Total integration, total revolution: How Shimano’s STI shifting changed cycling

Keizo Shimano revolutionised racing with the development of STI shifting. And no one who knew him was surprised

By the time Shimano launched its Total Integration system — now a major part of cycling’s lexicon as STI — Keizo Shimano must have been hearing small clicks in his dreams. He must have heard chains whizzing across cogs faster than ever before, finally clicking home and cutting off silently to relent to the whir of rubber on pavement and hard breathing, a dazzling symphony of humanity and machinery. 

STI was, after all, three years in the making. Keizo had time to obsess.  

Click. Click. Release… In 1990, with Keizo’s brainchild now in the hands of pro racers, even his dreams couldn’t portend the revolution he had unleashed on the cycling world.

Indeed, STI changed everything, from bike design to race tactics. A rider could now shift and brake from the same hand position and ditch the dangerous motion necessary to reach downtube shifters. No more did a rider need to look under his arm to confirm into what gear the chain had settled. Keizo’s seamless creation actually achieved the relentless cliché: STI was, and still is, a true gamechanger. And it was borne from stillness. 

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Before the introduction of STI levers, Shimano Dura-Ace relied on downtube shifters, such as these on the 1984 Dura-Ace 7400

A click to stay put

It’s strange to think of it – an invention borne from the idea of keeping a rider from moving. But that’s exactly what Keizo Shimano’s brainchild did. Before STI came along, riders had a lot of moving to do, which paradoxically would slow them down. 

“At that time Campy was the standard of course,” says Hennie Stamsnijder, Shimano’s Sports Marketing Manager. He would know – Stamsnijder’s palmarès includes an appearance at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, a cyclo-cross world championship title in 1981, and a few laps around France in 1980 and 1981 in the Tour de France. Stamsnijder knew what it took to go fast, and when index shifting hit the scene, it was clear Shimano could deliver on true technological advancement that benefitted the rider immediately and directly.

Olympic cyclo-cross rider Hennie Stamsnijder is Shimano's Sports Marketing Manager, and worked with Shimano throughout the development of the STI shifting system when racing

“It was friction shifting on the downtube, and that was of course a headache,” Stamsnijder says. “You had to look backwards if your derailleur was in the right position. There was no index at that time. Suddenly Shimano came up with index shifting, which was, in my cyclo-cross period, a new way of shifting. It was precise. That was already a big change and a step forward in shifting gears.” 

Like any winning move in a race, index shifting was only the positioning that led to the big attack. Keizo was thinking ahead to the next attack for years. As riders got used to indexed shifting, Keizo was already testing prototypes of what would become STI: indexed shifting, integrated neatly into the brake levers. 

Maybe Keizo knew that racing was about to change forever. Maybe the promise of a new era of racing was enough to sustain him through years of developing, testing, refining, testing again, refining again. The payoff was grand, of course. But it took some convincing. Races are steeped in history, and riders often stick closely to that same history before seeing the benefits of the future. 

Stamsnijder has a vast collection of bikes and historic Shimano components in his home near Enschede, in the Netherlands.

“Once you know that STI shifting is precise shifting, you can look further,” Stamsnijder says of Keizo’s relentless pursuit of the next breakthrough after indexed shifting. “That’s what Keizo really did. He was completing the story by shifting gears and braking in the same position. With index shifting, especially on climbs when you were pushing the pedals, you had to sit down and change the gears. You couldn’t stand with one hand on the bars and shift the gears. With STI, this was all possible. You could shift with full force under load.”

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov on his way to winning the green jersey at the 1991 Tour de France using the first generation ST-7400 levers (Photo: Offside/L'Equipe)

STI levers looked different to the paltry brake hoods on most riders’ bikes. But the revolution lived inside. Keizo Shimano had devised a ratcheting system that allowed precise shifts between gears — the next evolution in indexed shifting. The system featured two paddles, one of which was the brake lever itself. Brake levers always moved in a linear fashion in plane with the bike itself. Keizo introduced a lateral movement that allowed the brake lever to pull a second cable for shifting. 

On top of that, an inner paddle allowed the ratcheting system to be released, thereby shifting the derailleur in the other direction. A ratchet? No revolution there. The integration of an entire shifting system into the brake lever and hoods? 

Click. Now that’s an idea.

Shimano's breakthrough Dura-Ace 7400 groupset with the first generation of dual-control STI levers

A click to go 

Phil Anderson went. Everyone else watched him do it.

