The Dancing Chain by Frank Berto: a review

The Dancing Chain is a history of bicycle gearing–and, necessarily, a history of bicycles and bicycle technology. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in that technology. The book has a technical slant that certainly restricts the audience. The author also concentrates heavily on the development of “high-end” bicyclists’ preferences, and how those impacted the markets in various countries. Nonetheless, it’s pretty much the only entrant in its field. Fortunately, it’s a very good effort.

The book’s organization is basically decade-by-decade, though the five-year gap for World War II offsets subsequent decade breaks to years ending with 5. The first half of the book takes the story to World War II and is mostly centered on French derailleur innovations, with an honest nod to a British preference for (and development of) internally-geared hubs. There are mentions of developments in other countries, but the French and British cycling communities are central to the story because most of the innovation occurred in those nations. There’s also some discussion of how various European nations’ terrains and cultures impacted cycling. As I’d already known, most of the technical issues had been solved before 1900; it just took decades to sort out the details and to generate acceptance. The range of experimentation described is enormous, and presented well.

Somewhere in the second half of the book, the focus moves from Europe to the United States, then to Japan and China. How this technical migration happened is examined in great detail–probably too much detail, in fact, as there’s a great danger that the reader will misplace the argument in the long lists of SunTour and Shimano gruppos. Suffice to say that a combination of economic circumstance, American dominance of the high-end bicycle market, and Shimano’s technical mastery at improving the shifting mechanisms combined to shape the picture in ways that might well have gone in other directions. (No, Campagnolo’s not neglected, but Berto judges them a minor player in terms of moving the technology along.)

The fifteenth chapter is a detailed technical explanation of the current state of derailleur design. For some readers, this is enough to justify the book’s existence.

The book has some packaging and finish problems. This is a serious essay disguised as a coffee table book–it’s a heavy book with oversize pages. The large, slick pages permit the use of many excellent illustrations, but at the price of an unusually weighty tome. There are also annoying proof-reading and layout issues, including incomplete sentences, duplicated paragraphs, and illustrations which sometimes only vaguely relate to the text on the page. In other places, illustration captions exactly duplicate text which is elsewhere on the page. And there’s some unexpected redundancy, as the author occasionally repeats a thought or explanation twenty or thirty pages later in nearly the same words.

This is a useful effort, and worth your time if you want to understand how modern bicycles came to be what they’ve become. At its best, this book is absolutely delightful. Every chapter is informative.

Frank Berto began testing and writing about bicycle drive trains around the time I became a serious rider. He had an enormous impact on how I think about bicycle gearing. Some of that’s been rendered obsolete by changing technology, but it’s still a useful framework. I mention this because it’s likely impacted my view of his book.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Morning Spin

Spent the hour from eight to nine–the first hour of my first retired workday–on my bicycle, with the trainer set to freewheel, just spinning my pedals and the rear wheel. After years of arriving at work with a daily plan, it’s a definite change of pace.

Rode just short of 23 imaginary miles at a cadence that was usually around 90; pretty mild exercise that only briefly got my heartbeat over 120 bpm. That’s OK for a first ride. It’s been over a month since I was last in the saddle and my total mileage (real miles) for the year is a bit under 400. So today’s ride’s about getting comfortable on the bike. Tomorrow’s, too. Been here before.

Unless you ride your bike year-round, the first sessions are about your legs, about the saddle, and perhaps about your hands. This part’s always painful, and that pain’s the reason many folks never get serious about bicycling. I’ve done this enough to know I’ll get past it; in a week or so I’ll find my comfort zone and start devising ways to train my heart and lungs. Those are more satisfying pains, and I’m looking forward to them.

