Anyone who has ridden a bike in the last 25 years or so has almost certainly used some kit from an all-conquering, yet strangely mysterious company: the big S.

And while Shimano drivetrains, brakes, pedals and other bits of componentry have become so ubiquitous that the brand seems commonplace at first glance, the Japanese company has nevertheless maintained a certain mystique which few other big brands can match.

Of course, it produces a range of other leisure gear, including fishing kit, and has also produced snowboarding and golf bits in the recent past, but it is in the two-wheeled world where it really attains Olympian proportions. In fact, Shimano’s standing within the cycling pantheon is such that this recent post from irreverent site The Daily Mash suggests that the big S is the deity of the bike universe.

Early years and beyond

The company we now know as Shimano began life in 1921 – and hence, like Evans Cycles, is celebrating a milestone 90th anniversary this year. And while FW Evans was opening his first shop in Kennington Road in Lambeth, Shozaburo Shimano was establishing a legacy on the other side of the world in Sakai City, part of what is now the industrial metropolis Osaka.

Calling his new outfit Shimano Iron Works, the dapper young Shozaburo started producing an early piece of bike ‘gearing’ – the single-speed 3.3.3 freewheel – in the city which was rapidly becoming a world centre for bicycle production, and which already had centuries’ old tradition of metalworking and producing samurai swords.

However, it wasn’t until 1956 that the first ‘external speed changer’ – that means ‘derailleur’, I think – went into production, with an internal three-speed hub gear following a year later.

Photo by sweens308

Progress continued, and the Dura-Ace road components made their first appearance in 1973. Aimed at the very top end of the market, Dura-Ace was competing against the purist’s choice of Campagnolo (though Shimano took a while to get this right, according to encyclopaedic bike brain Sheldon Brown, who reckoned Dura-Ace was “not really successful until 1984″).

MTB era

By this time, of course, we are just coming into the early stage of mass-production for the mountain bike era. In retrospect, 1982 was a pivotal point for the sport. The year brought the launch of the Specialized Stumpjumper – generally considered to be the first production MTB, and still going strong today. Tellingly, it was kitted out with some touring bike parts in the crank and brake department, along with gears from Suntour – another Osaka-based gearing company, which was enjoying a peak of popularity at this time.

There was a good reason for this mix; MTB-specific parts simply didn’t yet exist.

This being the case, perhaps just as important as the dawn of the mass-produced MTB (and I say this as a Stumpie owner) was the release of Shimano’s new XT groupset.

By the mid-80s Shimano had introduced SIS (Shimano Indexed Shifting) on both Dura-Ace and XT, ensuring slick and accurate shifts, and – particularly in the case of the fledging MTB market – cementing its position in the industry.

Effectively running Suntour out of the gearing market, the rest is history. Today Shimano is the pre-eminent MTB groupset manufacturer, with US-based SRAM nipping at its heels, while out on the roads, it continues to battle Campagnolo (and lately SRAM) for dominance, with all manufacturers commanding their own allegiances among followers.

Changing the game

Along the way, Shimano has changed the way we think about the integration of rider and machine.

One of the most significant innovations was the previously mentioned SIS indexing system, which in turn gave birth to the concept of entire drivetrains – from integrated shifters and brake levers, to the derailleurs they operate, and the cranks, cogs and chainrings which provide the power – optimised to work together in a seamless whole. This integration has both its defenders and its critics, as it leads to an undeniably slick, integrated system, but – at least in the short term – led to it driving out competition in the MTB market. These days, of course, it is facing renewed healthy competition from SRAM, which is pushing Shimano in both the MTB and road spheres.

Photo by ragnar1984

Another leap forward was the SPD pedal system. Introduced more than 20 years ago now, the Shimano Pedalling Dynamics system largely re-wrote clip-less systems, with a recessed cleat (meaning you could actually walk when not on the bike) and great reliability. Allowing for a more efficient and controlled interaction with the bike, SPDs changed the way the average rider looked at his machine.

It’s here; it’s bright; it’s now

And the innovations keep coming.

It’s 20 years now since the crowning glory of Shimano’s MTB range was born. While XT remains a value performance standard to this day, Shimano took the game one step further, by bringing an all-out race focus to its line-up.

photo by ragnar1984

The new flagship XTR group was beautifully finished, and offered a genuine performance boost over XT, with an eight-speed cassette, and a focus on weight saving unprecedented in the sport.

Over the years, it has been used to bring in a range of innovations, such as the splined ‘Octalink’ bottom bracket, which has trickled down on to other Shimano systems.

This year’s M980/985 XTR system brings still another new dynamic to the XTR world, with two complementary lines – one race-oriented, one trail – which can be mixed and matched to find the perfect balance. With the crankset redolent of a ninja’s throwing star, and a gleaming finish *(for example on the highly polished brake lever cylinders), the latest incarnation has seemingly gone beyond mere industrial smoothness to reaching a level of jewel-like perfection – ironically something which Campagnolo road parts have been renowned for.

Meanwhile, the big S has been shaking things up on the road over the last couple of years.

Photo by Toronto Rob

Di2, a relatively new introduction to the Dura-Ace system, has been dividing the technophiles from the purists with its revolutionary take on shifting. By using electric motors – rather than the mechanical pull of a cable – the derailleurs are said by some to provide a totally new level of performance in shifting, with incredibly slick, silent, accurate transitions between gears.

Despite being somewhat expensive, this sort of development is exciting to see, and who knows where it will go from here, given Shimano’s propensity to showcase its technological leaps on the upmarket systems, before rolling it out across other parts of its range.

Reflections on the future

I remember being confused initially by Shimano in my early days on a mountain bike. How come a new sport, one that was born in the USA, was dominated by a Japanese company? It seemed anathema to the brash image of the mountain bike (this was the early 90s, after all).

But on reflection, it makes perfect sense really. There is something inherently Japanese about Shimano products – intricate, yet clean; technologically advanced, but at the same time imbued with a simplicity – which is reflected in the best mountain bikes themselves.

Ride it! guest writer Rob Spedding highlighted a great quote from erstwhile Top Gear petrolhead James May, who memorably said that the bike “empowers the human machine”. As anyone who has tried Shimano’s faultlessly performing chainsets, shifters, sprockets and mechs will understand, the company’s products lie at the heart of this empowerment, converting our normally modest human input into something greater.