Shimano MTB Groupset Hierarchy: Ultimate Guide

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Many consider Shimano the gold standard of bike component manufacturers – and Shimano MTB groupsets are no exception.

At the cutting edge of the industry, they are chosen by professional cyclists from every discipline time and time again. Arguably none more so than the MTB pros; producing specific groupsets for cross-country, gravel bikes, and downhill, Shimano caters for just about off-road discipline there is.

They also have a vast range of price-points to cater to every budget.

However, with so many different Shimano mountain bike groupsets on offer, it can be hard to know which is right for you.

Fear not! We’ve put together this comprehensive guide to give you everything you need to know to find your perfect Shimano MTB groupset. To fill you in, we’ll be covering:

  • Shimano MTB Groupset Basics: What Is A Mountain Bike Groupset?
  • Shimano MTB Groupset Hierarchy: Entry-Level, Mid-Range, and Professional-Standard
  • Downhill-Specific Shimano MTB Groupsets

Ready to get shredding?

Let’s get started!

Shimano MTB Groupset Guide: Title Image

Shimano MTB Groupset Basics: What Is A Mountain Bike Groupset?

A groupset is essentially every component on the bike that allows it to perform its function: to move when you turn the pedals and to bring you to a stop when you pull on the brakes.

The specific components in a mountain bike groupset typically include:

For a detailed explanation of each of these components, check our Complete Guide to Bicycle Groupsets here!

But is there any difference between a road and mountain bike groupset?

Well, yes! There are a number of key differences which make the two types of groupsets distinct:

#1: The Brake Levers

This difference has existed since the birth of mountain biking.

Because mountain bikes typically have flat handlebars, the brake levers on a mountain bike are parallel to the handlebars rather than mounted on the brake hoods as is standard on road bike drop handlebars.

The shift levers are also different. These can be twist-levers (where you twist around the bar near the grips in order to change gear) or twin-lever triggers, (where one lever is pulled with your fingers and the other with your thumb). Both of these types can be either mechanical or electronic shifting.

#2: The Clutch

The clutch is a component that is exclusive to off-roading.

A relatively new technology, it sits under the rear derailleur with the chain passing through it and acts to reduce chain slap. This is so that if you’re going over some gnarly jumps or hurtling over uneven terrain, your chain doesn’t slap against your chainstays or unnaturally extend, shortening its life.

They are now commonplace on both MTB groupsets and gravel-specific groupsets since you will likely be doing some off-roading in both disciplines. If you have never used one before, however, note that you often cannot pedal backward whilst on the bike with a clutch installed.

#3: Clearance

The components in a MTB groupset are built with big-boy tires in mind.

On a road bike, the front derailleur will often limit the possible tire width that can be installed. However, this mountain biking requires bigger tires, and so the front derailleur (if there is one) is often designed to have greater clearance from the frame.

#4: 1x chainsets

When buying a mountain bike groupset, you must choose whether you want a 1x, 2x, or even 3x chainset. This corresponds to the number of chainrings available on the front of your drivetrain. So, a 1x will have considerably fewer gears than a 2x or 3x chainset.

So, why would you want a 1x chainset?

Well, the sacrifice of fewer gears of course means that the difference between each gear is larger. However, when you’re off-road, your speed is likely to be a lot more varied, so you might not need the fine-tuned gearing provided by 2x or 3x chainsets, that might be required on the road.

In addition, having only one chainset on the front means that you can do away with the front derailleur, further minimizing your weight, simplifying your cabling, and often the other side shifters allocated for the front derailleur are converted into controls for your dropper post!

Shimano MTB Groupset Hierarchy: Entry-Level

Shimano Tourney and Altus Groupsets

Tourney Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 3 x 6/7/8
  • Shifting Type: Mechanical Only

These groupsets are technically MTB-compatible rather than MTB-specific.

The lowest-priced Shimano groupsets, they’re rather heavy and outdated, and don’t have any MTB-specific features. Available with 3×6, 3×7, or 3×8 drivetrains, they’re often what you might find on a budget hybrid or city bike.

Shimano Acera Groupset

Acera Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 2/3 x 8/9
  • Shifting Type: Mechanical Only

There is a marked improvement when we get to Acera.

We have a much more modern-looking chainset, sprockets, and shifters, and it’s made of some lighter-weight materials than Tourney or Altus (although still not the lightest).

Also, we now get a choice between 2x and 3x drivetrains. Available with 8 or 9-speed cassettes, there is a fair amount more flexibility in your drivetrain setup. Acera still doesn’t get a clutch, though.

Shimano Alivio Groupset

Alivio Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 2/3 x 9
  • Shifting Type: Mechanical Only

Often found on entry-level mountain bikes, Alivio marks another step up in componentry.

The last of what would be considered entry-level Shimano MTB groupsets, Alivio offers some MTB-specific features and a very competitive price point. It’s a decent option for your first mountain bike.

