Finding the right MTB groupset for your needs
Find out everything you need to know about MTB groupsets and how they work.
When it comes to picking components for your dream bike, the groupset is an important consideration. After all, it can have a major impact on how your bike performs.
We also take a look at the current offerings from the two main brands, Shimano and SRAM – from entry level to pro-tier. That way, you’ll be able to determine which groupset best suits your needs.
What is an MTB groupset?
The first time you hear the term groupset, you might think it refers to a single component. But a groupset comprises many different components that make up the drivetrain of your bike. These parts need to come together perfectly in order to offer the best possible shifting performance. That is why they are typically sold as entire groupsets by the respective manufacturer.
So what belongs in an MTB groupset? Apart from the drivetrain and shifting components, a groupset also contains brakes, as they need to be compatible with each other. That is why manufacturers typically offer these components as a complete set. But this does not mean you cannot mix and match or replace individual components to better suit your own needs.
Which components are included in MTB groupset?
The groupset on your MTB comprises its drivetrain and brake systems, which both consist of various components.
- Crankset: consists of the cranks, bottom bracket, and one or more chainrings
- Chain: connects the chainring(s) to the sprockets on your rear wheel
- Cassette: Set of cogs or sprockets mounted on the hub of the rear wheel
- Rear derailleur: moves the chain to different sprockets
- Front derailleur: moves the chain to different chainrings (if you have more than one)
- Shifters: actuate the derailleurs via a bowden cable
- Brake callipers: mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes; rim brakes are only used on low-end entry-level mountain bikes
- Brake levers: for actuating the brakes via cables or hydraulic lines
All these components are available in different versions with different specifications. This can make a huge difference in your bike’s performance – as well as the price tag.
But which groupset is best suited for your ride style? We explain how shifting works and what difference the individual parts make.
How does an MTB drivetrain work?
Modern mountain bikes are usually equipped with chain shifting. Your power is transferred via a chain which connects the chain ring on the crankset to a sprocket on the rear wheel. If you want to shift to another gear, you do so by actuating the shifter. This pulls or releases a cable that moves the front or rear derailleur, which pushes the chain onto another gear. As a result, the gear ratio between the chain ring and sprocket changes, which makes you ride faster or slower.
The biggest differences between MTB groupsets relate to the number and size of chain rings and sprockets. This determines the number of gears as well as the bike’s gear range. A few basics first:
- A lower gear ratio refers to a small chain ring in the front and a large sprocket in the back. This makes pedalling easier, but also means you cover less distance with each pedal stroke.
- For a higher gear ratio, you pair a large chain ring with a smaller sprocket. This makes pedalling harder, but also means you cover more distance with each pedal stroke. The exact distance covered also depends on your mountain bike wheel size.
Cranksets with three chainrings used to be the standard choice for mountain bikes. Nowadays, this setup is almost exclusively found on entry-level bikes. This is due to the fact that triple chainrings typically end up having multiple almost identical gear ratios. For instance, a bike with 27 gears (3 chainrings, 9 sprockets) might only offer 18 clearly distinct gear ratios.
Today, most MTB groupsets have one-by groupsets with just one chainring in the front and 11 or 12 gears in the back. This improves shifting performance and simplifies maintenance and repairs. Some models also have two chainrings and a front derailleur, similar to most road bikes. This setup enables smaller steps between individual gears, but also adds weight and complexity.
What range of gears do MTB groupsets have?
The gear range refers to the difference between the highest and lowest gear ratios on a bike. This is determined by the size of the chainrings and sprockets. The gear range actually has a greater impact on a bike’s versatility and performance than the number of gears. That makes it an important factor when comparing different MTB groupsets. Finding the right gear range is key to matching a groupset to your ride style.
A 22-gear drivetrain might have the same gear range as an 11-gear drivetrain. While the former offers smaller steps between individual gears, which helps with climbing, the latter offers larger steps and can improve acceleration.
The more variation there is in the terrain you ride, the more you will benefit from a broader range of gear ratios. This will help you go faster on the straights while also getting up steeper hills without having to dismount. If you primarily ride in steep off-road terrains, you can get by just fine without the higher gears. However, certain downhill MTBs also come with high gears to enable riders to accelerate even on gnarly descents.
