A talk given by The Inquisition at Defuse, on Wednesday 7th November 2012, as part of Designweek in Dublin, Ireland
Nürnburg got ripped to shreds by Bomber Harris’ boys. By how much appears to be open to debate.
The preface to HLA Hart’s publication of his 1961 lecture series on the meeting of law and morality is as prevalent today as it ever was.
There are people out there who pretend to like coffee. Coffee Haters – you have been warned.
False flag, covert ops by Americans against Americans? Sounds crazy, and so it was deemed.
55 years ago Roland Barthes considered the importance of plastic and what it meant, as a substance and a symbol.
Marriage is thought by many to be a fixed rite, one which is immovable and inflexible. The truth is that it has not always seemed so…
The world was shocked when a victim of torture started blinking morse. The story of a US aviator captured in Vietnam.
Earth has had a recent fly past by the mysterious alien probe, 1991 VG. And it’s coming back. We’re screwed. Maybe.
Horace De Vere Cole was the major protagonist and originator of the Dreadnought Hoax. Who was he? What was the Hoax?
Dueling scars, or schmiss, were highly sought after in late nineteenth century Germany.
To the true bicycle fanatic, the derailleur isn’t just the dirty undercarriage on a bike – it’s more like a bike’s dirty bits, dangling there like a naturist’s prize possessions. Look up there at those complex little twisted, intertwined, pivoting and sweeping pieces of metal and plastic. Aren’t they beautiful? Of course they are.
The Inquisition is not going to minutely explore a topic which, to most people, is either mundane or arcane. Instead, what follows is a brief examination of the evolution of an integral part of most bicycles.
The derailleur is a humble, yet brilliant, piece of sports equipment. It can strike cold apathy into the hollow ironic hearts of facile hipster/fixie aficionados while simultaneously easing the cardiac workload of the middle-aged man wheezing up an “epic” climb on a sportive. A superb invention, the derailleur is in equal turns immensely useful, while being equally neglected. Simple and refined, it has been, and continues to be, perfected through iterative developments.
Some form of mechanical gear change that can be used while still pedalling has been around for almost 150 years. While the modern peloton is considered to be a rolling laboratory for testing experimental cycling technology, this was not the case when the derailleur was in its infancy. Up until efficiently sprung parallelogram derailleurs, gear changing involved complex, bodged, Heath Robinson-like and jerry-built solutions that resembled the result of crazed tinkering in a dark shed, and consequently were not often allowed into races.
As a result of this disparate sequence of isolated developments, the history of the derailleur is a murky one, where many firsts overshadow others and are then outshone themselves. Regional, national and corporate pride obscure true firsts. True innovations are discounted by flash new variations on older technologies. Redundancies abound and products are poorly documented for posterity (but well documented for marketing…) The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and it is thus that modern derailleurs were arrived at – trialling, testing, upgrading. On the 8th day God did not create the perfect derailleur, nor is there a Platonic paradigm we are working towards. The derailleur is still very much a work in progress.
The peloton, or ranks of professional riders, has in recent decades been the last staging post in the pre-general release product testing line for any number of carbon components, aerodynamic tweaks, widgets and dongles.
This state of affairs where the sport’s upper echelon riders were testing products that would have monied consumers drooling in the following season has not always existed.
The Tour de France, the race by which all others are judged, is now a barometer of cutting edge cycling technology (a recent example being the unveiling in 2009 of Shimano’s electronic shifting, which was itself beaten by Mavic’s short lived 1992 Tour de France unveiling – the Zap), although this was not always the case. The 1936 Tour de France was the first to allow derailleur changing at any level. This was only for privateer racers and strictly not for the professionals. The race was a battle of man against nature and not an exhibition of cutting edge technology. Although even by this stage, derailleurs were not considered cutting edge.
