Cycle Publishing
Van der Plas Publications


1282 7th Avenue
San Francisco
CA 94122, USA

Tel.: (415) 665-8214


The Dancing Chain

History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle
NEW: 5h Edition, expanded and updated through 2016
by Frank Berto
with contributions by Ron Shepherd, Raymond Henry, Walter Ulreich, Tony Hadland, Gordon Selby, and Jan Heine

Format: 8½ x 11 inch trade paperback
Description: 400 pages with 2,000 black & white illustrations
ISBN: 978-1-892495-77-8
Price: US$49.95

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A fascinating account of the birth and development of the modern bicycle—and the mechanism that makes it tick: the derailleur gearing system.

This fifth edition includes many corrections and additions, more and better images, and it covers significantly more material. This is one BIG book.


NOTE: Please don't be deceived by "internet bargains" offered e.g. on Amazon: those are copies of earlier editions. The current (5th) edition is significantly expanded and updated. Look for the blue band at the top of the cover saying "5th Edition, Revised, Updated, and Expanded."

About the book

Updated and expanded fifth edition of the "instant classic" that took everybody by surprise. Now with additional product test information, and many additional illustrations of items ranging from "prehistoric" gearing mechanisms to the very latest components, including the most innovative 2016 product introductions.

How could such a specialized subject find so much interest? Whereas all other cycle history books cover the early development in great detail but have nothing more to say once the modern safety bicycle is introduced at the end of the 19th century, this book picks up where the others leave off. It is the history of the modern bicycle during the last century—or, put another way, the first century of the derailleur bicycle.

The book is packed with fascinating illustrations, including hundreds of Daniel Rebour's wonderfully detailed renderings—many of them never seen in print before.

Table of Contents

1. The First Bicycles: 1817–1860

2. The Search for Speed: 1861–1890

3. The Bicycle Boom: 1891–1899

4. Pre-Derailleurs, Epicyclics, and Exotics 1900–1907

5. The First Derailleurs: 1908–1919

6. Practical Derailleurs: 1920–1929

7. The Golden Age: 1930–1939

8. The Postwar Years: 1945–1954

9. Slow Growth: 1955–1964

10. The “Great American Bike Boom”: 1965–1974

11. The Dawn of Mountain Biking: 1975–1984

12. The Rise of Shimano: 1985–1994

13. Into the 21st Century: 1995 to the Present, Part I. Shimano

14. Recent Developments: 1995 to the Present, Part II SRAM, Campagnolo, and the Rest

15. How Derailleurs Work

16. Nothing New Under the Sun?



What the Critics Say

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 nor 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. Being so broad in scope, it is roughly encyclopedic, and like any encyclopedia, the level of detail can be overwhelm­ing. Particular sections of The Dancing Chain tell coherent stories, but even the most extreme bicycle geeks are un­likely to read the book cover-to-cover,

The development of gear changers has been a story of competing ideas and even backward steps. My main criticism of The Dancing Chain is its failure to provide a coherent narra­tive structure, which might help the reader understand the reasons behind some of the adventurous designs shown in its pages. How could these be popular when at the same time, more modern-looking derailleurs were available. In fact, The Dancing Chain often reminded me of paleontological textbooks describing extinct creatures, some of which closely resemble cur­rent species and others with forms that appear bizarre from our current perspective. As in nature, solutions to some problems repeatedly appear and die out. The last chapter of The Danc­ing Chain highlights five such ideas: treadle/lever drives, shaft drives, retro­direct pedaling, bottom-bracket gears, and expanding chainwheels, I’ve seen old and new examples of most of these ideas before, but I found the expand­ing chainwheels particularly interest­ing because in my early development as a bike geek, I once had a brainstorm and “invented” such a mechanism. The Dancing Chain shows that I was far from the first.

