One link in the chain: A personal perspective on the published history of the derailleur gear and other bicycle equipment by Ron Thompson

The advent of the derailleur gear about great changes in the world of cycling. There were many people involved in this evolving technology, which began in earnest around the turn of the last century. In the last 50 years, bicycle historians have been moved to research and publish a history of this development to show how some of the now obsolete technology laid the path to today’s 13 speed electronic groupsets. 

Perhaps THE essential book illustrating the development of this piece of equipment that revolutionised cycling is the “The Dancing Chain” [ISBN 1-892495-21-X] published in 2010. Essential precisely because it was superbly illustrated, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

However, particularly since this is a personal perspective, I feel there is a need to provide a foreword to these stories lest it be thought I am claiming some relevance I am not entitled to. I am but one link in the chain of events leading to the publishing of this and other books related to the subject.

I knew all the authors of this work and I, along with many others, contributed to the ongoing research of which it was the eventual outcome. 

What follows are a few personal stories about how The Dancing Chain and those other books came about and the people involved.

The picture was taken at the ICHC Nijmegn Holland held at the Nationale Fiets Museum in 1999
Standing (from left) Rob van der Plas, Ron Thompson and Frank Berto
Seated (front) Ron Shepard

Though my involvement in cycling began on a tricycle at an early age and I cycled to school from around age eight, my racing career started around 1953. In those days many races were short Time Trials up to 25 miles, ridden on fixed- gear, single- speed cycles using 1/8”chain. In the post-war era, road race bicycles had gone from 3 speed,1/8” chained, single chainring of the pre-war years to 4 speed clusters [14/16/18/20 or sometimes 22] were possible using a more flexible 3/32” chain with double chain rings “in front” usually 46/49 or 47/50 teeth rings. 

Back then, like most racing cyclists today, I was only interested in what was coming next, not what was already obsolete.

In those days I was always on the lookout in overseas cycling magazines for news on the latest developments and imported and raced on some really exotic stuff. Exotic meant expensive but the South African Pound and then the Rand was super strong (at around $2 to the Rand in 1960) and I was earning good money at work as a Commercial Artist. Through the British Mail Order firm of Ron Kitching and their amazingly illustrated catalogues, I imported and rode many exotic parts no one else rode, these not otherwise being available in this country. 

Later, with work and family demands occupying my time, my training and racing activity ended. This was in the early 1960s, at a time when a broader interest in cycling ‘just for fun and exercise’ began. I found that modern frame angles and aluminium bikes did not suit me and so began to search “for a bike like I used to ride”. That led to rescuing, restoring and riding old steel racing bikes being discarded as obsolete. This eventually and inevitably led to collecting; and an interest in the history of the development and progress of design of bicycles and bicycle equipment grew from there.

Research into this history led to my writing a series of articles on the subject in Ride Magazine. With my interest in cycling history, I had joined the VCC [Veteran Cycle Club] and largely through that association had previously been in correspondence with all the main people who eventually contributed to The Dancing Chain.

Frank Berto…

Was the man who took on the task of putting it all together. Sadly that is past tense now… as is the case with all the other authors who have since passed on. 

As the Ten-Speed bicycle began making an impact on transport in the USA in the 1970s, Frank was just retiring from his job as a mechanical engineer.

Relatively new to cycling but having trained in mechanics, he became interested in the relative working merits of the new-fangled derailleur beginning to come into the US in ever-increasing numbers and varieties of models now mainly from Japan.  

He became the man who then received samples, from the manufacturers, of each new model that arrived in the US.  He tested each and then wrote up his findings in articles in the American Bicycling magazine amongst other publications. These formed the basis of the Japanese side of the book. 

Rob van der Plas…

Was an American publisher of books, many of them cycling, some authored by himself.  I first met Rob at the 3rd International Cycle History Conference [ICHC] held in Boston, USA in 1993.

Rob published the first edition of 300 of Dancing Chain books. They wondered if there were enough people to buy them all. They sold well enough so that there were 4 revised editions, each with new additions and corrections.

Raymond Henry… 

Was a French cycle historian, who I met mainly as a result of my involvement with the UK VCC [Veteran Cycle Club] , the IVCA [International Veteran Cycle Association] and the annual ICHC [International Cycle History Conference].

The 3rd ICHC took place in Boston, USA in 1993 and it was there that I first met Raymond and discovered in him another derailleur history enthusiast like myself. 

This is a picture taken at the ICHC Boston USA held in 1993
Standing (from left) Raymond Henry, David Herlihy and Andre Vant (all cycle history authors) 
The sign was erected to commemorate Pierre Llament the Frenchman who first put pedals on a Draisene and created the Velocipede, the forefather of the bicycle

I recall the exciting occasion – at the house of one of the conference attendees – we discovered a copy another book originally a published in Japan in 1977 called “Le Monde de Daniel Rebour” published by BERO Publishing Company, which both Raymond and I sat side by side going “Wow!” over each succeeding page of Rebour illustrations. 

Anyway our common enthusiasm, admiration and appreciation of Rebour’s drawings was enough to prompt Raymond and I to become firm friends. Though when I first met him he had little English and I had no French, his English seemed to improve on every occasion we met over the years at ICHC events (whereas, alas, my French made no further progress). 

Language has never proved to be a barrier to progress in cycling history research. As a platform for exchanging information and communication of ideas, the VVC and ICHC but also various other cycling history organisations institutions have enabled / fostered many contacts and collaborations which furthered research and knowledge and which have resulted in in books being published.  

When we were to run the 6th ICHC in 1995 – which we combined with the 1st International Veteran Cycle Rally – here in Stellenbosch, South Africa we asked Raymond to prepare a paper on Rabour as well as on Simplex derailleurs.