I don’t usually do a tensionless spin; frankly, if I wanted to make a habit of that I’d dig out the rollers and set up one of the bikes as a fixee. But sometimes a simple spin is instructive, even on a trainer, for the same general reasons coaches recommend roller riding. Spinning is, well, spinning, and a free spin reveals flaws in technique that are masked on the road or even by the tensioned trainer. And oh was I finding flaws this morning. My left leg isn’t pulling its load, and there’s a definite hitch at the top of my right foot’s cycle. And the longer I worked on things, the worse the hitch got. Maddening.

We’ll have to see how tomorrow goes.

Bikeway Design Atlas, edited by Lyle Brecht: a short review

An absolutely wonderful summary of the entries received for a bikeway design competition sponsored by the MIT-hosted Urban Bikeway Design Coalition in 1974. The intention was to inspire an opportunity for a creative rethinking of the urban bicycle environment. The results were certainly interesting. Beautifully illustrated and well argued; when I was a bike club president, this was one of the documents undergirding my arguments with governmental bodies.

Regardless, the book itself is an amazing document; well-designed, informative, well-organized, and attractive.

This review was originally posted on LibraryThing.


Spring 1974: Mom & Dad were about to leave on vacation–New Orleans, I think–when Mom handed me a couple twenties and said I should get my bike working while they were gone. Not sure what provoked the assignment, but it’s fair to say it changed my life….

The bike in question was a Schwinn Varsity. Dad had purchased it for me in 1968, for my use as transportation around St. Paul during my sophomore year at Macalester. The bike had served me well over the years, but had deteriorated to the point I couldn’t ride it any more.

The first task was simple repair. Didn’t know anything about maintaining bikes, then, so I hied off to the bookstore and collected a couple bicycle repair manuals. With their assistance I was able to get the bike apart, cleaned, lubed (with STP!), reassembled, and back on the road. It was immediately clear that the rear derailleur–a (Schwinn Approved) Huret Alvit–was past any hope of repair, and the rear wheel was similarly hopeless. Not knowing what it would cost to replace these parts, I started calling bicycle shops and describing my problem.

By far the most helpful responses came from Bernie (Baisch) Stevenson, one of the owners at Alfred E. Bike, who seconded one of my books’ recommendation that SunTour made the best shifters, reassured me that the changer would work on my bike, and quoted me a far better price than any other shop. So I found my way to the shop and spent most of the 40 bucks, came back, and had things working when Mom got back to Kalamazoo.

For the next couple years, the Varsity became my main transportation. I was working on political campaigns for most of ’74; in ’75 I became active in the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club–succeeding to President when John Busack graduated from college and moved away. Another time’s story….

Late in 1975 this bike was stolen, and the new Assenmacher replaced it as my main transportation. Can’t say I missed the old bike, but it was a trusty and reliable old friend for many years.


My favorite bicycle’s frame was built by Matt Assenmacher, late in the summer of 1975. (For those of you who know Matt, he still was based in Mount Pleasant.) Getting the frame on the road required money, which eventually arrived in the form of a Michigan Vietnam Veterans Bonus. I spent a post-Christmas afternoon at Alfred E. Bike, where Doug Stevenson and I sorted through his parts stock and began to determine the bike’s personality. Budget issues forced me to skimp on the wheels during the initial setup, and I rode the bike long enough (85,000 miles or thereabouts) that most of the parts got replaced at least once.

Which turns out to be a restoration issue. This bike’s in the shop. Restored? What does “restored” mean for a custom bike whose components changed pretty much at the owner’s whim? Obviously I’m not returning it to original trim.

