When I ride my first bike, many components of it were made by different companies.
Nowadays, you can buy or build a bike that is built on Shimano or Sram components, minus the frame. Well, sort of – Shimano does not own a fork brand, yet.
Shimano makes all drivetrains, plus under the “Pro” brand, they make saddles, seat posts, cockpit components, headsets. And you’ll look posh on your bike with Pearl Izumi clothing and shoes, which are also owned by Shimano.
Sram owns Rock Shox to absorb bumps, Avid to stop you, Truvativ to pedal. Looks like Avid and Truvativ will cease to exist as discrete brand names as I do not see Avid branded components anymore, and its unique design already adopted by Sram brake components.
Even Sram is big on MTB in the USA, where riders don’t like to pedal and ride downhill to the parking lot, Shimano is still big with MTB components, and almost unrivaled with road components.
Sram is rather new, they do not exist before 1986 when Shimano already established its name.
Yet, what makes Shimano so common is a different story.
Shimano already made huge deals with manufacturers, supplying the cheapest line (Tourney) up to Dura-Ace (road) and XTR (MTB). This is a huge line-up. Campagnolo did not bother to compete with Shimano, partly they didn’t think they can match the quality of Records, Super Records, etc. In fact, in the past, “Made in Japan” was not much different than “Made in PRC” these days.
But then, things changed. Japanese government regulated the exports, imposed heavy regulations on products.
Let me tell you a story: If you have a good quality lens like Nikon, Canon, Olympus, or Konica / Minolta made before 1989, you may see a gold color sticker, “PASSED” – This is known as JDMC/JCII, endorsed by the Japanese government to lens manufacturers in Japan. Since the 1960s, Japanese photo equipment was so good that most photojournalists adapted Japanese equipment, at much lower prices than German competitors. They became so dominant that even big German manufacturers like Zeiss and Voigtländer went bankrupt – even today, they are owned and produced by a Japanese firm, Cosina!
“VIA” (“Vehicle Inspection Association”)
If you are repairing, at least, maintaining your bike, you should come across “VIA” letters in some parts.
VIA stands for “Vehicle Inspection Association”, which sounds like a vehicle emission testing facility, but in Japan, things are more “regulated” – quoting from their website:
“Japan Vehicle Inspection Association (VIA) is a neutral and public organization aiming for improving the consumer safety and environment through providing the test and inspection services on vehicle emission, bicycles, helmets, etc.”
So, in a way, VIA is a seal of approval, much like that “PASSED” sticker. The Japanese government, after WWII, encouraged industry to manufacture top-notch, yet affordable products, both for domestic or export markets. They needed foreign cash badly, but they succeeded.
Since Shimano also makes fishing equipment, they share know-how amongst product lines. like fishing reels. Your socket wrench and fishing reel have something in common with your rear hub: they all have ratchets! Surprisingly, fishing equipment production and design require lots of material science.
Unlike anywhere else, with the intervention of VIA, Japan had standards for bike parts. Combined with the Japanese government backing export, it’s not a surprise that Shimano ventured into the world and conquered it.
Japan in general, had some leverage that most western countries didn’t have at the time: people were poorer compared to the west, but proud and ambitious. Labour was cheap but generally well-motivated. Still, Japanese factories are “living” places, unlike post-Skynet facilities that the west has: some production is still labor-intensive, which is Japanese people is very proud of. I had a Yahama service for a brief period but met some Japanese engineers from the factory. Also had a chance to see how the Japanese make it different – what I see is, they don’t jump into “fresh ideas” immediately before testing intensively. Western (or Chinese) products appear fancier and better than they are, while Japanese counterparts are rock solid, humble, and without unnecessary frills.
Of course, the Kaizen mindset itself is not enough to build multibillion-dollar hegemonic corporations. Japan loves 2 wheel vehicles, be it a utility bicycle or a Hayabusa superbike. It’s important for startups to grow in their own country first, so they can build the capital to venture into foreign markets, and of course, fund research and design.
In a fight, who hits first generally wins the fight. Shimano generally don’t throw the first punch, but they hit heftily. Shimano released its first derailleur in 1956, 7 years after Tullio Campagnolo introduced the first, modern parallelogram rear derailleur. The gap may seem long; but 60-70 years ago, market was not quick to react as today. There were many small companies, producing in smaller scale. They went out of business, including Suntour, Sachs, Huret, to name a few, because it was only Shimano, Campagnolo and Sram (after 1986) that acted fast enough to build integrated, complete groupsets.
Shimano was a cheaper brand when competing with Campagnolo in road bikes, but not inferior. The real leap (at least, first 2 ones) for Shimano was S.I.S (Shimano Indexed Shifting) and introduction of STI shifters, which had huge advantages over downtube shifters. (Actually, indexed shifter was a Suntour invention, but popularised by Shimano).
It’s 1970’s that made Shimano big. Bike sales boomed in USA, but European manufacturers cannot supply the orders and the prices were high. Suntour and Shimano fulfilled the demand. Meanwhile, Campagnolo was doing nothing. It was not a treat anymore. It was Suntour that challenging Shimano, which went bankrupt, after Shimano introduced STI shifters, and being a big supplier, Shimano forced bike builders to buy complete Shimano groupsets.
Shimano was winning the game, as their “cheap” road groupset were better and cheaper then Campagnolo. This marginalised Campagnolo into being a more boutique, high-end, and expensive competitor.
MTB’s are booming, especially in USA, in 1980’s. Shimano reacted fast, and they introduced first MTB-dedicated groupset, Deore XT, my favorite groupset for MTB in 1982.And they keep doing it. Lots of releases, lots of component levels. When SRam entered the ring in 1986, it got fierce.
Still, Shimano have a broader range of groupsets compared to Sram.
Shimano did not build the first electronic groupset; but they build the most successful one. Shimano is not an early adopter, but likes to fire multiple shots when they believe they are ready.
Being a high volume producer with massive product range from cheapest to highest level (and price) components, they do not have to try too hard to keep competition at bay. Sram looks a bit popular on MTB range in USA, but Shimano leads almost everwhere, in every discipline. Their cash flow is 3x-4x of Sram at worst, and can easily make deals with bike manufacturers, continue to keep the brand before eyes and competitive. Having a better cash flow means getting raw materials cheaper, producing cheaper, and keeping bike industry well supplied under any circumstances.
In my country, Sram is poorly represented. Range is very limited, and prices are high compared to Shimano.
Shimano established its name, because it was consistent.
Until 10-speed, all Shimano groupsets, whether road or MTB, was strictly compatible with each other, except cranksets and cassettes – take a 8-speed Deore XT rear derailleur, and couple it with Claris road shifters – it will happily work. This made life easier for all; bike shops, cyclists, even manufacturers. Why not? Get a huge stock of, say, 8 speed Altus, and pair it with Claris road groupsets if MTB sales goes down.
SRAM’s first road groupset was 10 speed, and unlike Shimano’s 10 speed, road and mtb pull ratios are same. That changed when they released 11 speed. Thing is, they’re late to the party. Because almost everyone got used to Shimano meanwhile.
You can go to a Shimano shop, and buy everything from clothing to electronic groupset. They made good deals with manufacturers, and then they moved to individual cyclists. SRAM also have a lot of good brands under his belt, but they’re missing a clothing line, and a lots of shops compared to Shimano.