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               

A Horse with No Home, or How to Get a Really Awesome Touring Bike Frame by Looking in the Garbage

In the market of bicycles, there is a maxim that is well-known to all involved in the sale and retail, but little known to customers, and is spoken aloud by none: Most adult-sized bicycles sold new in the United States will not see more than 500 miles of cumulative riding before disposal or resale.

Let that thought sink in for a second, because I know it sounds acerbic. But here is the thing: cycling comes and goes in fads, and most of the domestic bike manufacturers in this country have either gone bust or moved production to Asia long ago. The few major brandnames that remain, like Iron Horse and Cannondale either went bankrupt or were on the verge of doing so before their intellectual property was added to the portfolio of a large conglomerate. Look on Craig’s List or eBay and you’ll see loads of bikes, all “like new” or “lightly ridden.” Some, like in my old home of Lower New York, maybe rode in a major bike event like the Five Boro Bike Tour, and then went home and swore they were going to ride more. Others, on advice of physicians, were supposed to exercise more and went to their local Dick’s, Sports Authority, REI or wherever and pulled in the latest, shiniest, entry-level bike that their credit card could afford. I don’t fault these folks; I was one of them.

Diamondback Sorrento at NYC A-Train Platform

On of the few picture of my beloved, yet ill-fitting Diamondback. Aircraft aluminum finish was sexy, though the rest if the bike was entry-level Asia at its worst. I didn’t have the knowledge back then to get the niggles in line.

In 2011, I realized that my academic performance was strong enough to allow me to leave home in pursuit of a graduate education. I had been relishing the thought of being out of my house and truly on my own for many years before then. I had been riding increasing amounts in the spring and summer on my Diamondback Sorrento, made of basic Shimano parts affixed to an aircraft aluminum frame. I used a Topeak beam rack and a Camelback bladder pack to haul around the spares, tools, water and lunch. All was awesome except for two things: first, the more I rode the bike, the more stuff would start clicking and twitching on it. This is not because the bike was cheap per se; I paid $360 for it. But the Sorrento, as I would learn, was meant to do about 500 miles and then be taken in to the department store I bought it from (Dick’s in my case, which services bikes and offers service contracts on the stuff they sell). My Sorrento probably had about 300 miles or so on it. Secondly, the 18 inch geometry meant I leaned more toward the handlebars than I would have liked (the “aggressive” cycling position advertised in the brochures). I tried using aftermarket handlebar adjustment stuff, but it was never quite right.

AJ midspan on the Geo Washington Bridge with JHMC medicl EMS bike, 2010

The original plan was to spec my bike build out similar to the police bike I rode for Jamaica Hospital EMS bike patrol. My rationale was this: EMT’s and Medics abuse every piece of equipment, and these bikes, with aggressive riders, heavy luggage and rough urban terrain (including stairs!) kept rolling for more than 10 years before I joined the team.

Because I had worked on cars since I was 12, I could not really justify buying another bike from the department store, especially I knew what type of riding I wanted to do: I wanted a bike that could carry me (at the time, I weighed on the wrong side of 270 lbs.) and my gear on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, while allowing me the day-to-day reliability of a commuter, and the once a year urban bike tour. I wanted a more relaxed geometry, but not a near-upright position like on a so-called hybrid bike. Because of my readings online of other people’s grand tours, I wanted a steel framed bike, more for the flexion than the supposed weld-ability. Not able to afford a $1000+ bike, I decided I would acquire a full bike mechanics tool kit and bike stand, and acquire a bike frame from across the pond in the United Kingdom. Before the 29er craze took off in full effect, the hottest frames on the UK market were the On One Inbred and the Orange P7. I took a liking to the P7, with its black-painted Cro-Moly frame and bright orange decals and thought the 19 inch would be perfect for me. One of my favorite bikes that I rode as an adult was a 19 inch Trek Police Bike that I use as a bike medic for the EMS agency I used to work for. My plan, in earnest, was to acquire the Orange P7 (after shipping, it would have been around $5-600) and spec it out like my EMS bike with Kevlar tires, 36 hole, double-walled rims and a nice steel rack for the luggage. All I needed to do was wait for my tax return in 2012 and I could begin to get the goods in.

