The Dancing Chain, Frank Berto (2010)

A technological and social history of the derailleur that will entrance even techo-phobes

Cycle Publishing 9781892495594 23cm x 28 cm 400pp $59.95

Around the time of the Great American Bike Boom of the early 1970s, there coalesced a group of American cyclists – mainly on the west coast – to whom we owe and enduring debt. Writers like James Starrs and Harley Leete became vocal advocates of the bicycle. But more important, they brought their considerable intellects to understanding and promoting pedalled transport to a nation that could scarcely glimpse over the fins of their gallon-a-mile monsters.

They were by no means the first people to acclaim the exceptional brilliance of the bicycle – Kuklos was doing it half a century earlier. But they shaped a fresh, emperically-sound case for cycling that has provided the basis for the way that we think about pedal-powered transport ever since.

Frank Berto is one of that group. A mechanical engineer by training and an oil executive by trade, he started fiddling with bicycles by chance to keep up with his children on scout camp. It was the start of an extraordinary enthusiasm, that has spawned several decades of research and fine writing. Most famously, he devised a derailleur testing maching, the data from which formed the basis for many articles for Bicycling magazine – and did much to bring the understanding of gears from the world of myth, into the domain of science.

The Dancing Chain is his masterwork. A compilation of wisdom, knowledge and learning garnered over those years – with contributions from such other distinguished writers as Tony Hadland and Jan Heine. It traces the history of bicycle gears from the 1870s onwards, with a particular focus on derailleurs. It is a fascinating story and one that is told in a way that no technical training is needed to be completely engaged.

How gears work, and how they have developed technically might be the thread that runs through the book, but there is much else beside. There are the history of companies that have come and gone – Berto’s favourites SunTour being a particular case in point (about which there is a great article here), not to mention all the disappeared European names – Huret, Simplex, Super Champion and Nivex. Berto is very good at tracking both the 1970s US bike boom and the scale and technological consequences of the 1980s mountain bike craze.

The illustrations are also superb. Pretty much every page contains either technical drawings, photographs, period graphics and publications from back into the day. Indeed, in this edition, Cycle Publishing has a fair claim to have created one of the finest and most enduringly fascinating books every published about cycling.

It is a book that can be read straight though by anyone with even the most passing interest in how bikes have come to be like they are. It can then be enjoyed again and again, both as a reference work and as something into which one can pleasurably dip from time to time.

PS Sep 11

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