Well, that’s a little problematical. I’ve decided to restore the bike to approximately 1982 tune, with perhaps a little leeway for circumstance and preference. When I get it back, this will be the setup:

  • Assenmacher frame (currently wearing its second paint job; I may return the frame to the original scheme this winter).
  • Stronglight 99 crankset (50/42)–basically the original crankset.
  • Phil Wood bottom bracket (dates from 1978).
  • Phil Wood pedals (this particular set was originally my sister’s, and is quite worn).
  • SunTour Cyclone derailleurs (the rear’s a jewel, off eBay).
  • Universal 61 brakes (another eBay purchase).
  • Campy Record headset (the bike’s original).
  • Cinelli handlebars, Sunshine ProAm gooseneck (old–there’s a story here; mebbe some day).
  • Unicanitor saddle (newly purchased) and SR seatpost (quite old, but not the bike’s original).
  • Phil hubs (brand new), Weinmann A-124 rims (used; finicky things, but I like ’em).
  • Winner freewheel [13-26], Sedisport chain (both are what they call NOS [New Old Stock]–in this case, the stock is mine).
  • Blackburn rack (the original, and one of the very first Jim built–long before he was an established manufacturer. It’s quite beat up, but it belongs on this bike.)

That’s a bike with a personality; you’ll not see another with a component mix quite like it. I like to think it reveals a cyclist who had a fairly tight budget but liked quality. When the bike was new it got really interesting responses. Should be fun to show it off to knowledgeable cyclists nowadays.

Jeannie Longo? Jeannie Longo?

Bicycle racing’s another sport I once followed closely but have pretty much ignored for the past decade.  Watched the Olympic Women’s Road Race this morning, and had lots of fun.  It was astonishing, though, to find Jeannie Longo leading the race early on, and fascinating to watch her control the pack late in the race.  Veteran hardly describes the woman; she was that over a decade ago.  Finished tenth!  I suspect she’s a little different from most of us….

A few race notes:

  • Women’s road racing has improved since I last watched; the tactical awareness is better, and the field is stronger.  If today was any example, there’s still too little teamwork.
  • This was a pretty brutal race.
  • The Canadian team was using what I think of as Stetina brother tactics:
    • One of the riders took a flyer.
    • As she got reeled in, another Canadian took a flyer.
    • Worked better for Wayne and Dale, though.
    • During and after Susan Palmer-Komar‘s stint at the front, I was hoping she could pull it off.  Nice work.
  • The winning break was nicely done, by both riders.  The second group, though, frittered things away; when they needed to regroup and close the gap, the racers turned defensive and tactical.  Bad form.  The bronze-medal finish was tactically interesting, though; a wide mix of talents and strategies were in play.  Predictably, the medal went to the sprinter.
  • I need to find my way back to the sport.

Too bad NBC scattered the Men’s Road coverage through last night’s broadcast, rather than showing the entire race.

The TechNomad

Steven K. Roberts is a person I might have been. We even look kind of alike. He grew up a nomad; I grew up a bureaucrat….

Compuserve’s forums had little rooms off in the corner where folks could scribble down profiles of who they were and what interested them. (Perhaps they still do; it’s been a long time since I checked.) I was wandering around the Model 100 Special Interest Group one day and found a note in the member profiles inquiring whether anyone had any experience with or interest in carrying a Model 100 on a bicycle. Since my laptop rode my bike to work every morning, and regularly travelled between Lansing and Kalamazoo, I figured I was the target audience and dropped the member a line.

That was my original encounter with Steve Roberts. Steve replied with a chatty and enthusiastic note explaining what he was up to. It was immediately apparent that we were really talking about different things, but Steve’s ambition to live a connected life on a bicycle was and remains one of my life’s roads not taken. We traded a few notes, even after he hit the road, but this was essentially a casual contact.

Over the next few years it was pretty hard for me not to notice Steve’s project. He supported himself partly by writing articles about the trip, so friends would discover him in whatever magazine they read and bring him to my attention–and I’d say “Yeah, I knew Steve when….”

Looked Steve up on a whim last night. He now writes blog-like notes (with photos) daily, and a real blog as well. Steve’s still the same guy–tinkerer, promoter, enthusiast–I remember from twenty years ago, but now he’s building a Microship and planning a long cruise. (But first a shakedown voyage.)

Actually, he’s building two. It takes a really odd sort of confidence to build a boat for a woman who hasn’t yet arrived. Looks like she has. Steve’s life works for him. As does mine for me.