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First ride: 2011 Shimano XTR M980

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A semi-rigid cap protects the rider's toes on the new SH-M315 shoe while new vents pull in more cooling air.

A semi-rigid cap protects the rider's toes on the new SH-M315 shoe while new vents pull in more cooling air.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The outer pulley cage on XTR M980 is carbon fiber for lighter weight - but it also places a fairly fragile bit in a vulnerable area.

The outer pulley cage on XTR M980 is carbon fiber for lighter weight - but it also places a fairly fragile bit in a vulnerable area.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano will offer XTR M980 rear derailleurs in the low-profile Shadow configuration only. Longer lever arms now require more cable movement to actuate a shift, making the system more tolerant of friction and misadjustment.

Shimano will offer XTR M980 rear derailleurs in the low-profile Shadow configuration only. Longer lever arms now require more cable movement to actuate a shift, making the system more tolerant of friction and misadjustment.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The Race edition pedals decrease stack height more than 2mm - from 10.3mm to 8.1mm.

The Race edition pedals decrease stack height more than 2mm - from 10.3mm to 8.1mm.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Claimed weight on the PD-M980 pedals (at top) drops to 310g per pair. The Trail-edition PD-M985 are heavier at nearly 400g but feature an even bigger platform plus an additional alloy mini-cage.

Claimed weight on the PD-M980 pedals (at top) drops to 310g per pair. The Trail-edition PD-M985 are heavier at nearly 400g but feature an even bigger platform plus an additional alloy mini-cage.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The center of the pedal is ovalized top to bottom, leaving more room at the front and back to pass mud and debris.

The center of the pedal is ovalized top to bottom, leaving more room at the front and back to pass mud and debris.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Even the stack height of the new Trail pedal is lower than the old pedal by nearly 2mm.

Even the stack height of the new Trail pedal is lower than the old pedal by nearly 2mm.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano will also offer Race and Trail editions of the new XTR pedal - both feature lower stack heights, wider bearing spacing, more mud clearance, and wider platforms.

Shimano will also offer Race and Trail editions of the new XTR pedal - both feature lower stack heights, wider bearing spacing, more mud clearance, and wider platforms.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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These prototypes are close to the final versions - note the Servo Wave feature on the Trail lever at left but the more straightforward geometry on the Race lever at right.

These prototypes are close to the final versions - note the Servo Wave feature on the Trail lever at left but the more straightforward geometry on the Race lever at right.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The Shadow-style rear derailleur tucks the mechanicals further in to protect from rock strikes but the more upright cable routing also better protects the housing relative to SRAM.

The Shadow-style rear derailleur tucks the mechanicals further in to protect from rock strikes but the more upright cable routing also better protects the housing relative to SRAM.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Sidewall machining on the new XTR wheels now extends further down, stopping just short of the spoke bed.

Sidewall machining on the new XTR wheels now extends further down, stopping just short of the spoke bed.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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True UST-compatible rim profiles make for super easy tubeless tire fitments - we had no issues seating tires with only a standard floor pump.

True UST-compatible rim profiles make for super easy tubeless tire fitments - we had no issues seating tires with only a standard floor pump.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Woo hoo! Riders who love the heat-moldable custom fit and durability of Shimano's current top-end mountain bike shoe can now finally treat themselves to reasonable traction when on foot, too.

Woo hoo! Riders who love the heat-moldable custom fit and durability of Shimano's current top-end mountain bike shoe can now finally treat themselves to reasonable traction when on foot, too.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The new heel cup on the SH-M315 shoes wraps up and around the back of your foot.

The new heel cup on the SH-M315 shoes wraps up and around the back of your foot.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Going along with the new pedals are the new SH-M315 (at left) and SH-M240 shoes.

Going along with the new pedals are the new SH-M315 (at left) and SH-M240 shoes.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Lever effort is more consistent (and slightly lighter) across the cassette range with M980 but the tactile and audible clicks have actually grown stronger relative to M970 for better feedback in rough terrain.

Lever effort is more consistent (and slightly lighter) across the cassette range with M980 but the tactile and audible clicks have actually grown stronger relative to M970 for better feedback in rough terrain.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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As before, the shifter clamps are slotted for finely tunable positioning.

As before, the shifter clamps are slotted for finely tunable positioning.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The anodized aluminum pull lever on the new XTR M980 shifter features grip-enhancing dimples on the ends.

