If you get oil on your cycling jersey because you have had to put your chain back on, due to poor gear changing or a derailleur which needs adjusting, I can tell you now, that oil won’t come off in a 30 degree wash. The best way to remove the oily stain is to use a block of French beef fat soap, called Starwax. You use the soap with some water to gently wash the area of the stain by hand, then rinse. Voila! It is amazing what that soap will remove.

‘Le Derailleur’ is a French, masculine word. This device, which moves the chain from one gear/vitesse to another has had engineers and cyclists all around the world, and over the last hundred years or so, spending hours in sheds and factories, trying to ensure the perfect gear change.

For me, and others, the derailleur is a small mechanical art form, and it evolved because people have devoted hours/their lives by whirring pedals, spinning wheels etc to make sure that the chain dances across the gears as quietly and smoothly as possible.

Logically, having an external arm which physically forces the chain to move, doesn’t really fit with 21st Century technology. Its vulnerable to damage, dirt and water, needs servicing and adjustment, and it comes in all shapes, sizes and prices. Some derailleurs push the chain and some pull the chain across the gears. Evolution has seen derailleurs operated by stopping the bike, loosening the wheel and shifting the chain by hand, to cable operated, electric and hydraulic versions. The German company Rholoff has a 21st Century gearbox encased in a hub, and along the same lines as the British Sturmey Archer 3 speed, but its 1000 times more advanced. On paper and in use, it is better than a mechanical derailleur, so why isn’t everyone using it? It reminds me of the old video recorder wars of the 1980s between the two recording/playback formats, Betamax and VHS. The one that was technically inferior, the VHS, won and subsequently adopted by everyone.

Even the mechanical derailleur was shunned by the bike race organisers like the Tour de France for decades after its introduction because it wasn’t considered ‘sporting’, so riders had to continue with a fixed gear on one side and a single freewheel on the other. A rider would have to stop, remove the rear wheel, flip it around and re-fit it to switch between the two gears. The fixed gear was used for riding up hills and the freewheel was used for descending. Meanwhile, the French cyclo-tourists and Randonneurs had developed derailleur gear changing systems that got them to the top of the mountain climbs easily, so that they could watch the racers struggle up with their one gear. In 1937, the Tour de France organisation relented and allowed riders to use the technology that could be bought in the shops by everybody else.

So far, I’ve referred to the rear derailleur which operates the gears on the back wheel. However, there is another one that moves the chain across two or three gears, or chain wheels, which is located close to the pedal cranks. The first generation of these front derailleurs had the appropriate name of ‘suicide derailleurs’. I’ve got two bikes from the early 1950s that have this type derailleur fitted. The term ‘suicide derailleurs’ obviously has negative connotations, and I’ve come across a few people in my time that could also be described by the same term.

 

Anyway, let me explain how this early derailleur got its name. Apart from the latest electric and hydraulic derailleurs, all other front derailleurs are operated by a cable and lever. However, prior to the cable changing method in circa 1950, the front derailleur was operated by a long lever, which when moved forward, would shift the chain onto one of the smaller chainrings and it would move the chain back onto the bigger chainrings if the lever was moved backwards again. A nice simple system that didn’t have cables that stretched, rusted or snapped. The reason it got is name, is because the length of the lever was about 6”/150mm, and you had to operate it with your right arm, and in between your right leg and the frame. Most riders arms weren’t long enough to reach down for the lever without getting into a semi-crouch position, which naturally meant your weren’t fully looking where you were going. Whilst the gear change is actually quite smooth, the action of the rider does make the bike veer to the left or right and its a double risk if you look down as well. There are countless stories of riders who have hit kerbs, ridden into the back of things as well as terrorising other drivers on the road with a ‘gear change wobble’. The trick is to live long enough to become an expert. I’ve tried to extend the lever, but it looks rubbish, so I’ve done what everyone else did and lived with it until I mastered it, which I have.

Apart from the hazards of the suicide derailleur, they are super easy to maintain and need no adjustment once set up. In addition, most of them had a nice alloy, integrated chain guard as well, so doubly practical. Simplex & Huret were the two big French gear and derailleur makers of the time and their grasp of the global market share lasted from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The Italian company, Campagnolo, also made derailleurs, but they operated in the premium end of the market, and very successfully, which they still do today.

So, the question you’ve probably been asking yourself whilst reading this (maybe..) is: which derailleur should I buy? The answer of course is simple. You buy the shinniest and the most expensive that you can afford. Its also not going to have the term ‘suicide’ feature in its model name.

Top and Bottom photos by Rodrigo Macip

Middle photo by the author

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