Rube Goldberg, Your Bike is Here

11.29.2005 | 7:16 pm

Last night I wrote a book review for Cyclingnews on The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, by Jan Heine. By and large, I liked this book for the pictures – the craftsmanship on some of these bikes is truly beautiful – and for Heine’s descriptions of the mechanical innovations in these bikes that we’re still reaping the benefits from today.
But there was one bike in that book that I cannot get out of my head.
Meet the Hirondelle Rétro-Directe
Take a look at this:
Notice anything unusual about it? If not, this closeup may help:
So, in answer to the obvious question: yes, the chain is following its intended path. The appropriate followup question, then, is as follows: "Huh?!"
Unfortunately, I read the purpose of this labyrinthine drivetrain before I took a close look at the picture. Even so, I stared at this thing for several minutes before I finally got it into my head how it works. As an experiment, why don’t you see if you can figure it out why the drivetrain follows this path before reading on. Give yourself just a few minutes. Then, after you continue on and find out that you’re wrong, leave a comment saying what your conclusion was.
Want another hint? OK, this drivetrain uses two freehubs, instead of one.
OK, time’s up. Let’s move on.
The Other Way Around
This Hirondelle was built back before there were commercially available rear derailleurs (although it did sport the world’s first commercial front derailleur, making it a technological marvel for a whole separate reason). But people still wanted to go up hills. The Hirondelle’s solution was to give you two gears in the back. Simply pedal normally for the higher gear.
And what do you do when it’s time to climb? Pedal backwards.
Yes, really.
When you pedal forward, the freehub for the big cog coasts, and the small cog engages: you’ve got a big gear, suitable for putting the 1920’s version of the hammer down. And when you backpedal, the freehub for the small cog coasts and the big cog engages: up you go, just like an early 20th century mountain goat.
Picture It
So now, every time I climb a reasonably steep hill, I try to imagine to myself: what would it be like to be spinning in the opposite direction right now? And what if the climb got really steep? What would it be like to stand up and pedal backwards?
Nope, sorry. I just can’t get my head around it. I’m not sure I ever will.
I do wish, though, that someone with this bike had taken it out and ridden it past me before I had learned about how the drivetrain works. Having someone pass me, on a climb, while slowly spinning her cranks backward would have easily been the most surreal moment of my life.


  1. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 7:30 pm

    i had a hirondelle for a while. i used it to win bar bets. lost it in a bar bet though.

  2. Comment by Zed | 11.29.2005 | 7:38 pm

    Um, yeah, freaky. On the other hand, I see people using aerobic machines backwards all the time. I suppose it would feel like scooping up ground with your feet instead of walking forward. Too weird.

  3. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 7:45 pm

    I thought of the mobius strip at first glance.Then I thought it looked like a bike a Nazi courier would be using the deliver the crucial to the war effort message to Hitler on some old army movie.Stuff like that is just too cool.Boz

  4. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 7:47 pm

    OH, I forgot.I bet Michael Jackson could ride that bad boy with ease.Boz

  5. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 7:50 pm

    Ok, without knowing a lick about bikes, I guessed it had to do with multiple gears and/or speeds. [Unless gears=speeds, in which case, I'm right again]. Does this have anything to do with the reason birds’ knees bend backwards? No?Ok. I didn’t think so.

  6. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 7:51 pm

    >>>Having someone pass me, on a climb, while slowly spinning her cranks backward would have been the most truly surreal moment of my life.I’m slow enough on hills, and get dropped hard enough that I look up with a start because I feel like I’m riding backwards down them. I don’t view it as surreal, just sad. More on topic, whilst sitting on a spin bike sweating profusely earlier today, I vowed to do my Thursday spin class pedaling backwards, at slightly lower resistance than usual, to strengthen my fixie "braking" muscles. I’ll let you know what it feels like to stand up and spin backwards.

  7. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 8:15 pm

    It might make more sense to pedal backwards on the flats and forward on the ups. Reversing the two freewheels seems to make a little more sense. But then we’ll never really know because dug lost the bike in a bar bet, anyways.

  8. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 11.29.2005 | 8:24 pm

    I was thinking it would have been a both pedal forwards thingy, but with a lock-out arrangement on the double rear freewheels so you choose which sprocket is engaged. That along with the front setup would give you a pretty tasty 4 speed. Given the issues I have with gravity, I wonder if I’d climb faster with 4 rather than 18. Damn Isaac Newton.

