Regime change: why repressive dictatorships make rear derailleurs

What Mike Sweatman doesn’t know about the rear derailleur, isn’t worth knowing, and it only takes a short conversation with the Scotsman to discover the history of the derailleur is far more complex and colourful than even the most fanciful cycling fan could imagine.

“There is, strangely enough, a genuine relationship between oppressive dictatorships and obscure derailleur manufacturers,” says Sweatman, who has amassed a collection of 1,400 rear derailleurs.

“These things do bear on the world of derailleurs. Whenever a country gets cut off from the world, or there’s a serious trade mess, local industries start making bicycle parts.” 

Nationalism, trade restrictions and, according to Sweatman, an apparent disregard for the intellectual property of foreign companies saw a host of suspiciously familiar designs emerge from Franco’s Spain, Marxist East Germany and 1970s Brazil, to name only a few examples from the mid-20th century.

Campagnolo launched its first Super Record groupset in 1973 and this example, dating from 1977, is one of the jewels in Mike Sweatman’s collection 

“These companies often progressed from crude copies to making their own original designs,” says Sweatman, highlighting the Special from Czechoslovakian brand Favorit as one of his favourites within the collection. More than 400 derailleurs are also painstakingly documented on his website, Disraeli Gears.

Each design tells its own story, Sweatman says – if not in terms of technical innovation, but the wider social and political backdrop, and the changing times through which the bicycle has endured.

As the man behind the world’s largest known collection of derailleurs, Sweatman isn’t short on stories and, as well as exhibiting 144 of those derailleurs at the Rouleur Classic in November, he will also give what is sure to be a fascinating and far-reaching talk on what he calls ‘the definitive bicycle part.’ 

Sweatman is a lifelong cyclist and started collecting derailleurs by accident. “It was simply a case of not throwing things away,” he says. Something any cyclist with a drawer full of spare, old or worn out parts can attest to.

He was a founding member of the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Operative in the late 1970s and was the retailer’s buying director before retiring in 2017. When the co-op expanded into Manchester in 2007, it wanted customers to appreciate the company’s heritage despite the shiny new surroundings, so Sweatman set about creating a display of historic derailleurs.

Sweatman’s collection includes more than 1,400 derailleurs – this Mendoza rear mech from Mexico, stamped with a light machine gun, is one of the more unusual designs

“That’s when I began to think of it as a collection, rather than a box of junk,” he says. “There’s something about the derailleur; it’s the right size, complexity and importance to form the basis for a collection. There’s enough going on to stare at them for a few minutes.”

As the world’s foremost derailleur aficionado, Sweatman now receives emails from other collectors and enthusiasts the world over. He tells me of recently-acquired examples from Mexico, produced by a firearms manufacturer, Mendoza.

“There’s often a crossover between companies that make guns and bicycles parts, because in the 20th century they required the same technology: hardened steel and precision engineering,” says Sweatman.

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The company was founded by Rafael Mendoza Blanco, who fought alongside Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, but when the government restricted the right to own guns, Mendoza diversified into bicycle parts. Its derailleurs, originating from the 1980s, are stamped with an image of the Mendoza RM2 light machine gun.

“There’s also a guy in Argentina who finds me Argentinean derailleurs every now and again,” adds Sweatman. “When Prince William was deployed to the Falklands [in 2012], he was worried the postal service would destroy any packages addressed to the UK, so he sent them via his brother in San Diego.”

The collection includes some of the most important designs in the history of the derailleur, including a pre-WWI Le Chemineau

Of course, Sweatman’s collection also includes iconic examples from the history of the derailleur: a pre-WWI Le Chemineau, credited as being the first commercially successful derailleur; a 1920s Le Cyclo, the definitive touring mech for decades; a 1950s Campagnolo Gran Sport, the game-changing derailleur that introduced the basic parallelogram design; and a 1960s SunTour Grand Prix, with the slant parallelogram geometry that now forms the basis of almost every modern rear mech.

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Sweatman’s haul focuses primarily on derailleurs from before the year 2000  – anything later is ‘too familiar’ – and the Rouleur Classic sample selection will aim to give a picture of the whole collection, with an emphasis on designs to have won the World Championships.   

Sweatman identifies the 1970s as the golden age of the derailleur. Campagnolo, the dominant road racing brand of the era, launched its first Super Record groupset in 1973 – one of the jewels in Sweatman’s collection – but the tide was beginning to turn, with a significant challenge coming from the Far East.   

“It was a time of tremendous innovation,” he says. “Europe had been very dominant until then but Japan was coming.

The SunTour Gran Prix introduced the slant parallelogram to the world. The design now forms the basis of almost every modern derailleur

“There was something about Japanese design – the style and cleanliness – that swept through various markets at that time; electronics, cameras, and bicycle parts. Shimano and SunTour were absolutely neck and neck. Every year one would bring out a killer product, then the other would respond.”

Sweatman remembers SunTour derailleurs fondly – “they were beautiful in their simplicity and cleanliness” – but Shimano began to outmanoeuvre its Japanese rival in the 1980s, when SunTour’s patent for the Gran Prix expired and Shimano introduced the Dura-Ace 7400 groupset. “It was the first indexed derailleur that really worked,” recalls Sweatman. 

Given Shimano’s dominance of today’s market, it can difficult to remember a time before the Japanese giant, or a future without Dura-Ace and Di2, but as Sweatman’s collection shows, there’s more to the humble derailleur than meets the eye.

Shimano turned up the heat on its rivals with the launch of the first Dura-Ace groupset in 1973. The Dura-Ace 7400 derailleur that followed kick-started Shimano’s dominance of the market

“There are dozens of derailleur manufacturers in China right now, and some are really rather good,” he says. 

One such brand is Sensah, founded by a handful of former SRAM employees after the American company moved its factory 750 miles from Guangzhou to Kunshan, near Shanghai.

“They were used to making high-end product, so started producing their own,” says Sweatman, who describes Sensah’s SRX derailleur as a “really classy piece of work.” 

“Rich people in China – and that’s obviously a booming market – will want a high-end bike with Chinese product on it. We just don’t know about it. Equally, someone might say to me, ‘It’s terrible there’s never been any British derailleurs’, but there has been dozens of derailleurs and brands, but they have disappeared. 

“There’s always a world we don’t see, and we may never see it, but someties it’s good to realise our western view is very much of a time or place, even with derailleurs.”

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