History of the gearshift system
The first velocipedes: the penny-farthing
1800 – The velocipedes were machines designed with one, two, three, four or even five wheels. Some two-wheeled designs had pedals mounted on the front wheel, while three and four-wheeled designs sometimes used treadles and levers to drive the rear wheels.
The most popular in the 70s and 80s was the penny-farthing, also known as high wheel, and ordinary. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle. Its large front wheel provided high speeds, (owning to it travelling a large distance for every rotation of the legs) and comfort (the large wheel provides greater shock absorption).
It became obsolete from the late 1880s with the development of the modern bicycles, which provided similar speed amplification via chain-driven gear trains and comfort through pneumatic tyres and were marketed in comparison to penny-farthings as “safety bicycles” because of the reduced danger of falling and the reduced height to fall from.
In the 1800's the races were held with fixed-gear bicycles, the frames were heavy, made of steel, the wheels had wooden rims and sometimes there were no brakes. And on the climbs, the riders had to get off and push the bike.
So the invention of the gearshift system was born out of the need to be able to change the pedalling ratio so that riders could also tackle steep climbs.
The flip-flop hub
The first solution was the flip-flop hub. It was a rear-wheel equipped with two sprockets, one on each side. On one side there was a small, fixed-gear sprocket, on the other a larger one equipped with a freewheel. The fixed-gear sprocket was used on the plain, while at the beginning of a climb, the cyclist got off the bicycle, removed the nuts that locked the hub to the frame and turned the wheel, bringing the chain on the larger sprocket and tensioning it by pulling the wheel back into the dropout. And after that, he could finally restart.
Choosing the right moment to turn the wheel was therefore essential. But it's easy to imagine how uncomfortable the whole operation was.
1922 - The brilliant manufacturer Tullio Campagnolo, at the time an amateur racer, had to abandon a race at the top of a mountain because of a difficult flip-flop sprocket change, so his first great invention was the quick-release.
The first actual gearshift system
1914 – The introduction of the first gearshift system and the freewheel allowed more efficient use of the device, allowing the rider to stop pedalling. Cycling was becoming more and more popular and riders wanted to race as smoothly as possible.
The bike's rear derailleur was made up of two fixed sprockets, mounted on both sides of the hub, to facilitate wheel centring, the dropout was mobile, double and interchangeable according to the number of sprocket teeth.
The problem with this system was that by changing the angle of the device, the wheel was in the middle and the chain in tension, but it was necessary to unlock and flip the wheel to change gear. This was uncomfortable and wasting a lot of time for the riders, who had to get off the bike, to change gear.
The Vittoria gearshift system and the Osgear
1924-25 – In a continuous effort to improve bike performance and make racing more exciting, the Vittoria gearbox was invented. It had a lever under the bottom bracket, with a wheel for sliding the chain. The spring-loaded device was designed so that, regardless of the sprocket size, the chain would always stay in tension.
It was controlled with a key on the down tube of the frame. The rotation of this key caused the two fins located in the upper part of the rear horizontal tubes of the frame to move close to the freewheel. This allowed the chain to slide from one sprocket to the other, pedalling backwards.
This type of gearbox required a freewheel with four chainrings.
Later the Vittoria gearbox was perfected and was called Vittoria Margherita. The difference in this gearbox was that the key on the down tube was removed and replaced with one lever mounted between the column tube and the down tube. The release of the lever from the toothing allowed the chain to be loosened. The rotation of this lever made sure that the fins moved the chain as already done in the Vittoria rear derailleur and its tensioning was determined by the new position assumed by the lever in the sawtooth housing.
The Osgear (Constrictor Osgear Super Champion) was created by the Frenchman Oscar Egg and used the same techniques as Vittoria Margherita, but the movement of the chain was controlled by a cable and a chain tensioner, placed on the bottom bracket that kept the chain under tension.
In the '30s this system was used in the Giro d'Italia but was banned from the Tour de France until '37 because it was considered dangerous.
