A hundred years of Shimano and cycling

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Shimano does it all, from gears to brakes (Photo: Sterling Lorence/Shimano)
Shimano does it all, from gears to brakes (Photo: Sterling Lorence/Shimano)
  • Shimano celebrates a century in the bicycle business, with record success
  • The Japanese company slowly conquered the global market, and is now a huge presence in all segments of cycling
  • We take a look at some of Shimano's breakthrough components over the last 100 years

Much like aviation, cycling has become a duopoly of sorts. When choosing gears for your bike, the choice is simple: Shimano or SRAM.

The Japanese and American brands dominate the market for bicycle gearing, but of the two, Shimano has a much older legacy.

Last month Shimano celebrated 100 years of business and in a world where many companies struggle to survive for half that time, it is an impressive achievement.

Founded by Shozaburo Shimano in 1921, the company today employs more than 10 000 staff and is helping more people than ever transition to active commuting and leisure cycling. Shimano’s share price has increased by 80% since the start of lockdown, an indication of its position as perhaps the most important global cycling component supplier. 

To remind all cyclists of how Shimano has evolved, we have selected five of its most notable components, of the last 100 years.

Shimano free wheel
Where it all started. Shimano's first cycling component (Photo: Shimano)

Shimano Freewheel 3.3.3

The company’s original breakthrough product. Back in the 1920s, the freewheel was considered quite a challenge.

Its tight mechanical tolerances and requirement for converting rider input to rear wheel rotation, or coasting, was tricky. The original design was established by Shozaburo Shimano on a simple lathe, a testament to his metalworking skills.

Shimano SPD
Since the early 1990s, Shimano's SPD pedals have been the default choice for mountain bikers (Photo: Shimano)

SPD pedals

Shimano dominated the mountain bike clipless pedal market. Its ingeniously simple SPD system was launched in 1990 and remains the standard for mountain bike pedals.

With a reliable clipping system and legendary durability, Shimano’s SPD pedals outsell everything else. It is not unusual for SPD pedals to run many years, without any servicing required.

SLX Shimano
Shimano's mid-level SLX groupset offers terrific value and performance (Photo: Shimano)

SLX

The affordable grade mountain bike groupset offers anything but cheap performance. Revealed in 2008, the current SLX drivetrain and brakes are now in their sixth-generation and offer incredible value.

One of the most credible instances of true trickle-down economics, SLX might not be the lightest components, but they deliver all the best bits of Shimano’s XTR series, a few years later.

Shimano road
The original Dura-Ace announced Shimano's presence in the pro racing scene (Photo: Shimano)

Dura-Ace

Europe has always been the spiritual and competitive home of road cycling, with Italy’s Campagnolo being the component supplier of choice. That was the case, until 1973.

Shimano realised that it had the engineering awareness and skill to challenge Europe’s best and the first-generation Dura-Ace proved them right. Creating parts that were light and strong, was made possible by Shimano’s cold forging techniques and since the first-generation Dura-Ace groupset launched in 1973, it has become an institution in the amateur and professional road riding pelotons.

Shimano gears
Shimano's ingenuity soon transitioned to making a better way for gears to shift (Photo: Shimano)

Sky Lark

Shimano’s interpretation of what a rear derailleur should be. The Sky Lark proved hugely reliable and with its ‘Servo-Pantagraph’, delivered excellent performance.

Shimano exclusively used steel for the Sky Lark’s construction and parts, instead of plastic, and it was even chrome plated. How good was this original design? Its engineering principles remained unchanged for years.

 

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