For almost 100 years, Shimano has built an empire on the strength of its bike components and groupsets.
There are a variety of different components that go into making up a complete groupset:
In the last decade or so, mountain bike drivetrains have increasingly diverged from their road-going counterparts, and become more robust and better suited to the requirements of modern mountain biking.
Shimano have spearheaded much of the innovation that has driven this change, creating sophisticated components and designs that push the boundaries of what mountain bikes and their riders can achieve.
If you want to dive straight in, here’s a quick-glance guide, from entry level (top) to high performance (bottom) in the Shimano MTB groupset range:
The company produced its first piece of cycling engineering back in 1921 – a humble sprocket – while today, Shimano products make up half of all components sold globally.
Shimano has nine distinct groupset brands, each forming a complete hierarchy of engineering and material quality, ranging from entry level to elite professional.
This hierarchy ranges from its flagship professional-level XTR groupset to the entry-level Deore brand, with basic 9-speed brands Alivio, Acera, and Altus below that.
The mountain bike drivetrain is one of the hardest-working areas of your two-wheeled machine; required to shift gears with precision and speed on punishing climbs while caked in grit, mud, and grime.
It’s an engineering feat that these groupsets work at all, given the task expected of them come all conditions, terrains, and under the brute force of the rider’s foot. One of the most complicated and delicate aspects of the bike, its multiple moving parts are engineered to interact with incredible levels of precision while under enormous stress.
Just like the other two leading groupset manufacturers – SRAM and Campagnolo – Shimano’s groupset hierarchies are largely cross-compatible, allowing riders to upgrade in stages.
But while it’s accepted practice to ride with components from a mixture of hierarchies, it’s not a good idea to mix brands, which can lead to ill-fitted connections, clicking, excessive wear, and even total breakdown.
We’ve put together an easy-to-use reference to help you make an informed choice from among Shimano’s drivetrain line-up, detailing the entire Shimano mountain bike groupset hierarchy.
Here are the various levels on offer from Shimano, along with their intended use and features…
Shimano Deore groupset
An unsung hero of mountain biking componentry, Shimano’s Deore may be high on value, but its not low on quality, performance or reliability.
Over the years it’s been tweaked and refined, and has benefited from improvements in technology at the higher echelons of the Shimano hierarchy which have trickled-down into upgraded features for this entry-level brand. An ideal choice on entry-level bikes and for general trail riding.
Shimano SLX groupset
A relatively recent addition to the Shimano groupset family, SLX is a highly versatile component group which you can tailor to your own riding preferences. SLX is a smooth shifting, long-lasting option packed with Shimano’s high-tech features, including their Shadow+ rear derailleur, Ice Technology disc brakes, and the RapidFire plus shifter. All this adds up to exceptional performance at a sensible price.
Shimano Deore XT groupset
XT brings a whole new level of performance to the Deore family, taking advantage of lighter weight parts and even higher performance features. As with most components in the Shimano stable, XT gets trickle-down features from the higher models in the group, with many options on offer to tailor for your requirements – whether you’re a trail rider, cross-country cyclist or big-hitting all-mountain type.
Crisper shifting, increased power transfer and general refinement is where XT excels.
Shimano Zee groupset
Another relative new kid on the block, Zee was introduced to meet the needs of gravity riders who were focused just as much on the next big drop off as they were on the contents of their wallets. Perfect for freeride, downhill, bike park and dirt jump trails, Zee encompasses Shimano’s tried and tested technology and reliability with top value.
Shimano Saint groupset
Ridden by many of the world’s top downhill professionals, and spec’d on high-end gravity bikes, Shimano Saint is the go-to groupset if you’re looking for sublime shifting when things get a little lairy. Light enough to make the difference but strong enough to take abuse, Saint is geared to take the strain so you can concentrate on the ride.
Shimano XT Di2 groupset
Developed by the fastest mountain bike riders from the cross-country and enduro riding scene, Shimano XT M8050 Di2 brings high performance seamless shifting to a whole new group of trail riders at a far more affordable and accessible price.
Shimano XTR groupset
Shimano’s flagship mountain bike groupset, XTR, has long been the company’s signature component suite. In 2018, the Japanese maker released its first 12-speed iteration of this top of the range drivetrain, the M9100, featuring an enormous 51-tooth cassette, along with a range of weight-saving features. Even before the addition of its 12th speed, XTR could be found on the bikes of the world’s fastest competitors, claiming podium finishes in the biggest competitions around the globe.
Lightweight, strong and stuffed with impressive technology, it provides some of the most crisp, efficient and consistent gearing on the market.
Shimano XTR Di2 groupset
An electronic shifting option for Shimano’s 11-speed XTR mountain bike components, XTR Di2 aims to redefine how you can control and personalise the way you ride through the proven Di2 digital platform. Shimano XTR electronic shifting integrates with XTR M9000 mechanical components in a variety of Race or Trail ‘Rider Tuned’ 1x, 2x, or 3x drivetrain configurations. XTR Di2 gave the mountain bike world what the original Dura-Ace Di2 group did for road racers, delivering perfect shifting performance regardless of conditions and with no maintenance required – aside from the occasional battery change.
What’s the best Shimano groupset?
If you’re looking for exceptional performance, and willing to invest in the best, then the ultimate Shimano groupset for the mountain bike rider has to be the Shimano XTR Di2 – the cutting edge of shifting and braking technology.
It’s the flagship Shimano group used by the world’s best cross-country racers, and delivers the most flawless, fast, and reliable gear changes available.
Downhill and gravity riders will find the Shimano Saint groupset can provide everything they need from a drivetrain. Its durability, and bombproof build quality are at home among the tough, rugged demands of the downhill discipline, with Saint tried, tested and, more importantly, trusted by many leading downhill and gravity riders around the world.
But the benefit of the hierarchical system means entry level cyclists opting for brands, such as SLX and Deore, are also able to benefit from the tech used in Shimano’s higher-end groupsets. So while they’re not as high performance as the XTR and XT range, the best budget Shimano groupset options like the Shimano won’t let you down for many thousands of miles.