xtrThis is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno’s opinions don’t necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants. If you’d like to write an article for YGR, please email me at info@yourgroupride.com



Based on that title, I bet you thought this was going to be about downhill, didn’t you? Nope, it’s not. Actually, I did write up a whole article on why I think it’s absurd that images of downhill, freeride, and dirt jumping have become the public face of mountain biking since really, who does that stuff? Based on the riders I end up stuck behind on descents in races, I can tell you that my guess would be ‘very few’. As much as I really really love descending (I should have been one of those downhiller guys), I do like to earn those descents by climbing to them and I also like the sense of adventure and feeling of actually going somewhere that cross country, or ‘trail riding’ or whatever they call it now gives me. Maybe someday I’ll dig that one up, but I digress…

This little article is about bike components. This is the point where I confess that I am a fully recovered component snob. A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this wasn’t the case. Back in the days when Ren and Stimpy was my favorite thing to watch after school (by school I mean college) and everyone thought that Nirvana was pretty cool, there were really only two levels of components that I would even consider using on my bike. They were both made by Shimano and one was the tried and true XT while the other was the same thing with the R at the end. Anything lower on the food chain than that was, for some reason, laughable and no serious rider would be caught dead with it. I also searched out the weirdest and shiniest, most jewel like CNC’d components from the smallest and most obscure companies. Companies like Ringle, Machine Tech, Nuke Proof, Kooka, and many others. The only real reason I could afford this stuff was that I could buy it at cost since I was working at a shop. And honestly, at the time, a lot of the mid range to lower end stuff just wasn’t up to the task of serious off road riding and it tended to wear out rather quickly.


As time moved on, things started to change. For one, I changed jobs and couldn’t buy parts at cost any more. Another thing that happened was that a lot of the small companies that were making beautiful components on CNC machines in a garage somewhere either disappeared or were bought up by other, larger companies. Mountain biking diversified, new technologies were developed, stuff got better (a lot better) technology trickled down, and perhaps, most importantly, new competition appeared in the drivetrain market (SRAM) that forced the old curmudgeon-y giant (Shimano) to stay a little more on its toes.

Through this 20-odd years of equipment evolution, the thing that has changed most for me personally is that I don’t have XTR parts on my bikes any more. Hell, I hardly have XT parts on my bikes any more. Why? Well, for starters, even on super clearance the XTR stuff is usually above my pay grade and more importantly, I don’t need it. The mid level component groups have gotten so damn good in the last 10 years or so that, at least for me, the tippy top of the line stuff is overpriced, and has few benefits beyond the stuff a step or three below it.

This revelation first hit me 7 or 8 years ago when I was putting a hardtail together on the cheap as a 2nd bike. I couldn’t afford to deck it out with all the best goo-gaws so I ended up buying some Shimano LX parts on clearance. They worked great when they were new but I didn’t expect them to last very long before everything got sloppy and vague feeling but it never happened. The parts worked great for as long as I had the bike. Wow. After that experience, I became all about value; what gives me the most bang for the buck?

At this point, my opinion is that there’s a point of diminishing returns that starts to happen somewhere around the X7/ SLX/ 105 component level (I haven’t used SRAM road components so they’re slxnot on that list). Those are all fantastic component groups that share 95% of the functionality of the highest end groups at a fraction of the cost. From my experience, these mid line components may also be a little less finicky in their set up and use.

I think of these as the ‘blue collar’ working man’s/woman’s component groups. They’re maybe not as pretty or privileged as their more expensive stable mates. They don’t belong to a country club, have a wine collection, or drive a Mercedes, but they’re not afraid to work hard for years and when you break one, you don’t have to eat Top Ramen for a month in order to replace it.

If you look at component specs from group to group within a manufacturer, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the actual physical differences are between two levels other than the finish and the logo on the side. I think that component companies often make components that are nearly identical but then successfully charge much more by slapping an XT or X9 logo on it. I will admit that the top end stuff does really tend to contain innovations but I also know how quickly those innovations trickle down to the mid levels and at this point, I can wait.

In a reversal of past experience, I’m finding that my mid level component groups are outlasting and outperforming some of the top end stuff that I have. For example, I have a set of X7 shifters on one bike that have been going strong for 3500 miles while the X9 shifter on another bike just blew up and needed to be replaced after 1400 miles. On that same bike, the XO rear derailleur has kind of been a pain in the rear to keep adjusted over those 1400 miles but the X7 rear derailleur on a 3rd bike just keeps plugging along.

The biggest ‘holy crap’ moment I’ve had in components is how much exponentially better a set of Shimano Deore (Deore!) hydraulic disc brakes I bought for a build are than the Avid Elixir 9 brakes that came on a bike I bought new. I know that these are small sample sizes and the different bikes get ridden differently so it’s not very scientific but the trends I’m experiencing with my gear tell me that taking a step or two down the ladder is where the price, performance, and longevity lines on the graph all intersect.

Beyond drivetrain components, I’m pretty much right there with things like suspension forks and, to some extent, wheels. There’s a sweet spot where function is high, and price and weight are reasonably low. Even with frames my personal opinion is that carbon isn’t worth the extra cost although I’m not against it if the price is right; I do have exactly one carbon bike because the price was right.

I like being a recovered component snob and although my bike may not be as impressive while sitting on my car rack or in the pits at a race, that’s not what matters. What matters is the ride, the function, and the smiles per hour. One of the things I love is working a piece of equipment to its limits just to see what it can do. What I find is that, even the mid level component limits tend to be well beyond my own and that makes my finances happy and increases the smiles per hour which makes everything that much better.