This is a picture taken at the ICHC Stellenbosch South Africa held in 1995
Standing (from left) holding the banner are Rob van der Plas, publisher, and Anette Thompson
Holding the lever driven star cycle is Garry Woodward

This was included in the “proceedings”of the conference published by Rob van der Plas, and featured together with his earlier research work (published in the VCC News and Views) on Joanny Panel and Velocio and other French derailleur manufacturers like Cyclo and Huret. Together these formed the basis of the European side of the book.

Ron Shepherd…

Was an Australian long- distance cycle tourist whose interest in derailleurs was informed by and through his experiences with many systems in a long career of cycle tours to many countries. 

He was then THE authority on Campagnolo and much of the work on the Italian manufacturers in the book is his.

Daniel Rebour…

Was undoubtedly THE illustrative artist of cycling equipment from 1930-1980.

Many of the line illustrations in all the books published by Rob use the superbly detailed, brilliant illustrations by Daniel Rebour.

There is a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Technical texts without pictures is like a bike without wheels.

Today, through technological development and evolution in printing and more particularly the aspects of paper production and evolution of reproduction techniques, skills like line drawing in pen and ink as mastered by Rebour have been made obsolete .

There is a personal reason on my part for both an admiration for Rebour’s skill and a sadness – yet acceptance – of the inevitability of progress. I was also trained as a Commercial Artist in the 1960s, I served time in the art studio of the printing firm of Swan Press. 

The main method of production then was letterpress. Copy was set in hot metal type and transferred to paper in a press. For economic purposes the paper was course often little better than newsprint. Colour Lithography was reserved mainly for expensive books and magazines.

The cycling journals of the time were printed using letterpress. Reproduction of photos was poor as the method of reproducing photograph was known ‘dot matrix” in which the image was made up of dots. One can liken these to computer pixels but whereas there are thousands of those per square inch giving a picture great detail these dot matrix pictures were between 60 and up to 133 dots per square inch only. The printed results were poor.

On the other hand “line” images done by artists and produced as metal blocks for printing, allowed for a better image. So when it came to technical illustrations this was the preferable method.

Thanks to the skill of artists such as Rebour, we have a fine record of the cycling equipment of past times.  Line drawing was the skill in which I was trained, so my appreciation and admiration of the meticulous mastery of this skill as practiced, nay perfected, by Rebour is immense.

If indeed “a picture is worth a thousand words” then without his superior skill and technique, our knowledge and appreciation of the progress and development of Cycling equipment and an understanding of how these items worked would be that much poorer.

Many cyclists that I know are now interested in obtaining a copy of Berto’s “The Dancing Chain”

Yet when this was published by Rob van der Plas, he had wondered whether there was any market at all-barring a relative handful of those known enthusiasts who were involved/contributed in some way to the prior research. Hence an initial print run of only 300 copies.

Such was the eventual demand that it was re-printed 5 times in updated versions on each later edition. These are now out of print and, to my knowledge, used copies seldom come up for sale.

However, The Dancing Chain was not the first book to tackle derailleur history – there were a number of other works which preceded it.

The development of road racing from before the turn of the last century onward was a European phenomenon. So, the development of perfromance bicycle components was mainly European. The Japanese arrival on the scene, with the likes of Shimano and Suntour, was late…and to begin with heavily influenced by their fascination with all things French.

It is indeed interesting to consider the fact that, for the most part, the early books on history of the development of cycling components were Japanese.

One of the first I came across was a photographic record of the collection of Uwehara-san. This photo book was published but so far I have not found a copy.

When my wife and I were in Tokyo in 1995 and knowing of the book and the collection, visiting the deraileur collection of Uwehara-san was one of the items on my bucket list. 

I had no idea how I would do this but I was walking back from the train station to our apartment in Tokyo through a warren of small lanes housing little shops when I happened to glance down one of them running at right angles to my path. I can’t remember now what persuaded me to venture down but, to my amazement, I was passing a shopfront when I realised it was a bicycle shop… Uwehara-san’s bicycle shop! Inside was his collection for me to admire.

Also a Japanese publication was the “Data Book’ published in 1983 was a small-format booklet with line drawings depicting the early history of the development of cycle parts with consequent small sized illustrations. The illustrations were all culled from early French cycling magazines.

Another Japanese publication was “La Monde de Daniel Rebour” published in 1977, a book that was altogether superior not only in quality and size of illustrations but in actual content.

Both these books were long out of print. Second hand copies were non-existent. Yet I was determined to have a copy of both books. So I was fortunate to borrow them and make facsimile copies.

Having been in the print design and production myself and as reproduction technology since the original printing having advanced to a stage where magnification without loss of detail was now possible, I decided to produce a short run A4 format facsimile using single- sided printing on quality art paper.

I produced a large format computer copied edition of the Data Book. This was before Rob published his Facimile Reprint Edition with English Translations of the Japanese text in 1998 [ISBN 0- 916753-20-4].

I have on the desk beside me the book “Rebour”[ISBN 978-1-892495-71-6] published by Rob van der Plas in 2013. 

In it he mentions the paper by Raymond Henry and slide show presented at the 6th ICHC held in Stellenbosch, South Africa in 1995. The presentation was on Rebour and his bicycle illustrations.

Although invited by me, Raymond was not able to attend in person. Rob was able to attend and thus a chain of events leading to the production of his Rebour book. 

A facsimile copy of Le Monde de Daniel Rebour

I also produced a large format computer copied edition of Le Monde de Daniel Rebour, which was over 2” thick. It was then spiral bound. I recently had a chance to go through my cycling books and found I still had a few copies. These are for sale. 

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