Available with 2×9 or 3×9 drivetrains, we again get a bit of a choice when it comes to the chainset. With considerably lighter and higher-quality components, you’re starting to get a bit more bang for your buck with Alivio.

Mid-Range Shimano MTB Groupsets

Shimano Deore Groupset

Deore Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 1/2 x 10/11/12
  • Shifting Type: Mechanical Only

Now we’re talking!

With light, modern-looking components and MTB-specific tech combined with an attractive price, Deore is “the groupset of the people” when it comes to Shimano MTB groupsets.

Once we get into the mid-range, you finally get a clutch, a dropper post lever, and the option for a 1x drivetrain. You also get a greatly improved cassette, with the option for 10, 11, or 12 speeds. (If you’re going for a 1x drivetrain, it’s best paired with the 11 or 12-speed cassette).

You will often find Deore on mid-range mountain bikes with all the MTB tech you could want, though not at the same quality as more expensive Shimano MTB groupsets. Having said that, unless you’re going to be racing, mid-range is often all most people need!

Shimano SLX Groupset

SLX Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 1/2 x 12
  • Shifting Type: Mechanical Only

SLX has essentially the same headline features as Deore but with one key difference: weight. With hollow cranks and lighter materials, SLX is a good entry point into racing for many mountain bikers.

Available exclusively with a 12-speed cassette and mechanical shifting, we again get a choice of 1x or 2x chainsets. SLX is found on entry-level racing spec or upper mid-range MTBs and costs significantly more than your entry-level ranges – but with a step-up in quality to reflect it.

Shimano Professional-Standard MTB Groupsets

Shimano Deore XT Groupset

Deore XT Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 1/2 x 12
  • Shifting Type: Electronic or Mechanical

Often referred to simply as ‘XT’ the Deore XT groupset was previously the highest grade and trusted by every professional racer with Shimano groupsets for years before the introduction of XTR.

Coming in at just 1.8kg, it’s pretty light, featuring the latest Hollowtech II technology from Shimano. As for the drivetrain, you get an option of 1x or 2x chainsets with a 12-speed cassette.

With proven quality and durability, it’s extremely hard to argue with XT. You get extremely smooth shifting, potent and sharp two-piston hydraulic disc brakes, and even the option for Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting (for a premium).

All of this comes in at a pretty surprisingly reasonable price, from just $700 for the mechanical-shifting option with some retailers. It’s a bit of a steal – especially when compared with the price of the newest Ultegra group, which could be considered Shimano’s XT-equivalent road bike groupset.

Shimano XTR Groupset

XTR Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image
  • Gearing Options: 1/2 x 12
  • Shifting Type: Electronic or Mechanical

Shimano’s flagship mountain bike groupset XTR comes with the most recent technologies and the highest possible quality components. The Shimano groupset of choice for professionals, XTR is the best-of-the-best for mountain bike componentry.

Available with a 1×12 or 2×12 setup, the chainrings and chain come with Shimano’s Hyperglide+ technology, with teeth designed to reduce stress and wear on the chain. The shifting comes with Rapidfire+ and Multi-Release technology, allowing for the fastest, smoothest possible shifting, even when shifting multiple gears at a time.

The XTR Hollowtech II cranks are exceedingly light, and are often reviewed as the best MTB cranks on the market with off-the-charts durability. Even the paintwork on these cranks is ultra-durable, unlikely to rub off even with intense usage.

Weighing in at an impressive 1.55 kg, for those looking for the lightest possible setup on their off-road machine, this is the one to go for. Priced at around $1300, however, you do pay for the premium.

Downhill-specific Shimano MTB Groupsets

Saint Shimano MTB Groupset: Manufacturer Image

Shimano has two different downhill-specific MTB groupsets. Without the constraints of weight, they’re built considerably sturdier and heavier than other Shimano mountain bike groupsets and are designed specifically to handle the freewheel and high-gear abuse of gravity riding.

They come in two different tiers:

  • Shimano ZEE (Equivalent to SLX)
  • Shimano Saint (Equivalent to XT)

Both are available exclusively with 1×10 setups and extremely high gear ratios to cater to downhill riding. Saint has its own extremely powerful and durable disc brakes, which are arguably the best hydraulic disc brakes on the market (which they need to be for downhill shredding!).

Neither model is available with Di2 electronic shifting, however – although it’s arguably less important for downhill riding than other forms of mountain biking.

A disassembled mountain bike groupset lies on wooden floorboards.

now you know all about The Shimano MTB Groupset Hierarchy…

You can go out and choose exactly which one is right for your type of riding and budget!

Be mindful of exactly what you want from your bike. There are some basic things you should decide first, such as 1x, 2x, or 3x chainsets, mechanical or electric shifting, and mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, which will help you make your decision!

Found this Shimano MTB groupset guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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