By Ryan LaBar
There are few places that'll beat down and test bike parts faster and harder than the Whistler Bike Park. I spent three days riding Shimano's new Saint M820 group in the park, with conditions ranging from dry and dusty to sopping wet.
Shimano deviated from its normal three-year release cycle with the newest version of Saint, and made the world wait an extra year while it further tested and refined the group using feedback from one of the fastest men in the world: Aaron Gwin. It seems like this extra time was worth while.
Of all the parts in the previous Saint line, my biggest beef was with the brakes. They were too grabby and needed better modulation. In this new version, Shimano claims it has improved modulation and also has increased (over the old version) power by 20 percent, reduced fade by 20 percent and made them run a lot cooler. Helping the brakes stay cool are Shimano’s Ice Tech rotors and brake pads, ceramic pistons and extra-long banjo fitting.
During the three days I was on the Saint brakes, I found that they really preformed well. They had fantastic modulation and consistency, and didn't require a Herculean force to lay down the power. I liked the one-finger ergonomics and overall feel of the shorter, XTR-like levers.
Wet-weather performance, though, was what impressed me most. Even when covered in trail grime and soaking wet, the Saints were whisper-quiet and as just powerful as when they were dry.
[Note: The new Saint rotors, which use a fanned heat sink that extends inward from the aluminum core of the Ice Tech braking surface, were not available.]
The Shimano Saint rear derailleur now features the Shadow Plus system to help eliminate chain slap. On the Turner DHR that I had the Shimano Saint group set up on, the upper length of chain would hit to top of the chainstay every once in a while on extra rough sections of trail, but, other than that and the sounds of the freehub and tires, the bike was dead silent. Shifting was crisp, precise and immediate with the Shadow Plus engaged.
Additionally, the Saint derailleur can be switched between two gearing range settings: 11×28 for downhill use and 11×34 for freeride use. [Note: It is rumored that this derailleur can be run with a 36 cassette, but Shimano does not recommend it].
While I didn’t have any issues with this, it seemed that the Shadow Plus mechanism on the rear derailleur had some clearance issues on bikes with low-slung chainstays, causing a bit of a racket through bumpy sections of trail. It also seemed that these issues could be managed with just a bit of setup tweaking.
The shifters in the Shimano Saint group worked well and never skipped a beat. I quite liked the dual release (while pushing the release lever) of the shifters. The ability to dump two gears at once, without thinking, was a nicer experience than I anticipated. Shimano also lengthened the shift levers in order to help compensate for the added resistance caused by the Shadow Plus mechanism on the derailleur.
With requests from riders like Matt Hunter, Shimano built a lower profile (than the DX) pedal with pins that thread in from the opposite side of the pedal for easy replacement. My experience on these pedals were nothing but good. I ran both Shimano and Teva shoes and my feet always stayed right were I wanted them on the pedals.
By eliminating the spider, as well as refining the manufacturing process, the Saint cranks dropped about 100 grams, while retaining the same strength (claimed). The Shimano Saint crankset will no longer be offered in a double-ring configuration. On the trail, the cranks felt as solid as ever.
Shimano claims the hubs, like the cranks loose a bit of weight and retain the same strength. I had absolutely zero complaints with the Saint hubs.
The thing that struck me most about the new Shimano Saint group as a whole was just how quiet it was. The brakes would only chirped for a moment when applied after soaking in the rain, and the Shadow Plus mechanism on the already stiffly sprung rear derailleur delivers near-silent drivetrain. I really had no complaints with any of the Saint parts on my bike the shifting stayed true, and the brakes stayed consistant and powerful throughout my brief time riding the bike park.
Look for a complete long-term review of the Shimano Saint M820 group once we have more time on it.