT for their downhill bike, but it’s valuable for tourers. Don’t get me wrong, there is (almost) nothing wrong about with M780 line; I like most of its components. But it’s lazy to relabel M780 parts, or make some really minor changes and sell them at a full price. When Deore XT was 9 speed, I used to get lots of parts from Alivio line, because it has a broad range of components, different types of shifters, cassettes, brake options. I think Alivio was a very foundational groupset – almost nobody reaches their wallet to buy an Alivio part, but functioned as the “glue” that keeps your bike just the way you want it to be. Today, Alivio groupset is pretty pointless, we still have Altus and Acera. Altus, Acera and Alivio is all 9 speed now. Why not just ditch Altus, make Alivio 10 speed, remove Deore 10 speed line which is really useless these days and make great components, all 10 speed for Deore XT trekking line? Currently, Shimano line is all over the place, we have 10, 11 and 12 speed Deore with all missing components, a useless Alivio group, and bad choice of cassettes for 10 speed.

What I’d like to see in this groupset is, a 40 / 30 / 20T crankset, a microspline hub with Syclence technology if Shimano will bring it back, and a 10-32 cassette. I know crankset and cassette choice is both weird and probably non existant, but let me explain!

You know why 53 chainring for road, or 50T for city / trekking disappeared? It’s because almost all cassettes started with 11T instead of 12T, but they don’t care to fix chainrings for decades. Probably the most common combo for touring is 44 / 32 / 24T. With a 10T, you can make the chainring smaller, while keeping the exact same gear ratio. Most of the time, you use the big and middle chainring. So, I picked 30 for middle ring. Notice the gap is smaller, compared to 44 / 32 / 24T combo – 10, instead of 12. So, you’ll be struggling less with your rear derailleur if you move to middle ring from the outer. Also, it will shift easier and nicer. But why ridicilously small, inner chainring? By making this one smaller, you can also get away with a smaller cassette, also a better spread gear ratio, less weight. It would be not as strong or durable as a 24T, but let’s face it: there are no big loads involved in such combo, and it’s rarely used.

A silent hub is a great bonus if you’re touring – you want to hear and have to hear the nature. Not because it’s enjoyable, also safer: when coasting downhill, hubs become excessively noise and you cannot hear passing vehicles. Or, dogs.

Will Deore XT stay competitive ?

If I were to buy a new groupset today, I’ll go buy a Deore and SLX mix.

In the past, neither SLX or Deore was competitive enough – too much steel, not enough refinement, sub-par cassettes. The current Deore groupset is almost perfect, except the cassettes. Frankly, 12 speed cassette line-up, also 10 speed too, is extremely limited. Shimano seems to be aggresively following Sram’s way, so much so that 2x seems to be an afterthought. Funny thing is, Sram probably went 1x, because they couldn’t make front shifting work right, at least, Shimano-level or near. Where is the 2×12 compatible, 10-34T or 10-36T cassette? A real rider does not look for a stupidly broad range that is not usable in a real riding scenario. We look for properly spread ratios. Downhill bikers? Give them 1×3, they’ll still be fine.

I’d probably go for a Chinese groupset next time, because either Sram or Shimano cannot cater my needs, which is pretty basic anyway: a modern, sensible trekking groupset with close ratio 3x crankset with a 11-34 or 11-36T cassette, and a properly spaced cassette with 2x crankset for MTB. That’s it. Is it too much to ask?

What about Deore XT Di2 ?

Di2 is great for road biking, thanks to syncro shift, which lets you shift all gears with a single lever, cleverly avoiding cross chaining, getting sprocket / chainring combinations right, and trimming front derailleur.

Personally, I wouldn’t touch a Di2 system for touring or MTB with a long pole: I wouldn’t like to suffer from electronics, charging or ridicilously priced components while I’m thinking about which nasty insects to avoid while touring. Or, worrying about if mud will cause flimsy, toyish plastic gears to strip, rendering the hugely expensive rear derailleur a paperweight.



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