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Disraeli gears: the world's greatest collection of derailleurs

4 Mar 2019

Mike Sweatman’s collection of over 1,000 bicycle derailleurs is more than just one man’s hobby – it’s a history of cycling

Words Peter Stuart Photography Alex Wright

‘Mavic derailleurs are totally pointless, and therefore I think must be considered art,’ Mike Sweatman says as he stares thoughtfully at a Mavic 841 rear derailleur. Pointless though it may be, the Mavic 841, like the thousand or so other derailleurs stacked up in his Edinburgh home, has a story to tell.

Sweatman’s accumulation of derailleurs has grown substantially over the past decade, and is now among the largest private collections in the world. ‘Some people are just collecting-type people, and I’m a collecting-type person,’ he says.

On the surface, a collection of variable-ratio transmission mechanisms may seem a little eccentric, and Sweatman jovially describes his partner’s attitude towards the collection as ‘vaguely disturbed’, but his collection embodies more than just an abstract appreciation of the derailleur’s form. It demonstrates that across borders, regimes and decades of political isolation, the same passion for cycling, and this mechanical component, has flourished.

SRAM ESP 9.0SL, 1997 The ESP 9.0SL followed a disastrous first generation of SRAM derailleurs, which suffered a mass recall. A series of signature colour schemes helped reassert the brand: a US flag and a wood finish version accompanied 
this leopard-print version

Culture shift

‘You get an email from someone in a village on the border of Vietnam and China and the moment you read that email you realise you’ve met that guy in a bicycle shop – exactly the same type of person,’ Sweatman says. ‘You get these emails and you suddenly realise that these quite geeky gear types exist almost everywhere in the world and they’re almost exactly the same.’

While a passion for the derailleur seems to be universal, the manifestations can be very different. ‘There are lots of collectors in Japan who have beautiful collections of every single Campagnolo derailleur, all in their brand new boxes and they have the original instructions and they’re absolutely perfect,’ says Sweatman. ‘But that’s not like me. I collect broken and rusty things if they’re interesting to me.’

Le Chemineau, 1912 Translating as ‘tramp’, Le Chemineau was the first genuine production derailleur. The design was based on journalist Paul de Vivie’s own homemade designs and was a success until it was superseded by Simplex’s cheaper models in the late 1930s.

Rather than a celebration of mechanical beauty, Sweatman’s collection paints a rich picture of the meandering path of the cycling industry, and he pays particular attention to how cycling has grown in countries that historically have been cut off from the rest of the world: ‘I find the way that industry develops behind the walls of dictatorship really interesting – the Ukrainians, Argentinians and the Brazilians and all of these people who lived in the age of the generals.’

Many of Sweatman’s most prized derailleurs originated from behind the Iron Curtain. ‘This is a Walter,’ says Sweatman, pointing to a svelte and simplistic black derailleur. ‘Walter is a name like Rolls-Royce in the Eastern Bloc. It made posh cars in the 1930s, aeroplane engines in the War, jet engines for training planes in the Soviet bloc, and then it made this. It’s plastic, but it’s a professional derailleur and it was used in the Peace Race. It weighs 134g, and nobody in the West got near that weight back then, not within 50%. [A brand new 2014 Campagnolo Super Record weighs 155g]. The pulley wheels may look like cheap plastic, but they’ve all got sealed bearings inside. It’s a beautiful thing.’

Artefacts such as the Walter generate some of the most energetic responses on Sweatman’s website ‘The people at Walter obviously realised they were doing something really special, but it’s not acknowledged in history. When I put it on my website I was amazed by the amount of emails 
I got about how much people love the thing.’

Behind another political barrier in Argentina, the consequences of a complete trade blackout had a very different effect. Sweatman shows us the Gambato derailleur, a relic of Argentina’s murky mech past. ‘Mr Gambato worked for Mr Campagnolo and claims he designed the seminal Campagnolo Gran Sport derailleur, but no one believed him,’ Sweatman says.

Gambato Dural, Date Unknown This brand’s story is a colourful one, with the scorned Mr Gambato claiming the invention of Campagnolo’s Gran Sport. He moved to Argentina and created strangely familiar derailleurs under his own name.

‘Then he formed a company called Gambato in Italy, and then mysteriously just about the time it died out in Italy a brand called Gambato emerged in Argentina, and the design is a carbon copy of 
the Campagnolo Gran Sport. So he must have gone to Argentina and continued to make these new derailleurs – it was like he was on the run. You won’t find a record of that anywhere. You’ll hear it from someone in Argentina by email. There’s a whole derailleur industry in Argentina because you couldn’t import them, so they 
had to make and develop them there.’

