Shimano XT 11-Speed Drivetrain

The Ride

My Shimano XT drivetrain took a bit to settle in. Honestly, the first ride was flat out disappointing. My 10-speed XTR setup that came off the bike had very little resistance to lever motion and provided quick, smooth shifts. With the 11-speed XT setup, the chain would hesitate before jumping to the next cog, whether shifting up or down the cassette. However, over the course of 4-5 days the shifting became smoother. Maybe the grease was distributing throughout the clutch.

Tom Collier reviews the Shimano XT 11 speed drivetrain for Blister Gear Review.
Tom Collier using the Shimano XT 11 speed drivetrain.

I experimented with clutch tension and had a hard time striking the right balance. When I had the clutch tight enough that I could feel a real difference in how much the cage resisted motion, I could also feel all that resistance in the form of a stiff, hard-to-actuate thumb lever. When I dialed down the tension enough that the thumb lever felt nice, the clutch barely helped resist cage motion.

This meant that unless I was running the Shimano XT drivetrain with the clutch so tight that the thumb lever felt very stiff, the derailleur did not hold a chain on as tightly as a SRAM derailleur. I could get a better balance between clutch action and thumb lever action on the 10-speed Shimano drivetrains I’ve ridden.

The shifting speed was slower across the range than I’d become accustomed to with my XTR shifter / SLX derailleur (with Wolftooth GoatLink) 10-speed converted drivetrain, and slower than the SRAM GX drivetrain. I’m leery of ballpark numbers, but to offer up a sense, I’d guess it was 10-20% slower. I adjusted cable tension and could improve upshifts or downshifts individually, but the cost to the performance of the other was too great to make it worthwhile.


Shimano XT 11-Speed vs. SRAM GX

The price and the weight of SRAM GX and Shimano XT are directly comparable. But durability of the GX rear derailleur is probably more questionable than the Shimano XT rear derailleur, due to SRAM’s choice to cast it from aluminum instead of forging it as Shimano does (and as SRAM does on their higher end offerings). But I like the shift feel and gear range of SRAM GX better than the Shimano XT 11-speed drivetrain.

Tom Collier reviews the Shimano XT 11 speed drivetrain for Blister Gear Review.

The downshift lever on the GX shifter actuates with significantly less effort than the lever on the Shimano XT shifter. And SRAM’s 10-42t cassette offers a 420% gear range, while Shimano’s 11-42t cassette only comes in at 382%. That single tooth reduction to the smallest cog (10t vs. 11t) does offer significant gains on roads or fast downhills.

If I really turn down clutch tension on the Shimano XT rear derailleur, its shifts become quicker and smoother, and the thumb lever feels lighter. In that case, it is more of a toss-up between the two systems for me, with a slight edge going to XT over GX. But with the clutch tension that low, I hear more chainslap, and the chances of losing a chain go up.

The Shimano Shadow rear derailleur design is much less likely to hit a rock on the trail due to its narrower profile. But the horizontal parallelogram on SRAM derailleurs is fundamentally better able to resist chain slap and thus dropped chains.

XT 11-Speed vs. Shimano 10 speed conversion

The 11-speed setup has smoother transitions between gears, but the difference isn’t very obvious, and the 11-speed setup is much more expensive. I thought this new 11-speed system would crush the conversion, but that just wasn’t the case. It was better; jumps between gears were smaller, so I was more often able to find the ‘right’ gear—that gear that let me maintain a comfortable but quick cadence, maximizing speed and minimizing effort. But that difference was only slight.

The most notable gear jump on my conversion was the 17t-15t cog jump, but that wasn’t a part of my cassette I’d use on anything but downhills, and in that case, finding the perfect gear ratio wasn’t so critical.

The shifting performance of the two systems is pretty close, with the edge going to XT 11-speed over a converted XTR 11-speed. But add in a Wolf-tooth GoatLink, and the converted 10-speed setup shifts slightly more quickly than the 11-speed XT drivetrain.

Bottom Line

There has always been an ebb and flow of market position between SRAM and Shimano. Currently, I’m willing to give lead status to SRAM. That surprised me. I was near certain going into this test that XT would crush GX.

I’m not totally flipping on my past opinions here—the new Shimano 11-speed XT drivetrain is a solid performer that I expect will exhibit the long-term durability and reliability that Shimano is known for. And I would recommend Shimano XT 11-speed to riders who prioritize reliability over chain retention and shift feel. But it loses out to SRAM on gear range, and either chain retention or shift lever feel, depending on how you set the clutch, I couldn’t find a middle ground where it beat out SRAM simultaneously on both of those fronts. Maybe Shimano’s new electric shifting will have the magic it takes to win me back. Until then, I’ll be spec’ing SRAM drivetrains on any bikes I build.


