By Justin Steiner,
This past weekend Shimano rounded up a heard of journalists from all over the world to sample their new Saint group on the finest gravity terrain on the planet: Whistler Bike Park.
This third generation of Saint, dubbed M820, has been refined to better bridge the gap between the previous freeride-centric iterations of the group and the lightweight performance Shimano’s DH racers have been asking for. Working with their sponsored athletes, Shimano discovered it was easier to adapt a racing-focused group to freeride than it was to adapt a freeride-focused group to DH racing.
As a self-proclaimed engineering company, Shimano places a lot of value on pro rider feedback in the product development process. Aaron Gwin, for instance, ran the Saint prototype group for an entire year’s worth of R&D prior to Shimano approving the product for production.
The groupsets we rode in Whistler are pre-production samples that had been air-shipped in specifically for the camp. These groups are some of the first of their kind on the continent. That said, the product we’re riding appears to be very nearly final production in terms of and fit and finish.
Those interested in the Saint group are already well aware of the nity-grity technical details we and other media outlets have covered thoroughly. Check out our tech low-down of both Saint and Zee from Sea Otter here. Since the tech specs have been public knowledge for quite some time now, I’ll focus mainly on ride impressions for the time being. Look for a long-term Saint review in an upcoming issue of Dirt Rag.
As we’ve seen with all of Shimano’s recent brake redesigns (first on XTR, then subsequent trickle-down to XT and SLX), a major emphasis has been placed on heat management. All of the existing technologies, such as cooling fins on the aluminum-backed brake pads, ceramic pistons, and ICE-Tech aluminum-core rotors carry over to Saint with a few additions.
The Saint caliper banjo has been extended to 30mm in length to better maximize cooling heat transfer to the air, while minimizing the amount of heat transferred up the brake line. Shimano’s new Ultimate Clad RT99 rotor takes ICE-Tech to a new level by extending the rotor’s aluminum core material into the inside diameter of the rotor. This extended aluminum heat sink is then stamped into a fin pattern, which helps to reduce rotor surface temps by more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Shimano. With the brakes running at cooler temps, they are said to fade less and offer more power, while increasing pad life.
Due to a production delay, the RT99 rotors were not available for riding or photo samples at the time of our press launch. Shimano does not currently have an ETA on the RT99 rotors so check in with your LBS for availability in coming months. At this point, the Ultimate rotors will only be available in a 203mm center-lock version.
Out on the mountain, the new Saint brakes worked amazingly after a brief brake-in period and a quick re-bleed to get all the air out of the system. Outright stopping power is on par with the outgoing Saint brakes—ample for one-finger braking in the most punishing conditions—but Shimano focused on increasing modulation with the new design. I’d say they hit the target. These brakes offer great feel at the lever with consistent stopping power from subtle trail braking to full-lock. I found the tactile feel of the new dimpled lever to be a welcome addition as well.
Curiously, a few testers, myself included, experienced occasional pad engagement inconsistencies when running the brake levers at their minimum reach adjustment position. When this occurred, pad engagement would occur earlier in the lever’s stroke, but would return to normal with a couple of pumps of the lever.
Saint’s new shifters are very similar to the current M780 XT design, but with longer shift paddles to decrease the lever force required for each shift. Lever force is actually 11 percent lighter than that of the M780 rear shifter.
On the trail the M820 shifter has a great tactile feel thanks to the levers’ textured surface. Lever force does, indeed, feel lighter than the XT group I just tested, making for effortless shifts. I particularly dug the ability to dump two gears with a single press of the release lever as I often find myself wanting to drop 2 or more gears on 10-speed cassettes—even tight road cassettes. The low-effort throw of the shifter feels precise, and very polished.
The new Saint derailleur has been designed to be both bombproof and quiet. The Shadow Plus clutch system has found its way to Saint, but is beefed up slightly for this application with a wider clutch mechanism. The increased clutch surface area allows for more surface area and subsequent damping. Like all of the Shadow Plus clutches, this version is adjustable to allow for further fine-tuning of clutch force. A new urethane elastomer B-Tension bump stop helps to keep the rear derailleur from clunking hard on your chainstays on large impacts.
All of these new features and adjustments do require some trial and error experimentation. Initially the rear derailleurs on a majority of the bikes at the camp were initially clunking harshly into the chainstays on medium to larger hits. An increase in B-tension and clutch force helped to remedy the thumping, resulting in a slight increase of effort at the shift lever and a slight decrease of shifting performance up the cassette. Those changes along with an adhesive bumper on the chainstay made for a quite ride. In fact, it was a bit eerie to be riding a DH bike so devoid of chain slap—something that was very easy to get used to, and will be very difficult to regress back from.
Overall, shifting was consistent and precise throughout the range of my 11-25 cassette. Like the previous generation, this derailleur’s mode converter allows use of both tight-ratio road cassettes as well as wide-ratio mountain cassettes up to 34 teeth max.
I’m hopeful and confident Shimano will resolved the chainstay clunking issue before this group sees final production.
The new Saint crank retains it benchmark strength—250 percent stronger than XTR Trail—while dropping 100-grams in the process. 34, 36 and 38-tooth chainring options are available in two different crank sets; one for 68/73mm bottom brackets and the other for 83mm bottom brackets. A new press-fit DH BB is now available to compliment the existing BB92 setup.
The cranks quickly faded from my mind while riding Whistler. They were stiff under my intermediate-at-best, non-punishing riding. What more can you ask for? Oh, and I had no issues rubbing the cranks with my SPD shoes; the profile allows for good foot/heal clearance.
Unfortunately for us, our new Saint chain guides were stuck in customs due to a paperwork snafu. Bummer, because the new wheel-less guides look pretty sweet.
Compatible with standard Saint chainring options (34, 36 & 38t), this guide is said to be no les efficient than a guide using a pulley wheel due to requiring less chain deflection. The lower keeper arm is spring loaded so it is able to yield if subjected to a hit from a rock or log.
The new Saint front hubs have been tweaked just a bit with a new front hub shell that’s been lighted up just a touch.
The rear hub carries over virtually unchanged, which is fine; the rear hub’s 10-degress of engagement is sufficiently quick for the application.
In many ways, one of the stand-out products of this camp seems to have been the new Saint pedals. Their wider and thinner concave platform received rave reviews from all testers. I personally have run SPD pedals while riding and racing, so choose to stick to my standby, Shimano’s PD-M646 pedal, while getting to know Whistler Bike Park. I’ll be doing my due diligence to test these flat pedals for the long-term review.
All in all, this new Saint group has shown the potential to be a promising improvement over the current Saint group thanks to the incorporation of Shimano’s latest and greatest technologies. Shimano will however, have to sort out the pre-production brake and shifter issues I experienced during this camp to ensure seamless performance of the group. That said, the group is quite good as is, allowing me to focus on the task at hand; riding some of the most fun, well built, and gnarly trails I’ve yet to ride.
Only time will tell just how well the production version of this Saint group performs and how well it holds up to long-term abuse: long term ripping is exactly what I plan to do aboard this group. Stay tuned for updates.