In fact, the first overall winner of the Tour to use a derailleur did so in the following year, which was the first time they were allowed across the board, due to a restructuring of the race’s governing body. Roger Lapébie won the 1937 tour on a bike using a Oscar Egg’s Osgear Super Champion groupset (you can see a great image of an Osgear here). This was just a year after another professional, Félicien Vervaecke, received an 11 minute ban for two of the gravest infringements – accepting food from his wife along the route and using a replacement bicycle that allowed the changing of gears while still rolling! Shocking.
In 1895 Jean Loubèyre introduced the Polycelere to the world. The world, in due course, ignored it.
Essentially though, the Polycelere (trans. as Multi-speed) was the first true derailleur; a mechanical device, controlled by the rider and allowing gear changes without having to stop, take off the rear wheel and spin it around to use a different sized cog on the other side. There had been other cumbersome and unwieldy solutions to changing gear, using variable velocity drivetrains and more… These were not primarily designed for use with the safety bicycle. No Polyceleres are known to still exist, so any comment on its historical importance must be tempered by its almost mythological status.
The aspect of the the Polycelere being a true derailleur, as we would recognise it now, is that it had two cogs, or speeds, shifted using a fork, but crucially did not rely on straight alignment as modern systems also do.
This is the simplified physical expression of what the derailleur does – it sweeps the chain across arrays of cogs of increasing or decreasing sizes. This changes the ratio between the forward cogs (chain-rings), the rear (cassette) and the rear wheel which makes the perceived effort easier or harder. It changes the pedalling efficiency – each pedal stroke changes its relationship to each complete turn of a wheel. If one pedal rotation were to result in one complete wheel rotation, the perceived effort would be very easy, but would result in a high cadence while still at low speeds. Therefore the ability to change these ratios is crucial for energy-efficient pedalling.
It was quite some time after the Polycelere was ignored before derailleurs took off, beginning with cyclo-tourers, and with varying degrees of success such as the L’AS derailleur from 1920 which required backpedalling to change from one gear to the other.
The models visually represented here may not be the precise models referenced and are shown here for illustrative purposes only.
1869 – USA
William Van Anden patents a design for the freewheel in Poughkeepsie.
1880 – England
Thomas Humber invents the precursor of the modern chain for use on the range of bicycles he manufactures.
1895 – France
Jean Loubèyre’s afore-mentioned polycelere makes an appearance. The device has been lost to posterity.
1897 – Germany
Ernst Sachs begins to market the freewheel. This proves to be equally crucial to the chain for gearing, meaning gears can be changed more easily by lessening the load on the drivetrain temporarily to allow smoother shifting. Up until this point cycling was fixed-gear only.
1905 – France
A functional four-speed derailleur is manufactured by Paul de Vivie of France in 1905 and sold under the Velocio mark. The gears, mounted on the crank, are designed for cycle touring. A contemporary account, “Paul de Vivie, AKA Velocio, champion of the multi-gear derailleur system and mentor to the, School of St. Etienne‚ cyclotourists. In 1903, at the age of fifty, Velocio rode 600 miles, from Saint-Etienne to Menton and back, in four days on a bicycle”. This stunt, and others, led him into confrontation with the Tour de France organisers.
1923 – France
Lucien Juy introduces the Simplex. The first parallelogram derailleur. After many false starts, dead-ends and non-starters the future has arrived.
1946 – Italy
In the wake of the war, the Italians enter the fray, becoming a lasting cycling favourite with a rich heritage. Campagnolo makes a dual-rod derailleur system called the “Cambio Corsa”. The two levers move the chain and, awkwardly, also moved the wheel axle back and forth to take in the chain slack. In essence the (rolling) gear changes were made by releasing the quick release with one lever, move the chain with the other lever, and tighten the wheel back up. Taking up this slack is a major issue when cog sizes change. Modern systems are sprung to maintain tension.
1949 – Italy
Again Campagnolo claims a first – a cable operated derailleur. It works by moving the chain with an articulated parallelogram, called a cage, operated by cables. That model uses two cables – up for going up the gears, one down. The numbers produced were miniscule – less than ten by some estimates.
