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Shimano at 100 vs Shimano at 80: anniversary books of the world's biggest bike component maker compared

The Japanese giant is celebrating a very significant birthday this year... so what's changed since Shimano turned 80? We try to find out through comparing its snazzy 80th and 100th anniversary promo books

Throughout 2021 Shimano will be busy celebrating its first 100 years of existence. To capitalise on that, this year would be a logical time to announce the highly-anticipated new Dura-Ace components; although since the opportunity of a Tour de France-timed launch has now passed, Shimano might now be holding off until the Eurobike show at the end of August.

> Your complete guide to Shimano road bike groupsets

Until then, we are left with a dedicated website to help with the fun. As we reported at the time, that website hosted a lottery, where winners had the opportunity to buy one of 2,000 copies of a set of special commemorative books.

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Since the 50th anniversary, Shimano has actually produced something similar every 10 years, but they are only really intended for internal use by ‘Team Shimano’, and are rarely made available to the public. I was working for Shimano’s UK distributor back in 2001, and have a copy of the books produced for the 80th anniversary, ‘Pursuit of Dreams’. That gives us a great opportunity to compare what Shimano was saying then and now: from a time when 9-speed was still trickling down the ranges, to now, with that same process underway for (what we presume will be) 12-speed.

Naturally the website has some overlap with the books. If you were wondering about the purpose of the short poem, be warned that is only a flavour of the insipid corporate guff that Shimano can do so well. There are plenty more meaningless platitudes in the books.

However, the books also offer a lot of fascinating insights into Shimano’s past. Even though the Japanese culture doesn’t normally like to ‘lose face’, which would include admitting to mistakes, there is no attempt to gloss over things that didn’t go according to plan – although there is not quite the same openness as in 'To Make Riders Faster' by Anna Dopico, for example, which tells the sometimes turbulent story of Cervélo’s history. 

It’s inevitable that not every new product introduction will be successful. If you have an active R&D department, spending 115.7 billion yen (£775 million) over the last decade, you have to expect a few failures – but they have been far outweighed by the successes.

Two more things strike you: not only has it taken a long time for Shimano to get to the level it is at now, but it really is a seriously big and complex beast, featuring in the top 60 most valuable Japanese companies – close to Canon and Olympus, for example.

Taking care of business

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Let’s take a look as some of the financials. There was a lot more detail back in 2001, but perhaps it was deemed too commercially sensitive to reveal that the category of derailleurs accounted for 30.3% of all sales value for example, or brakes 3.8%, so that sort of information is now absent.

Back then, the bicycle side of the business accounted for 72.7% of the 131.5 billion yen total (£750 million approximately), whereas now it is 79.8% of 363.2 billion yen (£2.4 billion); the fishing division has dropped back a bit from 25.1% to 20%. That gives cycling a slightly bigger slice of a considerably bigger pie, and that will only have increased over the last year – and it may well have exceeded the previous record, set in 2015.

Shimano is rightly proud of its cold-forging abilities, which is a fantastic process that “makes the ideal possible” – and requires enormous capital investment. Shimano undertakes cold-forging for other businesses, and at 2.2% this was significant enough to be reported separately in 2001. Nowadays everything that isn’t cycling or fishing is in a category called ‘other’, at only 0.2% - and that includes golf and rowing revenue as well.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.

Golf? Yep, “Shimano’s carbon rod technology used in fishing tackle translates to the production of shafts, and the processing technology for making bicycle components led to metal head production.” That was the original idea, and the resulting Ultegra-branded drivers appeared in 2001. They were beautiful, and possibly even effective, but might have been handicapped by the slogan “More accurately, more distantly”.

Despite the initial “strong hopes for the future of this new system”, the 100th books reveal that Shimano terminated the business in 2004 – only to start making shafts again in 2014, “supported by the trend that users customise the combination of a head and a shaft.”

Just as the golf business benefitted from Shimano’s production abilities, they tried to use a specific technology to enter the snowboard business... SPD. In conjunction with American ski brand K2, “in 1998 Shimano developed the Shimano HB boot binding system”, which “immediately caught on”; however, it turned out to be harder than they thought, and again we now know that by 2009 Shimano had withdrawn from the market.

