Searching for bikes fitted with airlines is a trip down memory lane. This legendary Cannondale v3000, spotted on RetroBike, is about as late nineties as it gets'Brad' / RetroBike (http://www.retrobike.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=281822)
Designed primarily for use on downhill bikes of the era, Shimano Airlines was a unique system that used compressed air to actuate a rather lumpen looking, short cage, 7-speed rear derailleur.
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 downtube.
The shifters are operated in a similar fashion to SRAM eTapGearHeader
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.
For me, Shimano’s softly lit studio shots define the look of mid-nineties mountain bikingShimano / Disraeli Gears
According to Disraeli Gears — which is an oddly captivating online encyclopedia of rear derailleurs — 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.
While I’m doubtful that the groupset offered any substantial performance benefits over the mechanical 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.
The cassette looks remarkably similar to SRAM’s latest 7-speed offeringsShimano / Disraeli Gears
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!
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 (which is 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 very 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!