It’s well known that cyclists hate two things: new and unproven technology, and losing. Anderson had the former – everyone else experienced the latter during a stage of the Milk Race in Britain before STI even launched. 

“Shimano was sponsoring the TVM team, the key team that they had,” says Stamsnijder.  “By that time they had some really good riders and some riders who were key or curious in using new technologies. 

“The most important guy was Phil Anderson. When he was starting to ride STI, and all the rest of the peloton was looking at him like, ‘what the hell is going on here?’ He was not supposed to ride it already in races, but there was a stage in the Milk Race – he was riding STI and he attacked in the final climb. By the time the guys who were sitting in their saddles changed gears, he was already 50 metres away.”

Phil Anderson at the 1991 Tour de France. (Photo: Offside/L'Equipe)

Shimano's original marketing material supporting Dura-Ace ST-7400

Losing a race makes riders hungry for an edge. After Anderson’s win at the Milk Race, STI staked its claim as a clear and proven edge. While Anderson had the ability to find the right gear, out of the saddle, while already accelerating, the rest of the peloton had to do more planning. Sit down. Reach down. Adjust. Confirm. Then go. 

That’s a long to-do list as your competition blasts off down the road. It wasn’t long before riders began seeking out the same technology that Anderson used to best the best at the Milk Race — and other brands saw the writing on the wall. STI was the future, and Shimano had just stood up and sprinted away. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” says Stamsnijder. “When you are with that product and you win a race with two fingers in your nose because you can shift and do your thing, people start to realise: hey, what is this?” 

While it took some more convincing, the wins began to speak for themselves. It was now possible to shift your gears without moving your hands from the brake levers. Not only was this faster, but it was also somewhat secretive. Your competition couldn’t see your plans since you didn’t have to reach down to the downtube anymore. The element of surprise lent plenty of advantage to STI users. 

“It was 1989, my final year of professional racing. I was the one who got the STI levers. They asked me to test them especially in CX races and you immediately saw a huge difference. You saw that this was it." 

“When it comes to my experience with STI,” says Stamsnijder, “It was 1989, my final year of professional racing. I was the one who got the STI levers. They asked me to test them especially in CX races and you immediately saw a huge difference. You saw that this was it. With bar end shifting, you still had to change your hand position, but with STI you could immediately shift after a turn. You were braking on the hoods and after the turn you were immediately changing your gears and you could attack.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that race tactics and dynamics changed dramatically from there. Courses started to change, too. STI had actually made some courses in both road and CX too easy for riders, now that the process of shifting had become smoother and easier. “You could make faster racing,” says Stamsnijder. “You had muddy races and dry races; in dry CX races where there’s lots of cornering, you were speeding up very fast. That was the big gain for everybody.”

Shimano’s major competitor was the Italian legend, Campagnolo. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that a charismatic Italian rider should help Shimano overcome Campagnolo as the peloton’s favorite, on the road and the podium. 

There was just something about Gianni Bugno, says Mike Sweatman of Disraeli Gears, a website devoted to the evolution of the derailleur. “He was a character. He was stylish and articulate, and extremely Italian,” says Sweatman. “There was some irony in this Italian guy with his hair meticulously styled, riding Shimano. He was the perfect Campy rider, yet he was riding Shimano.”

Maybe Bugno reveled in that discord. Or maybe he just wanted to win. Either way, win he did. Bugno helped shine a bright light on Shimano’s performance as a high-end groupset, and from STI’s introduction in 1990 until a decade later in 2000, eight out of ten riders who won the World Championships did it on Shimano, according to Sweatman.

Gianni Bugno at the 1991 Tour de France (Photo: Offside/L'Equipe)

Of course, it took some time after STI’s introduction for the rest of the world to catch on. As mountain biking exploded in popularity and road bikes experienced a drop-off in enthusiasm, it seemed strange to the wrenches at shops the world over that Shimano would invest so heavily in a road groupset at all. 

Sweatman was working as a mechanic at a shop in the UK when STI hit the scene. “Stalin had this comment on Trotsky, that he was beautifully useless,” says Sweatman with a laugh. “That was my first impression of STI. It’s beautiful, a marvel of engineering, but what were they thinking?”

Back then, perhaps it wasn’t common knowledge, as it is today, that Shimano always plays the long game. By the time road bikes experienced a renaissance in the late ’90s, thanks in large part to a wildly popular ride on Shimano by the name of Lance Armstrong, Shimano was perfectly positioned to put Campagnolo on the back foot. 