The anodized aluminum pull lever on the new XTR M980 shifter features grip-enhancing dimples on the ends.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The three-layer Ice Tech rotors feature an aluminum core to better dissipate heat. And no, you're not imagining things - one layer of stainless really is thinner than the other one. Shimano says this acts as a sort of wear indicator. When the aluminum starts to show, you know it's time to replace the rotor but you'll still have some stainless material on the other side to retain decent braking performance.

The three-layer Ice Tech rotors feature an aluminum core to better dissipate heat. And no, you're not imagining things - one layer of stainless really is thinner than the other one. Shimano says this acts as a sort of wear indicator. When the aluminum starts to show, you know it's time to replace the rotor but you'll still have some stainless material on the other side to retain decent braking performance.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano will offer XTR M980 Ice Tech rotors in 140, 160, 180, and 203mm diameters, all in Centerlock fitments only.

Shimano will offer XTR M980 Ice Tech rotors in 140, 160, 180, and 203mm diameters, all in Centerlock fitments only.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano also contemplated offering an integrated shifter mount but ultimately decided to stick with separate clamps.

Shimano also contemplated offering an integrated shifter mount but ultimately decided to stick with separate clamps.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano went through several iterations of brake lever prototypes before settling on the final version.

Shimano went through several iterations of brake lever prototypes before settling on the final version.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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New with M980 are specific Race and Trail wheelsets - the Race version slims down to 1480g for the pair while the Trail edition jumps up to 1670g but features a wider rim and slightly thicker spokes.

New with M980 are specific Race and Trail wheelsets - the Race version slims down to 1480g for the pair while the Trail edition jumps up to 1670g but features a wider rim and slightly thicker spokes.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The Trail version of Shimano's new XTR brake levers features tool-free reach adjustment plus Servo Wave technology, which brings the pads to the rotor more quickly but also provide excellent modulation and power. The Race version does without in both cases to save weight.

The Trail version of Shimano's new XTR brake levers features tool-free reach adjustment plus Servo Wave technology, which brings the pads to the rotor more quickly but also provide excellent modulation and power. The Race version does without in both cases to save weight.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The overall appearance of Shimano's new XTR brake levers is more compact than before - and the brake levers are now especially short for natural one-finger braking.

The overall appearance of Shimano's new XTR brake levers is more compact than before - and the brake levers are now especially short for natural one-finger braking.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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While older Shimano XTR disc brakes used relatively small cupped aluminum pistons and phenolic inserts to help keep the hot pads isolated from the oil, the new brakes use bigger ceramic pistons that can apply force more evenly to the pad.

While older Shimano XTR disc brakes used relatively small cupped aluminum pistons and phenolic inserts to help keep the hot pads isolated from the oil, the new brakes use bigger ceramic pistons that can apply force more evenly to the pad.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano's new Ice Tech disc brake pads feature cast aluminum heatsinks to help dissipate heat. They'll come standard in Trail-edition XTR brakes but are also compatible with the otherwise identical Race calipers.

Shimano's new Ice Tech disc brake pads feature cast aluminum heatsinks to help dissipate heat. They'll come standard in Trail-edition XTR brakes but are also compatible with the otherwise identical Race calipers.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The 'Free Stroke' screw adjusts the top-out position of the master cylinder piston, effectively allowing users to customize lever throw.

The 'Free Stroke' screw adjusts the top-out position of the master cylinder piston, effectively allowing users to customize lever throw.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Finally! All new Shimano XTR brake levers will include hinged clamps.

Finally! All new Shimano XTR brake levers will include hinged clamps.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The new XTR Trail master cylinder abandons the old one's radial layout in favor of a more compact inline setup. Note the dimples at the end of the lever blade, too, which lend a noticeable boost in fingertip grip.

The new XTR Trail master cylinder abandons the old one's radial layout in favor of a more compact inline setup. Note the dimples at the end of the lever blade, too, which lend a noticeable boost in fingertip grip.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano's latest XTR brake master cylinder features a unique double barreled layout that's cleaner looking than before but also easier to bleed, according to Shimano.

Shimano's latest XTR brake master cylinder features a unique double barreled layout that's cleaner looking than before but also easier to bleed, according to Shimano.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Like on the current Dura-Ace, XTR M980 now features a directional chain - be sure to install it with the logos facing out for proper shift performance.

