Sunday, June 24, 2007

Suicide Shifters

Suicide shifters is a term I never heard until I came to the US; it is a name given to the lever operated front derailleurs used in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I came across this rare picture from 1952 of AndrĂ© Darrigade (with Lucien Lauk) reaching down to change chainrings on his Simplex-equipped La Perle bike. When I started racing that same year, I used this same equipment and I can assure you there was nothing “suicide” in their operation.

The most popular lever operated front changer was the French made Simplex, (Above.) which is the one being used by Darrigade in the top picture. It simply pivoted in the center and you pushed the knob on the lever inwards toward the frame to shift up to the big ring, and opposite to shift down. Simplex also made chainrings and bottle cages (both pictured here.) The chainrings were often used with different make cranks like the Italian Gnutti or Magistroni.

Huret, (Above.) another French make, was also popular; I used this one. It worked on a helical, or screw like cam. You pushed the lever forward to go to the small ring, and back to change up.

Huret also had an interesting rear derailleur, it used twin down tube levers and twin cables. (Note: Two cables on the chainstay that also needed a double cable stop.)

(The twin levers: Left.) The large lever shifted gears, while the short lever tensioned the chain. On a smooth road, you could run the chain slack for less friction.

Another front changer I had fist hand experience of was the British made Cyclo-Benilux. (Above.) This one had a twist rod held with two clamps on the seat tube. You twisted the rod to shift up and down. I liked this one because I found I could reach behind my right leg and the knob at the top of the rod would be right where my hand naturally fell. Unlike the other changers that you had to reach between your legs to operate the lever.

None of these changers had return springs, they were manually operated both ways. Most of them had a simple friction device to hold it where you put it. But on most of them if the chain rubbed it would automatically knock the changer yoke out of the way, and no further adjustment was needed.

This equipment was simple, to the point of being crude, but they got the job done. We became used to it, and skilled in its operation. There was nothing “suicide” about it.

There are probably few people in America with actual experience of using these. (I would be interested to hear comments from any.) The 1970s generation probably gave them the name. They look more awkward to use that the actually were.

I can imagine in years to come, the cyclists who grew up with down tube friction shifters will fade away, and the “Brifter”* generation will then dub these suicide shifters.

Top picture from The Wool Jersey.
Other pictures from Classic Lightweights, UK.
Brifters* Combination brake and gear shift levers.


Ed W said...

In the late 70s, a guy came into the shop with a Bertin (if I recall right) and it had a lever-operated front shifter as well as a brass Campagnolo rear. I'd never seen either of them. He wanted to trade it in on a new bike. I suspected it was valuable, more valuable than our shop owner would acknowledge and pay for, so I told him about another dealer nearby who collected old bikes.

A few days later, he came by on a new Schwinn World Sport and said he'd traded the bike for it, and the collector had given him some cash on top of the deal! He was happy, and I was happy the bike had gone to someone who'd take proper care of it, given it's age and provenance.

Then there was the guy with the Cinelli equipped with Bivalent hubs, but that's another long story!

phil varner said...

I've never had the opportunity to try one of the original style of these, but I did get a chance a few weeks ago to try the "modern" lever shifter on the bike Tony Pereira won BiS as the NAHBS this year:

Smoothest shifting I've ever seen. It was a little awkward at first, but he chain seemed to just magically jump from ring to ring with no scraping or hesitation. When I first saw the bike, I thought the shifting was just a quaint retro feature, but entirely impractical, but it is actually an elegant and well-functioning piece of equipment.

I didn't understand the mechanism until I saw it in person. It's basically a rod on a pivot that's forked on the end, and the forks fit down into a perpendicular rod inside of a thin tube. This allows the cage to move along that axis of the tube.

Yokota Fritz said...

I saw a bike equipped with one of these a few months ago for the first time. It's nifty to read about their history here now. You should collect your history posts and publish a coffee table book.

Anonymous said...

I second what Fritz said, although with your British background, I would think a "tea table" book would be better served.

John Natiw said...

That is cool..... another great article. I had never heard of that type of shifter...

jim g said...

Some vintage motorcycles used hand shifters, these were dubbed "suicide shifters" (see -- my guess is that this term was repurposed to describe lever/rod-actuated front derailleurs on bicycles.

Anonymous said...

I made my own, a T E Shayler I bought from the tip was built as a five speed, with a braze-on lug for only one changer. I modified a standard derailleur by removing the spring and adding a handle now a 10-speed, it works fine

Rentatrip said...

During the "Round the World" Tandem Bicycle Honeymoon Journey of Jack & Karen Lambie in 1974, they discovered a new definition of suicide shifter! Relying upon Jack's seat of the pants ingenuity, to solve mechanical problems on the road in remote locations, they solved the problem of a broken front changer cable. Jack fashioned a spkoe into a modest "HOOK" which KAren then kept wedged in the front seat stay of the chrome plated Pugeot tandem. Upon a voice command from Jack, Karen would retrieve the HOOK while synchronizing their peddaling to accomodate a shift, she would gingerly hoist the chain off the chainring and deliver it precisely to the proper ring. Jack proudly claimed KAren to could out shift anyone with a regular mechanical shifter!

