Guide to MTB Groupsets

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).

Revelator – Iron Horse AT90 Detailed Build List – 2012

This list is an addendum to the Iron Horse build story. I wanted to document the true cost of assembling a bicycle from scratch and the thinking that goes into selecting parts for a build. It should be said that the components on this list are generally in Shimano’s second-from-the-bottom range of selection. After about the Alivio/Deore segment, all you get from Shimano is lighter weights, more exotic constructions and of course higher pricepoints. For a touring bike however, it is more important that a part has long-term reliability between normal services, has as few moving parts or extra pieces as possible, avoids exotic or proprietary tools and can be bodged in the field in order to limp you along to a bike shop. Additionally, because my bike is a rather ancient 21 speed, most of my rear drive parts are rather inexpensive without being cheap. Over time, newer parts will go on the bike and I’ll explain those in later posts.

Parts Purchase Lists and Notes Subtotal (2012US Dollars)
Handlebars: non-descript straight MTB bars, steel Upgrade to BBB Multibar trekking bar ($31.99), with some bar tape ($21.85) and carbon fiber bar ends ($27.70). Ergon GP1 handgrips (around $25 at REI) completed the package and ended the wrist pain. Added a t-bar extension that allowed me to mount a bike computer and camera: $5.99 $112.53
Headset bearing: non-threaded ball and race I knew nothing about this and because the steering was smooth and no major rust was present, I left this alone. In 2015, I would finally take the headset apart, clean it thoroughly and regrease the bearings and races with Phil Wood (was $7 when I bought it in 2009 and is WORTH IT!) $0
Shifters and brakes. The AT-90 has some late model Shimano shifters that, because of the metal construction, had corroded badly. I wanted to keep the bike equipped with the cantilever brakes it came with because I thought they looked cool, so they were upgraded to Tektro CR 720 (brakes $15.12/pair, $42.24 total after shipping; brake levers via Cannondale-branded Tektro RL720, $15). Shifters were upgraded to Shimano ST-EF51 set (7×3 trigger shifters ($30.75). Note on the shifters: I settled on these because the cable was easily replaceable as some of the cheaper shifters have permanent cables, meaning the whole unit has to be replace when a cable goes south. This package was for the international market and had to be sourced from Australia. $72.99
Cables and Housing The cable housings were all cracked and dried, as was to be expected. Cables and housing were sourced online and cut to match the lengths of the original housings. Ferrules (end cap metal that guides the cable out of the housing for exposed travel) and donuts (the little rubber things that keep the exposed wire from rubbing the bike frame) were all sold in bulk. Six Feet brake housing in green: $4.95; Cable dounts (25), $5.95; Cable End Cap Ferrules (20), $4.27, Cable crimps (to keep the cut cable ends from unraveling) (8), $0.99; Shifter housing (10 feet) $21.99; brake lever barrel adjusters, 2 for $2.72; brake cable, $4.70 (only needed 1). Subtotal: $45.57 $45.57
Front and Rear Derailleurs The rear derailleur was replaced with another Shimano (Tourney TX75 for 6/7 speed, $21.39). I had intended to replace the front one but bought the wrong size ($7.90) (the 90’s era cro-moly frame has tubes that are rather narrow when compared to contemporary MTB’s). In 2015, I found a proper-fitting bottom pull front derailleur (Tourney FD-TZ30, $10.68) and will install it after I get the frame repainted in 2015 or 2016. $39.97
Seat and Post Attached was a no-brand bike seat and the cheap, two bolt plate seat post that requires a wrench to adjust and is always a pain in the ass to keep adjusted. Some searching online and I found an Origin8 post in my size with front and rear Allen key adjustment, $27.95. The seat was a holdover from the Sorrento because it is awesome. $27.95
Bottom Bracket The plastic bottom bracket cable guide was sourced on line and replaced with a Shimano SP-18-T ($5.94) (Later on, I bought an extra for later overhauls as this part is hard to find in person). After some help from Sheldon Brown, I learned that the BB was a hub and cone design. While reliable and easily serviced, I could not identify the size of the bearings used, not could I find a replacement axel or hubs or cones. So, despite its reliability, not easily finding parts online led me to upgrade to a Shimano UN-55 square taper cartridge bracket ($26.09). This is the one with metallic caps on both ends. Inexpensive without being cheap, readily sourced. $32.03
Pedals New pedals were going on be in order anyhow, so the Japanese made MKS Sylvan touring pedals (in copper!) with field-serviceable bearings came in (Pedals $45; flips $9; Toe clips $10). Lightweight MKS pedal wrench (good for touring), $21.99. Dust cap wrench for these (also lightweight): $10.79. $96.78
Crankset I learned about different types of crank arms by ordering the wrong cranks for the bottom bracket above. I jumped too fast on what I thought was a good deal and bought Octalinks by accident. I returned them to the original seller and ate $15 in restock and return shipping costs. I settled on Acera M361 (175mm x 42/32/22T) which is strong and sturdy and have replaceable chain rings and a pants guard ($36.48). Subtotal: $51.48 $51.48
Cassette and chain The original rear wheel utilized a thread-on freewheel (thanks, Sheldon Brown once again), and I already knew that I was getting a custom rear wheel that had a freehub, which takes a cassette. There rear triangle is very narrow and I had no real desire to have more or less than 7 gears. For touring, I pulled in a Shimano HG50 Mega Range 13-34 range ($29.69), which is low enough for loaded climbs without getting out of the saddle. I knew ahead of time that I may have needed a spacer as the rear wheel was coming with an 8 speed hub (4mm spacer, $4.11). The chain on the bike was pure rust, replaced with Shimano CN-HG70 ($21.95). $55.75
Wheels In my preliminary researching reading about touring bikes, I learned that hand built wheels are the best (or at least more trustworthy) for reliability. I found a Wisconsin outfit called The Bikesmiths who were offering a wheel deal on eBay and decided to inquire. The rims are Bontrager Corviar matched with Shimano hubs front and rear. I had the builders drill out the valve hole from Presta to Shraeder in order to be able to take any inner tube. I told the wheelbuilder that I weighed 260 pounds and expected to carry 45 pounds worth of gear; he responded that he stands by his work and would beef up the rear wheel with a nicer spoke set. They even threw in the quick release skewers! In all, I paid $155 for the wheelset, including $25 shipping. I also ordered 10 extra of the nice spokes, $10. To save a few grams, I found a nifty product called Velocity Veloplugs rim strip plug replacement, which replaces rim tape with reusable plastic plugs to cover the spoke holes (12.50) Lastly, I found Shraeder to Presta converters ($6.34 for the pair), which are metal sleeves that keep the Presta straight in the Shraeder hole, while being removable for the larger valve if need be. Later on, Presta valve caps were pimped out in green ($7.49). $191.33
Tires and tubes Keeping with the heavy-duty build, I found the strongest rubber I knew to contend with New York’s glass, sewer grates and pot holes: Bontrager H4 Hardcase Plus 2.0 inch, which are laced with Kevlar. These tires were an absolutely B—- to strap on, and I snapped a quality tire lever doing so, but worth it all the same as they are super-fast and still in great shape. Price for the pair: $89.98. For tubes, I found a sweet sale on eBay for two Bontrager heavy duty thorn-resistant tubes: $13.99. $103.97
Miscellaneous unremembered spending $20 $20
           TOTAL: $830.35               

Gear Page

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite so worthwhile as simply messing about on bicycles.” ~ Tom Kunich

Around here you’ll find reviews of some of the gear I have used over time and some useful hacks for when you have more know-how than money.