1912 Le Chemineau derailleur, France, 1912 Photograph: Mike Sweatman
There are a few possible claimants for the title of “inventor of the derailleur”, but there is only one candidate for the position of “godfather of the derailleur”.
That is Paul de Vivie, who was better known by his pen name Vélocio. Vélocio published an influential magazine called Le Cycliste, was a key founder member of the Touring Club de France (the French version of the CTC, the RAC and the AA, all rolled into one) and was an enthusiastic, non-smoking, vegetarian at a time when this was virtually unthinkable.
But Vélocio’s true importance was that he was among the first Frenchmen to understand that there was the cut and thrust of racing cycling, there was everyday utility cycling for transport but there was also something else – a kind of cycling that was about unalloyed freedom, the simple pleasure of exercise in the fresh air, away from the crowded polluted city, a zen activity in which you competed against nobody but yourself.
The view from the top of the climb was the only prize you required. Vélocio called this type of cycling “cyclotourisme”.
Vélocio’s love of “cyclotourisme” led him to explore variable gearing, but with a healthy scepticism about hub gears with their fixed gear ratios and their multiplicity of tiny, fragile, parts. This drew him, step by step, to the derailleur.
Vélocio was an inveterate inventor, and hand-crafted any number of different derailleurs.
Finally, one of his friends, Joanny Panel, took one of Vélocio’s designs and developed it into a commercially successful product – the 1912 Le Chemineau derailleur.
It brought together many of the elements of modern derailleurs – two pulley wheels mounted on a sprung arm moving the chain across a multiple freewheel, controlled by a cable and a lever mounted by the handlebars.
Vélocio was run over by a tram in St Étienne in 1930 and is commemorated by a monument at the top of the Col du Grand Bois, a local hill that he liked to cycle up to test his derailleur designs.