These days it appears to be economic divisions rather than political oppression that create some of the most interesting alternatives to the big players. ‘I remember 15 years ago I was in Hanoi [Vietnam] trying to find a Shimano lock ring remover. I went into about 40 shops and not a single one had heard of Shimano. There’s a whole parallel universe out there that is entirely Chinese and Vietnamese and God knows what stuff – a whole slice that sits under Shimano.’

Paul Powerglide ‘Rasta’, 1995 The Paul Powerglide was one of the most coveted mountain bike derailleurs of the 1990s, and is likely to be one of the most expensive derailleurs in Sweatman’s collection as it’s still a highly sought-after collectable.

Often this sub-tier of derailleurs proves that the basics of shifting can be done with minimal expense. To illustrate his point, Sweatman grabs a rudimentary derailleur from his cupboard: ‘This is a Saiguan that I bought in Morocco and maybe cost me 75p. It’s horrible but it’s not unusable.

Political repression, economic bi-polarity and war don’t seem to have hindered the derailleur’s dissemination over the world. Sweatman makes note of the fact that the only years for which there is no literature on the derailleur are 1915 to 1917, owing to the First World War. Equally, though, in those early years the derailleur had a very difficult time in proving its worth.

A moving saga

The oldest relics in Sweatman’s collection are undoubtedly the ugliest of the field, but possibly the most interesting. Le Chemineau, which looks like a medieval torture device, is one of the most pivotal in the early history of cycling.

Back in those early days, Henri Desgrange, organiser of the first Tour de France, denounced all derailleurs, insisting that riders in the Tour ride fixed gear. He famously proclaimed, ‘Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft; as for me, give me a fixed gear!’

His strong conservatism played a large part in the slow adoption of the derailleur, meaning that despite numerous patents emerging in the late 19th century, it was several decades before the technology became widespread.

EGS Up Cage, 1998 The EGS Up Cage used three jockey wheels instead of two. Only a single pulley wheel was used to position the chain (the guide pulley), while the others tensioned the chain to counter chain slap. French MTB downhillers loved it but no one else did.

Thanks in part to the energetic efforts of legendary French journalist Paul de Vivie, the derailleur eventually won the day. He created a rudimentary derailleur himself, with which he toured the mountains and wrote sprawling and poetic accounts of his travels under his nom de plume, Vélocio.

De Vivie designed his own homemade derailleurs for his travels and it was one of his designs that was adapted into Le Chemineau, ‘the tramp’ in English, in 1912.

‘The tramp became the first commercially successful derailleur,’ Sweatman says. ‘In the 1930s they sold zillions of these, and then Simplex came along a few years later. It had lots of different designs, but they were very cheap and so they became very popular, and so Simplex dominated the world until 1951, when Campagnolo came along with the Gran Sport parallelogram design.’

Simplex Tour de France, 1948 Simplex created cheap and successful developments of Le Chemineau. The Tour de France uses a chain-pull mechanism to determine the gear position, a design that would be obliterated by the parallelogram.

From there, the natural order remained settled until the seismic arrival of Japanese company SunTour, which changed the game forever. ‘The big patent was the SunTour patent that ran from 1964 to 1984 – the slant parallelogram, a parallelogram mounted at an angle. SunTour defended that to death, so Shimano and everybody else had to wait,’ says Sweatman.

Ofmega Mistral ‘Maglia Rosa’, 1982 Among Sweatman’s most prized derailleurs, the Mistral came in a range of charming pastel colours. Despite its plastic (and phallic)appearance, Mistral claimed it employed hi-tech polymers and it was praised for its precision.

SunTour was eventually toppled by Shimano, but one of the lingering relics of the brand, the SunTour Superbe Pro, is evidence of the company’s once masterful work. Sweatman considers this to be among the finest friction derailleurs of all time, and with its golden cage and simplicity it stands out as one of the most beautiful in his collection.

Slipping off course

Since the 1980s, things may have progressed along a line of gradual improvement and modification, but there have been a few deviations from the path. The Mavic Zap and the Shimano Airlines are just two such examples of attempts to re-imagine the derailleur’s inner workings.

The Shimano Airlines (AR01), 2000 The Airlines was Shimano’s intriguing attempt to redesign the derailleur as a pneumatic device. Compressed air would be released from one of two canisters that fed into the body of the derailleur. It failed to make an impression.

The Mavic Zap will be well known to gear geeks as the first electronic groupset, and one of the great flops of derailleur history. It generated the movement of the derailleur shaft via the rotation of the chain, while the electronics simply determined which direction the derailleur would be pushed in. A little less known, the Shimano Airlines used pressurised air to shift between gears, an interesting idea albeit offering a limited number of shifts on any ride.

