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.

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