“Someone at Shimano has an extremely strategic brain and you just want to stay out of the way of that,” says Sweatman.  “When mountain biking was dominating the world, that meant Shimano was dominating the world, too. But it was a weird thing for Shimano: at the very peak of the mountain bike craze, you’re suddenly spending a whole lot of time innovating in a road market that’s in freefall.

“But ten years later, Shimano was in perfect position when the mountain bike movement slowed and road heated up.”

A click to release

STI officially launched in 1990 with the release of Shimano’s Dura-Ace ST-7400 groupset. Stamsnijder suspects Keizo Shimano must have been instructing engineers to develop prototypes as early as 1987. By the time Stamsnijder got his hands on a prototype before the launch, he suspects the design was all but finalised. His prototype looked and functioned like the finished product. 

It all worked together. Total integration. And it wasn’t the first time Keizo had pulled this off, almost as though he already understood that systems work best when they work together. Shimano has since developed a reputation for systems integration, not just in shifting. To develop the best systems, one has to control all the parameters. 

It was a hard lesson to learn for the bike industry — a world that thrived on mixing this with that, stirring it all together and hoping for the best, or at least better than the next guy. 

Stamsnijder credits the introduction of STI levers for the philosophy behind electric shifting

“Keizo was also the guy who developed SPD,” says Stamsnijder. Shimano Pedaling Dynamics applied the integration concept to shoes, cleats, and pedals. Shimano suspected it was possible to make the process of pedaling more efficient by mating components intended to work with each other. Keizo’s process lived somewhere in the grey depths between meticulous and obsessive.

“We have seen him in a tuxedo walking on his first SPD shoes. He was traveling all over the world in SPD shoes. He wanted to be sure it was the correct product,” says Stamsnijder. Keizo wanted to ensure it was easy to walk around in SPD shoes, everywhere and anywhere. 

“He was bringing mud from all over the world to Japan to test. You would be amazed at how many types of sand and types of structures exist all over the world. He brought sand from America, from Germany, just to be sure he could test with this type of severe circumstances, and that the product would work.”

That meticulous nature paid off for Keizo and Shimano as a company. Nearly all the shifters hitting the market after 1990 were STI, and every other brand scrambled to catch up, developing their own systems to compete with the giant that STI had become. Downtube shifters rapidly became almost obsolete, adorning only entry-level bikes and holdover models for the throwback curmudgeons. Today, downtube shifters capitalise on romance, adorning vintage builds. 

And of course, Shimano did not sit on its laurels very long. Like the SPD system, control over the groupset ecosystem made sense. “That’s what gave them the winning advantage,” says Sweatman. “Other brands didn’t have the complete control that Shimano demanded.” No longer could you mix your components, mixing one brand’s friction shifter with another’s derailleur. If you wanted STI shifting: it had to be all Shimano.

Through all that, however, there weren’t many changes made to the derailleurs themselves. Downtube and bar end shifters remained compatible with Shimano’s indexed derailleurs. Refinements of course took place; Sweatman says that derailleurs became stiffer for more accurate shifts, derailleur cages got longer to accommodate ever-expanding gear ranges, too. But the slant parallelogram designs remained, as they do today.

The electric click

STI today has a completely different look and function. Yet Shimano managed to take Keizo’s innovative direction into a new millennium with a similar end result: Di2, the electronic version of an STI drivetrain, once again changed the way riders ride and racers race. 

Stamsnijder has been at Shimano for decades now — long enough to bear witness to one evolution after another, one ground-shaking innovation after the next. 

“In later groupsets, like with Di2 shifting, we were talking about stress-free concepts,” he says. “You don’t have to think. You press a button and the system does exactly what you need it to do. With STI mechanical, you can push hard on the lever and you shift through four gears. But if you are not doing it very accurately, then sometimes it could still be on the edge or not exact. But with Di2 it became precise and really fast. You could go top to down in a split second. STI was really the beginning of that.”

Click, click...release. 

Long after Keizo’s final ideas clicked into place, the repercussions of his meticulous research and development has continued to guide Shimano’s approach to integration. Release after release from the Japanese giant remains consistent: How can we do it better? How can we make everything work together? And how will we change the way people ride and race? 

It’s only a matter of time until we find out.

Produced in association with Shimano

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