In addition to the five recurring ideas highlighted in the last chapter, The Dancing Chain describes many other novelties. For example, I’d never before seen a rear derailleur with nei­ther a shift Ieyer 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,

As The Dancing Chain progresses beyond the 1960s, it places significant­ly greater emphasis on relatively small variations in parallelogram-based rear derailleurs. This emphasis reflects the narrowing of technological develop­ment once the inverted parallelogram derailleur had been adopted by most makers, As a result, I found the second half of the hook considerably less in­teresting than the first half, A few de­scriptions of short-lived experiments such as the 1981 Shimano Dura-Ace AX gruppo caught my attention, but the parade of side-profile photographs and descriptions of Shimano, Suntour, Campagnolo, Simplex, Mavic and other very similar derailleurs began to blur.

The book’s micro-level focus on the refinement of derailleurs in the last thirty years reflects not only historical trends, but also the author’s interests and experience. In the introduction, Berto states that his expertise starts in the 1970s, when he began writing technical articles for Bicycling! maga­zine, Although the third edition of The Dancing Chain has, for the most part, been expanded beyond this time­frame, some relics remain as signs of prior editions’ more limited focus, For example, the penultimate chapter  titled “How Derailleurs Work” is focused entirely on current slant-parallelogram designs. While it is true that virtually all current-model derailleurs follow this convention, this is hardly the case for all derailleurs ever made, or even for all derailleurs currently in use. The chapter might have fit more smoothly with the rest of the book if it had briefly described the various levers, plungers, spirals, and paral­lelograms that have historically been used to push the chain between cogs. In conjunction with the explanation of chain gap, the primary advantage motivating the current dominance of slant-parallelogram designs would have been made clearer.

Generally, The Dancing Chain would benefit from a greater emphasis on information synthesis and identification of the themes that drove bicycle develop­ment. By relying heavily on a chrono­logical structure, Berto describes the features of bicycles and components produced during specific time periods, but he rarely pulls the observations together to help the reader understand them in context. The best encyclopedias and historical texts include both description and interpretation. Such interpretation can be controversial, but it leads to greater understanding.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a book that attempts to describe the en­tire history and development of geared bicycles for limiting its interpretation of that history. 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.

Mark Vanden Kamp in Bicycle Quarterly, Summer 2009

Critical reviews of the earlier editions

The Dancing Chain does not shy away from technical detail, yet remains informatively accessible to the lay reader, making it a fascinating resource for leisure reading as well as hard research for academia. Highly recommended for bicycle enthusiasts and historians alike.”

The Midwest Book Review/Small Press Bookwatch, June 2005

“With a final chapter on how derailleurs work, this book is a dream for the real tech-heads. There's no doubt that this book is highly researched, and thankfully, quite comprehensible for the average reader.”

Francine Letil, in The Ride Magazine, June 2005

“This is a large, beautiful, hardcover book, profusely illustrated and full of fascinating information on the development of derailleur gearing and the modern bicycle.

“Every reader of Human Power should (...) buy this book. It gives you all the history, the fundamentals, the reasons for continual changes in design, the pitfalls to avoid, and so on that you will ever need.”

David Gordon Wilson, in Human Power, Fall 2000

The Dancing Chain was a major 5-year undertaking that has accomplished what no one else has even attempted to do: track the rich and intriguing history of bicycle drive-trains from the earliest days right up to the present.

“Even if you've never paid attention to my book reviews in the past, please trust me on this on—The Dancing Chain is a must. Out of my normal rating of 1 to 10, I give this one a 12!”

Gabe Konrad, in On the Wheel, Winter 1999

From the contents

Early gearing by means of multiple gear wheels on a French Pedalier Lancelot bicycle of 1899.


1943 Huret rear derailleur.


The "Aero age": Shimano AX rear derailleur. One of hundreds of new Daniel Rebour drawings.


First introduced in 2008, the NuVinci infinitely variable gear hub is a groundbreaking design departure in bicycle gearing.

About the author

Frank Berto is a retired mechanical engineer, who has written well over a hundred published articles on technical aspects of bikes and biking. He was engineering editor for Bicycling Magazine during its heyday—when coverage of technical issues was still considered important, and even experienced cyclists looked forward to each new issue of the magazine.

His first published book, Bicycling Magazine's Guide to Upgrading Your Bicycle, was published by Rodale Press in 1988, and in 1998, we published his The Birth of Dirt: History and Development of the Mountain Bike.

Since 1998, he has regularly attended the International Cycling History Conferences and presented a number of papers on various historically significant technical subjects.