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In Japan, exactly 100 years ago, Shozabura Shimano opened his factory, making chainrings for bicycles. A quarter-century later, following World War II, he added derailleur mechanisms to his company’s range. Then, around 1970, Shimano launched its first groupset, which was called Dura-Ace. After getting a foot in the door to the American market, Shimano was keen to enter the European market too. The Japanese manufacturer did it by making a deal with a Belgian cycling team.
The first contacts between that team, Flandria, and Shimano happened at the annual New York bike show in 1972. Marcel Verschelden, a sales representative for Flandria bicycles, got to know some colleagues at Shimano. “At a certain point, they just asked me if we want to equip our cycling team with Shimano parts,” he remembers. “In that way, they wanted to challenge their Italian competitor, Campagnolo, which ruled the European cycling scene then.”
After some negotiations, Flandria and Shimano found an agreement. The Flandria squad would race in 1973 with Shimano parts, becoming the first European professional cycling team to be equipped by Shimano.
Shimano’s debut in the European cycling world caused a shock. Campagnolo was troubled and was desperate to extend its own agreement with Flandria. But Flandria refused. Besides Campagnolo, the riders themselves had their doubts. One of the Flandria team racers, Johan De Muynck, says, “I saw the entrance of Shimano as a huge adventure. Riders on other teams sometimes just laughed at us and asked if we rode with inferior material.”
His team leader and reigning Belgian champion Walter Godefroot was less enthusiastic, “I was the first Flandria rider who won a race with the Shimano parts. That was a stage in the Ruta del Sol. But I wasn’t really happy,” says Godefroot. “I preferred Campagnolo. The Shimano Dura-Ace group wasn’t yet fully developed. You could feel that.” Verschelden confirms that view. “At the start, their material was just like a disaster,” he says. “There were many problems. Soon afterwards, Shimano sent some of his engineers to improve their material.”
Verschelden adds that Shimano was desperate to conquer the European market. “They wanted to improve their products as quickly as possible and equal Campagnolo,” he recalls. “During races and training camps, they were constantly present with three or four mechanics and engineers. They took thousands of pictures and sent them to Japan, to analyze and resolve the problems very quickly. They were fast learners.”
Godefroot agrees. “European cycling manufacturers needed months to solve a problem,” he says. “Shimano was much faster. They just needed a few weeks to make adjustments.” Despite the good service, Godefroot didn’t become a fan. “In the final of the Tour of Flanders in 1973, I was at the front. Suddenly, during the climb of the Muur at Geraardsbergen, my chain fell off. I’m convinced that this was caused by my Dura-Ace group,” he says.
1970 Ronde Van Vlaanderen highlights.
At the race finish in Meerbeke, Godefroot came sixth. Flandria teammate Freddy Maertens was second. In the end, Godefroot admires Shimano anyway. “Within seven years, they just caught up their backlog on Campagnolo. That was really great.” As for Flandria teammate Maertens, he says, “I was proud to be the first European cycling team that was equipped with Shimano. That was really special.”
From issue 101. Buy it here.