Those that got into mountain biking in the golden era of bizarre and innovative tech — the late nineties — are in for a real treat today. I've spotted this new old stock Shimano Airlines groupset for sale in PinkBike’s classified listings.
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Designed primarily for use on downhill bikes of the era, Shimano Airlines was a completely unique system that used compressed air to actuate a rather lumpen looking, short cage, 7-speed rear derailleur.
Reports vary, but according to the press release for the system — which is still available to view on the recently deceased BikeMagic — each 300cc tank was said to have been good for up to 400 shifts. These tanks were pressurised using just a track pump.
There seems to be a few different variations on exactly where these tanks were located, but Shimano’s tech doc — which, quite remarkably, is still available online — suggests that the tank should usually be fitted to either the top or bottom of the down tube.
The idea of placing a highly pressurised tank in the line of fire, rocks and the like, personally fills me with dread, but I guess the late nineties were simpler times in the cycling world.
In a fashion similar to SRAM eTap, the mech was operated via two levers. The right lever shifted down the cassette and the left up, and everything was controlled by an adjustable regulator — think a Di2 junction box… but with air.
According to Disraeli Gears — which is a giant encyclopedia of rear derailleurs and is, quite unashamedly, one of my favourite sites — Shimano chose to develop the system because the compressed airlines used in the system could flex easily on long-travel suspension bikes of the time.
Shimano’s own marketing booklet, which is also available for your viewing pleasure on Disraeli Gears, also claims that a mere dab of the shifter would initiate a gear change, taking the thought out of shifting during a race.
While I’m a little doubtful that these purported performance benefits offered much that cable operated groupsets of the day couldn’t, I’d personally be happy to pay for the aural experience of using Shimano Airlines alone. The pleasing hiss and mechanical ‘cla-chunk’ the system makes when shifting is absolutely delightful.
Equally unique for the time, Shimano Airlines was optimised solely for use in a 1x configuration with a downhill-specific 7-speed cassette.
The system’s cassette bears a remarkable similarity to today’s SRAM PG-720 cassette, with its oversized, inbuilt ‘spacer’ pushing the block away from the spokes and harm's way. As always, nothing is truly new in the world of cycling tech!
I contacted GearHeader, or Tom by his real name, to find out how he came across this groupset and the rest of his huge collection of amazing, retro-tastic goodies.
Tom says he started out BMX racing in the early nineties and became interested in mountain biking shortly afterwards, a period that in his words was when “things started getting wild”.
Attending World Cup events in Kaprin and Leysin at the time allowed Tom to make a lot of contacts, but he says that the majority of his collection has come from “stuff lying around in corners of bike shops,” and that “there’s still so much stuff laying in stores [that] nobody pays attention to that old gear because it's considered ‘old’”.
According to MTBR, the groupset came in at $1,600 at the time (roughly a rather eye-watering $2,350 in today’s prices), so I can only imagine that there are a few more of these groupsets sitting around in the basements of bike shops who failed to ship their very expensive and speculative ‘investment’.
Those that remember this system may also fondly remember Mavic Zap, which as we all know came back around in the form of Di2.
With that in mind, if looking backwards really can predict the future of cycling tech, perhaps we’ll even see a return to air shifting one day!
Are you eyeing your bank account and considering scooping up this piece of MTB history? Or better still, did you own a bike with Shimano Airlines? As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to include any photos!