2011 Shimano XTR Trail Brakes: First Impressions at Pinkbike!

2011 Shimano XTR Trail Brakes: First Impressions – by Mike Levy
Shimano chose Downieville, California, to let the media have their first ride on the new XTR Trail group and it proved to be an excellent testing ground. Day one has us descending an incredible amount of elevation on some of the fastest trails I’ve ever ridden – a perfect test of Shimano’s new XTR Trail brakes. Inside you can find all of the information and photos, including their new Ice Technology finned pads and impressive aluminum core and steel sandwich rotors. Keep reading to find out how the new brakes performed…

2011 Shimano XTR Trail Brakes
When developing their new flagship XTR component group, Shimano realized that while XTR was at one point thought of as their top end component group across the board, todays riders were splintered into two different mindsets: one group who simply wants to get from point A to point B (otherwise know as the start and finish lines), and another who are not only looking for the best performance, but also more control. This theory propagated two distinct XTR component groups that allow each component to have greater focus on it’s application. The differences that you’ll be able to read about over the next few updates include more adjustments, wider rims, and a more spread out gearing range on the Trail group, while the Race lineup sheds grams and comes in lighter.


The new XTR Trail lever uses a barrel reservoir for a much sleeker appearance and easier bleeding. Lever reach and free stroke adjustments remain. After a long day in the saddle that involved more descending than a lot of riders manage in week of riding I’d admit that the lever and ergonomics are the best I’ve ever used.

Yes, both variations of Shimano’s XTR group will be going 10 speed for 2011 and we’ll get to that a bit further on, but even more exciting to me is the effort that Shimano is putting into their brake systems to push their performance to the next level. Completely new for the upcoming season, the XTR brakes not only look quite different visually to the previous model, but also feature some interesting technology that is hidden away from sight.

Shimano has gone away from their long used master cylinder design, instead debuting a new barrel reservoir that is both lighter and allows for much easier bleeding. The new lever arrangement is also much sleeker and minimalist than their previous designs as well. Riders who have been fans of Shimano’s brakes in the past, but cursed the lack of a split bar clamp, will be happy to see that the 2011 models use a hinged clamp that will make installing or removing controls much easier. While the Race version of the XTR is pared down to only the essentials, the Trail model shown here features both reach and free stroke adjustment that lets you fine tune the position and feel to just how you like it. The Trail brake also uses Shimano’s Servo Wave system to control leverage and add power, but the Race forgoes this to shed a few extra grams. Due to the Trail brakes different leverage it also employs a slightly taller lever blade, 14 mm vs. 13 mm for the Race, for a more comfortable fit in your fingers.


This nearly finished lever shows the path that the Servo Wave system takes as the lever goes through it’s stroke. The Trail brakes are said to have more power than the non-Servo Wave XTR Race levers.

2011 XTR Trail lever details
Entirely new brake for 2011
Short-stroke Servo-Wave mechanism for quick engagement
Tool-free reach-adjust
Free stroke adjustment
Shorter, wider 14-millimeter brake lever with more efficient pivot location
Hinge-clamp mounting bracket
High-power hose uses slightly smaller inner bore
Combine with i-spec bracket to reduce handlebar clutter


Shimano’s new XTR caliper is used on both the Trail and Race systems and hides two full ceramic pistons. The two black objects atop the caliper act as cooling fins that dissipate heat via their increased surface are. They are actually attached to the Ice Tech pads, not the caliper itself. An aluminum banjo bolt is used to attach the hose to the caliper.

Following the new updated brake hose (smaller inner diameter for a stiffer and more powerful feel) down to the caliper, you’ll discover that it has also been completely redesigned for 2011. The new one piece forged caliper is shared between both the XTR Trail and Race groups and still accepts top loading pads that many of us have come to appreciate, but it also hides a brand new full ceramic piston which is an industry first. Ceramic was chosen for the piston material due to its ability to shed heat. In fact, battling the heat caused by prolonged or heavy braking seems to be a major concern of the brake development team and it shows throughout the entire system. You’ll notice in the picture of the caliper above that two black finned pieces are protruding from it’s top. These are not actually attached to the caliper itself, but to it’s brake pads. They act as cooling fins, something common in many other industries, and function by greatly increasing the surface area that can dissipate heat before it affects braking. The XTR Trail brakes come stock with these Ice Technology pads with sintered pad material, but both resin Ice Tech pads and standard non-finned pads are also available, as well as a titanium backed pads that save a few grams, but may not be quite a stiff. According to Shimano, tests at high temperatures have shown that the strange looking pads can cool the operating system’s temperature by 50 celsius.

