SRAM GX vs. Shimano XT
Two workhorse drivetrains go shift to shift, gram for gram
When it comes to building a new bike, riders have limited options when it comes to component selection. There are a myriad of small component companies out there, but the reality is, you’re likely going to end up with the best overall build kit if you go with one of the big component companies for the bulk of your parts. That leaves you with two choices: the red company or the blue company. Of course, we’re talking about going with either Shimano or SRAM. Both of these companies make excellent components for every rider—from the cross-country weight weenie to the gravity junkie—and we’d be hard- pressed to recommend going with components made by anyone else.
So then the question becomes, which of these two component giants makes the “best” overall build kit? It’s a question we see all too often here at Mountain Bike Action. Depending on which editor you speak with, you will likely hear very different answers on which drivetrain reigns supreme, and that’s the way it should be. Drivetrain preference comes down to much more than a “this is best” response. Things like ergonomics, reliability, weight, feel and aesthetics all play a role in deciding which component group is the right choice for any given rider. Rather than thinking of this as a typical shootout, we sought to explain the difference in all these categories between the two systems to let you, the rider, decide which suits your style best. We sought out two very comparably priced drivetrains for this article and built them with our Intense Carbine 29er workhorse to show the differences between the two. The winner of this comparison is in your hands. Hope you enjoy.
Shadow Plus derailleur: The XT rear derailleur was the first to offer a clutch system for added drivetrain stability. The mechanism features an on/off switch that allows the feature to be toggled for quick wheel changes as well. Compared to the SRAM system, the Shimano shifting seems to glide more easily between gears, with a lighter lever feel and slightly quicker action.
Weight: 273 grams
Hits: Awesome stability
Misses: It’s easy to forget to hit the clutch switch back to “on” after a wheel change.
Hollowtech crankset: The XT crank uses an X-type bottom bracket and composite chainring teeth to pick up shifts lightning quick. These hollow cranks are impressively lightweight for an aluminum crankset option.
Weight: 724 grams
Hits: Razor-sharp shifting and several chainring size options.
Misses: The finish rubs off easily, making your new crank look ancient after only a few rides.
Side-swing front derailleur: This new direct-mount-style front derailleur was first introduced with the XTR group two years ago and has now trickled down the technology to the XT group.
Weight: 132 grams
Hits: This thing works so fast and smooth, it makes us rethink the whole single-ring chainring notion.
Misses: It’s not a single ring, so it still adds complexity with an extra shifter and cable. That said though, it’s a fault we’re willing to overlook.
The original shifter pods: Shimano’s new XT shifter pods are fast and snappy, much like the XTR counterparts.
Weight: 265 grams (pair)
Hits: Fast engagement and release coupled with textured paddles make these super easy to use.
Misses: Not quite as light as the SRAM ones, and no option for a Grip-Shift version.
XT brakeset: Shimano has long been the gold standard for brakes. Their new XT brakes deliver a solid feel that doesn’t disappoint.
Hits: Awesome lever feel, tons of rotor options and heat dissipation that would make most down-hill brakes jealous.
Misses: Our first few sets of these brakes had tolerance issues that resulted in fading, although we’ve been assured that these issues have been solved.
The hoops: The new XT wheelset features an aluminum construction built with 28 spokes front and rear and an offset rim design for better tension and durability.
Hits: Shimano hubs are the most durable we know of, and the rims are plenty lightweight and stiff to make you feel faster.
Misses: Not as flashy as carbon wheels, although that could be considered a good thing for some.
Simply the best pedals: Shimano’s XT Trail pedals are second to none, and the first choice for nearly all MBA staffers as a go-to trail pedal.
Hits: Awesome and reliable engagement, bearings that will last for seasons on end, and clean good looks.
RockShox Yari fork
Weight: 2079 grams
Hits: Awesome 29er fork that delivers tons of performance in a less-expensive package than the also-awesome Pike, which is the standard by which any all-mountain fork should be measured.
Misses: Less-sophisticated damper adjustments than other RockShox forks, although the stock settings worked quite well for us.
Big-range derailleur: The GX 2x system shown here uses a Type-3, clutch-style derailleur with a long cage. The derailleur is slightly larger than the Shimano, but allows for the increased gearing range the SRAM system provides. If you chose to go with a single-ring drivetrain, you should opt for the shorter-cage derailleur.
Weight: 290 grams
Hits: Quick and precise shifts coupled with an easy- to-adjust derailleur that seems more durable and less finicky than the Shimano.
Misses: The cable routing is slightly hard to use. We frayed several cables in the process of setting this mechanical up.
The original 11-speed drivetrain: SRAM was the first to bring 11-speed technology to the mountain bike world, and they still have the biggest gear-range options between these two brands thanks to the huge 10-42 cassette. Sure, you can go aftermarket and find something with a wider range, but we love the shifting performance of this tried-and-true combo.
Weight: 325 grams
Hits: Awesome shifting performance, wide gearing range and impressively low weight.
Misses: You must use an XD (SRAM- specific) freehub body. Thankfully, these are becoming more and more available than ever before.
Double-ring GX: SRAM’s GX drivetrain is available with a double or single setup, and we chose the double-ring setup for this comparison for consistency. The rings are dialed, and the crankset matches the shifting performance with stiffness and a responsive feel.
Weight: 725 grams
Hits: Quick shifts, plenty of chainring options and easy con- version to a single-ring drivetrain should the rider choose that option.
Misses: Our double-ring setup lacks the security of SRAM’s prized X-Sync (aka Narrow Wide) chainretention technology. Thankfully, you gain that back if you go to the single-ring option.
Direct-mount front derailleur: Bolt it on and take your single-ring system to a larger gear range.
Weight: 135 grams
Hits: Easy-to-use cable routing that comes in from the top and works with nearly all bikes.
Misses: Shifting is not as crisp as the Shimano Side-Swing derailleur, and is more difficult to adjust to prevent rubbing.
Paddle shifting for your bike: SRAM’s “push” style shifters are the favorite of many. Their crisp action lets you know with an audible “click” that you’ve made a shift. The ergonomics are also spot-on and work well with any bar, grip and brake combination we’ve tried.
Weight: 243 grams
Hits: Awesome ergonomics, quick and precise shifts, and a Grip Shift option for those who don’t prefer trigger-style shifters.
Misses: Trigger-release lever can accidentally release two gears while shifting on rough terrain, although this is easily remedied with a correction shift.
Monarch Plus shock
Weight: 381 grams
Hits: Debonair technology feels like a coil shock at the weight of an air spring.
Misses: Not available as original equipment on many bikes and can be an expensive upgrade.
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