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Shimano: Part Two

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Photographs: Taz Darling

“I have a unique way of looking at bicycles. A good bicycle and its components are beautiful things to me. I’m not just talking about the appearance, but also how the frame and components show the dreams of those who made them.”
Gianni Bugno
At 1, we often hear that we’re a bit stuck in the past. I wouldn’t say that is always the case, but is it such a bad thing anyway? Examining the past certainly allows us to see the present in a very different light, which is why this story, Shimano’s story of 1973, is worth telling and retelling.
Bike racing had a great year in 1973, and it also marked Shimano’s debut in the competitive world of pro cycling with sponsorship of a professional team and the emergence of its first Dura-Ace racing groupset. Quietly launched at bike shows the previous year, Dura-Ace raised a few eyebrows with its interesting mix Campagnolo Record-inspired components and a new rear derailleur design called the Crane. It was the first Japanese take on a very European preoccupation: the professional cyclist’s racing bicycle.
Shozaburo Shimano and Tullio Campagnolo both rose from impoverished backgrounds to oversee powerful bicycle companies, and they shared a similar love of engineering and bikes. They shook hands when they met; perhaps through all their hard work they had earned each other’s respect. But their meeting took place when the two companies were on a collision course following Shimano’s move into bicycle racing. Campagnolo couldn’t have been very worried at first, and why would it be? As a brand, Campagnolo was race-proven, so it had a massive technical advantage over Shimano, but more importantly it had massive clout. In the closed world of European racing, Tullio Campagnolo was a powerful man.
The more romantic cycling fans criticise Shimano’s lack of history and an absence of a racing legacy, pointing to the paucity of team support and success in major road races until Andy Hampsten’s 1988 victory in the Giro d’Italia began to loosen the Italian stranglehold. But in 1973, whether it was aware of it or not, Shimano had to try to break up European road racing’s huge monopoly, which was fiercely protected by the Italians. The only way to do that was to undertake a type of commitment that Shimano knew very little about: team sponsorship.
The fairly conservative Flandria could not have been a fussier team to sponsor. Its leaders were Walter Godefroot, the experienced Belgian champion, and rising star Freddy Maertens, the young, brash, hugely talented sprinter who could challenge Eddy Merckx in a sprint. And being from the heartland of Belgian cycling, the team expected to win.
Impressed by the surprisingly well-finished Dura-Ace groupset, Flandria’s influential equipment managers signed Shimano to kit out their bikes for the 1973 season, which helped to change the consensus view that the Japanese firm was destined for the utility market. Among the new developments, Shimano added a spring into the pivot bolt of the rear derailleur, allowing it to swing about its fixing point. This meant the derailleur could cope with larger variations in sprocket size, eventually leading to the servo-pantagraph system which became the derailleur norm. But in the 1970s, racing bikes used closer ratios, and the gears were smaller jumps, so the Campagnolo single pivot spring system coped better with the demands of the racing bicycle and environmental conditions; there was, quite simply, less to go wrong. As former Flandria team mechanic Freddy Hydens remembers: “We did have some problems. Those first Dura-Ace components were difficult to install and adjust and the chains kept coming off. It seemed riders never stopped complaining about the group.”
But Shimano was quietly ambitious and keen to learn more about road racing, so instead of making a PR fanfare to announce its arrival in Europe, the firm chose to simply circulate a few groupsets and drop a small band of mechanics and engineers into the deep end. The feedback took time. Shimano insisted on written reports from their representatives after every month of racing. One of those correspondents who sent information to the Sakai HQ was mechanic Hiroshi Nakumura, and he was clearly realistic about the components’ limitations. “My first impression of a European road race was one of complete mayhem,” Nakamura remembers. “It was not uncommon for components, Campagnolo and Shimano, to break, and I remember the beating that our Crane derailleurs took at Paris–Roubaix…”
But teething problems with Shimano’s new group was only part of the story. The real drama began at the world road race championships at the close of the season, an event which still provokes ferocious debate four decades later. And it was there that Tullio Campagnolo himself allegedly ignited the war between the two manufacturers.
