Are Shimano Gears the Best (and Why Are They So Popular)?
Shimano are a Japanese company, and world-leaders in supplying engineered moving components that are bolted or fixed onto a bicycle. Celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2021, with forecasted sales in 2022 of ¥580billion (£3.5billion/$4.3billion), this company has developed a market-leading reputation for quality and innovation.
What Does “Shimano” Mean on a Bike?
Shimano’s research and development budget for the last ten years to 2021 was £775m. When you buy a Shimano product, it means you’re investing in cutting-edge design, and precise, machine-tooled high grade metalwork, which takes the fine-tuning of changing gear on your ride out of your hands.
Shozaburo Shimano opened his first ironworks in Sakai City in February 1921. He began production of bicycle freewheels the year after. In 1957, the now incorporated company began production of an internal speed changer, also known as the three-speed hub. The company grew internationally from the 1960s onwards. They added a new line of indexed-gearing in the mid-70s.
Like many manufacturers of sporting goods, association with international success on the biggest stages can make or break you. The 1988 Giro D’Italia victory in road cycling was a first ‘Grand Tour’ win for the company, won by Andy Hampsten, an American riding for a US team. To put the cherry on the icing, the dominant player in the professional stable was home-grown Italian rival Campagnolo. Shimano had branched out into the US, a massively untapped market, just a few years before.
They gambled a significant amount on entering the mountain bike world in its infancy, and creating niche products designed for off-road use only. Knowing that mountain bikers needed to keep their hands on the handlebars most of the time, they introduced gear shifters just below the brake levers.
It’s not unreasonable to say that Shimano has revolutionised how gears are changed whilst riding a bicycle. We cannot imagine life without their gearing products. Before one of their most dazzling innovations, called SIS (Shimano Index System) gear-changing was a fiddly process, relying on the rider to fine tune their gear changing by hand, via a lever.
Engineers have created too many improvements and developments to list in one article. The best improvements Shimano makes to its high end gear systems usually ‘trickles down’ to the gearing that most of us use today. So, commuters and riders using a bicycle for pleasure benefit from Shimano’s investment at the top end.
Who Makes Shimano Gears?
Shimano manufactures its own gears. Reliability is important to gearing, and the specialised materials needed, plus testing to a sophisticated level, is best done where the company can make adaptable changes and incremental improvements. A company would lose this if the parts themselves were made off-site.
Shimano has been known to send its employees to manufacturing plants of the likes of Trek and Giant for months at a time, in order to learn what discerning cyclists might want in different parts of the world.
Where Are Shimano Gears Made?
Shimano keeps control of quality and precision via its main manufacturing plants in Kunshan (China), Malaysia, and Singapore. Riders should be reassured that precision and timing needed from the working parts in a gear change will be met consistently. The company knows that misaligned equipment affects your ride.
Shimano also has component factories in Indonesia, Taiwan, The Philippines and the Czech Republic.
How Do Shimano Gears Work?
Shimano makes gears right across the spectrum of cycling, from the DURA-ACE range aimed at the very best professional riders (who want weight saving and reliability), through to the Afline geared hub used for pootling around your neighbourhood. The essence of gear changing across all but the hub models is essentially the same.
When you use the shifter to move into a larger cog on your sprocket at the rear, or onto your larger chainring at the front, you are pulling on a cable causing the front or rear derailleur to move. This movement is reversed and the tension on the cable is released when you wish to move to a smaller cog on your sprocket or small chainring out front.
This process, while mechanical, once relied heavily on manual feel for the position of the chain on the sprocket to ensure efficiency, a quiet ride and to avoid the chain slipping off the cogs. Some control was available but only at the extremes of shifting, in the highest or lowest gears.
What Shimano has done in the past forty years or so, is introduce a set of engineering rules to take the manual load away from your fingers. The Shimano Index System we mentioned before came to the world in the mid 1980s. This controlled the movement of the cable precisely to fit with where the chain needed to be to align with the sprockets and chain rings. We have a look here at the precision needed in bicycle chain manufacture.
The next major innovation still used today was Shimano Total Integration – to bring the gear shift up onto the handlebars. This can be in the form of a button near to the brakes on a road bike, or just under the brake for mountain bikes or hybrids. This allows close control and maintains concentration as you can look ahead and brake / change gear with the same hand and at the same time.
The last ten years or so has seen the introduction of electronic gears which are indexed and machined so precisely that changing gear comes at the touch of a button and not the repeated clicking motion of a gear lever.
The year 2022 saw Shimano enter the world of semi-wireless shifting for its top end gear shifting. Communication between the levers and the rear derailleur is wireless via coin cells with the derailleurs wired to a central battery. Fully wireless shifting is likely to follow.
Are Shimano Gears the Best?
Shimano is easily the most effective and busily innovative gear manufacturer. They have an incredible reputation for quality and efficiency right across their range, and are used on over 70% of bikes manufactured across the globe.
Their gears are used by professional riders in most disciplines of cycling with phenomenal success, and have seen an unrivalled record of victories in the 21st century. Other manufacturers compete with them fiercely in the road discipline, but they have the urban and mountain bike gearing scenes almost (not fully) to themselves.
What gives most satisfaction is the way that the technologies and ideas born in the laboratories eventually makes its way down two or three tiers into the more reasonably priced range, that regular people might be interested in.
The functionality and quality of the engineering is at a high level, regardless of which range you land on. Shimano are constantly updating and improving their product lines, and the build materials of their gears are outstanding. They usually have a ready supply of replacement parts (because bikes don’t last forever) if needed, and their distribution network across the globe is solid.