12 February 2017

What If He Hadn't Lost That Race?

A couple of days ago, we got a snowstorm that lived up to its advanced billing. Now it's raining, sleeting and snowing at the same time.  The way things are going, the streets will be turned from sledding runs to skating rinks.

The weather's got me to thinking about a story many of you know.   Back in 1927, a certain rider was leading a race in the Dolomites.  In those days, racers usually rode "flip-flop" rear hubs with a different-sized cog on each side.  The fellow was halfway up the notorious Croce d'Aune when he stopped to "flip" his wheel and access his lower gear.  

His fingers frozen, he couldn't loosen the wingnuts holding his wheel in place.  Supposedly, he muttered "Bisogna cambiar qualcossa de drio"--something has to change on the back of the bike--before he finally got the wheel loose.  Meantime, he lost time and his lead.

Now, I am sure this story, like most that are apocryphal, has been embellished or cleaned up, or both.  After all, any invention that changes the world (or the world of cycling, anyway) should have a good story behind it, right?

Well, that tale is widely accepted as the "creation myth", if you will, of the quick release lever.  The racer/inventor in question is, of course, one Tullio Campagnolo.

Not surprisingly, he was at work improving--you guessed it!--the wing nut before, as the folks at Classic Rendezvous so eloquently tell us, "an extremely bad winter" resulted in "Tullio's attention being shifted".

Was a pun intended with the world "shifted"? Signor Campagnolo is also noted, as we all know, for his derailleur designs.  If we can level a criticism against him, it might be that he never managed to make a really good wide-range touring derailleur that did not wholly or partially copy a Japanese design.  

The Gran Turismo is was, in the immortal words of Frank Berto, "Campy's Edsel":  utterly baroque and a functional failure. The first Rally derailleur was, essentially, a Shimano Crane GS built around a Campagnolo Record parallelogram with brass bushings.  (Some believed that Shimano was making it for Campy, but I doubt it.)  It shifted just like a Crane GS, which is to say better than any other European wide-range derailleur of the time, but not quite as well as anything SunTour was making.  

The second generation of Rally was just a Nuovo Record with a long cage.  I never used one, but from all accounts, it didn't shift as well as the first Rally. Moreover, the long cage strained the rest of the derailleur, which meant that the second-generation Rally didn't have the longevity for which Nuovo Records were renowned.  Current Campagnolo wide-range derailleurs are similar in geometry and overall design to those of Shimano.

The "Record Record", on the other hand, elongated the parallelogram in an attempt to avoid what some perceived as the fragility of long-cage derailleurs.  A parallelogram is indeed stronger than a cage, but I never had any long-cage derailleurs that failed as a result of the cage. (My experience includes several SunTour and Shimano models as well as the Huret Duopar and long-cage Jubilee and, for a brief time, a first-generation Rally.)

Here's one more interesting "What if?" component:

Before Campagnolo introduced his side-pull brake in the late 1960's, the Universal Super 51--and its later, shorter-armed iteration, the Super 68--were regarded as the best side-pull brakes.  As they were losing their share of the high-end market, Universal developed their "685", which pulled from both sides.

Supposedly, the force of the brakes squeezed rims the way a pair of vice-grips can crumple a beer can.  Also, the few who used those brakes didn't ride them for very long:  The calipers (the same material, thickness and basic design of the 68s) simply couldn't stand up to the extra torque.  But the final nail in the coffin for those brakes may have been the market:  There were very few sources for the needed "Siamesed" cables.

It's interesting to think of how bikes might be different if today's touring derailleurs and brakes were based on the designs of the "Record Record" and "685", respectively--or if Tullio Campagnolo hadn't such difficulty in loosening a pair of wing nuts during a winter race.


  1. I have been sceptical of the "creation myth" for a long time. I have a bike whose wheels are fastened by big wing nuts from the 50's. I use it in the winter in snow, sleet and -20C. I have never had that problem with them. One must keep them clean and greased. And in low temperatures metals will contract. One part of every pre-ride ritual is to check to see if the wing nuts are tight enough.. The only way the "creation myth" works is if Tullio C's wing nuts had been grossly neglected.

    One wise guy once said that it looks like the wheels are held on with shoelace knots. I have referred to this Frankenbike before as "The Ice Bike". I choose the wing nuts for the bike so it would be easy to take a wheel off in severe winter conditions. None-the-less, the "creation myth" is a good story. It SHOULD be true, but...


  2. Leo--I, too, have always been skeptical of that story. Still, it's a good story, and why not keep it? As you say, it should be true--which, I guess, is pretty much what makes it apocryphal or a myth.

  3. In this age of nonstop "Alternative Facts," the above referenced Creation Myth seems pretty harmless. Likewise, I've never seen anything like that double sidepull brake. I thought one of the big advantages of sidepulls is that they're easier to set up. Seems like it would be easier to just slap on a straddle cable and a hanger and: Presto! You have a centerpull brake!

  4. MT--I agree with what you say about brakes--and about Creation Myths. When I wrote the post, I wasn't thinking about "Alternative Facts", but I'm glad you made that connection!