Campy Only Reviews
"The Dancing Chain,"
A History of the Bicycle Derailleur

The Dancing Chain

The Dancing Chain:
History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle
Frank Berto, Ron Shepherd, Raymond Henry
352 pages with 1,200 illustrations
8-1/2 x 11 inch hardcover
ISBN 1-892495-21-X, Library of Congress Catalog Number 99-71325
US $49.95

Order it from the publisher, at www.vanderplas.net
Retail price: $49.95

Authors Berto, Shepherd, and Henry have created the ultimate test of whether a person is a true component fanatic: "The Dancing Chain," a fascinating history of the bicycle derailleur that will most likely be thoroughly boring to anyone but the fanatic.

Being fanatics here at Campagnolo Only, we of course contacted the publisher, Van Der Plas Publiciations (www.vanderplas.net) to obtain a copy to review. After all, what could be better than an entire book about derailleurs?

And. from the standpoint of the Campagnolo fan, what better than a history that describes Tullio Campagnolo's role in the invention of the derailleur (he did invent it, right?)?

As it turned out, "The Dancing Chain" is full of surprises. One of the most pleasant was how very interesting this book is (despite my wife's frequent question as I read the book every night: "How can you read that thing?  It looks so boring!"). The history that led to the creation of ErgoPower is far more a simple story of improvements on a theme.  It's more like a series of parallel paths, some of which continue, some of which drift off into obscurity, and some of which drift off only to reappear later.

Based on the extensive research conducted by the authors, and illustrated in more than 700 drawings and photos, The Dancing Chain makes it clear that we could all be riding primitive bikes with fixed gears or clunky shifting mechanisms if the racers of years past had their way. Even today, it's easy to see that cyclists--and professional racers in particular--are concerned about aerodynamics, friction, and lightness. What the authors point out is that an early fear of friction helped keep the racing scene years behind in technological advances.

That fear focused on the chain, and it manifested itself in several ways. One was that early racers demanded a straight chain line (and in some cases continued to do so well into the modern era). Take a look at the bend in your bike's chain when you're in a 53/21 gear, and you'll see how a fear of a flexible chain kept derailleurs off racing bikes.

Racers also feared the friction caused by jockey pulleys--another important feature of the modern derailleur.

So what did racers ride with? Well, for years they stuck with fixed-gear bikes, where the only opportunity to "shift" gears was to take out the rear wheel and flip it around to engage a different sized sprocket (remember Tullio's famous ride over the Croce D'Aune Pass, when his bike's frozen lug nuts wouldn't let him change gears?). Even well into the 1940s, racers were using relatively primitive gear changers that relied on complicated systems of levers and tensioners to avoid the use of jockey pulleys.

Click to enlarge
This derailleur, patented in 1941 by an Italian inventor, Ghiggini, was the precursor to Campagnolo's groundbreaking Gran Sport derailleur of 1950/51
Image used by permission

But what is perhaps more interesting is that another group of cyclists--the "tourists" of the day--were riding complex and elegant shifter systems as far back as the turn of the century. Not constrained by notions of "excess friction," and needing gears to help them cover varied terrain on heavily loaded bicycles, the tourists developed a dizzying array of shifting systems, which "Dancing Chain" describes in intimate detail.

Coming the week of June 19: Part 2 of our review, in which Campagnolo makes its appearance on the cycling scene.

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