While the Ice Tech pads are very visible, sometimes the coolest bits of technology are hidden away where you can’t see it. This is the case with Shimano’s new aluminum and steel hybrid Ice Technology rotors – and no, I’m not speaking of the trick aluminum spider either. Concealed by the rotor’s stainless steel braking surface is a thin aluminum core that acts as a heat sink to pull heat away from the braking surface and disperse it. I was told that this aluminum and steel sandwich rotor design reduces heat by an impressive 100 celsius when things get really hot. Very cool technology indeed. Only riders who use Center Lock hubs will be able to give these a go, there are no six bolt versions as of right now.


The aluminum spidered Ice Technology rotors also feature an aluminum core that acts as a heat sink to keep temperatures in line when things start to get hot.

2011 XTR Trail caliper and rotor details
Entirely new brake for 2011
One piece forged post mount caliper
Oversized ceramic pistons
Aluminum banjo hose fitting
Four pad choices for any condition – resin/Al, metal/Ti, resin/Ice, metal/Ice
Additional heat control with Ice Tech aluminum core rotors
Metal pad compound with Radiator backing plate (standard)


This photo shows a cross section of the aluminum core rotor encased in glass. The aluminum core is sandwiched by stainless steel braking surfaces on both sides and the design is able to lower operating temperatures by 100 degrees.

Riding Impressions
While there is no denying that brakes can be a very personal thing and preferences vary greatly from rider to rider, there are also a few common traits that can add up to make a great brake. Usable power, modulation, reliability, and ergonomics all need to come together to make brakes that you feel confident in no matter what the conditions.

The lever ergonomics, how it fits in your fingers and the geometry that changes as you pull it, feel as if Shimano shaped the levers specifically for my hands. While I’ve heard grumblings about their previous levers feeling a bit too skinny and applying too much pressure in one spot, the 14 mm tall Trail levers (the Race levers are slightly smaller at 13 mm) felt comfortable from the get go. Pulling firmly on the blades felt comfortable, even when panic braking into a hairpin that I was about to blow. There are also some small traction giving divots in the face of the lever that I couldn’t really feel with gloves on, but it may be a different story when riding in the rain and mud. The short levers pivot close to the bar clamp as well, thereby avoiding the feeling that your fingers can slip off the end as they get pulled closer to the bar. I’m a big fan of reach and bite point adjustments that many brakes come with these days and the XTR levers feature both, although you still need to use a phillips screwdriver to make changes to the free stroke (bite point) and its range of adjustment is very fine. The lever reach dial turns with little effort which is more than I can say for some other companies offerings. The power of the new XTR Trail brakes was very impressive and I took full advantage of it throughout the ride. While not quite Saint power (most riders aren’t looking for that anyways), I’d venture to say that they actually have more usable power throughout the lever’s stroke. This is made even more impressive by the fact that I was using the optional resin pads during the ride. While I can’t vouch for the Shimano provided numbers that claim Ice Technology lowers operating temperatures by a combined 150 celsius, I had absolutely zero fade during one of the rides 30-40 minute downhill portion. Having experienced other brakes losing power over long descents and have to adjust my riding style accordingly, I was very happy with how they performed during the demanding ride.

There is no doubt that the new XTR Trails brakes work very well, but two questions remain: how will they perform in the longterm and when it is time to perform a bleed, will it be easier than other models as Shimano claims? My impressions above were taken from just one ride, but stay tuned for a longterm test down the road after I’ve put many miles on them and done some wrenching.

Visit Shimano’s website to see their entire lineup of components.

Excited about what Shimano has coming down the line? Looking forward to having a go on the new brakes? Available soon later at Tionghin once Shimano releases it on the market, will keep everyone updated in our blog!

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