Behold: Campagnolo’s revolutionary new gearing system

Roll up, Roll up! Read all about it! Champion cycle racers observed using a mechanically assisted gear changing mechanism

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Here follows an announcement of extraordinary implications, something we should have spotted in 1946. We must have missed it.

This here exposé is intended to transport us back neigh on 80 years to the mid-1940s and give one of the most important technological advancements in cycling history the global announcement it deserved. Exact facts and dates are hard to pinpoint and there is a hefty portion of speculation but this is to be enjoyed and imagined, not taken for fact. Read with a speedy wartime radio advert voice.

Look here, this is Gino Bartali, grand champion of bicycle racing, on his way to winning the annual Tour de France bicycle race. Bartali is no stranger to cycle racing success, having won the barbarous French race pre-emergency in 1937. His demonstration of climbing prowess is in no way alarming. Rather, apply your attention to Bartali’s rear wheel. You see, our correspondents in Europe have had their cheaters on and identified a mechanically-assisted chain and sprocket changing mechanism with an astonishing four sprockets on the Italian’s racing bicycle.

A case of dastardly jiggery-pokery, or a verified improvement on the erstwhile fixed cog?

Sources on the ground have established the mechanism is an invention of former racing cyclist Tullio Campagnolo. Mr Campagnolo is somewhat famous in cycle racing circles, having invented a so-called “quick release” wheel retention mechanism, fashioning a quicker and altogether simpler wheel release than the wing nuts previously employed. The same sources inform us that Mr Campagnolo first patented this mechanism years earlier with the name Cambio Corsa, or Race Changer, with only the war slowing its march to competition success.

Tullio Campagnolo, pictured here in the future, was a prolific inventor with more than 130 patents to his name. Photo courtesy of Campagnolo

Pictures have also emerged of the champion of champions, Fausto Coppi, racing the Giro d’Italia (the “Lap of Italy”) race using the same twin-lever-actuated gearing mechanism to jolly good effect.

We captured these photographs of Coppi’s bike at a recent motoring exhibition. The new system doubles the bike’s available sprockets and no longer requires the rider to remove a wheel to change gears, rendering the flip-flop two-sprocket reversible rear wheel a veritable technological dinosaur.

Early indications suggest the highly complex and somewhat controversial system consists of two levers mounted on the rear of the frame. The longer of these two levers operates the rear wheel quick-release retention mechanism. The shorter lever guides the bicycle chain across a revolutionary four sprocket cluster on the rear freehub.

A closer shot of this genius shifting solution. The teeth on the dropout engage with teeth on the wheel axle.

That’s not all folks, both the axle of the rear wheel, and the frame of the bicycle require adapted designs with teeth on both interfaces enabling the transferal of the rear wheel and maintaining chain tension.

The shorter lever shifts the chain across sprockets, while the longer lever operates the wheel quick release.

The system’s operation is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. You see, a rider must first reach behind oneself backwards, folding as a pretzel, to open the long quick-release lever allowing the wheel to move back and forth on the dropout. Then he is forced to grubble behind him for the second, smaller lever by which the chain is derailed from one sprocket to another. This is when matters get exceedingly complicated. Simultaneously, the rider must pedal backwards to shift the chain from the current sprocket to the intended sprocket. The rider then brakes or forward pedals to move the wheel axle along the toothed dropout and retain chain tension. Lastly, the rider must then close the quick-release lever to refasten the wheel. All this while pedalling at astonishing speeds on a push cycle. Gee-whiz, that sounds like the distraction of the devil and alcohol combined!

Regardless of the system complexity, it is a true wonder of modern engineering and an insight into the fantastic brain of Mr Campagnolo.

These two great Italian cyclists are not complaining. Both are enjoying monumental success and raking in the dough. Thanks in no small part, detractors will argue, to this so-called Cambio Corsa gearing mechanism.

Seriously, four gears? Where will it end?

What’s the matter? You might ponder this question. Ask some fans of this inhumane sport for their thoughts on such a system and one might find oneself on the tough end of a right earful. You see, there are those who question why we need so many gears and how one might make this grand sport too easy by doubling the rider’s sprockets. “What next? 5, 6, 7-speed gearing? It’s ludicrous!” one spectator told us. “The Italians have a mechanical advantage” one fan cried, while another asked, “What next? Directional Dunlops?”

The very founder of the Tour de France bicycle event himself, Henri Desgrange, deplored such technology. “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five,” he said. “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on, fellows.”

The two levers are just about within rider reach on the seat stay.

Spectators with less outlandish suggestions simply questioned the safety and ease of the system. “One must not dare contemplate the awfulness should one’s rear-wheel fall from the bicycle”, on spectator shouted, while another pondered if the rider’s attention is fully on the road ahead while operating such a complex system and looking behind.

A shot of Gino Bartali in next years Tour de France and a breakdown of the individual set of components which group together to create the new system.Photo courtesy of Campagnolo

Then there is the question of weight. With double the number of sprockets and these two levers, any advantage of those extra gears may vanish carrying such needless weight up the torturous mountain paths of Europe.

Others are altogether more welcoming of the new invention and are hoping rumours of refinements to the system for the upcoming Paris-Roubaix race across cobbled roads of desolate northern France are true.

Fausto Coppi operating the Cambio Corsa on the fly. Rumours suggest Campagnolo is working on a single lever refined version of the Cambio Corsa for Coppi. Photo courtesy of Campagnolo

Cynics, do not despair. Mr Campagnolo has promised the new “rod-gear” Cambio Corsa is lighter than the old two gear flip flop systems. Furthermore, from our calculations, this is the most advanced a racing bicycle will ever be or can ever be. The very nature of the 1/8″ wide sprockets means four is the maximum one freehub can carry.

Will this be the making of Mr Campagnolo’s Campagnolo Brevetti Internazionali (Campagnolo International Patents) company or will we see ragamuffins hock it in pawn shop in years to come? Only time will tell.

An American in France

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