Campagnolo's Cambio Corsa
After the Second World War, there was a new revolution. Tullio Campagnolo invented the front derailleur that doubled the gear shifting possibilities.
(You can read our article on the Cambio Corsa here).
In the post-war years, most bicycle manufacturers used this system, but even though the device seemed simple, it was very difficult to use and even dangerous. The British even called it "the suicide shifter" and champions like Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, who rode on bicycles equipped with the Cambio Corsa, said that they'd rather not change gear at all during the races.
It consisted of two levers attached to the right vertical sheath of the frame. One lever had the function of releasing the quick release, loosening the wheel, which worked on toothed dropouts to facilitate positioning. The other lever instead moved the chain from one sprocket to another. The rider then had to continue pedalling and in the meantime turn around to operate the first lever and release the rear wheel, move the chain using the second lever and finally close the quick release.
1934 – The french company Simplex introduced the Simplex Champion derailleur. It had only one, toothless pulley, and a spring-less body. The disadvantage: it needed a lot of strength to move the derailleur driven by a cable.
The company thus introduced the Touriste, equipped with a parallelogram derailleur with two pulleys and operated by two cables: one made the derailleur move, the other varied the chain tension.
Campagnolo Gran Sport: a technological revolution
1949 - Presented at the Fiera di Milano, this innovative device was based on the parallelogram system: the cable, activated by a control placed on the down tube, made the derailleur deform following a parallelogram pattern, which made shifting gears much more practical and much faster. The spring, inserted in the derailleur, allowed it to return to its initial position when the cable tension decreased.
The front derailleur was also introduced.
However, the Gran Sport was very expensive and only professionals could have it. The French company Huret introduced the Allvit, the first industrially manufactured gearshift system, so even amateurs and ordinary people could start using it on their walking bikes.
The '60s: Campagnolo Record, a new way to produce gearshift systems
1960 - The Legnano company, which had one of the most successful cycling teams of all time, during the 1960 Olympic Games introduced a new model, the Roma Olimpiade, the first bicycle designed to have a gearshift system made to measure and entirely produced by Campagnolo.
Campagnolo was the first to understand the advantage of building complete groupsets, with all the components produced by the same company, instead of different manufacturers.
The SIS and the STI
1984 - A young Japanese company, Shimano, introduced the Dura ACE 7400 with the SIS (Shimano Index System). The innovation was in the management of the index rear gear: this means that each movement of the rear derailleur control on the down tube corresponds to a certain position of the front derailleur.
The gear shifting was, therefore, more efficient, in fact, the cyclist no longer had to understand and choose the right point where to position the chain.
The late '80s - Shimano introduced the STI (Shimano Total Integration). The gear shift controls were no longer in the down tube but integrated into the handlebar brake levers.
This was a great advantage for the cyclist, who no longer had to take his hands off the handlebars to change gears, and also increased the safety of the ride.
The DuraAce with the STI had the external wires starting from the levers and reaching two fixings (Shimano Stopper), which were in the same position as the old controls on the down tube.
Innovations in the '90s
1990 - A new discipline, the MTB, pushed bicycle companies to look for new solutions and innovations because these races were different from road cycling races.
Shimano produced the Rapidfire controls, which are still used today. A single body handled two different levers that allowed the bike's indexed ratio to be climbed or raised on both wheels. So you could change gear using only your thumbs.
Sram introduced the Gripshift, the knob controls still in use today.
Electromechanical and wireless gearshift systems
More recently, Shimano has introduced DuraAce and XTR Di2, electromechanical gearshift systems where a battery-powered electronic device manages the metric and position development of the chain.
While Sram introduced the wireless system so that instead of metal cables the controls are operated by electrical inputs.
(1) An iconic penny-farthing
(2) A flip-flop hub
(3) Vittoria Margherita gearbox
(4) Campagnolo Cambio Corsa
(5) Campagnolo Gran Sport
(6) Dura Ace 7400 from Shimano
(7) Dura Ace XTR Di2 from Shimano
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