Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
“Someone just needs to make a drivetrain that lasts forever,” I once heard my old boss say. When you work at a bike shop, you replace a lot of drivetrains. And that’s good for business in the short-term, but it comes with the struggle of explaining to customers, especially new customers, why their $20 derailleur adjustment is now a $250 headache. It’s another thing that makes new cyclists wonder if it’s all worth the trouble. Replacing one’s chain regularly can vastly increase the time between those headaches, but because shifting issues tend to be the most vexing and most frequent for the average cyclist, they are the issues that the average bike shop most wants the industry to solve.
The industry, meanwhile, is focused on more gears, more range and lighter weight. All of which would seem to be the enemies of durability. It’s why the BOX Components Prime 9 wide-range nine-speed drivetrain has gained a foothold among pragmatic mountain bikers. But Prime 9 lacks the refinement in design that, for example, 100 years in bike component manufacturing might achieve. That’s where Shimano’s LINKGLIDE drivetrains come in. Introduced at both a Deore- and XT-level, LINKGLIDE are 10 and 11 speeds respectively, and are not designed with the Hyperglide + chain and tooth profile that was introduced with Shimano’s 12-speed drivetrains. In fact, the chain is the only thing that hasn’t fundamentally changed in the LINKGLIDE ecosystem. Both the 10- and 11-speed LINKGLIDE drivetrains are meant to work with Shimano’s existing 11-speed Hyperglide chains, though a lower price-point chain has been introduced to go along with the new systems.
The main difference is the cassette. The rings are thicker, the teeth are taller and the tips are stronger. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have to replace your chain once in a while, but the degradation that happens over many shifts and many miles will be greatly lessened. Shimano claims a 300% increase in the cassette’s resilience to that sort of wear and tear.
And at the same time, the shift ramps have been redesigned for smoother shifts. The 11-speed XT LINKGLIDE cassette comes in an 11-50-tooth configuration and the 10-speed is 11-43, both running on a classic Hyperglide cassette body, though this is a first in Shimano’s lineup for this exact gear spread.
That new spread means that the chain is moving in a way that it didn’t before, and because Shimano takes a systems approach to all of its innovations, the derailleur also needs to change. LINKGLIDE derailleurs still use the Shadow + configuration and a clutch for chain retention, but they were redesigned to match the new gear pitches in the cassette.
The shifter has also changed. The cable pull per shift is unique compared to Shimano’s other 10- and 11-speed shifters. But they’re also interchangeable between each other. You could use the 11-speed shifter on the 10-speed derailleur and cassette, which is a smart feature for a component ecosystem built on low maintenance. The shifter did not go to a single-downshift mechanism, which is optimal for e-bikes. Cranking three gears at a time, which the LINKGLIDE shifters are capable of, is not ideal when you’ve got an unthinking motor twisting your chain. That makes it a surprise that all of the imagery we were sent around this press release were of e-bikes. And for the most part, they were not images of e-mtbs. It was casual e-bikes and commuters.
So, this is where I tell you not to get your hopes up. We will likely see LINKGLIDE specced mostly on high-end casual e-bikes. Riders who may not do a lot of shifting, and who may not be good at it when they do. Most mountain bikers who have advanced to the level of appreciating the difference in shift performance between brands and between pricepoints are likely beyond the benefits that LINKGLIDE offers. But, and this is hard for some of us to say, we are not the most important segment of bike consumers. Casual riders are often forgotten, and often in the ways that LINKGLIDE is out to address. It will give new riders, of which there are a lot right now, a little less to worry about. And it may someday give my old boss less to complain about.