1950 – Italy
One year later and Campagnolo shows why it would gain such affection in cyclists’ hearts. The first single (push/pull) cable parallelogram derailleur is Campagnolo’s Gran Sport. Campagnolo claim this to be the first articulated parallelogram. Read that carefully – Campagnolo did not invent gears. They did not invent parallelogram designs for gears. They did not invent articulated gears. They might have brought all that together, but it wasn’t worlds apart from Simplex systems of the time. This raises a serious issue for bicycle historians – nothing is new, all innovations are riffs on what went before to come up with novelty. Interestingly changes are made from the downtube, a design that would last for 40 years.
1956 – Japan
Shimano begins manufacturing its derailleurs, which it called external speed changers. Costs to the consumer begin to fall.
1989 – Japan
Shimano’s Rapidfire trigger changing system is unveiled. Fast, precise and immediately adopted by cyclists.
1990 – Japan
Shimano introduces the STI (Shimano Total Integration). It combines the gear change lever with the brake lever, and is a development for racing bicycles using the previous year’s raidfire technology. In tandem with this, they redesigned the teeth on their sprockets under the “Hyperglide” system name, for more efficient shifting.
1990 – Italy
Campagnolo releases its version of the same, that same year – the Ergopower. Much like Shimano’s offering aside from having a much better name…
Jun 5, 2001 – Italy
An electrical control device for a motor-driven derailleur for bicycles is patented by Valentino Campagnolo on June 5, 2001. Shimano will eventually beat them to the market. Although electronic shifting had been in existence for ten years, it had poor uptake, worse reliability and high costs. Better system controls, reasoned Campagnolo and Shimano, would change this.
2008 – Italy
Campagnolo introduce the Super Record 11. The number of cogs on a freewheel have been increasing. The Italian gurus add one more.
The future in cycling is always easy to predict – lighter, smoother, stronger, electric, automatic but always faster.
Perhaps more than most, cyclists can be a nostalgic lot, but don’t forget progression is a good thing. Old technologies have disappeared because they were crap. They still look good though.
There are derailleur collectors. And there are derailleur fanatics. Well, there is one anyway.
Disraeli Gears – THE online derailleur museum
The Osgear at Classic Lightweights
Non-Campagnolo winners of the Tour de France – People actually list out thus stuff!
Great collection of early systems clearly photgraphed – Bike Race Info
Cyclorama’s run-down of old gearing systems for bicycles
Patent Pending Blog’s version of the same
M-gineerign – a Dutch site with great close-ups on cycling tech bits and bobs
Tony Hadland on derailleurs
Tony Hadland on Schmitz derailleurs
Tony Hadland on other derailleur systems
Blazing Saddles, Matt Rendell, Quercus, 2007
bicycle maintenance book
Google’s data generated timeline of the history of the bicycle derailleur
French site’s definition of a derailleur
Jim Lnagley on the history of the bicycle
Veloweb discusses how cylco-tourers were the early adopters of derailleur technology
Probicycle’s long history of the derailleur
Beautifully renovated Simplex front derailleur
Wikipedia on derailleurs
The Dancing Chain – a whole book on the topic
The history of Campagnolo by Campy Only
iBike – The bike since 1418
Simplex at Classic Lightweights
Jaques Anquetil riding Simplex components in the sixties
Nice shots of a Simplex system which is very similar to its contemporary, the Osgear
Unnamed very old cable operated derailleur, probably Simplex Super Champion
Simplex super Champion levers
1933- 2008 75 Years of Passion – 2008 Range Catalogue, Campagnolo, 2008
Campagnolo’s Gran Sport
Simplex Super Champion 3 on a Roold
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Saturday, May 14th, 2011 at
It is archived in Bicycles, Design, History and tagged Bicycles, cassette, cycling, derailleur, gears, puncheur, rouleur, sprockets, velo, wheels.
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