Changing gears has never been the same since Shimano’s STI system hit the market 25 years ago

When Shimano launched its STI (Shimano Total Integration) system, it did much more than just relocate and streamline the gear levers — it completely changed how people rode and raced bikes.

Until 1990, gear levers had been mounted on the down tube since the invention of the cable-operated parallelogram derailleur in the late 1940s. Certainly there had been options to clamp them to the stem shaft or plug them in at the handlebar ends, but racers preferred not to risk stabbing themselves in the groin or ribs if they fell off, so the down tube lever prevailed for 50 years.

Sean Kelly using downtube mounted gear shifters. Photo: Graham Watson

Sean Kelly using downtube mounted gear shifters. Photo: Graham Watson

Apart from indexed shifting (Shimano SIS), which arrived in 1984, where the lever clicked between gears eliminating the need to ‘feel’ the chain on the sprockets, there had been no real innovation in this area.

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Being in the right gear at the right time was simply one of the skills that had to be learned and practised. It was not possible to change gear in the middle of a corner or during a sprint; on a steep climb it was necessary to sit down to select a lower gear.

In the time it took to reach down and change gear, a rival turning a better-judged ratio could disappear up the road, so timing and technique were everything.

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Road cycling had adopted new materials such as aluminium forged components and frame tubes, but in the late 1980s the real innovation was taking place in the exciting new sport of mountain biking. Shimano launched its Rapidfire system for off-road riding — ratcheted gear shifters mounted close to the brake levers that the rider could operate without taking a hand off the bar.

Anderson and the TVM team experimented with the early Shimano STI. Photo: Graham Watson

Anderson and the TVM team experimented with the early Shimano STI. Photo: Graham Watson

Then, in late 1989, Shimano began testing road STIs — using adapted Rapidfire internals — with the TVM team. Phil Anderson and Jesper Skibby were the test pilots and were followed around Europe by a Japanese Shimano engineer who would strip and test the STIs — which according to eyewitnesses looked so crude close up that they could have been handmade — after every race.

The production eight-speed Dura-Ace 7400 STIs that appeared in 1990 worked much like their modern 11-speed Dura-Ace 9000 counterparts — the brake lever swung inwards to move the chain up the cassette and an auxiliary lever behind it released cable tension allowing the chain to drop down the cassette.

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Campagnolo responded with its own dual-control lever system, ErgoPower. Like the Shimano STIs, Campag’s new shifters were bulbous and for many nowhere near as pretty as the C-Record brake levers they replaced.

But there was no going back: down tube levers were already an anachronism, STI-powered racing had arrived and cycling had changed forever.

This article first appeared in the June 11 edition of Cycling Weekly

  • Steve Hampsten

    Just as a footnote, Andy Hampsten was the very first pro rider to use Shimano’s STI system. But it was at an exhibition race in Japan in November of 1989; a race that was publicizing the upcoming World Championship road race for the following year. I was lucky enough to tag along with Andy and some Shimano and Suntour (remember them?) engineers and mechanics for sushi one night and some of the details were discussed over beer. Good times!

  • Paul Jakma

    This handlebar shifting along with indexing and radios, has ruined cycling. Ban them all! 🙂