The Japanese giant offers the best way to upgrade your 1X11 gear ratio without emptying your bank account
The never-ending arms race between the United States and Japan after the newest, most up-to-date drivetrain has shifted to a yet a higher gear. After SRAM changed the rules of the game two years ago by setting the new standard on an 11-gear cassette, the rivals at Shimano responded by going electric. This year, it’s the next step. We are not talking (yet) about SRAM 12-gear Eagle drivetrain, but about polishing the existing 11-gear systems and making them accessible to the wider crowd.
Shimano distinguished itself from their biggest rival by offering their 11-gear system not only in single chainring configuration, as per SRAM, but also in double and triple set-ups. These configurations offer a very wide and high gear ratio, and appeal mainly to XC and marathon riders who need the gears on both ends of the spectrum. But after SRAM introduced their single chainring drivetrain based on 12-speed cassette with a 50-teeth big cog earlier this year, they effectively killed the need for a double or triple crankset.
Shimano’s reply was swift and came in the form of a new cassette with a big 46-teeth cog. The new cassette (currently available only at XT level) is fully compatible with existing components, and does not require replacing anything else in the system. It is based on regular 11-gear shifters and derailleurs, as well as a standard freehub – no need to install a designated freehub, as is required with SRAM’s system. In fact, whoever purchases a new drivetrain from Shimano can choose from one of three gear range options: 11-40, 11-42, or the new 11-46, which is the cassette model that we got to test over a period of approximately 3 months.
On the trail:
The 11-46 XT cassette was installed on an existing Shimano 11-speed drivetrain with a medium-cage XTR derailleur and an XTR chain, whose length was originally set up to suit a 42-tooth cog and a 32-tooth chainring. Initially, we had our concerns regarding the compatibility of the cassette with the existing parts, and especially the derailleur and the length of the chain. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that we were not required to swap or upgrade any component, and the only adjustment was to tighten the derailleur’s B-tension screw in order to increase the distance between the top pulley and the cassette. We did not even need to add a few links to the chain. The cassette, as aforementioned, sits on a regular freehub, meaning anyone who is currently riding on a 9- or 10-speed drivetrain can mount it on the existing freehub (but will have to also throw in an 11-speed shifter, derailleur, and chain of course).
Even looking at the cassette as it sits in its cardboard package, waiting to be installed, one cannot ignore the 11-46 XT’s sheer size. When installing the cassette, it becomes even more pronounced – it’s almost as large as a 160mm disc rotor. Shimano did not alter the distances between the smaller cogs in the enlarged 11-46 cassette, so there is a rather big jump from the 37-tooth 10th cog to the 46-tooth 11th. It’s supposedly too big to be healthy, but apparently no one told Shimano that, since we experienced no decline in shifting quality. Shifting is smooth going both up and down, during regular pedaling and also when crunching the pedals. Moreover, there is no need for an extra-strong push of the shifter trigger, as we thought before starting the test, in order to go up to the lowest gear; it’s as intuitive as on the 42-teeth large cog cassette.
The shift from 37 to 46 is a little more complex. We believe someone who is used to cruising on the 37-teeth, and who downshifts to the 42 only in extreme conditions, will find the 46-teeth very helpful. Although the (extra-)easy gear takes some getting used to, when the terrain really demands it, it appears climbing walls on an easy gear is much more pleasant than grinding the gears (and knees) and getting tired. In other words, if you think you do not need more than 42 – just as you thought at the time that you would not need more than 36 – it turns out that when there is an easier gear available you become addicted very easily and very quickly. However, those accustomed to cruising on the 42-teeth will likely probably miss the intermediate gear between 37 and 46-teeth.
One point against Shimano is the look: it appears as though aesthetics surrendered to functionality in the cassette’s design. Although the cassette is one of the more functional parts of the bike, how about a little Japanese finesse? The big new cog is no more (at least in appearance) than a huge solid gray plate, which does not appear at all to be manufactured by the crafty designers in Osaka. Punching several stylish holes in it would have undoubtedly added to the look, and would also have probably reduced the cassette’s rather bulky weight.
There is little doubt that the new SRAM Eagle 12-gear system is the closest thing to perfection in terms of the extra-wide gear ratio it offers. However, in order to install it on your bike and enjoy it, you need to be ready to replace a significant number of components – at the very least the cassette, derailleur, shifter and chain, which will necessarily force you to spend a hefty sum of money. Shimano’s new XT 11-46 cassette will not give you the same wide gear ratio, nor slash as much weight, nor have that level of bling. But for a relatively small sum you can make the most significant upgrade possible to your existing 1X11 drivetrain (provided it’s from the Shimano family), and provide it with an even better gear ratio. The benefits are obvious: you will experience less fatigue on long rides, and save your knees for a few more years of cycling.
For better: great gear ratio, does not require replacing components, smooth shifting, price
For worse: look, weight
|Made of aluminum and steel set on an aluminum core|
|Cogs (teeth): 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-46|
|Suitable only for single chainring configuration (1X11)|
|Does not require replacement of existing parts|
|Weight: 439 grams (5 grams more than the 11-42 cassette)|
Price & More Details – XT 11-46 cassette