  9. Comment by Tim | 11.29.2005 | 8:28 pm

    What a fantastic piece of engineering! I’m still trying to get my head around it though. I ride a single-speed MTB every now and again for the simplicity of it all but sometimes wish I had an extra gear and this looks like the answer. Worth having a look at a couple of the videos on this page –

  10. Comment by craig | 11.29.2005 | 8:44 pm

    I used to ride one of these as part of my off season training regimen. I picked up the routine when I used to race in europe. Spending all season spinning your legs in the same direction puts an inordinate amount of ‘negative tension load’ on the ligaments. ‘Transpositional Spinning’ as we liked to call it, can actually reduce negative tension load and in some cases reverse it.

  11. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 10:08 pm

    Fatty,I’m in. That looks totally cool. You can do the same with your fixie; simply turn it around at the bottom of the hill and pedalling backwards should yield the desired result if that’s what you want. I think a clip-on mirror might finally make sense if you are going to try that and it would be in style too. There are some other super fine classic velos at and I highly recommend it. I may have been given the link from the labyrinth of blogs that is fatty’s world. Anybody who liked the subject bike today will enjoy checking out the earliest known Masi for example. Anyway, today’s drive train rocks. Thanks.

  12. Comment by Patrick | 11.29.2005 | 10:27 pm

    I had exactly the same thought as BIG_Mike_in_Oz. It would never occur to me that pedaling backwards was the key to this crazy set-up.My other thought was that the manufacturer had ordered a chain that was too long, didn’t own a chainbreaker and slapped it on with part of it on the precursor to those little plastic disks that theoretically keep your chain out of the spokes.

  13. Comment by Unknown | 11.29.2005 | 11:24 pm

    Well, I just had to try that transpositional whatever it was and so I started pedaling backwards while I was reading. I could hardly hear myself think from the popping in my knees. I’m still pedaling backwards… I think I’ll call it "called back-pedaling"… but I’m still not getting anywhere or getting nowhere fast.OW! OW! OW! Now my right hip is killing me.Maybe my seat isn’t high enough? On the bike, I mean, not on my body, although there is also a problem with droopage there. There seems to be a different strain on the knees when pedaling backwards and possibly the hip joints. Perhaps that would correct itself from ongoing practice?

  14. Comment by Tom Stormcrowe | 11.29.2005 | 11:32 pm

    Bizzare! All I can say, BIZZARE!

  15. Comment by Big Guy on a Bicycle | 11.30.2005 | 1:33 am

    OK, that is almost as weird as the Alenax Transbar Powerdrive bike. As an engineer I understand how it works, but somehow kinda wish I didn’t.Of course, the Alenax was actually in factory production, and is thus unworthy of the praise heaped upon the Hirondelle.

  16. Comment by Glen | 11.30.2005 | 2:34 am

    You could still have your wish Fatty (of sorts). On the west coast of Scotland about 30 miles from Ayr there’s a natural phenom called "the electric brae". Basically it’s a hill that you can roll up and have to pedal down. I’ve never actually ridden it but as a kid my Dad used to take us out to "roll a ball up a hill" etc. Apparently its actually an optical illusion created by the surrounding lanscape – very cool.

  17. Comment by Unknown | 11.30.2005 | 3:51 am

    Heine would be a challenging name to be strapped with during junior high.

  18. Comment by Unknown | 11.30.2005 | 6:47 am

    The whole package fascinates me, particularly the saddle.

  19. Comment by Unknown | 11.30.2005 | 10:24 am

    The Electric Brae? Wasn’t that a Bay City Rollers song? The saddle is basically the same design as the Brooks B-33, which they characterize as a city/touring saddle. It would be interesting to ping Sheldon Brown or the Rivendell guys (big time Olde Skoolers) to find out if they have tried one of these and if they have an opinion.

  20. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 11.30.2005 | 1:44 pm

    brooklyn – that was some tangent you just dived off at.

  21. Comment by tayfuryagci | 11.30.2005 | 6:29 pm

    I’ve seen this bike on a site before so I didn’t have a conclusion. I just can’t get used to the pedalling backwards thing. And I don’t know would coasting be a little hard with it?

  22. Comment by Unknown | 12.1.2005 | 11:00 pm

    I saw one of these Retro (in more senses than one) bikes in the cafe at the top of the Col du Tourmalet a couple of years ago, and took a picture of it. I never could figure out how the damn thing worked, though.The mind boggles at the thought of pedalling backwards up the Tourmalet.

  23. Comment by Unknown | 12.5.2005 | 9:29 pm

    Holy smokes! Birdman’s comment reminded me that I’ve actually seen the bike at the Tourmalet as well. Here’s <a href="">my picture of it</a>.


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