What brands of MTB groupsets are there?
If you’re in the market for an MTB groupset, you will primarily be choosing between two major brands: Shimano and SRAM.
The Japanese manufacturer Shimano produces almost every bike component you could think of in a broad range of specifications and is the market leader in most segments. Shimano’s selection of MTB groupsets has something for every rider and every budget. From reliable entry-level components at extremely affordable price points to high-tech bike jewellery for racing professionals and discerning hobby riders. A lot of their products are compatible, as long as they are built for the same number of gears.
The Americans at SRAM have made a name for themselves with innovative and performance-oriented shifting solutions. The brand played a major part in refining two-by cranksets. Later, SRAM was the first brand to launch one-by groupsets for mountain bikes, which are still one of the company’s main products.
Both Shimano and SRAM offer complete groupsets as well as individual drivetrain components. That way, you can always find the perfect solution for your mountain bike.
For several years now, SRAM and Shimano have been continuously improving their MTB groupsets to better withstand the hardships of off-road cycling. For instance, many mountain bike derailleurs from SRAM and Shimano alike feature a so-called clutch mechanism that improves chain tension. On bumpy rides, this helps prevent the chain from slapping against the frame too hard or even dropping off the chainring altogether. That not only makes riding a little safer, but also helps your chain last longer.
Tip: When upgrading your drivetrain components, it is crucial to ensure that your freehub is compatible, as different manufacturers use competing standards. Shimano uses the Hyperglide standard for 8- to 11-speed cassettes and the Micro-Spline standard for 12-speed cassettes. SRAM uses the XD and XDR standards. The freehub has to fit both your rear hub and the cassette. That means you may also have to change your freehub body when upgrading other drivetrain components.
What MTB groupsets are there?
As you may have already noticed, there is an enormous selection of different groupsets and drivetrain components. Whether you choose SRAM or Shimano for your build depends on your expectations in terms of performance, ride styles, and of course your personal preference. Both SRAM and Shimano offer a broad range of quality levels for different budgets.
One essential feature is whether an MTB groupset works mechanically or electronically. On the tried and tested mechanical type of groupsets, the derailleur or derailleurs are actuated via bowden cables. In the case of electronic groupsets, this done via electronic signals – and the latest SRAM groupsets are even wireless.
Electronic shifting offers unmatched precision and is extremely comfortable to use. Mechanical groupsets are easier to fix and maintain and less expensive.
Groupsets can also be categorized based on the type of lever they use. Shimano primarily uses Rapid Fire shifters, which consist of two separate levers for your thumb and forefinger. SRAM shifters are available as Grip Shift and thumb trigger configurations.
Both manufacturers offer solid and reliable entry-level groupsets as well as highly specialized pro-level models. To help you understand how big the differences between groupsets from either brand can be, let’s look at the line-ups from Shimano and SRAM in detail.
Shimano groupset overview
This is a list of all Shimano groupsets that are suitable for mountain bikes or that were developed with specific MTB disciplines in mind.
- Tourney: This is Shimano’s most affordable groupset. You can find it on kids’ mountain bikes, casual bikes and entry-level cross-country bikes. It typically comes with 3x7 gears and Grip-Shift style shifters.
- Altus: This is another entry-level groupset using mostly plastic and steel components. However, Altus groupsets feature Rapid Fire shifters and 3x7, 3x8 or even 3x9 gearing.
- Acera: This Shimano groupset still belongs in the beginner category, but offers 3x8 or 3x9 gearing and aluminium components that save weight.
- Alivio: Shimano’s top groupset for casual cycling is built for off-road use. It features 3x9 gearing with more capable gear ratios and is primarily used on entry-level mountain bikes.
- Deore: This is the lowest tier of MTB-specific groupsets from Shimano, featuring clutch technology for improved chain tension on rough terrain. It comes in 2-by and 3-by variants with 9- or 10-speed cassettes. Although this is an entry-level groupset, Deore can be an excellent choice even when you’re getting into more ambitious riding.
- SLX: Shimano SLX offers excellent value for money if you’re looking for high-end features at an affordable price. Its only downsides compared to top-tier groupsets are its weight and slightly slower gear changes, but it is every bit as reliable - making it an ideal groupset for a wide variety of Trail Bikes. SLX is available in 1-by and 2-by configurations with 11- or 12-speed cassettes.
