The Japanese brand is synonymous with speed and precision engineering, but how did it reach such giddy heights?
So, what groupset is your bike rocking?
Accounting for 70-80% global sales of groupsets (for the uninitiated, that’s the brakes, gears, driveset and other components), the answer is likely to be Shimano. The Japanese firm is the biggest manufacturer of bicycle components in the world, rising to dominance in the 1990s, driven by its controversial tactic of making integrated parts that only work with each other and no other brand.
Not new then?
It was founded by Shozaburo Shimano in 1921 making freewheels in Japan, and was able to jump in during the 1970s US bike boom when Europe couldn’t meet demand. It now also makes fishing, snowboarding and rowing gear, has 49 subsidiary firms and employs over 11,000 people.
Cheap and cheerful kit?
No. It has a basic range, but its 105 mid-range groupset is revered by consumers, and the vast majority of Tour de France bikes use its top-end Dura-Ace.
Aren’t we in a bike boom now?
Not so much. The number of miles cycled in 2018 in the UK – 3.33bn – was 32% higher than 20 years ago, but trips made up just 1% of all vehicular journeys. In 1949 more than 14bn miles were cycled. That said, the bike components market is expected to be worth more than $6.7bn by 2026.
I thought we were all meant to be cycling to cut congestion and climate change?
Research in the Austrian city of Graz showed a reduction in car journeys, from 44% to 30% of all trips, would result in 30% fewer traffic jams and 25% less pollution. The irony behind the biggest barrier to riding – people don’t feel safe in traffic – is that as the number of cyclists increases, the accident rate falls.
So, how can Shimano stay at the front of the peloton?
R&D. The firm spends massively to stay at the cutting edge. It invented index gear shifters, which move the chain across the derailleur by set degrees with a click, and is constantly refining its products. It introduces new tech to its top-end groupsets, which are debuted in professional races before being sold to customers for high-end bikes, and then passed onto standard-class components and sold in the mass market.
A little bit fishy
Shimano’s second biggest market is fishing. But the sale of reels, rods, lines and accessories make up 19% of the company’s business – that’s still small fry compared to the 80% that comes from bicycle parts.