03 October 2014

The Man Who Made--And Broke-- SunTour

Writing about SunTour yesterday got me, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, "woozy with deja vu".  (How can you not love that phrase?)

You see, I started to take long rides as the '70's Bike Boom was gaining force.  That was also almost the exact time that American cyclists began to glom onto SunTour derailleurs.  

Although SunTour's wares would have dominated the North American (and other) cycling markets on their own merits, the fact that, around 1980, more bikes were equipped with the Japanese company's derailleurs, shifters and freewheels--and more of those parts were sold as replacements--than all of the other component manufacturers combined, is the result, at least in part, of the work of one person.


I'm talking about Frank Berto.  If you're a bit younger than I am, you probably think of him as the author of The Dancing Chain, a book for gear geeks if there ever was one. (It's an engaging read nonetheless.)  But for those of us who were around in the prehistoric days of cycling, when all bike manuals were written in Latin (OK, Italian and sometimes French and English), he will be forever known as the technical editor of Bicycling magazine.

Now, I know some of you (again, who weren't around in those times) might be scratching your heads and saying, "Bicycling had a technical editor"?  Those of you who are a bit younger might not believe that magazines had technical editors.  And, if you're younger still, you might not believe that magazines existed.

Trust me, they did.  And Bicycling--as much as I and others complained about it--was actually something more than the advertising vehicle or lifestyle tab it's been for at least two decades. 

As he tells it on his website,  Frank Berto bought a secondhand Schwinn Varsity in 1971, when he became involved with his sons' Boy Scout troop.  He was then a 42-year-old mechanical engineer who, until that time, hadn't been on a bike in more than two decades.  On his first ride with his son's troop, all of the young whippersnappers blew past him on a long and winding hill that would be his Road to Damascus."If I had a bigger sprocket in the back, I could pedal up this lousy hill," he thought.  Shortly thereafter, he rode to his local bike shop and bought a SunTour 14-34 freewheel (Varsities came with 14-28) and a SunTour VGT rear derailleur.  

He tried to install them himself, but realized he had no clue as to what to do.  Nor, as it turned out, did the shop that sold him the parts.  None of the bicycle-related books (remember those?) in his local library were of any help.

His yearlong odyssey to lower the gears on that tank called the Varsity ended with him writing, first for Bike World and, not long afterward, for Bicycling.  After mining his own experiences, he conducted a series of tests and published his ratings of derailleurs that were available at the time.  The message of much of his work from that time can be more or less summed up with this sentence: "If you are unhappy with your shifting, the SunTour VGT is your best prescription".

The thing is, he was right.  The VGT, which cost about $10 at the time, could handle the freewheel he installed on the Varsity--and more.  And, because of its design, it shifted more easily and accurately on smaller racing freewheels than even the derailleurs supposedly designed for them.  Those derailleurs from Campagnolo and Huret cost four times as much.  Even the SunTour Cyclone, which came out a year or two after Berto made his pronouncement, cost less than half as much as those European derailleurs--and was lighter (and prettier) than any except the Huret Jubilee.

Ironically, for all that he did to build SunTour's reputation, he may have unwittingly contributed to its undoing.  When Huret came out with the Duopar touring derailleur in the late 1970's, he enthused about it. Up to that time, SunTour's shifting--especially on wide-range touring gears--was light-years ahead of everyone else's.  That anyone could make something better, even if only marginally so, seemed inconceivable.   And for Frank Berto to say so was like the CEO of the Bank of America endorsing socialism.

By that time, the folks working for SunTour were paying as much attention to Berto's articles as Anna Wintour does to fashion shows.  They panicked and made some ill-advised changes to some of their products.  

A few years after that, Berto praised one of the results of SunTour's changes:  the Superbe Tech derailleur.  He praised it even more lavishly than he did any previous SunTour product--or the Duopar.  It shifted as well as he said, and was beautiful.  But it also had some fatal design flaws--as did the Duopar--that truncated its lifespan to about 3000 km.  By that time, SunTour's patents had expired, and Shimano had adopted SunTour's most salient feature--the slant parallelogram--even faster than President Bush signed the Patriot Act after 9/11.  

Oh, how I miss SunTour.  And Bicycling magazine, when it had a technical editor.


  1. Shoot, I never even heard about the magazine before the end of the last millennium. It was pretty much a nobrainer to pick a Suntour VGT at almost any LBS when comparing it with what came from Europe for anything less than triple the price. You may recall that Simplex was still foisting off plastic rear derailleurs that snapped if you looked at them crosswise.

  2. Steve, I remember those plastic derailleurs all too well. The shift levers were even worse.

    In the mid-70s, Simplex offered the Super LJ derailleur, which was constructed of alloy. It was actually very nice: much like a Campagnolo Nuovo Record.. Gradually, metal began to trickle down Simplex's derailleur lineup. That created a paradox: Simplex might have been the only component manufacturer in history whose components actually got heavier as one paid more for them.

    You're right about SunTour VGT derailleurs (or just about anything SunTour made until 1984 or thereabouts). Even European derailleurs that cost three or four times as much weren't as good. I think that, paradoxically, is the reason they came out with the Cyclone and, later, Superbe: the snobs didn't want to put a ten-dollar rear derailleur on otherwise all-Campy bikes.