Either when buying a bicycle or shopping for components, there are a dizzying array of parts makers to choose from. And within those parts makers, there are a staggering array of legacy and new series of components, called groupsets in bike lingo. In this post, I’ll try to dissect these groups for you. Note that these group sets generally refer to bicycle items involving the external drivedrain: Shifters, front crankset and chainrings (sans pedals), rear cassette, front and rear derailuers, and both wheel hubs. Also, this list is for mountain bike parts; there is a completely different list for road bike applications. I don’t work with SRAM parts yet, but here is a good list of that and Shimano stuff here
Shimano is pretty much the legacy builder of bicycle parts at all price levels. Below is the legacy list of Shimano group sets, ordered from most inexpensive to most expensive/durable.
Tourney: Shimano’s starting point for entry-level and children’s bikes. The speed range is 6-7 gears at the rear with a triple chain ring up front. While these are expected to be of “lightweight” duty, so long and you are not willfully thrashing the bike and perform expected service these parts are great for the price. If your bike build will be involved in rain or snow in any significant capacity (i.e., you will ride in all seasons, not just late spring and summer), the skip right to the Acera series.
Altus: The next line up from Tourney, but with 7, 8 and 9 speed offerings, all expecting a triple chainring set-up.
Acera: Same offerings as Altus, but with corrosion-resistant materials in the build. If you are building a bike you wish to own long term, start here. I run with Acera cranks, which while not the lightest weight, are bombproof and have replaceable chain rings (a good thing for a touring bike build).
Alivio: For the more modern serious mountain bikes, this group features 9 speeds on triple chainrings and rapidfire shifters moving the gears.
Deore: This is Shimano’s bread-and-butter off-road/performance group set. Expect prices in the triple digits for all parts involved. Here you get the best balance of durability to weight to price if you don’t race. Expect 10 speeds in the back shifted by a rear derailuer with a clutch (to minimize chain drop) and a choice of two or three chain rings upfront (because there is a lot of overlap of gears in 24, 27 and 30-speed setups, many performance riders opt for a two-chainring setup, giving them flat surface and hill climbing gear options, while saving a few grams from the extra chain ring).
SLX: Main stay of entry-level racing-grade Shimano parts. Meant to be a less expensive variant of the XT group, which means slightly heavier (by a few grams) components and not-quite-as-awesome shifting. This is the best dollar-to-value across all of Shimano, though I would argue that Deore is probably good enough for all uses that don’t involve racing and gravity-based riding.
Zee: This is the first line of Shimano’s discipline-specific offerings. Though priced similar to SLX, the Zee is engineered for downhill (DH) riding and will absorb more abuse that the SLX. Zee is meant to be lower price end of DH-specific parts; the Saint line is the upper.
XT: One position below the elite XTR series. Offers all of the performance-to-weight balance most rider could ever need. If you race your bike for fun on the weekends, this is likely where you get your parts.
Saint: Shimano’s most durable line of components for DH and other extreme MTB’ing. In this component group, check out Shimano Saint pedals, which have a legend of their own. If you race your bike downhill as a job, you get your parts here.
XTR: Shimano’s top of the line division. If your race a MTB as a job, or have no qualms about bicycles costing north of $4000, you get your bike parks here.
Thoughts on the groups for home builders: If money is no object, or you wish to have people on the trail admire you bike with their tongues hanging out of their mouths, whip out your credit card and by XT or XTR parts. This is the most expensive bottle of wine in the restaurant.
For everyone else, the Alivio (9 speeds) and Deore (10 speeds) group sets offer the best middle of the pack performance and durability for the money. With regular maintenance and non-aggressive riding, you should expect reasonable service life without likely catastrophic failures. If this is your first bike build and you’re on a strict budget, start with Acera (for the weather proofness) and upgrade later.
Tourney and Alivio are the cheapest bottles of wine on the menu: they don’t taste terrible and will impress your date if you know how to present them, but they really exist to draw your eyes to the middle of the menu (Alivio and Deore). If you are using a vintage MTB, this groupset offers choices most specific to 6 and 7 speed setups. Keep in mind that with Shimano these days, you can get inexpensive without being cheap. That said, keep in mind that many of the parts here are not meant to be rebuildable and/or may contain some moving parts made in plastic rather that the minimal moving parts made of metal in higher Shimano ranges. Also, remember that you can mix and match Shimano parts across all groups sets, so do not be afraid to start cheap and work your way up to the good stuff slowly–keep your eyes peeled for sales and NOS (new, old stock-stuff that is new in sealed boxes but several years old).