We have been giving the Shimano XT 11-46T cassette a run for it's money in the hills of Nelson over the last 5 months and it has been worked hard, that's for sure!
The cassette is a vital part of any bike, if you want to move forwards you have to have one, those with gearboxes are of course excused from this review (!). Those without the latest innovation in bike technology are left with just one option, to plug on with the kit that is already available to us. Luckily for us the choice of cassettes and gearing options are ever increasing and right now you can make decisions surrounding, price, size and how many cogs you buy, given your riding ability, fitness and discipline.
Having ridden many incarnations of both Shimano and Sram cassette offerings I thought it was good timing to put the latest Shimano product in this department to the test, the XT 11-46T. This cassette expands the range from the already available 11-42T, a ratio which until the talk of the possibilities of 12 speed came along, seemed to suit most people just fine.
First some basics then, the cassette weighs in at 450g and is made from a combination of aluminium and steel (the 46 and 37 teeth are aluminium). There are two sets of three sprockets joined to aluminium spiders, and then five individual cogs. The CS-M8000 11-46 cassette has the following gearing: 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-46 and is only compatible with 1x drivetrains. The gearing is identical to the 11-42T cassette but instead of the 42T at its outermost it replaces this with a 46T, more on that later.
I ran the 11-46T cassette with a 32T front chainring as this us what I'd previously been happy using with and 11-42T set up. The bike in question is a Swarf Curve and having spent time using both cassettes on the same bike with the same chain ring it proved to be a useful comparison.
I tested this cassette in conjunction with an XT mech and shifter, we are fans of the multiple gear changes available in this set up, four gears down at once and two up for those fast paced manoeuvres. As always with Shimano kit the shifting was quick and precise, you need a good amount of force through the thumb in order to get the shifter moving but this is satisfying in its own right and only noticeable of you have been riding another branded shifter recently. Even shifting into the biggest 46T cog, the shift was smooth despite the big jump the rear mech has to make up to the largest cog, it maintained this throughout the cassettes life. The upshift is smooth and uneventful too, with no unnecessary clunking of metal on metal.
The gearing gap between 37T and 46T is large meaning this upper cog is really only useable as a crawler gear. When I used it for exactly that purpose on steep climbs it was nothing other than amazing and my legs enjoyed the relative ease of the climb compared to pushing a 42T round. The disparity comes when riding with other people and tackling a climb with a lesser gradient, I found myself selecting the 46T and falling behind. The higher cadence needed here meant I span like mad (hard work, as you will know) to keep up with the crowd and the others continually pulled away from me. To combat this issue I dropped back into the 37T, worked harder (and got fitter) to keep at the same pace. Now, I'm not saying the 46T is useless, far from it, it has been my saviour on many a mountain and also at times of very tired limbs but I think that some more thought given to the gearing is needed here?
The wider range of cassettes such as these enable riders to ride with smaller front chain rings. Granted, I could try this cassette with a 30T chain ring and this would make using the 37T cog a lot more bearable, but still leave my crawler gear intact. I'm not one to spin out on trails when descending, the terrain is usually steep enough to dictate that I need to use the brakes anyway so this would solve my problem somewhat. The 32T chainring and 11-46T cassette is a great race set up, saving the legs on the up and still providing a good range when descending.
In terms of longevity my first of these cassettes was used over four months from September to January, I rode 2,118km and grovelled up 65,292m before the teeth in the outer cog resembled more of a faint wave rather then razor sharp teeth. A pretty good innings I thought in all.
For my style of riding, it's testament that despite the niggles above, I replaced my 11-46T with another one, now I've had a taste of it I just can't get rid of that big gear. The energy it saves when the going gets steep is worth the concession of having to drop occasionally into the 37T to keep up with the gang. I've got fitter and who said bike riding was supposed to be easy anyway?!
Shimano say they don't set the recommended retail prices anymore but for the XT 11-46T cassette you can expect to pay in the shops about $189.99 NZD