By Vernon Felton
It’s hard to believe that the gadget you see here changed the entire landscape of the mountain biking world—but it did.
Let’s back up for a second and revisit the mountain biking world circa 1989. Shimano pretty much owned the component business. SunTour, the other Japanese giant, may have beaten Shimano to the punch with the first mountain bike component group in the early `80s, but by the latter chunk of that decade, Shimano had SunTour on the ropes, with at one point, nearly an 85 percent market share. Most bikes were little more than a steel or aluminum pony used to showcase Shimano’s parts. Those Shimano parts worked well—no dispute there—but consumer choice was largely limited to what Shimano decided to sell each spring.
And then came along this most unlikely of gadgets—the SRAM twist-shifter or “Grip Shift”. Originally created in 1987 as an end-of-the-aero bars twist shifter for tri geeks, the three guys who founded SRAM were looking, back in 1989, to branch into the Shimano-owned mountain bike market. They just needed an in…
The point of entry for SRAM? One man. Greg “HB” Herbold: a gangly racer who spoke in third person in a disarming Yoda-meets-Stoned-Surfer patois, and who was, absolutely tearing up racecourses at the time. If SRAM could get Herbold on the stuff, they could get their foot in the door. One problem: HB was already testing products for Shimano. SRAM approached HB three times before he gave in and decided to join the fledgling company, just after his World Championship win in Durango.
“Those early shifter had problems…” admits Herbold. “It took a lot of wrist action to make it work.” So why did HB make the move to SRAM?
“I was a motorcycle mechanic,” explains Herbold. “I could tear apart engines. I was mechanically-inclined. I could see the product’s potential, but mainly, I believed in the company and the people. When we said something needed to be changed, they listened. They made the product better. They sunk their money back into racing and the product.”
The early twist-shifters had their weaknesses—most notably, their performance in the mud, which was crap.
“I remember,” says Tinker Juarez, who began racing on Grip Shift when he joined Cannondale, the first bike company to spec Grip Shift on their production models, “having to zip tie the Grip Shifters to the bars every time it rained so they wouldn’t spin around. It wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world.”
And yet despite all of its shortcomings (certain lubes would melt the shifter bodies on future models, there were compatibility issues with Shimano drivetrain, etc.), Grip Shift soon took hold. By 1994, SRAM had produced its 10 millionth twist-shifter.
“I remember this one time at Mont Sainte Anne,” recalls Herbold, “when the pack started up this steep climb and all you could hear out there was the click, click, click of Grip Shifts—fully 70 to 80 percent of the pros were on them.”
It was an amazing turn around for the underdog company that had only managed to sell a paltry 800 Grip Shifter units in its first year. John Tomac, Ned Overend, Missy Giove—Grip Shift was on the bikes of the world’s fastest racers—cross-country and downhill racers alike.
Why did Grip Shift become so popular? I think it was about choice, says Herbold. “It gave riders a chance to deck their bikes in something different—and it allowed you to put all these other non-Shimano parts on you bike. That whole boom of the anodized CNC stuff? That kind of got its start with Grip Shift opening the door. People like choice—Grip Shift gave them that.”
In a way, the shifter you see at the top of this page opened the door for the avalanche of small companies that, for a time, flourished on the shelves of bike shops around the world. Kooka, Ringle, Brand X, Kore, Icon, Onza, Real Design, Nuke Proof…the list of hot companies that were suddenly selling heaps of components was staggering. It was the wild, wild west. If you had access to a CNC machine and a credit card with a $10,000 limit, you were in business.
Shimano woke up from its slumber in 1992 and laid the pimp hand down on the boutique component revolution when they launched XTR, which, frankly, outperformed almost every flashy, high-zoot product on the market.
Today, we’re largely back to a Shimano/SRAM balance. In the bike industry, it seems (to paraphrase Highlander) that there can only be two. A few of the mid-90s CNC giants still exist, but SRAM is undoubtedly the greatest beneficiary of this story. The company which began with a lowly twist-shifter is now a global giant in its own right with a more extensive component line than its rival: wheels, disc brakes, front and rear suspension and, of course, drivetrain for both the dirt and road. SRAM has come a long way in a very short space of time.
And as for Grip Shift….While the product was retired for a while, there remained a vocal contingent of riders who wanted it back—which prompted SRAM to re-introduce the much more robust X0 unit in 2012.
“It’s kind of a love or hate thing,”says Herbold. “But people who love Grip Shift absolutely love it. What I think is amazing,” continues Herbold “is that an entire company—an international company now—was founded on that one product. I’ve got six wheelset engineers coming over to my house in a few minutes. I still can’t believe we make wheels. And it all started with that shifter.”