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A Comprehensive History of Bicycle Derailleurs

The Dancing Chain
By Frank Berto

Excerpt from review in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 4 (Summer 2009):

The Dancing Chain is a big book: big in size (400 pages of text and appendices), big in scope, and big in aspirations. It is even bigger than its title suggests, describing not just derailleur bicycles, but virtually all mechanisms used to make a bicycle climb uphill better and go faster on level ground.

It is an impressive achievement: There seems to be hardly any derailleur ever made that is not mentioned, usually with a photo or drawing and an explanation how it worked. The development of gear changers has been a story of competing ideas and even backward steps. For example, I’d never before seen a rear derailleur with neither a shift lever nor a cable. Both the 1947 Renalb-Lux and 1951 Selectric shifted by back-pedaling (although how one switched from up-shifting to down-shifting is not explained). Even more unique was the J.Wi.S solution to maintaining chain tension across multiple gears: an expanding chain with a narrow coil spring around the entire circumference. One of the pleasures of The Dancing Chain is the possibility that any page will include something similarly unique, interesting, or even downright wacky.

The Dancing Chain also documents some extensive efforts to solve problems that we currently disregard. Perhaps the best example is chain tension. Until the late 1950s, many riders believed that the chain tension created by derailleur pulleys caused significant friction. Derailleurs were specifically designed to provide even, low tension, and some were even equipped with an additional cable to allow the rider to fine tune the tension manually. When was the last time you thought about how much tension your derailleur placed on the chain? Even though the concern about chain tension on old racing bikes with narrow gear ranges may have been unfounded, it is not such a far-fetched topic for modern cyclotourists. Many modern bikes with wide gear ranges suffer from chainslap and even chainsuck on the small chainring, caused or exacerbated by insufficient chain tension.

The Dancing Chain is extremely useful and interesting as an encyclopedic reference. For a veteran or aspiring bike geek, there is no other book that even approximates the range of technical and historical information in The Dancing Chain , particularly at the book’s bargain price. The low price is reflected in the grainy quality of some illustrations and in the marginal quality of the book’s binding, but one could easily argue that such tradeoffs are appropriate in order to put the book in more readers’ hands.

Publisher: Cycle Publishing/Van der Plas Publications
Year: 2012, 4th Edition
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 400 pages, 1,200 illustrations
Dimensions: 8.3" x 11.75"

Price: $60