Like on the current Dura-Ace, XTR M980 now features a directional chain - be sure to install it with the logos facing out for proper shift performance.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Dura-Ace and XTR M980 are both now ten-speed systems but the chains see different loads and so are designed quite differently. The XTR chain does without the lightening perforations, has wider spacing between the outer plates for better mud clearance, and specific chamfering to mesh more precisely with the MTB-oriented cassette and chainring spacing.

Dura-Ace and XTR M980 are both now ten-speed systems but the chains see different loads and so are designed quite differently. The XTR chain does without the lightening perforations, has wider spacing between the outer plates for better mud clearance, and specific chamfering to mesh more precisely with the MTB-oriented cassette and chainring spacing.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The combination of the tighter 'Dyna-Sys' chainring spacing and Shimano's new directional XTR chain makes for exceptionally smooth front shifts under full power.

The combination of the tighter 'Dyna-Sys' chainring spacing and Shimano's new directional XTR chain makes for exceptionally smooth front shifts under full power.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano's new Race and Trail XTR front wheels will both be available in either 9mm quick-release or 15mm thru-axle fitments.

Shimano's new Race and Trail XTR front wheels will both be available in either 9mm quick-release or 15mm thru-axle fitments.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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The new front derailleur features wide links and revised cage shaping. All derailleurs are dual-pull and clamped versions will fit all three typical seat tube diameters, too. Even with two-ring and three-ring specific versions there are only nine total front derailleurs with M980.

The new front derailleur features wide links and revised cage shaping. All derailleurs are dual-pull and clamped versions will fit all three typical seat tube diameters, too. Even with two-ring and three-ring specific versions there are only nine total front derailleurs with M980.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Limit screws are angled outward for easy access.

Limit screws are angled outward for easy access.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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One-piece forged aluminum calipers are shared between the Race and Trail edition XTR M980 brakes. And do the finned pads and three-layer rotors really work at preventing brake fade? That's hard to say without doing back-to-back runs but we had no issues with fade during our Downieville run with modest 180/160mm front/rear rotor combo and resin pad compounds.

One-piece forged aluminum calipers are shared between the Race and Trail edition XTR M980 brakes. And do the finned pads and three-layer rotors really work at preventing brake fade? That's hard to say without doing back-to-back runs but we had no issues with fade during our Downieville run with modest 180/160mm front/rear rotor combo and resin pad compounds.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Dedicated two-ring cranks have no provision for an inner ring whatsoever and are also built with narrower pedal stance widths than the triple-ring cranks.

Dedicated two-ring cranks have no provision for an inner ring whatsoever and are also built with narrower pedal stance widths than the triple-ring cranks.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano will offer two-ring XTR 'Race' cranksets for the first time with M980. Chainring options will include 28/40T, 30/42T, or 32/44T - all with narrower pedal stance widths than on the triple cranks - plus a set of 26/38T rings that will bolt directly to the triple-ring crankarms for trail riders.

Shimano will offer two-ring XTR 'Race' cranksets for the first time with M980. Chainring options will include 28/40T, 30/42T, or 32/44T - all with narrower pedal stance widths than on the triple cranks - plus a set of 26/38T rings that will bolt directly to the triple-ring crankarms for trail riders.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Despite appearances, Shimano maintains the same bolt circle diameter on the new XTR crank. Even so, different shapes will mean that customers probably won't want to mix and match chainrings.

Despite appearances, Shimano maintains the same bolt circle diameter on the new XTR crank. Even so, different shapes will mean that customers probably won't want to mix and match chainrings.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano's deep engineering talents manifests itself most ostensibly in the shift performance of the new XTR group with impeccably smooth and precise chain movement front and rear. SRAM's XX group is a close competitor up front but still can't quite match Shimano out back.

Shimano's deep engineering talents manifests itself most ostensibly in the shift performance of the new XTR group with impeccably smooth and precise chain movement front and rear. SRAM's XX group is a close competitor up front but still can't quite match Shimano out back.
(Image credit: James Huang)
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Shimano has decided to debut its new XTR M980 in two distinct flavors, Race and Trail, each with its own specific target user. We sampled the Trail version during our trip but all of the bits are interchangeable so end users can ultimately craft a package that best suits their particular needs.

