Paul de Vivie is widely viewed as the ‘father’ of the derailleur gear. According to most accounts, the bare bones of his story might go like this:
- He was born in Pernes-les-Fontaines, near Carpentras in southern France in 1853.
- He moved to St-Étienne some time before 1876, and worked in the silk trade.
- He bought his first bicycle in 1881 and also founded a cycling club called Les Cyclistes Stéphanois (St-Étienne is the French for Saint Stephen, and locals refer to themselves as Stéphanois).
- His work in the silk industry took him to Coventry, then the world centre of the bicycle industry, where he became fascinated by the latest developments in bicycle technology. He joined the UK-based Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC).
- He decided to sell his silk business and get into the bicycle trade.
- In 1882 he launched a cycle manufacturing business possibly called ‘La Manufacture Stéphanoise de Cycles’ and branded his bikes ‘La Gauloise’.
- In 1887 he opened a bicycle import business in St-Étienne called ‘Agence Générale Vélocipédique’.
- In 1887 he also founded (and edited) a magazine called ‘Le Cycliste Forézien’. Forez is an area of great natural beauty to the west of St-Étienne and Forézien is a dialect spoken there and in St-Étienne.
- In 1888 he renamed his magazine ‘Le Cycliste’. It continued to be published, under successive editors, at least until the 1970s.
- When writing in Le Cycliste he used the pen name Vélocio.
- In 1889, inspired by the Cyclists’ Touring Club, he helped found the Touring Club de France (TCF).
- He was a regular contributor to the ‘TCF Revue Mensuelle’ (the TCF Monthly Revue) from the 1890s to the 1920s.
- He was killed by a tram while wheeling his bike in St-Étienne in 1930.
- He has a road named after him in St-Étienne and a monument commemorating him on his beloved Col du Grand Bois.
None of this captures Paul de Vivie’s importance in the history of cycling. 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 and the view from the top of the climb was the only prize you required. Paul de Vivie called this type of cycling ‘cyclotourisme’ and wrote about it extensively.
He also quickly realised that the very essence of ‘cyclotourisme’ included the brisk, but not too brisk, covering of heroic distances, the measured, but relentless, climbing of Herculean mountains and the achievement of all this without dying of exhaustion. This naturally led him to explore variable gearing, but to do so with a healthy scepticism about hub gears with their fixed gear ratios and their multiplicity of tiny, fragile, precision engineered, expensive, parts. This, in turn, led him, step by step, to the derailleur. A possible order of these steps might be as follows:
- His first step (perhaps around 1897) involved a pair of different sized chainwheels aligned with a pair of different sized sprockets. The pairs were ‘matched’ in that the sum of the number of teeth on each chainwheel and sprocket set were the same. The gear ratio could be changed by manually moving the chain from one chainwheel & sprocket set to the other. Because of the ‘matching’ the same length of chain could be used on both sets. Paul de Vivie’s preferred set up seems to have been to have one chainwheel and sprocket set on each side of the frame.
- Slightly later (1898?) he introduced the idea of a special chain link that could be opened to facilitate the moving of the chain.
- Then (1900?) he advocated the idea of the bi-chain - two chains running at once (one on each side of the frame) with different chainwheels and sprockets on each side and a clutch in the rear hub to determine which side was doing the driving.
- The next step was the retro-direct, a transmission system involving a looped chain that gave one ratio when pedaling forward and another when pedaling backwards. It is possible that Paul de Vivie’s particular contribution was to combine the retro-direct with the bi-chain to give up to 4 gear ratios.
- Up to this point Paul de Vivie had not only been an avid inventor, he had also been a small scale manufacturer of some note. But a small disaster struck in the famous TCF Concours de Bicyclettes de Tourisme of 1902, when all three of his entries failed to complete the course. The most successful bicycles were made by larger scale manufacturers rather than small workshops. From this point onwards he turned more towards advocacy and invention and away from production.
- Some time in the early 1900s he had acquired a Whippet derailleur bicycle manufactured in London. This, and the success of the derailleur equipped Terrot Modèle H in the 1905 TCF Concours de Bicyclettes de Voyage, started to focus his attention on derailleurs.
- By 1908 Paul de Vivie appears to have developed a 4 speed ‘La Gauloise’ derailleur which combined many of the elements of a modern system. It involved a cable operated tension arm, mounted with pulleys which shifted the chain sideways across a 4 speed freewhweel (unlike the Terrot Modèle H which shifted the freewheel cogs sideways and kept the chainline straight). With Paul de Vivie’s blessing, Joanny Panel and Claudius Bouillier developed this design into the ‘Le Chemineau’ derailleur, and patented it in 1912.
- He was not entirely happy with his 1908 design because it was low normal. This meant that the (relatively feeble) spring did the ‘hard’ work of pushing the chain onto the bigger cogs, while the (relatively strong) human did the ‘easy’ work of pushing the chain onto the smaller cogs. If the cable broke, the derailleur tended to go into the spokes. In about 1910 he produced a top normal design which he referred to as working on ‘the clothes peg principle’. I believe that this interesting design never made it into volume production.
- In the 1926? photo of an elderly Paul de Vivie, in this collection, he is posing with one of his signature small-wheeled, fat-tyred bicycles fitted with a production model of a ‘Le Cyclo’ gear made by his friend Albert Raimond. Within his lifetime, and through his efforts, the derailleur had become a conventional and widely used bicycle component.