Back in February I was invited to a press conference in the Midlands. The signing of a press embargo indicated something pretty special was going to be launched to the world. The embargo date has arrived and I can now share the news - here are details of the all new 2009 Saint groupset.
Studley Castle in Warwickshire was an impressive venue for the press conference. Rolling into the grounds I was met by a flank of guys in Shimano pit shirts. Half were from Madison, the UK importer hosting this event, the other half were from Shimano HQ in Japan, including the very guy who conceived and planned this new Saint groupset. Formalities over, I tried not to seem too rude by pouncing on the bikes behind them. No worries, they were as excited as the journalists and after all, bikes are why everyone was there!
There were several announcements over the day and a chance to play with all the new kit, some of which was so fresh it is still in the prototype phase. The SLX has been announced already - the big money-shot that you lot will most want to hear about is the all new Saint groupset.
Saint is top end kit, marketed towards what Shimano call 'gravity riding'. XTR for downhillers, if you like. Shimano had brought along a development bike, fully kitted out with a shiny CNC prototyped groupset and ready to ride.
Since an increasing amount of weight-concious downhillers are running kit like XTR, the main focus has been shedding weight while increasing stiffness to handle the rigours gravity places on our bikes. The Industrial Design team also got stuck in to the cosmetics, giving the groupset an angular and aggressive look, mostly black with gold details.
Riding the demo groupset was impressive so let's jump straight in and look into the detail what the group offers. There are also more photos in our gallery here.
At the end of the QA session, there's no doubt that the rear mech attracted most of the questions. The Project Manager for Saint was over from Japan to back up the Madison guys in case the questioning got really deep.
Weight was defined as the key area to improve. The designers must be on track for their bonus as the new rear mech is a whopping 100g lighter than the old! The mech comes in at 250g, a mere 12g more than the XT shadow, which is impressive when you see the beefy chassis.
I'm sure there were a few wry smiles exchanged between knowing people when they read the summary of my XT shadow review - the Saint sees the very welcome addition of an SS model - a true short cage (GS model also in the range). Since the target market are mostly running single rings, a long cage and lots of chain take-up is not needed. Also, many of us are running a close-ratio block, which brings us on to the next feature...
On a standard mtb block, the mech parallelogram sweeps from small to large gear. When using a close-ratio block, the angle needed to clear the smaller cogs is much shallower. Road mechs follow this shallow angle to keep the chain close to the block for tight, fast shifts. Guess what? The Saint can do both! Yup, you change the sweep angle based on your block to optimise your shifting.
Close ratio compatible - change the bracket to swap the sweep
The Saint line is built beefy and this mech looks the part. It features a wider inner link for stiffer shifting and the spring is 10% stiffer than the XT to keep it snappy.
Another big change is the mounting - gone is the axle mount, it's now a standard. The mech gets the shadow profile first seen on XT and XTR mechs in '08.
On the test bike, the shifting was unbelievably crisp and fast. The CNC precision may have given a fraction more tightness over mass production but still, but the short cage, stiffer link and stronger spring (10% stronger than the XT) will add up to impressively quick shifts.
The mech is driven by some equally tight shifters. They use the instant release system to drop cable as soon as you click and 2-way release give best of both worlds - downshift with thumb or forefinger. The short levers can be mounted in- or out-board of the brake lever and stand off the bars more to give mud clearance. Gold detailling matches the rest of the group.
4-piston servo wave brakes
It's all change for the Saint brakes for this year. No longer just a grey version of the XT, the Saint caliper is completely re-engineered. They feature 4 pistons per caliper, with each side having 2 dual diameter pots. These pistons ought to help with modulation and power in turn. Beefy bladed levers get the servo-wave feature, as seen on the '08 XT, to allow for more pad clearance and faster take-up at the start of the stroke. Tool-free reach and adjustable bite point help fine tune the setup. Together, this gives a claimed 50% more power over last year!
Riding the pre-production CNC machined versions round the car park (read pulling skids) showed the power was huuuuge. These things were almost frightening! I've just fitted '08 XT servo-waves to my DH and XC bikes so expected a similar feel. Wrong - there was tonnes more power. Modulation took a few goes to achieve but is there, you just need to practice! True power is available with just one finger.
Bleeding is also claimed to be easier due to the increased oil flow through the pistons.
Saints are almost the 'default' downhill crank and not without good reason. For 2009 they are 90g lighter than last years offering, while being 10% stiffer at the same time. Saint graphics adorn the arms - time will tell how durable the coating is but the arms are thinner (lower 'Q' factor) with more ankle clearance so fingers crossed.
A much wider range of single or dual ring setups is on offer and a honeycomb bashguard offers good weight savings over solid plastic while being impact tough.
For the dual-ringers out there, the new Saint front mech is designed to do just that - two rings only. Result - shorter cage, stiffer, better shifting and more clearance.
Another 100g saving, a move to standard centre lock mounts and wider bearings beef up the Saint hubs. Shimano stick with the loose ball formula but improved sealing for 400% (!) more durability.
Up to now, the Saint 'groupset' was never really that - it featured an excellent set of cranks, a bespoke mount for the rear mech and a some branding on other parts. I didn't get it and it wasn't a 'group'.
For 2009, the whole lots has been given a shakedown with the ground-up redesign, showing some serious improvements. The real progression is the rear mech, with it's innovative adjustable sweep, stiffer links and springs and short cage option.
This groupset now fits together as intended. It not only announces the next generation of product but also highlights the commitment of Shimano to the downhill market. All you need to know now is when can you get your hands on it...
Saint gear will be appearing in the shops in the UK from August 2008.
RRPs are in line with previous:
68/73mm cranks - £119.99
SS/GS rear mech - £79.99
Rear shifter - £44.99
Front mech - £29.99
Brakes - £119.99 each