Robot’s Useless Reviews – Campagnolo’s First Derailleur

Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked your way here in hope of reading something about the new EKAR (not a Star Wars character evidently) or the latest EPS, you’re in the wrong place. Like making fondue, playing golf, or bathing regularly, it’s just not the sort of thing I do. This (not) review is about Tulio Campagnolo’s original gear-changing mechanism, latterly the derailleur, from the French for “Jesus, this road is steep.”

For the sake of historical accuracy and to save you having to type a history lesson into the comments, Campagnolo did not invent the derailleur (actual derivation from the French for a train derailing from its tracks). There were many companies working on the gear-changing challenge and few others on the market before Campagnolo arrived. His parallelogram derailleur was the first one that gained real traction (no pun intended, JK totally intended) in the market.

Victor Kiam, CEO of Remington Shavers, he liked it so much he bought the company….JK…this is Tulio Campagnolo

In most quarters, the invention of this style of derailleur is hailed as ushering in the modern of age of bicycle technology. And, to be completely fair to Don Tulio, there are not a lot of hills I would have crested without his help, but the sea change he initiated didn’t come without unintended consequences. Keep in mind that Campagnolo’s derailleur product ramped up during WWII, which, for those of you under-30, is World War 2, not the gaming system that preceded the Wii.

For example, in the early part of the 20th century, this country (the United States) was dotted with velodromes, which supported one of, if not the most popular sport in the world at the time, track racing. Confined to just the one gear, humanity had discovered a perfectly good, entertaining, and often brutal way to race bicycles. It was F1, boxing, and chess in one package. Actually, the road racing of that day was also brutal, although without television coverage, I’d argue, less entertaining. Today, most of those velodromes (velodra?) are gone, replaced with running tracks, football stadia, and sometimes just left to the weeds growing up through ancient cinder.

Thanks, Tulio.

Other unintended consequences of the widespread use of derailleurs are laziness and dissatisfaction. What started as a two-speed, rapidly became a three. As cyclists obtained new gears and wider gear ranges, they liked pedaling hard less and less. They wanted more gears. 5spd. 7spd. 9spd. 10spd. 11, 12, 13. Where? Does? It? End? What we can’t find in our legs, we look for in our machine, until at last, we’re all wearing leather vests and riding Harleys.

Way to go, Campy!

In pro cycling, Campagnolo’s derailleur was like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kicking off a technology war that ensured the fastest rider didn’t always win. If the single and/or fixed gear put the onus on the cyclist to generate whatever power was necessary, Tulio’s derailleur was the opening salvo in global conflict still raging today.

Writer’s aside: I almost said that he opened the Pandora’s box of mechanical doping there, but I’d already opened the graph with the WWI metaphor, and even I am not so sloppy as to mix metaphors within a single paragraph.

Springs and screws and jockey wheels, oh my!

Having spawned the nuclear age and the space race with the employment of an unexpected trapezoid, Campagnolo scaled up, hiring crafts folk, and dominating the component game until Shimano set their fishing rods down and scatter-blasted the world with an array of mechanisms of stunning efficiency and minimalist brilliance. It was the Renaissance, the Great Schism, the Reformation, and the advent of sliced bread. Also, other metaphors.

My friend Phil maintains that the modern bicycle is basically a Victorian invention which has been systematically stunted in its potential growth by the doggedly bureaucratic intervention of the UCI. The OG Campagnolo derailleur somehow magically eluded elision by said bureaucrats, gaining access to a massive, captive market that it dominated for decades after. Tulio’s company has something like 135 patents for all manner of mechanical innovation, further blocking entry for enterprising velo-inventors, and what has been the benefit?

Now paunchy men (It’s always men, isn’t it?) of affluence insist on keeping the company in business by swearing some sort of blood oath that they can and will only ride the real thing, even when it’s off the back technologically, and no longer made by hand in the Vicenza factory. With one quick sketch of an improbable geometric shape, Tulio Campagnolo invented not only a better way to change gears, but the archetype of the bike snob, sipping espresso, and looking down on your shoddy equipment as if it’s anything but the legs that really matter.

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    I’m a little sad you didn’t mention SRAM, if only to satirize the name alone…

  2. alanm9 says

    And, who invented hand brakes? String him up!

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