Dirt Rag Magazine

Review: Shimano Saint M820 group

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This Saint group is the third generation of Shimano’s high-end gravity offering. Where the previous two iterations erred on the heavier-duty freeride side of gravity riding, the new group has been nipped and tucked for a new focus on DH racing.

We previously review Shimano’s Zee group in issue #169. Since Zee features a lot of trickle down technology from Saint, we can’t help but compare and contrast the Saint vs. Zee value proposition.

Brakes – $320/wheel

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As we’ve seen with all of Shimano’s recent brakes, there’s been a major emphasis 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 heat dissipation, while minimizing the amount of heat transferred up the brake line.  The RT99 Rotors ($130) and adapters are sold separately.

Outright stopping power is on par with the outgoing Saint brakes—ample for one-finger braking in the most punishing conditions—but Shimano also focused on increasing modulation. 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.

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Pad life from the metallic pads has been excellent, likely a result of better heat management and me being far slower than top-level racers. Organic pads are available as well for those who prefer a slightly softer bite. These brakes have proven highly reliable and consistent.

Really, the only thing I question about the Saint brakes are their value compared to the Zee brakes. If tool-free reach adjustment isn’t terribly important to you, saving $70 a wheel for virtually the same brake is worth strong consideration for anyone outside the pro ranks.

Shifter – $100

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Saint’s new shifter is 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 said to be 11% lighter than that of the current XT group.

On the trail the M820 shifter has a great tactile feel thanks to the levers’ textured surface. Lever force does, indeed, feel lighter, 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+ gears on 10-speed cassettes. It’s worth nothing the Zee shift lever does not offer this multi-release action.

The Saint shifter has feeling of precision and sophistication, the levers operate on ball bearings after all, that surpasses the Zee group by a good margin. I’d liken it to the difference between the feel of SLX and XTR shifters.

Is the Saint shifter twice as good as the $50 Zee model? In this case, I’m leaning toward yes, due to the precise feel and ability to shift down the cassette two cogs at a time.

Rear Derailleur – $220

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The new Saint derailleur was designed to be both bombproof and quiet. A new parallelogram design is wider and stronger than before and the Saint clutch has been beefed up for this application with a wider clutch mechanism that offers more damping. Like all of the Shadow Plus clutches, this version is adjustable to allow for further fine-tuning of clutch force. Additionally, a new urethane elastomer B-Tension bump stop helps to further damp the derailleur on big impacts. The combination of the two makes for a very quiet drivetrain, indeed, and zero dropped chains.

The Saint derailleur’s mode converter allows use of both tight-ratio road cassettes as well as wide-ratio mountain cassettes up to 34 teeth max. It’s worth pointing out Zee “freeride” model will accommodate a 36-tooth cog.

Overall, shifting was incredibly consistent and precise throughout the range of my 11-28 cassette. Like the shifter, the Saint derailleur offers a level of performance that edges out its Zee brethren. Shifts were just a touch more crisp. Additionally, the construction and finish is well above that of the Zee mech—it’s really something to behold.

Crank – $440

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The new Saint crank is as strong as ever—250% stronger than XTR Trail—but has dropped 100-grams over previous generations. 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 available as well. Crank lengths are 165, 170 and 175mm.

The cranks quickly faded from my mind while 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/heel clearance.

While the Saint cranks are a thing of beauty, they’re just six grams lighter than Zee yet retail for $280 more.

Conclusion

There’s no denying this is the cream of the Shimano gravity crop. If you’re a high-level athlete and/or have the budget to justify the best of the best, Saint is the right choice. However, Shimano complicated the decision for riders on a budget by offer the Zee group, which performs nearly as well for a fraction of the price. If you’re on the fence between the two, I’d consider splurging for the Saint shifter and derailleur, but opting for Zee everywhere else.

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