Orange P7 S

Orange P7S: The bike I almost had. From:

Between my studies, I dreamed about bike touring, a lot. I always wished that I could do something adventurous, spending significant time travelling off the grid and existing under my own power and wits. This is why I like hiking and backpacking so much! Life, funny enough, has a way of edging you on toward your goals because one evening in late February of 2012, I was driving home from the train station after a long day of work, dreaming of the P7 frame I was soon to buy, and drove past this:

Iron Horse AT90 set out for the garbage dump

Nearly the way I found it, literally laying out on the curb for the garbage man. People in nice neighborhoods thrown out some nice stuff!

Now I slammed on the brakes and put my Jeep into park for a minute. I knew I was daydreaming a bit while driving, so I did not just see a full bicycle in the garbage. I drove backward and pulled alongside the curb. Yup, it’s a bike alright. I turn off my lights and unlock the doors to step out to get a look. In the village I was in, people were likely to call the police for people scavenging garbage, so I needed to hustle. I ran to look at the bike and there it was: Iron Horse AT90, with the frame size sticker still affixed (19 inches, what!!!) and the sticker of the bike shop that originally sold it. The bike was completely whole, absent exactly one pedal (crank was still attached). The Iron Horse even had a Blackburn rear rack affixed to it. Also, adding evidence that this bike was lightly used, the tires still had the rubber fingers along the sidewalls. About the only thing I could see in the dark that was wrong with the bike outside of the missing pedal was that green paint has splattered along the rear rim and rear triangle. I knew then what to do: I threw the bike in the back of my jeep, quietly closed the tailgate and sped off to my house. Rolling the bike into my garage to get a good look at it, I knew that it was The Bike I always wanted. All it needed was an overhaul.

Revelator Iron Horse AT 90 Original

This is the condition I found my bike in. Had the bike had two pedals, no rust and air in the tires, it could have been ridden that night!

Being a bike of a previous generation, a lot was ready for change. After I acquired my tool box and began to strip the bike and begin to teach my self what the hell I was looking at, with the help of Sheldon Brown. Here is what I came up with and the solution to address it (price includes shipping and tax). For a detailed list, click here.

  • Cockpit (Handlebars and Steering): $112.53
  • Shifters and Brakes: $72.99
  • Cables and Housing: $45.57
  • Front and Rear Derailleurs: $39.97
  • Seatpost: $27.95 (Seat was a carryover from the Sorrento)
  • Bottom Bracket: $32.03
  • Pedals: $96.78
  • Crankset: $51.48
  • Cassette and Chain: $55.75
  • Handbuilt Wheels: $191.33
  • Tires and Tubes: $103.97
  • Miscellaneous odds and ends: $20

TOTAL: $850.55

New bike parts via the Internet

Revelator in boxes: All new parts for the Iron Horse AT 90 rebuild. Everything (or nearly everything) for the bike was sourced online from eBay, Amazon and Ben’s Cycle.

So, as you can see, all of the small things add up, but it’s cool because the bike is EXACTLY as I want it and rides like an absolute dream! I managed to build it in two nights just ahead of the New York City Five Boro Bike Tour, a route of 45 miles plus the distances I’d need to traverse to get to and from the train station. Though it was a rather foolhardy thing to go out on an untested bike, there was a method to my madness: the Five Boro hosts free bike mechanics at the start line who help with tune ups, so when my front derailleur was sucking it (remember, it was the original because I ordered the wrong size replacement), the repair guys spent 20 minutes tuning it up for me. It gave me hell all day and midway through the tour I has to resort to changing front chainrings with my right foot. At the end of the tour in Staten Island, another mechanic spend 20 minutes repositioning the derailleur and I have left it alone ever since. When I prepare the bike for a repainting, I’ll finally install a new front derailleur on the bike. For my first build though, I could not have been happier. Yeah, I could have spent $1000 on a new touring bike, but what fun would that have been?

Antoine standing with his bike Revelator near the start line of the 2013 Five Boro Bike Tour

One year on, Revelator and I return to fly through another 45 miles of NYC’s best views, steepest bridge ramps and absolutely worst roadway surfaces!

If you can manage the upfront cost of a complete bike took kit and a quality repair stand, the internet has plenty of forums, informational sites (Hail Sheldon!), and instructional videos (thank you Park Tools) to get you started building your own bike from scratch or reviving an old frame with a young soul like I did. The added benefit of doing this work yourself is that you get to check every bolt, make sure quality lube is applied where need be, and you have knowledge of every part and where it was sourced. Overtime, I have improved on the bike here and my baby gets better every time. So, the moral: keep your eyes open during trash days in the nicer neighborhoods near where you are!

So, that the story of Revelator. I look forward to your comments, and if you have a story about your homegrown bike, tell me about it!