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SRAM X.9 vs. Shimano XT
By James Sharp and Jon Sharp

The frame of a bicycle is it's backbone. It dictates the ride characteristics, but without the componenets--the shifters, the brakes, derailleurs, cranks, etc--it's only so much wall art. Also, the frame, though large, is only a small fraction of the total weight of the bike. While the exotic components--the best of the best--are nice, let's face it, most of us either can't afford that level of componentry or don't want to shell out the dough for things that are expendable, that wear out. For the vast majority of us, the second tier stuff is more than good enough even though it lacks the flash of the best. We've been pounding the trails with the second-best parts from both Shimano and SRAM to try and figure out which one is more durable, easier to set up, better made and, frankly, more worthy of your hard earned dollars/pounds/euros.

Overview of parts

Here's what we received from SRAM (2190g), $845.95:
Front Derailleur: X.9 (165g), $48.99
Rear Derailleur: X.9 (230g), $99.99
Cassette: PG-980 (280g), $68
Crankset: Truvativ Stylo 3.3 Team (880g), $179.99
Shifters: SRAM X.9 (240g), $119
Brakes: Avid Juicy Seven with 180mm rotor (front) and 160mm rotor (rear) (395g), $329.98

And, from Shimano (2097g w/o pedals), $1049.91:
Front Derailleur: FD-M771 (155g), $49.99
Rear Derailleur: RD-M772 Shadow (227g), $109.99
Cassette: CS-M770, 11-34 (256g), $99.99
Crankset: FC-M770 (853g), $269.99
Shifters: SL-M770 RapidFire Plus (255g), $149.99
Brakes: BR-M775 caliper and BL-M775 Servo Wave lever with 180mm rotor (front) and 160mm rotor (rear) (435g) $369.96--levers with hoses and fluid($179.99), calipers ($99.99), and rotors ($44.99 each) are purchased separately.
Pedals: PD-M770 (352g), $129.99

Now on to how the parts performed.

Shifters

SHIMANO
Shimano XT Dual-Control Levers.For 2008, Shimano gives you a choice of either Dual Control levers--where the brake lever blade handles shifting duties as well--or the Rapid Fire Plus shifter pods, reviewed here.

The Good: Shimano's newest RapidFire Plus shifter pods are quite a step forward. Shimano has realized that not everyone is the same and that people like options. Rather than force you to have a gear indicator--or conversely, no indicator--theirs is removable. It's there if you want it, but two screws and they're off if you don't. Do you want to shift with just your thumbs, old school trigger style? Go for it, both paddles can be pushed with you thumb. Maybe you like the way RapidFire Plus works--push with your thumb to go one way, and pull with your index finger to go the other--go ahead, the finger cable release paddle works in either direction. What about bar position? Would you prefer to run your shifters outboard of your brakes or vise-versa? The '08 XT's have an adjustable perch, so mix it up to your hearts content.

Shimano XT Rapid FireThis flexibility is really what makes Shimano's newest triggers such a joy to use. I often found, without thinking about it, that I mixed up my shifting habits. If I was seated, I'd shift with my thumbs only. If I was standing, however, I'd grab the paddle with my index finger. Again, this wasn't intentional, it just sort of happened. Regardless of how I made the shift, the SL-M770 does just what you expect it to do, every time.

For what it's worth, I ran mine without the indicators and inboard of the brake levers. I tried the other set ups, but this is what worked best for me.

The Bad: The only complaint I have with the XT trigger shifters is their lack of feedback. What noise they make is more akin to a polite cough, like they are trying to not interrupt your ride. Contrast that to the SRAM shifters--where you and your neighbors hearing the click--and the XT shifters seem a tad vague about letting you know that a shift has taken place. If Shimano would change that one thing, the XT shifters would be as near perfect as anything mechanical can be.

SRAM
SRAM has come a long way with their trigger shifters. The current crop has a great solid feel and are light-weight. Of course, they offer the standard grip-shift as well, though we didn't test these.

SRAM X.9 ShifterThe Good: The shifting provided by SRAM's X.9 is solid and precise. There is a very definite click and very positive engagement. For those unfamiliar with it, SRAM's triggers shift with two paddles--both of which are push-activated. Not only is riding a bike and braking difficult if you have no thumbs, but shifting X.9 is fairly impossible. However, I found that many times it was advantageous to shift by pushing with my thumbs. For instance, in sticky situations, I could keep my index finger on the brake lever and shift at the same time.

