Q: What Is the Greatest Derailleur of All Time?

What is the first part you check on a bike? The rear derailleur, right? So, in the pantheon of mechs, from the lowly to the exquisite, what is the best ever made. Here's Spencer's take.

Shimano XTR RD-M950

Written by
Spencer Powlison

Published on

Posted in
Vintage

Photo: John Watson | The Radavist

1996 — it was a very good year. Pac debuted with All Eyez On Me. Jerry Maguire showed us the MONEY. Bill Clinton did not stop thinking about tomorrow. Nintendo gave us the greatest video game of all time in Goldeneye 007 with its new N64 console.

And Shimano introduced XTR M950.

Before I wax poetic about why the RD-M950 is the apogee of mankind’s chain-shifting creations, let me remind you that Question of the Week is the interactive portion of our program. Leave me a comment below to make an argument for the derailleur that you think is the GOAT. In a week, I’ll randomly select a winner from the comments to receive a TPC x Lead Out handlebar bag. 

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Now, on to the second-generation XTR derailleur. In 1996, a plethora of small component manufacturers were giving Shimano a run for its money. Most were colorful CNC’d masterpieces from small American fabricators. These were brands you could get behind in their Quixotic tilt against the Japanese Death Star. I’m talking about companies like Paul, Kooka, Grafton, Caramba, and others that maybe didn’t survive the last century, rest their souls.

In the eyes of many bleached-hair, nose-ring-wearing, bad-tattooed mountain bikers of that era, Shimano was at best boring and frumpy. At worst it was a corporate hegemon making parts that were definitely not “trick,” in the parlance of that time. 

However, the M950 group was not concerned with any of that. In producing these top-of-the-line mountain bike race components (hence the “R” in XTR), Shimano played to its strengths. The parts were all super-light, with titanium fasteners sprinkled throughout. A new, stiffer, lighter bottom bracket standard was introduced, the death knell for square-taper spindles. The V-brakes were a massive step up over cantilever calipers. 

And that gray finish. Like a battleship hoving into view on the horizon, that ominous, dark color promised to demolish whatever nascent competition existed in mountain biking’s colorful cottage industry. It was an unmistakable departure from the look of other components. And if you had XTR gray on your bike, whatever part it was, you meant business.

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At the heart of this group was the rear derailleur. Yes, you could mix and match GripShift if you didn’t like trigger shifters (I did). You could also opt for a brake like the Avid Arch Supreme for a different approach to parallel-push braking action (I also did). And maybe you weren’t quite ready to go all Shimano superfan with the cranks. Shit, they were expensive anyway. But you had to have the rear derailleur.

The RD-M950 was — is — an absolutely bombproof 9-speed shifting device. Its action is impeccable no matter the conditions. Once cable and housing were stretched and compressed (respectively), you never had to readjust the XTR. Ever. I moved the same XTR derailleur between multiple race bikes for at least five seasons. It took an act of God to break one of these things. 

For crying out loud, Rage Against the Machine gave Shimano XTR a shout-out in their liner notes for Evil Empire! That’s also a product of 1996 … Makes you wonder.

Not only that, but XTR derailleurs are still in service and going strong. Sure, you could replace the pulleys once they’re worn down to throwing stars. But you don’t have to. That photo at the top? It’s “Ronnie Romance’s” everyday touring bike. He puts that XTR RD-M950 through its paces in some seriously far-flung places.

I’ll never argue that Shimano XTR’s derailleur has the panache or lore of Campagnolo’s. Or that it’s the origin of the species. Obviously not. But it’s a miracle of modern engineering. It looks amazing. Shifts perfect, always. Plus, it surpasses most modern components in durability. 

And what can I say, I’m a sucker for ‘90s nostalgia. 

Okay, I’ve said my piece. Leave me a comment about what you think is the best derailleur of all time! 

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