The 1973 world champs was a hot and fiery affair held under the late summer Catalan sun. The gruelling 248-kilometre race saw the final grouping appear late in the day, with Spanish climbing ace Luis Ocaña, fresh from his Tour de France victory, joining Italian star Felice Gimondi. The select quartet was completed by two powerful Belgians: Merckx and Maertens. In any usual racing situation, this would result in a Belgian winning – after all, they had the numbers advantage over Gimondi, and Ocaña was no sprinter. So Belgium would win. Nailed-on.
But the race was not done. On the final lap of the Montjuïc circuit, Merckx made the break, leaving Maertens, Ocaña and Gimondi to chase. Naturally, Maertens could do nothing, so Gimondi and Ocaña had to pursue. Merckx was caught, and the quartet reached the final kilometre together. At this point, it would seem that Gimondi and Ocaña had the work to do, but Maertens, resplendent in Shimano-embroidered shorts, was having none of it. It may have been his nerves or perhaps his own will to win, but he charged for the line, unleashing a huge sprint with Merckx clinging to his wheel, and Gimondi in turn glued to Merckx. Maertens seemed naïve, perhaps making a fatal tactical error of judgement, but Merckx inexplicably faded. He seemingly threw in the towel, leaving Maertens to just look over his shoulder and wonder: what the hell has happened to Eddy? Gimondi, not usually known for his powerful sprint, especially in this company, beat both of them, winning for Italy and Campagnolo. Maertens silver, Ocaña bronze and Merckx, noticeably demoralised, finished in fourth place.
So what happened? Did Eddy sit up? Was he off-colour? Had Merckx and Gimondi done a deal? Had Maertens and Gimondi done a deal? Was Maertens wrong to sprint first? Should he have gone easier in the lead-out for Merckx? Had the Belgians just failed to communicate? The arguments rage on to this day, especially in Belgian bars, but no one has provided a decent explanation of what really happened or why. Even now, all of the protagonists say little on the matter, and Ocaña has since passed away, so it’s unlikely that we will ever know the real truth. Perhaps a conspiracy theorist would have a simpler explanation – as Rik Van Walleghem hinted at in his biography of Eddy Merckx, there may have been greater powers at work that day…
“Freddy Maertens and Walter Godefroot were in a car familiarising themselves with the course the day before the 1973 world championship in Montjuïc, when a car containing Tullio Campagnolo came alongside. Campagnolo asked who was going to win the championship. Godefroot pointed to Maertens and said: ‘This one.’ Campagnolo said: ‘Oh God, no. Not him. He rides with Shimano parts.’”
The events surrounding Belgium’s defeat sealed Shimano’s place as a competitor to Europe’s traditional racing brands. But unlike Simplex, Huret or Campagnolo, the Japanese took an original approach to product development, and if Tullio’s reaction to Godefroot’s predictions was anything to go by, they had him worried, too. So unlike Campagnolo, which was seemingly unquestionable, Shimano was listening hard, as Hydens is keen to point out: “They were eager to hear criticism of the components from the mechanics and riders. They knew the group would only be a success if it satisfied the people who used it.”
As 1973 ended and Merckx and Maertens began their 30-year spat, Shimano’s engineers headed home with a season’s-worth of feedback and criticisms. They worked harder on refinements and returned for Flandria’s final season in the red jerseys. During the following decade, Campagnolo continued to dominate the peloton, with race support and team sponsorship being its main marketing concerns. But the Italian company had all but ignored Shimano’s launch into their 80 per cent market share, and unlike Shimano, Campagnolo’s presence at the races was usually in the VIP car, not at the mechanic’s side. So Shimano plugged away with engineering and listening to the riders, and although its rider-inspired development may have kept a low profile over the next few decades, the attention to detail was welcome.