Shimano has decided to debut its new XTR M980 in two distinct flavors, Race and Trail, each with its own specific target user. We sampled the Trail version during our trip but all of the bits are interchangeable so end users can ultimately craft a package that best suits their particular needs.
(Image credit: James Huang)

Shimano's new XTR M980 flagship mountain bike group has thus far been little more than a bunch of studio glamour shots, a collection of whiz-bang new features, and a list of emotionless facts and figures. But we were finally able to take the more trail-oriented bits (there's a more race-targeted variant coming a little later) out for an initial thrashing around the spectacular Lakes Basin network of trails overlooking Graeagle, California plus a top-to-bottom, 1,480m (4,850') high-speed run down an especially blown-out Downieville Classic downhill course.

So what's our initial conclusion? As expected, M980 is an impressively refined and thoroughly engineered piece of kit and while it definitely addresses the shortcomings of the prior generation, even we didn't quite expect just how much better it would end up in reality.

Brakes: more power, superb control, tighter look and feel

XTR M970 brakes were a benchmark for modulation but what it boasted in control, it notably lacked in brute force with even the larger rotor options failing to deliver enough power for more demanding situations. With M980 Trail, however, Shimano claims a 25 percent increase in absolute braking power (the Race version gets a more modest 10 percent bump) and it thankfully feels like every bit of that on the dirt.

Whereas before you were occasionally grabbing the levers for dear life hoping to scrub off enough speed, even hard braking is now easily done with a single finger and we never felt the need for anything bigger than our 180/160mm front/rear rotor setup – even at Downieville where our max speed topped 55km/h (35mph) – nor did we experience any fade.

To be fair, we had to stop a few times during the run to wait for slower members of the group (during which the brakes obviously cooled off) but even so, some of the credit for the fade resistance still goes to Shimano's Ice Tech features. Cooling fins are integrated into the backing plates on our Trail-edition pads and the three-layer, two-piece spidered rotors include a layer of aluminum sandwiched between two outer sheets of stainless steel – all in the name of dissipating heat.

Though it's hard to say exactly how well it works under more rigorous testing conditions (we've already got our long-term test group in hand and will have plenty of opportunity to do fade testing back in Colorado), Shimano engineers claim up to a 100°C reduction in surface temperatures relative to a standard stainless rotor.

More impressive is that the additional power hasn't come at the expense of the predecessor's outstanding modulation and though M980 has far better initial bite, it still isn't objectionably grabby, at least with the resin pad compounds (we'll sample the new metal compounds a little later). Key to our Trail version's performance is the Servo Wave variable-rate master cylinder design, which provided a quick and definitive pad contact point but then ramped up the leverage ratio for more power and just a bit of 'squish' at the lever, as compared to the firmer feel of main competitor Avid.

New, oversized caliper pistons place more even pressure on the pads, too, and a swap to full-ceramic construction (older ones were aluminum cups with even smaller phenolic inserts in the center) adds further heat resistance to the system – not to mention better temperature stability overall for reportedly more consistent pad retraction in a wide range of environments. Shimano has even given XTR M980 a new hydraulic hose with a smaller internal bore but larger barb inserts for reduced power loss.

The more compact layout ditches the old radial master cylinder architecture for a unique double-barreled inline setup that offers much improved ergonomics and a main pivot point moved closer to the bar for a more natural-feeling arc (yes, Avid, you were right all along). The blade itself is surprisingly short and ideally shaped for one-finger braking – but still suited for two-finger use depending on positioning – but also 14mm-wide (13mm on the Race version). Machined-in dimples on the blade surface are also notably effective at improving finger grip.


While older Shimano XTR disc brakes used relatively small cupped aluminum pistons and phenolic inserts to help keep the hot pads isolated from the oil, the new brakes use bigger ceramic pistons that can apply force more evenly to the pad.

Our Trail-edition brake levers also featured tool-free reach adjust and a tunable pad contact point. As before, the 'Free Stroke' pad contact adjustment range is on the narrow side and still requires a Phillips head screwdriver but the reach adjustment range is positively enormous. At the closest setting the lever nearly bottoms on the bar before the pads contact while our large-sized hands could barely reach the lever at the other end – impressive.

Final details include hinged clamps (finally!) and an easier bleed procedure but riders who run their brakes moto-style will undoubtedly note the fact that XTR M980 levers still can't be swapped left-to-right without having to disconnect the hoses.