‘You pumped up the aluminium bottle with a track pump, then you had two airways and the lever released pressure into either one. It was only ever marketed for mountain bike downhill,’ Sweatman says. ‘It’s a bit of a mystery. Shimano initially said that for full suspension bikes the cable geometry changes too much, whereas with an Airlines the pressure doesn’t change as you bend it. But then when you look at the patent, the patent is not for a downhill derailleur at all, it’s for a touring derailleur.’

Mavic Mektronic, 1999 Mavic began the electronic revolution years before the Mektronic with the Zap in 1994. The Mektronic was the wireless evolution of that initial electronic shifting system, but was plagued with reliability and charging issues.

Shimano’s first Di2 mech is, of course, represented in Sweatman’s collection too. 
‘This is the first Di2,’ he says, picking it up. ‘It came out for hybrid bikes. Shimano often brings out its key technologies for hybrid.’

Perhaps the most intriguing tangent in the derailleur timeline is the aerodynamic revolution. ‘It was beautiful stuff, absolutely fantastic,’ Sweatman recalls. ‘Back in 1981 it was proper aero – they were genuinely serious about it. In 1981 Shimano spent an absolute fortune on aero everything, lots of things like internal cables and all of that, and it went absolutely nowhere. No one was interested. But it scared everyone else, so they all did aero stuff and did a bad job of it. Shimano won out, in a funny way.’

SunTour Superbe Pro Gold, 1984 The SunTour Superbe was the last grand showing of the once enormous brand. It’s arguably the best friction derailleur of all time, with carefully selected materials, tight tolerances and a handsome gold and black colour scheme.

Despite the various experiments in function, SunTour’s slant parallelogram design still reigns supreme, even though SunTour’s drivetrain arm has long since faded into obscurity. Perhaps it’s a sign that the supremacy of Shimano in the current market may not last forever. But when it comes to the longstanding stalwart of the shifting scene, Campagnolo, Sweatman has some interesting perspectives.

‘Campag has always made nice stuff, but I always feel slightly contrary about it because the functionality sometimes doesn’t live up to the quality of the finer details,’ he says. ‘Here’s a Campag derailleur with a sort of pearlescent finish,’ Sweatman says, holding it up. ‘Campagnolo’s made the aluminium feel silver and pearlescent without being polished by tumbling all the parts in big drums full of bamboo balls. They spent four hours tumbling all the parts with bamboo balls just because Tullio Campagnolo thought it should be shiny, but not too shiny. That’s classy.’

Campagnolo Gran Turismo, 1970 The Gran Turismo was, according to Sweatman, one of the worst derailleurs to ever be made in terms of function, yet is considered to be among the most fetching Campagnolo derailleurs in appearance.

Despite his reservations over the brand, that strange attention to detail has long-since drawn Sweatman to an appreciation of Campagnolo. ‘When I was at college I went to a lecture called “The 20 Most Important Things About A Bolt”, and the lecturer described how all these things would come together make the perfect bolt,’ Sweatman recalls fondly.

Campagnolo 50th Anniversary, 1983 Celebrating 50 years since Tullio Campagnolo invented the quick release skewer, the Anniversary was based on the Record, with minor design alterations and some gold plating. More than anything, it attests to the visual attraction of the brand.

‘It would have a round bit under the head that sat on a built-on washer, rolled thread and the first bit of the thread taken off because that’s where the stripping starts, and it would have the edges chamfered and so on. He said you would never come across a bolt like this. The next day I was fitting a Campag chainset for somebody and, lo and behold, the chainset bolt had every single one of his 20 features. But, you know, no one gives a damn about a chainset bolt. There’s just something about Tullio – he was some kind of maniac – and that’s the impressive thing about Campagnolo components, even if the fundamental design is often a bit clunky.’

White Industries LMDS, 1997 White Industries made one of many attempts to rethink the derailleur. The body slides up and down along two pillars to shift gear. ‘It’s a fantastic thing,’ Sweatman says. ‘But it cost a fortune and nobody bought it.’

Sweatman’s collection paints a fascinating picture of cycling through the ages. Even in up-to-date derailleurs, impressions of the earliest designs still shine through. To prove the point, Sweatman leaves Cyclist with a parting tale.

‘Shimano put this pattern, which it called Arabesque, on its 600 at one point,’ Sweatman says, holding up the Arabesque and its crossed-sword style engraving. ‘Because Shimano put it on its derailleur, it kind of cascaded through history, as if designers considered it very important that the pattern be there as it had been on this Shimano derailleur. It’s always the same weird pattern. Even today the Chinese will come up with a derailleur that has got this same pattern on. And nobody knows why.’

To see Mike Sweatman's full collection of derailleurs, visit Disraeli Gears.