- XT: XT marks the entry into the high-end range of Shimano’s MTB groupsets. XT groupsets feature one or two chainrings and an 11- or 12-speed cassette. Situated just below the top-tier groupsets, this is an excellent choice for mountain bikers looking for high quality at a competitive price.
- XTR: XTR is currently Shimano’s top-of-the-line MTB groupset. Apart from Aluminium, its components are made from high-end materials such as titanium and carbon fibre. Depending on your preferences, you can combine the 12-speed cassette with a 1-by or 2-by crankset.
- XT Di2 / XTR Di2: These are the electronic variants of Shimano’s XT and XTR groupsets. The electronic shifting adds a little bit of weight, but is extremely convenient and less susceptible to dirt and wear.
- Zee and Saint: These are the two downhill-specific 1x10 groupsets from Shimano. Zee marks the entry-level for aspiring downhill enthusiasts, while Saint is the downhill equivalent of XTR favoured by the pros.
SRAM groupset overview
SRAM specializes in MTB groupsets with single-chainring cranksets. SRAM was not only the first brand to implement this solution for mountain bikes, but also places the focus of all its research and development efforts on innovations in this area. That is why SRAM offers one-by groupsets in a broad range of quality levels.
- NX: NX is SRAM’s entry-level 1-by groupset and currently the cheapest drivetrain of its kind on the market. It usually features an 11-speed cassette that is suitable for a wide variety of different terrains and ride styles thanks to its broad gear range.
- GX: GX is an extremely versatile MTB groupset that can be fine-tuned for different ride styles. It is available in 1x7, 1x11, 2x10 and 2x11 configurations, with the 1x7 version made specifically for downhill bikes.
- X1: This groupset was the go-to for hobby mountain bikers for a long time. Situated just below the high-end groupsets, it is lighter and offers faster gear changes than the SRAM GX range.
- X01: This groupset is SRAM’s premium offering for mountain bikes. Trail and Enduro Bikes typically feature 1x11 setup, while 7- and 10-speed versions are primarily intended for downhill riders.
- XX1: This groupset is very similar to SRAM X01. Its even lower weight and slightly more efficient gear changes make it a popular choice for cross-country bikes.
- NX Eagle, GX Eagle, X01 Eagle, XX1 Eagle: Eagle indicates SRAM’s top groupsets of every tier. The materials and specifications are in line with the matching NX, GX, X01 and XX1 groupsets. However, the Eagle series is 12-speed throughout, including increased gear ranges for even better performance.
- X01 Eagle AXS / XX1 Eagle AXS: With these groupsets, SRAM has launched the first wireless shifting technology for mountain bikes on the market. The proprietary eTap AXS technology is also used for controlling other components, such as dropper posts.
- EX 1: SRAM developed the EX1 groupset specifically for E-MTBs. The medium-range 1x8 groupset is ideally suited for a wide variety of trail and overland riding with E-mountain bikes.
You can see how SRAM offers a huge selection of one-by drivetrains – which can even be mixed and matched thanks to excellent intercompatibility. However, the American brand also offers classic MTB groupsets with two or three chainrings. These are typically found on low- to mid-range mountain bikes.
- X5: The cheapest beginner groupsets with 2 or 3 chainrings and 9- or 10-speed cassettes offers some customizability for different ride styles.
- X7: This is SRAM’s lowest-tier MTB groupset with clutch technology. Along with its 2x10 gearing, this makes it a solid choice for trail bikes.
- X9: This drivetrain is comparable to Shimano SLX and represents SRAM’s take on a reliable MTB groupset for athletic use. With its 2x10 gearing and lighter materials, this groupset is a popular choice among casual riders, but is starting to fall behind the NX and GX groupsets.
- X0: This SRAM groupset is hardly featured on new mountain bikes any more. But for a long time, it was known as a reliable all-purpose drivetrain with a broad selection of chainring and cassette sizes for different ride styles and preferences.
- XX: This lightweight 2x10 groupset used to be the top choice for cross-country racing. Nowadays, the newer SRAM MTB groupsets have mostly taken its place.
If you’re looking for the MTB of your dreams, check out our buyer’s guide: Which mountain bike is right for me?
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