Marrock said...

I know this is an older post but I just wanted to drop my own two cents in the can.

The term "suicide shifter" did indeed come from vintage motorcycles, it was a shifter usually located back and under the riders saddle.

It was so named because one had to take a hand from the bars to shift, theoretically making it easier to lose control and dump the bike.

So after seeing a cyclist making a similar movement to shift his own bike you can see why the term would have been applicable.

Peter Brueggeman said...

I have some vintage British bikes set up with Huret, Simplex, and Benelux lever front shifters. The Huret is awkward to use though admirable in mechanism; you have to bend way down to work it. You dare not shift it safely without looking. The Simplex and Benelux can both be easily shifted without looking. I reach down and run my hand a bit down the seat tube to locate them. The Simplex is better at upshifting a large chainring difference, because the derailleur cage moves in an upward motion while shifting outward. The Benelux cage moves laterally when shifted, and while it will shift a large chainring difference, the Simplex is a bit better at it. All three will shift the period-correct half step front chainring difference quite well. I enjoy shifting with them because they are so distinctive. ....Peter Brueggeman

Anonymous said...

I've used these; there's nothing "suicical" about them. I'm much too young--52 yrs. in 2007 as I'm writing this--to have bought a new bike so equipped, but have owned and ridden a number of 1940's through early 1960's rigs. The action is quick and crisp. For a modern execution of the idea, look for the website of Portland, OR bike builder Tony Pereira. Tony was born at least ten years after these derailleurs ceased production, but was able to see some logic in the idea!

Anonymous said...

I have a Simplex Competition on my 1957 Peugeot PLX8 Grande and simply love it.

I had never seen one before acquiring the bicycle.

It is elegant in it's simplicity and functions extremely well and thus far, I have never met anyone here who has ever used one, much less seen one.

I like it so much I plan to incorporate them into some future bike projects.


Anonymous said...

What--suicide? These things are high-tech and user friendly compared to Campy's Paris-roubaix and Cambio Corsa shifters.

Anonymous said...

Tony Pereira, a local (Portland) framebuilder, built one of these for his randonneur which won best road bike at the 2007 NAHBS. You can see it here

Anonymous said...

I have a "Suicide Shifter!" It's the Simplex version, and it's on my 1962 Follis bike, which I still own, and on occasion ride.

My brother and I each received a Follis (made in Lyon, I understand the company recently ceased operation). Our uncle gave them to us. As a result, we were the first kids on the block to have 10 speed bikes.

Because I was an unthinking lout as a young person - I probably still am - I let the bike fall apart over the years. In 1975, feeling guilty, I renovated it somewhat, getting rid of the cottered cranks, replacing the seat post, the saddle, and the hubs (I'd already gotten new rims a few years earlier), as well as the rear derailleur.

The frame is now a basic blue - it used to be white.

The frame, handlebars, stem, strange brakes and front derailleur are original.

About ten years ago, I added Super Champion rims (at the instigation of a very old Los Angeles bike mechanic who was from France), which seem in keeping with the bike. Unfortunately, the rims surround a rather bizarre looking set of Phil Wood sealed hubs that I thought looked cool in 1975. I should probably find something more aethetic in keeping with the bike.

I also have, in pieces, the rear Simplex derailleur. The spring is external to the derailleur - it runs along the bottom of the chain stay, attaching to a little hook. Although I have the original box and the directions, in French, I think it might be missing a few pieces.

My Follis had a 52x36 chain set, too large for the Suicide Shifter to handle very easily, especially when going from the small to large chainring. I think my dad asked the shop owner, former Olympian Ed Lynch, to add "alpine gears," because we lived up in the Santa Monica Mountains, in Los Angeles. It would have been better if Ed hadn't done that (and I wish I knew more about Mr. Lynch).

When I changed the cranks in 1975, I went with the Sun Tour brand, and installed 49/45 chainrings. I got 10 distinct gears this way.

Last January, I switched out my racing cogs. I took off the 1975 Huret derailleur, which was new that year when I purchased it. I put on an old Simplex derailleur that can handle the 28t cog which, at my age and ability, I need.

And this week I switched out the 45t chainring for a 39t chainring. Thankfully, the shifting with the Suicide Shifter is smooth in both directions.

I'm about to add a Brooks saddle, and I think some yellow cloth tape I'm going to shellac to match the honey color of the saddle.

I wonder how it was that my "new" Follis came, as late as 1962, with the Suicide Shifter (as did my brother's slightly smaller bike). I'm glad to see the information you've posed, Dave, about this ancient piece of bike equipment and history.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's nasty!

To have a racer groping like that in the middle of a race.