Shifting: speedier and smoother with best-in-industry refinement

Put aside fears of sloppier or more finicky rear shifting with the move to 10-speed as even Shimano's own Dura-Ace mechanical road group can only dream of being half this good.

If we had our eyes closed and weren't counting, not only would we not have guessed that the cog spacing was tighter but we'd even say that M980 feels tighter, more precise, and smoother under power than the previous 9-speed setup (at least when covered in layers of Northern California moon dust – we'll let you know how heavy mud affects things later).

Key to the improved rear shift performance is a new cable pull ratio that reduces line tension and is more tolerant of slight maladjustments and housing friction. Shimano says it's just a 20-30 percent increase so it's not quite as dramatic as SRAM's 1:1 setup but combine that with the rear derailleur's longer and more linear return spring, it still makes for a notably snappier and less vague feel overall nevertheless plus better performance on bikes that run full housing – especially when you move the chain into the outermost cogs where M970 could sometimes hesitate.

Front shifts in either direction are more refined, too, with the improvements again being most noticeable under full power. We can't say for certain whether credit goes to the tighter 42/32/24T chainring spacing of our three-ring test setup, the revised front derailleur cage shaping, or the new hyper-engineered directional chain (more on both in a bit) but no matter – if you though M970 was good, be prepared for a pleasant surprise.

Not surprisingly, Shimano continues to stick to its 'Light Action' guns and lever effort has actually gone down relative to M970, but the detents have conversely grown stronger in both feel and volume so useful feedback has gone up – a change that will be welcome during both longer events where hand fatigue can be a real concern and in rougher terrain. Further adding to the lower effort is a longer pull lever (again, with a dimpled surface for less finger slipping) but the stroke is still comparable to M970.

Thankfully carrying over from M970 shifters are the same 2-Way Release, Multi-Release, and Instant Release features, plus the laterally adjustable pod positioning. Sorry, the pull lever still isn't adjustable like SRAM's XX or X0 but the stock position is quite agreeable so we honestly didn't feel the need to move it anyway.

Drivetrain: further evolution of proven themes

XTR's M980 hollow-forged aluminum crankarms ditch M970's press-fit non-driveside arm and threaded bearing preload adjuster in favor of a simpler pinch bolt setup similar to what's used in the rest of Shimano's lineup. A few grams have been shaved, too, but otherwise the changes are mostly cosmetic and include the new highly polished two-tone finish and visually swirled chainring spider (BCD on the triple remains the same, though).

As before, the outer ring still boasts a deep profile for fantastic rigidity (which manifests in better shift quality and fewer bent chainrings) and the middle ring is again a titanium-and-carbon composite hybrid that's nearly as light as a standard aluminum ring but much stiffer and longer-wearing.

Aside from the extra cog, the new cassette is little changed from the previous generation with five titanium cogs and five steel ones, and three separate alloy spider assemblies to keep cog flex at bay and save weight.

XTR M980's new chain, however, is one of the most prominent examples of Shimano's considerable engineering prowess. As with its Dura-Ace cousin, XTR now boasts a directional design with specific inner, outer, non-driveside and driveside plates that are all specifically chamfered, carved and shaped for their particular purpose – the inner plates for climbing up the cassette cogs and the outer plates for clawing up progressively bigger chainrings.

In addition, the tolerances between the plates and rollers have been tightened up while the inner sides of the outer chain plates have been relieved, which should make for reduced contamination in nasty conditions (and hopefully better lubricant retention) along with better mud shedding.

While the dry test conditions didn't offer much of an opportunity to test the weatherproofing of the chain, we can definitely say that the additional outer chamfering makes for an impeccable quiet drivetrain. Save for the extreme cross-gear combinations, XTR M980 is wonderfully silky smooth, and even violently knocking off a couple of teeth from our big ring could detract from it. Will it stay that way over time? We'll have to wait and see but initial impressions are very favorable.

The last major drivetrain improvement is with the new Trail and Race pedals, both of which boast wider axle bearing spacing, roughly 2mm-lower stack heights and wider platforms. The first two improvements are nice and all but it's the bigger platforms that are really noticeable underfoot, especially in the Race version.

Dedicated two-ring cranks have no provision for an inner ring whatsoever and are also built with narrower pedal stance widths than the triple-ring cranks.