Sharing in success

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Fortunately, that same technology is having greater success in the sport of rowing, which Shimano entered in 2008. SRD stands for Shimano Rowing Dynamics: it may seem strange to cyclists, but apparently one of the difficulties they are finding is that “many rowers were not ready to accept the idea of having their own shoes”!

Not only has the Fishing business been successful in its own right, there has been a fair amount of sharing between it and the bicycle side – from technology to production methods.

As an example, the idea of the AX-series aero-focussed cycle components was ahead of its time in 1980, and didn’t last long – thanks in part to incompatibility with regular components. However, the fishing division “considered that an aerodynamic technology could be applied to rods and reels for long-distance casting”, and that continues today in models like the Super Aero Titanium.

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Back when STI levers were introduced in 1990, Shimano were able to draw on previous experience with fishing reels to manage the precision and complexity required: today they boast of “a less than 0.6 micrometer deviance in gear teeth” inside a typical reel, with 149 components. Unfortunately, this also means that STI levers share another attribute with fishing reels; they are very complicated and normally work incredibly well, but “with a single piece gone it will not function. Not a single piece is compromised.”

Or to put it another way... don’t even think about trying to take one part for repair! 

What’s in a name?

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Perhaps learning a lesson from 20 years ago, Shimano have scaled right back on the interviews this time. Under the heading of “Talking about the Dreams of Sport and Technology”, back then there were interviews with various American sports stars in which they all seem to ‘blow smoke up each other’s ass’.

Interviews that stands the test of time are those with Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher, who were instrumental in persuading Shimano to “bet the whole company on the idea” of specific mountain bike components – a bet that paid off handsomely.

Perhaps what convinced them not to repeat the interviews was the one with Lance Armstrong. After being “the first Shimano-equipped rider to win the Tour” in 1999, and then successfully defending his title, he had “made everyone at Shimano very happy”, because it was “a brilliant achievement in the history of bicycle racing.” Now, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t get a mention.

It goes further; it looks like they are trying not to be associated with any particular rider, but to focus on the teams instead. Previously they mentioned several names in the Flandria team that was using the first Dura-Ace components, including “Freddy Maertens finishing second in the overall world rankings.” This time, it was noted that “the ace rider of the team won the silver medal at the UCI Road World Championships.” Once bitten, and all that.

Sign of the times

Shimano has produced a lot of sumptuous pictures and videos over the years, and many of them have been made available in the ‘gift’ section of the anniversary website, rather than being part of the set of books.

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Twenty years ago internet connections wouldn’t have been up to the job of distribution, so ‘Pursuit of Dreams’ includes a CD-ROM (for Windows only) of videos and … other things, probably. I suspect like most people, I don’t have the means to play such a thing any more, and I can’t remember what was on it.

(For younger readers, CDs preceded downloads and streaming, and are now a little used means of distributing data; they were once the future, replacing tapes and floppy discs!)

Next time

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What will Shimano be reporting on in 10 years’ time, and will Covid-19 get a mention?

Based on past performance, I think Shimano will highlight the positives of any new investment and factory openings, which have featured regularly throughout the history covered in all books – rather than the negatives of demand outpacing supply, as has happened recently.

> An end to the global bike component shortage? Shimano invests £216 million in expanding production

You might expect the factory closures imposed on the company as a result of Covid-19 regulations to be covered, but what else? There was a suitable category for miscellaneous newsworthy events called ‘The world at large’ in the ‘Pursuit of Dreams’ books, but it was an unusual collection of stories and it was not repeated this time around.

This section mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for example, and the introduction of the euro in 1999; however, it also included the more local interest news that “Japan sets its fishery limit at 200 nautical miles from its coasts” in 1977, or “the non-performing loans held by city banks total 2.3 trillion yen” in 1992 – so it really was an eclectic mix that felt a bit out of place.

We know that Shimano “continues its search for a new business area that would comply with its corporate vision,” so there might be some news on that front - along with the regular flow of technical developments in existing categories that Shimano always achieves so well.

Even though Shimano’s core business is often under attack, you wouldn’t want to bet against Shimano’s continued success. In 10 years’ time Shimano is still likely to feature strongly in our cycling lives, and ‘Shimano at 110’ will still have lots to cover – how many new generations of Dura-Ace will be launched over the next decade? 

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