Submitted for your consideration: an all-steel Schwinn-approved front derailleur, disassembled, which bicycle shops used to do, just like they used to build inexpensive steel replacement wheels in the winter, just like they used to maintain cog boards so people could customize the gear progression of their freewheels, and just like they used to overhaul freewheels, though it wasn’t done all that much, even when I was doing it in the late 1970s.
If you run a bicycle shop today, and you’re interested in staying in business, you don’t spend your time doing any of those things. They aren’t economical. You would spend more money on labor with the old components than you would on labor with entirely new components.
So instead you make modular repairs, which means you remove and replace things at a component level, not at the parts level. You replace the entire cassette stack, not the individual cog; the entire balky combination brake/gear lever, not the plastic bushing; the entire tweaked derailleur, not the spring.
Because fewer repairs are performed at the parts level, manufacturers have no incentive to make components with easily replaced parts. You can no longer replace a small linkage because the part is no longer attached in such a way to allow for replacement. You can’t replace a spring because the manufacturer doesn’t make the part available by itself.
So if there were any question that I’m not currently employed in the bike trade, the picture above should put an end to that. I have had the luxury of time to leave this derailleur, in pieces, on my bench for a week and a half. You know, while I figure out how to put it back together so I can reinstall it on Les Siegrist’s 1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer. And, also, try to remember why I took it apart in the first place.
When you create a puzzle like this for yourself, you begin to see the wisdom of repairs at the component level. But it’s also fun to look at the individual stamped steel pieces, the nuts and bolts: the atoms that make up the molecule. Individually, the parts are relatively simple.
You see a disassembled steel derailleur and you can imagine the premier Italian tinkerer of the late 1950s trying to figure out a more reasonable way to switch between chainrings on the move. He used what he had lying around: nuts, bolts, springs and steel, and ended up with something that didn’t look all that different from this later parallelogram design from the early 1970s.
As you handle the various parts of the mechanism, you sense the arc of history, the line of continuity across time and ocean and language, even if the language of this particular derailleur is French.
When you examine the parts long enough, though, they only raise questions, both on the macro and micro levels. Why did it take so long to hit upon the obviously useful parallelogram design? Why isn’t Campagnolo still leading innovation in the bicycle industry today? Why did you take this ridiculous thing apart? And how in the world do you put it all back together again?
Fortunately, the answer to the last and most important question is found in Glenn’s Complete Bicycle Manual, probably the first bicycle book I ever bought. The book includes step-by-step instructions and an exploded drawing of the very derailleur that lies scattered before me. By saving me from myself, not for the first time, the book is regaining its early status as the ultimate repository of knowledge, confidence and applied logic. Observe the man in the lab coat. He sweateth not, nor doth he swear. Also, he has a lab coat. How cool is that?
However, because Glenn’s is a book, it doesn’t account for the imminent wholesale movement of the component business from Europe to Japan or the effect of low-cost production on the repair business. It is always 1973 within its covers.
Schwinn is the most powerful brand in the United States. Nixon reigns. I weep. Or at least I blink. It’s a bit dusty in the basement.
Glenn’s is less a repair manual than a time capsule that was buried within my overloaded bookshelves. It makes it seem that the exercise of stripping a front derailleur into its baser elements, leaving no linkage upon a linkage, no nut upon a bolt, and then restoring the unit to full functionality is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
It is not, but because I precipitated the crisis by taking the derailleur apart, it is now up to me to restore order and predictability to this anarchy of bits and pieces.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.