The Bad: Though nothing ever went wrong with the shifting or the shifters, I wished that the X.9 triggers had the same push-pull options that Shimano's XT had. Lack of features doesn't necessarily mean "bad", though, because they functioned perfectly the whole test period.

OUR PICK
Both shift flawlessly (and easily as well as their more expensive counterparts: Shimano XTR and SRAM X.0), but I liked the shifting flexibility offered by the 2008 XT. It was great to know I could just punch at that lever any way I wanted and still get smooth, precise shifting--or, rather, I didn't have to know it at all, I just had to reflexively knock that lever however came to me at the time. However, if I bought a bike that came spec'd with either XT or X.9, I wouldn't bother swapping out the parts.

Derailleurs

SHIMANO
Shimano XT Shadow Rear DerailleurThere are no fewer than six (6!) XT rear derailleurs. You've got your regular or low-normal, medium or long cage, standard or Shadow low profile. Our test sample was the Shadow, top-normal, medium cage version. This is a wholly new derailleur for Shimano.

The Good: Unlike previous versions--and the non-Shadow versions currently available--the RD-M772 does not have a loop of cable. The cable run is straight off the chain or seat stay. The Whole body is slimmer and tucked. In fact some quick release skewers stick out further than this derailleur does! I found shifting to be quick and precise. The new design also reduces chain slap to nearly non-existent levels. Part of this might be due to the fact that it uses a shorter chain that their traditional derailleur.

The Bad: Setting up the Shadow rear derailleur is a little more finicky than Shimano's older design, particularly the b-tension screw. Out of the box I needed to adjust it quite a bit in order to prevent the upper pulley from hitting the 34tooth cog. The RD-M772 lacks a barrel adjuster, relying on the one at the shifter only. While this works, I prefer to have one at the derailleur for setting up the bike while it's on a stand. The Shadow design also seems less tolerant of cross chaining. I suspect that this has more to do with it using a shorter chain, but whatever the cause, don't use the biggest ring and largest cog at the same time--something that should be avoided regardless of your component spec, though.

SRAM
SRAM X.9 Rear Derailleur.The Good: The X.9 rear derailleur omits the shift cable loop and has a direct shot from the frame to the cable. I have always been impressed with how solid SRAM's rear derailleurs are. They stay quite stable over rough terrain and hardly bounce around at all. Shifting was always both fast and reliable. Set up was fast and simple.

The Bad: Well, nothing. I mean, it isn't as low profile as the Shadow, but I had no problems with it. Okay, I've got it: It's three grams heavier than the XT rear derailleur.

OUR PICK
I love what Shimano has done with the XT Shadow rear derailleur. Finally, as with SRAM, they managed to eliminate the derailleur cable loop between the frame and derailleur. The SRAM--though a larger profile--was easier to set up. We pronounce this one a tie! Move along.

Cassettes

SHIMANO
Shimano offers the XT in 11-32 and 11-34--tested--versions. Both are chrome plated steel with an alloy carrier that holds the all but the smallest three cogs.

The Good: The aforementioned alloy carrier helps keep the weight down, while stiffening of the larger cogs. It also distributes the load on the freehub body, reducing the possibility of the cogs digging into alloy bodies. Having had cogsets dig in so far that they were difficult to remove, I appreciate that load distribution. Shimano has long sculpted the teeth to aid in shifting under load and the CS-M770 is no different. The shifting was as expected and the cassette didn't draw any attention to itself. Exactly what you want in a cassette, I think.

The Bad: Hey, it's a cassette. It holds the chain. It didn't wear during the review, and I appreciated the range. I can't really find any faults with it.

SRAM
On test was the PG-980. The range we reviewed is the, now standard 11-34 tooth version.

The Good: The shifting never seemed hampered by the cassette in any way--which means it worked as it should. There are a couple carriers which hold three cogs at a time each--the last three having no carriers. As with Shimano's design, this helps to distribute load, keep things light, and prevent excessive wear on the freehub body.

The Bad: Not as light as the Shimano XT. Is that a bad?

OUR PICK
24 grams saved in a cassette isn't as trivial as it sounds. Though both are interchangeable, and we'd take either in practice, Shimano nudges slightly ahead with the weight-savings alone.

Cranksets

SHIMANO
Shimano XT Crank SetThe FC-M770 is Shimano's latest Hollowtech II crankset. Like it's predecessor, it utilizes an outboard bearing bottom bracket arrangement. Unlike the new XTR, however, the XT crank continues to use the dual pinch bolt attachment.

