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Shimano / IMBA Story

By Miles Frank

As longtime supporters of the great folks over at IMBA, we wanted to get with one of their highest caliber supporters at Shimano and check in on their side of trails in the USA. So I got on the phone with Joe Lawwill from Shimano USA who filled us in on some of the history and the future of mountain bike riding with IMBA initiatives!

1. Shimano makes stellar products. Can you tell us how long the company has been involved in mountain biking?

Believe it or not the Shimano is just now celebrating its 100th year of producing bicycle parts! It all started with a free-wheel in 1921! On March 23, the official anniversary date, Shimano launched a special centennial website publicly highlighting product and technology achievements from the past 100 years: Shimano's Centennial Special Site | SHIMANO.

The 100th anniversary site has a great timeline detailing many of the significant achievements the brand has delivered. It’s actually quite amazing just how many significant technologies came from Shimano that we pretty much take for granted today. Things like index shifting, SPD shoes and pedals, Hyperglide, and most recently Hyperglide+ which lets you shift under load and enjoy amazing chain retention and smooth pedaling.

However to specifically answer your question the first legit mountain bike specific group was the Deore XT M700 Series in 1982. It was touted as “Rugged, high performance, with superb riding comfort”. It had above the bar thumb shifters with audible clicks controlling a 6-speed rear cassette and a front friction shifter controlling a triple chain ring giving a total of 18 gears. Considering some of the gears probably crossed over its funny to think that you really only had around 12 different gear combos which ironically is what we all consider as the norm almost 40 years later.

2. We’ve seen a great increase in cycling, both youth and adult, how do you think the sport will evolve in the offroad / trail segment?

We are literally seeing it re-blossom before our eyes. It’s reminiscent of the days when I first started riding mountain bikes back in 1990. Mountain biking was exploding with new bike brands, trick handmade anodized parts, new events, new magazines, and events like the Mammoth Kamikaze which saw thousands of people showing up year after year. I vividly remember seeing lines of hundreds of cyclists waiting to get on the gondola wearing a mix of lycra and skateboard pads to descend down the infamous Kamikaze downhill generally on very ill-equipped early mountain bikes ranging from hard tails to “futuristic” bikes touting up to 3” of suspension travel. The crashes were unreal! It was an exciting time!

Over the years mountain biking ebbed and flowed and people faded in and out of riding on a regular basis. The bikes were truthfully pretty far off the mark and many were downright dangerous. The number of broken collarbones back then was alarming to say the least.

The bike brands knew they had to evolve and they certainly did. It didn’t take long till we saw 6-, 7-, and 8-inch travel Downhill bikes that were great going downhill, but were un-rideable up hill and cross-country bikes were so focused on being fast uphill that those bikes were less than inspiring going downhill. There just were not that many bikes that bridged the two extremes that were both affordable and capable. Racing also hit snags and things didn’t look too good for a while. Several bike brands recognized the need for bikes that were capable of going down as well as up and brands like Santa Cruz Bicycles offered bikes like the Heckler which was a good compromise for the time. Bikes evolved at a torrid pace as did the Shimano components. It wasn’t long before a new category was born called “Trail Bikes” that later evolved into what we call “Enduro Bikes”. As trail bikes grew in popularity the sport of Enduro began to take hold and now finally there was a place to race “trail bikes” that would push these bikes to the limits. Racing is key to pushing the development of bikes and can thank Enduro racing for the amazing trail bikes that we are riding today.

When I started at Shimano 10 years ago one of my main goals was to develop and support Enduro racing and the head office in Japan understood this and got behind this initiative. We began supporting key Enduro events like the Oregon Enduro Series and later the Big Mountain Enduro Series and the Enduro World Series (EWS). These early events were perfect testing grounds for Shimano and much of the reason we have such amazing products today. What was and is continually learned and developed through Enduro racing directly contributes to what we are all riding today. Shimano continues to support several Enduro race series including the Big Mountain Enduro Series (BME), the Cascadia Cup, Trans Cascadia and is the official drivetrain, brakes and E-Bike drive unit of the Enduro World Series which has been running top level events for several years and is recognized as the premier Enduro racing series in the world. The EWS is what I consider to be one the most important MTB race series on the planet right now.

3. With so many trail builders and projects across the US, how did Shimano decide on backing IMBA for multiple years?

You are correct that there are so many great projects and builders out there and almost every region has something cool happening. Our support of IMBA is not to take away from any of that.

Shimano’s main goal for all advocacy actions (Bike and Fish) is access. Full stop. IMBA is uniquely positioned to advocate for and protect access at a federal level and to magnify and amplify actions at a state level. So much of the spaces that mountain bikers use is on Federal and State lands (USFS, BLM, etc.) Having an organization like IMBA working on access is a force magnifier and ensures that any of the great work being done locally is not in danger from Federal or state actions.

Additionally, because there is so much great work being done on the ground, IMBA can help share those stories and actions as best practice to other areas.

4. Finally, with more trails available, which trail system are you most eager to sample in the next few years?

I absolutely love the Pacific Northwest and am always looking for excuses to get out there. Bellingham, WA in particular is awesome, but one place that I have not spent enough time at is Sandy Ridge in Oregon. The IMBA site has a great video that gives you a good idea of the amazing terrain and all the hard work that goes into making the trails amazing. Trail creation & enhancement | IMBA

Also, on that link you will see info about the “Dig In” Campaign that Shimano founded. We are very happy that we are in a position to support such a program and I would highly encourage everyone to follow the “dig in” link to get the full details on the program!

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