10 comments on “Shimano XT 11-Speed Drivetrain”

  1. Ugh, this is so disappointing. I wish SRAM had shifters that could be clicked in either direction like Shimano – I’m so used to it that it’s a deal breaker. Thanks for the review. Guess I’ll have to stick with 2×10 until Shimano comes out with a better version.

    • Although I’m hearing elsewhere that this shifter / derailleur actually works much smoother with a SRAM X01 cassette. Go figure.

      • JayT, I’m going to give it a shot with a SRAM cassette. I don’t have an X01 cassette at my disposal, but I do have an XG-1175 cassette that I’ve been happy with when used with a GX shifter and derailleur. I’ll let you know what I learn.

  2. Funny: I’ve had the exact opposite experience. Given the huge discrepancies in 1x conversion performance reported by hundreds of users in the threads I’ve read, I strongly suspect that variances in derailleur hanger geometry & crank chainline play a massive role in how a given drivetrain works on your bike.
    The 1×10 XT conversion drivetrain I installed on my Santa Cruz 5010 never shifted properly (10 speed: XT shifter, chain, & derailleur, XTR 11-36 cassette, OneUp 17T+42T cogs, & Rad cage). Even w/ OneUp’s revised Rad cage geometry, the only way to get pre-conversion levels of chain retention was to dial up the clutch ’till shifting action was slower and at least 2x as stiff. The lack of range was the final nail in the coffin: my 1×10 XT conversion was in every way inferior to my previous 2×10 setup, so I decided to give Shimano 1×11 a try or go back to 2x.
    My experience with Shimano 1×11 shifting has been far better. I installed an XTR 11-speed shifter & derailleur with a SRAM XX 10-42 cassette & chain, & am much happier with the result. Chain retention is bomber, even when pushing my trail bike flat out in full-on DH terrain. The ergonomics & tactile feel at the lever is signature XTR: two-cog downshifts & 3-cog upshifts w/ a single push, and precise lever feedback that lets you know exactly what the shifter & chain are doing. The experience is so far superior to riding my bike with full XO drivetrain, that I will be upgrading to XTR shifter & derailleur as soon as the XO derailleur wears out.

    • Mathias,

      I’m very curious to try the XTR 11 speed shifter. It could be that and XTR level shifter is the key difference between your 1×10 and 1×11 setups and my 1×10 and 1×11 setups.The XTR shifters usually feature higher quality and more numerous bearings that can make lever action much smoother and thus the clutch resistance less noticeable.


  3. I’ve monkeyed around with the new Shimano stuff (in the shop and around the surrounding surface streets only, so far) and this may be the first time in history that it might be worth the money to upgrade from the XT to XTR rear derailleur. It seems much more positive, etc., but Shimano has been playing catch up with SRAM when it comes to clutches for awhile, now (I could never keep a Shimano clutch working well for over 3 months).

    My new endurance race bike coming in January (sigh) will be XTR with XX1 cassette. I’m going to downgrade the shifter to XT (because I’m apparently the last guy in the world that uses the Optical Gear Indicators, at least when racing).

    Like you mentioned, I’m REALLY looking forward to getting back to Shimano’s double-click option. Two years on SRAM on my trail bike, and I still miss that feature every single ride.

    Fingers crossed, and thanks for the review!

    • Tom, interesting to hear that. I’ll see if I can pick up both an xtr derailleur and an xtr shifter to play with. I also have plans to try a SRAM cassette in the near future as I’ve heard that can improve shifting.

      The double-click shift is hard to give up and the bi-directional shift lever is nice too. I’m going to keep putting some energy into making a Shimano setup to work on this bike, but this certainly isn’t off to the start I thought it might be.

      • So I threw on an XG-1175 cassette this weekend. Shifting was a bit better. I expect that with one of the nicer SRAM cassettes shifting might improve more. Unfortunately this negates one of the big advantages of the Shimano system: the ability to run 11 speed without getting a new freehub body.

        If I’m able to get on an XTR shifter and or derailleur I will update again.

        For anyone totally committed to Shimano shifters and bummed to hear that XT doesn’t crush SRAM, don’t sweat this too much. I found myself favoring SRAM GX, but I don’t feel that strongly about shifter design, and I’m looking more at shift performance and chain retention. If you prioritize differently, you might still love Shimano XT 11 speed. This is just my take on the group.

  4. What is the actual price difference between this and SRAM GX 1×11? The table at the top of this review shows $375 and $339, but the SRAM GX review from July states $564. Which is it? And if the SRAM GX really is 50% more expensive then can you really expect the Shimano 1×11 to compete? Not sure what I’m missing here…

    • The numbers at the top of the review are correct – not including any retailer discounting. The $564 number included GX cranks. I did not test the Shimano XT cranks, so I did not include cranks in the price comparison here.

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