Close-up of Shimano XT carbon steel chain ring.The Good: Shimano recognized that with an 11-34 cassette, most riding will be done in the middle ring. Aluminum rings just don't hold up to that kind of abuse, so they borrowed technology from the new XTR and made the middle ring steel and carbon fiber. The steel teeth give the ring longevity while the carbon fiber reinforcement provide stiffness--this is needed because Shimano shaved down the steel to keep the weight low. What you end up with is a middle ring that wears much better than any aluminum ring--without any weight penalty.

The bottom bracket is large enough to handle both 68 and 73mm bottom brackets--and use an E-Type front derailleur with either width.

The Bad: Because the bottom bracket can accommodate an E-Type front derailleur with the 73mm bottom bracket shell, the bottom bracket spindle is slightly longer than the one on the TruVativ crank.

SRAM
SRAM Stylo 3.3 Crank SetThough SRAM doesn't badge a crankset specifically as a SRAM X.9, we tested the Truvativ Stylo 3.3 Team--The reader will remember that Truvativ is a child company of SRAM.

The Good: The first thing I noticed was the glossy-wet black finish. This, combined with the black chainrings, makes for a beautiful crankset. The arms are stiff, and we've never had problems with the Truvativ GXP bottom bracket--either this model or older ones. Shifting never lagged, nor did I experience any chain-suck. I love this crankset. Most impressive was the lack of wear after all these months of riding had on the chainrings. I expected after only a few rides to see silver shining through the black finish of the middle chainring but it just didn't happen. Even the shiny crank arms showed hardly any shoe-rub wear.

The Bad: Installation was smooth and the cranks were trouble-free--wait, that's not bad either. Ok, here's one. the Truvativ bottom Bracket is not set up to accommodate an E-type front derailleur when used with a standard 73mm bottom bracket shell. This means, also, that it won't work for bottom-bracket-mounted chain keepers/guides.

OUR PICK
Shimano wins points for the carbon-steel middle ring. I mean, anything with carbon fiber gets extra points, right? However, besides this feature, the Stylo wins the style (Get it? What, you don't get it?) points here. However, though we didn't get to put in enough time to wear anything out, in theory, Shimano's middle ring will last much longer. That, combined with, once again, the weight savings makes Shimano the winner. Unless, of course, you're hopelessly drawn in to the wet black finish. Shiny and pretty... moving on.

Brakes

SHIMANO
Shimano XT disc brake rotorAs I mentioned with the shifters, the brakes are available with the Dual Control levers or stand alone levers. We opted for the stand alone levers since we were using the Rapid Fire shifters. Shimano's XT disc brakes use a radial master cylinder. The working fluid is mineral oil.

Shimano XT brake caliper.The Good: I used to prefer hydraulics that used DOT fluid. DOT fluid is less affected by temperature and it's a fluid that is engineered for brakes. Now, however, I prefer mineral oil. Both work, and work well, the mineral oil feels a little lighter at the lever and mineral oil isn't caustic. That DOT stuff is nasty to handle, really.

The new XT brakes use Shimano's ServoWave mechanism. This parks the pads relatively far from the rotor minimizing the possibility of the rotor rubbing the pads. Then, as the brakes are applied, the pads move in rapidly, then more slowly once they have engaged the rotor. This allows the brakes to have terrific modulation without having to leave the pads very close to the rotor.

The brake lever uses a radial master cylinder. This makes for a nice tidy package and keeps the reservoir out of harms way. The stand alone XT brake lever features on the fly reach adjust and an adjustment for dead lever throw. The latter requires a small phillips-head screwdriver. While our test brakes came with Center Lock rotors, they are available with the traditional 6 bolt variety, as well.

The Bad: There is a downside to using mineral oil; it is more sensitive to temperature changes. The feel at the lever seemed to change, like the fluid was getting thicker in cold weather--which it likely was. My other complaint is that the adjustment for the dead lever throw didn't seem to do much. There was quite a large range of adjustment, but I didn't feel like it made much of a difference from full open to full closed. Our other complaint is that Shimano sells the brakes as individual parts, meaning that you have to buy the calipers and levers and rotors.