Johan Museeuw, who rode Shimano for much of his racing career, said: “Bicycle racers often complain and demand performance from their bicycles that is not yet possible. I’ve noticed that Shimano is always willing to listen to what I have to say about their components, even when I complain. I like the fact that there’s always someone from Shimano around that I can talk to about the bike.”
Interestingly, one of Shimano’s notable marketing moves during the last century was to ditch the quaint, bird-inspired names of their early derailleurs and switch to numbered suffixes for Dura-Ace. No longer did we have the Skylark, the Pecker and the Eagle, which is a shame, as these evocative product names may have perhaps warmed the hearts of the more romantic European racers. But the Crane derailleur was nevertheless the bird that challenged Campagnolo to improve its own Super Record – and if the Japanese groupset had won in 1973, that bird may have flown a slightly different path.
Nothing changes much at Shimano. The guys who got the ball rolling in the ’70s are still there, and all the staff we met had been at Shimano for most of their working lives, employed as development engineers, then managers, then directors. Masahiko Jimbo was once on the circuit in Europe, testing prototypes and developing ideas with the professionals; now, after more than 30 years’ service, he is director of marketing. Like Jimbo, Hiroshi Nakamura worked as a mechanic in Europe and returned to Japan, where he is now director of Shimano’s bicycle museum.
Such lifelong allegiance to a company is, of course, pretty standard practice in Japan. But this is also what makes Team Shimano a fascinating machine, as this loyalty also makes the firm highly effective. For example, a handful of guys control its entire worldwide marketing. I can think of several bike companies that have 20 or more marketing executives, and here is Shimano, the biggest bike company in the world, with a marketing team that would fill a phone box. But, as marketing and PR man Harald Troost from Shimano’s European headquarters explains, this is how it does things. “The product always comes first. The idea is that when we make the product really outstanding, both in technical performance and in design, huge marketing efforts are no longer needed. The quality of the products is the best PR tool that we have.”
So if you walk across the Shimano complex from the marketing offices and enter the engineering department, you will meet hundreds of bright young engineers testing products that we have yet to know about. Ideas and prototypes, not marketing and advertising, are Shimano’s business, yet the frustration is that it’s difficult to get Shimano to sing its own praises. As Troost told me: “It is impossible for me to get a quote from a Japanese engineer, since they don’t want to be in the foreground. In that sense, they are not promoting themselves in the way we are used to, here in Europe and even more so in the USA.”
Shimano’s team support has increased since 1973, when, in the pro peloton, one team rode Shimano, three rode Simplex or Huret, and nine teams rode Campagnolo. By the time Shimano took its first Grand Tour, the odds had evened up a little. But for 2010, the split is even more intriguing: six teams are on Shimano (Sky, Columbia-HTC, Rabobank, Garmin-Transitions, Française des Jeux and Euskaltel-Euskadi) with 80 per cent of them using the Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset. Campagnolo also sponsors six ProTour teams (Katusha, Liquigas, Quick Step, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Caisse d’Epargne and Lampre). SRAM, the new kid on the block, is the most likely to achieve a Grand Tour victory, and it too has six ProTour teams on its roster (Ag2r, Astana, Footon-Servetto, Milram, RadioShack, and Saxo Bank). Shimano seems unperturbed by the latest addition to the peloton and will continue its annual exodus to Europe, to observe, listen and develop. Troost is certain that the company remains determined. “They’ll do anything, anything, that can help them to get an understanding of racing conditions and racers’ needs. It’s really hard to imagine, but the engineers come to the races in Europe and ask questions, they watch and learn, then they go back to Japan and a year later they come up with something that blows you away.”
It’s rather early in the morning on day three of our visit to Shimano’s HQ in Osaka, but already we’ve seen the factory, the museum, and we’ve met the boss, Yozo Shimano. We’ve seen Dura-Ace cranks being polished and stickered, and we’ve even seen a pristine 1973 Flandria team bike. Now we want to see the workers arrive and how they go about their work, because I still haven’t quite managed to answer the question of how much of a faceless a multinational company Shimano really is, or isn’t.