SRAM
SRAM Avid Juicy 7 brakeOnce again, on test we have, not a SRAM badged brake, but one of SRAM's child companies: Avid. We have the Avid Juicy Seven, though there is also a Juicy Five for the budget-conscious, and the Juicy Ultimate for those without a budget--and I mean that in a good way. The basic Juicy design has been around for a long time--with only minor changes through the years. This is a testament to how well they work.

SRAM Avid Juicy 7 caliperThe Good: The Juicy Sevens have an adjustable pad contact--accomplished with a small dial on the levers. They come set up and installed easily. Braking was powerful and modulation was good. This is a solid brake that performs well.

The Bad: As with many--if not most--disk brakes on the market, there is often minor rubbing between the caliper and rotor. Careful adjustment (and insuring the rotor is true) can minimize the rubbing.

OUR PICK
My biggest gripe with hydraulic disk brakes is the pads rubbing the rotor. It seems rare indeed that I have a set with zero rubbing. However, with Shimano's ServoWave brakes, we experience zero rubbing. While both brakes (the Juicys and the XTs) are excellent and provide good, reliable stopping, if I had my choice, I'd always pick the XTs. In this category, there isdefinitelya clear winner.

Overall Summary

Both the Shimano's XT group and SRAM's X.9 group do a very good job both in terms of out of the box performance and long term durability. We'd happily ride either one. However, if we were to build up a new frame today, we'd build it with XT parts. Both derailleurs are very good, but we liked the ergonomics of the XT levers better. Being able to shift with either a pull or a push is icing the cake. Because the shifters lock you into one derrailleur or the other, that choice is made by default.

Moving on to the Cranksets, we don't really have a preference of one attachment method--pinch bolts or splines--over the other. Both cranksets were plenty stiff, and while we were split in our opinions on their appearance, both performed very well. We're giving the nod to Shimano here for one reason: the use of the carbon-and-steel middle ring. Having worn out middle rings before--and being a heavy middle ring user--this appeals to me. Is it more expensive? Yes, but it should last much longer than an all aluminum one.

Both cassettes worked well. Both use carriers to make them aluminum freehub body friendly--no gouging here. Both are fairly light. Here, we suggest you grab whichever one is on sale. You can't go wrong.

Brakes. As much as we like the Juicy's--and we do--we like mineral oil better. If you ride enough, you'll need to bleed your brakes at some point. Sure, you can take them to a shop, but we advocate doing as much wrenching yourself as possible and mineral oil is just easy and healthier to deal with. Add to that Shimano's Servo Wave brake lever and you'll get one easy to work on brake that is reliable and has great modulation.

An interesting note is that SRAM went with a 5mm hex bolt for everything throughout the group. This, perhaps, isn't a huge selling point, but it does show the attention to detail SRAM puts into their products. The competition is fierce, and neither SRAM nor Shimano are taking it lying down.

If you are building up a new frame, or want to breathe new life into an older one, take a long hard look at Shimano's '08 XT group. It's a winner.

Sidbar: Pedals

Shimano also sent us there new XT-level pedals. The PD-M770 marks the first time that Shimano has had an XT-branded pedal. While it looks much like their other pedals, it slots right in the middle of their current pedal line up.

Shimano XT PedalsThe Good: While a little heavier than the top-of-the-line XTR version, the new XT pedal has many of the same features. Features like using an 8mm hex wrench to affix the pedal to the crank arm and fluorine coated release mechanism. The updated, more open, design of the PD-M770 shed mud very well, and not once did we experience any difficulty getting in or out of the pedals. In addition to that, we never had an unintentional release, either. After a full winter of abuse, including some cyclocross racing, the bearings still run nice and smooth. Really, these do everything you want a pedal to do, without breaking the bank.

The Bad: Frankly the pedals work as advertised with little fanfare, but they aren't terribly light. If you are a weight weenie, look elsewhere. And that's our only complaint.

PEDAL SUMMARY
The new XT pedals complete the Shimano XT group--which also includes wheels, which we reviewed earlier. --Link to wheel review If you aren't worried about having the lightest pedals available and are looking for something that does the job without any hassles, these are for you. If you are looking to have a bike built with a full XT group, then these are for you. If need a reliable pedal for any condition imaginable, these are for you. If you want the lightest, flashiest pedals around, look elsewhere.

James Sharp is a contributing editor for GearReview.com; more of his ramblings and a look at upcoming reviews can be found at his blog -- Lactic Acid Threshold. Jon Sharp is also a contributing editor and never has been quite the same after wearing sunglasses that pinched his brain.

For more information, contact:
Shimano
SRAM


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