Another, slightly tangential, observation on Japanese culture is that their taxis have a distinct look. They are usually immaculate 1980s-style Toyota Crowns, colourful and old-skool, with chrome wing mirrors attached to the wings, lace-edged seat covers and (a modern twist) a back door that springs open automatically. The taxi drivers always stress you should not try to slam the door shut – the result is something akin to trying to freewheel on a fixed wheel bike and getting a mule kick from the drive chain. A feather duster is in the boot and the driver wears white cotton gloves. It is like travelling with your grandparents in a museum-piece car and they don’t trust you to leave the door handles alone.
As we arrive, wrestling with the taxi door handles, Shimano is already at full speed. There are plenty of bikes passing by with riders clad in Shimano’s standard-issue blue jackets. They are riding a mix of high-end road bikes, mountain bikes and trekking bikes – a true cross-section of Shimano’s global market. And those blue jackets and caps – this is the aspect that is almost expected of a Japanese company, but the facelessness is not just because they are big, but because they are united. As Troost explains: “Nobody will tell you that he is the designer or engineer for Dura-Ace or whatever, as it is always a team effort. Which is why everybody, including the president, wears the blue jackets and cap with ‘Team Shimano’ embroidered on it. It is way of saying that everybody is equally important inside Shimano – no matter what kind of job you have. But it is one of those typical Japanese contradictions, because on the other hand there is a very strict hierarchy in Japanese companies in which employees are used to staying late in the office just in case the manager might need them. Also, when somebody higher in rank enters a room, the other Japanese will stand up and bow their heads as a sign of respect. Respect is one of the key words in Japanese society, and also inside Shimano.”
There are around a thousand workers at Shimano’s Sakai works, and of those almost half ride to work from all around Osaka. As we stumble around the security gates, we witness an incredible sight: workers are arriving (on time, of course), laughing, chatting and wondering what we are up to – but never stopping to ask, as that would be impolite. Some dismount cyclo-cross style; others, less athletically, push their bikes into the hallway. They stop and walk (because there’s a sign that tells them so) then they park their bikes neatly in a bike warehouse and leave quietly for work. The pavilion building at the factory, which has the look of a concrete bees’ nest, is where the workers enter the company, store their bikes, visit the onsite union office, take a bath (very important in Japan) and eat their lunch. It’s a workers’ space, well away from the noise of the factory and the bustle of the offices. It is organised, unified and confined – very Japanese, very civilised.
Japanese drinks machines are pretty civilised, too. They wouldn’t stay put or be working for very long anywhere else in the world, yet here they are on practically every street corner. Actually, of all the things you will see in Japan, this is another thing that defines their culture: a precariously positioned supply of a demand, left in the trust of the public, day and night. Luckily for us, these machines supply quite drinkable hot coffee in a can. I bump into Masamitsu Ehara, the manager of corporate communications, at the coffee machine. He has just parked his race bike and tells the anxious-looking security guard that we’re OK. Ehara chaperons us in the cold, sipping Mountain Blend from a hot can as we watch hundreds more workers arriving. We chat about him riding against Chris Boardman at the Barcelona Olympics, and he modestly downplays his ride as he recalls being far more interested in the Englishman’s bike than his own performance. Our contact Tetsuo Nishioka, the blue-coated advertising and promotions manager, is running a little late, or we might be too early. Either way, as TN arrives by bike, Ehara bids us farewell, and we’re done taking pictures soon after.
TN had explained to me the day before that he had cleared his diary completely so he could greet us and look after us for the few days that we visited Shimano – a true compliment. He had no idea why we wanted to see all this happen, the museum, the canteen, the engineering departments, or the factory for that matter, but he was there, listening to our bizarre demands and helping fix things up for us. As always, he waited quietly and patiently, until our work was done – such are the Japanese, such is Shimano.

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