Simplex Tour de France Rear Derailleur Adjustment

It’s been quite a few years since I last posted about how to set up a Simplex Tour de France rear derailleur.  These mechanisms were found on bikes dating from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s, but are not in any way intuitive to fine tune.

The routing of the chain through the pulleys was so puzzling that Simplex had to include a chart in their technical instructions to indicate how this was to be done.  In fact, when I had first started my vintage bike restoration endeavors many years ago I had taken a vintage Peugeot to a reputable bike shop for some repair help with a rear wheel.  When the bike was returned to me, the chain had been incorrectly routed through the Simplex rear derailleur.  That shows just how perplexing this rear derailleur can be.

1953 French mystery mixte with Oscar Egg lugs

Recently, I have been working on my mystery French mixte with its Oscar Egg lugs.  The bike was equipped with tubulars which have proven to be a challenge to keep maintained, as I haven’t ridden this bike on a regular basis, even though they do offer a beautiful and comfortable ride. The glue holding the tires to the rims is no longer robust.  So, upon deciding to temporarily replace the tubular wheelset with a clincher set from the same early 1950’s era, I needed to perform a few tweaks to the Simplex TDF rear derailleur in order to get this bike set up so that I can ride it with more regularity.

My replacement clincher wheels are 700c 1950’s Super Champion rims laced to Normandy hubs.  I wanted to lower the gearing from the the original configuration, but had read that these rear derailleurs can only manage about 24-25 teeth maximum on the freewheel.  I found a 5 speed freewheel with French threads with a largest 25 tooth cog, and then adjusted the internal threaded shaft on the Simplex TDF rear derailleur to tune out the highest fifth gear, as this derailleur can only accommodate 4 gears.  (The bikes’ original drilled Regina freewheel’s largest cog is 21T).  This is accomplished by loosening and removing the nut on top of the knurled washer, and turning the threaded shaft as needed to position it correctly so that the chain lines up with the smallest and largest cogs as the pull chain is moved through its range of motion.  It takes a bit of trial and error.  The knurled nut is meant to be used to turn the shaft, but if that proves difficult, there are flats on the shaft which engage with a 12mm wrench.

Once the alignment to the cogs was correct, I proceeded to adjust the derailleur using the two spring tension adjustments available in this 1950’s rear derailluer:  chain tension, and pulley tension.  The chain tension is controlled by the spring on the arm, and the pulley tension is controlled by the tension on the pulley spring, using the notched mechanism, shown above.  Moving the pulley spring’s position clockwise increases the pulley tension.

Before going further into the weeds, it’s always a good idea to look at a component’s schematics.  Here is the front page of the TDF instruction guide included with these models.  I also consulted the excellent advice from Peter Underwood at the Classic Lightweights website.  After some contemplation, I decided to overhaul a NOS Simplex TDF that I had in inventory, which needed cleaning and re-greasing, hoping this would illuminate this derailleur model’s nuances.

Upon removing the outer nut with a 17mm wrench, I proceeded to removed the pulley cage, which takes an 11m wrench.  The outer steel flexible cover over the shaft reveals an internal spring.  This model had lots of extra washers, which I ended up not replacing (more later!).  After cleaning and lubricating all the parts, came the difficult task of getting the pulley cage back on to the shaft, with its attendant spring.  After some trial and error, I realized there is always a trick to getting derailleur spring back where it should be.

After taking time to review the schematics, I realized that I needed to move the threaded shaft as close as possible to the notched piece, so as to push the moveable part of the shaft down as far as possible.  While holding the spring and cover tightly in place, I was finally able to thread the pulley cage back on, sans a few washers!

And finally, I was successful at re-assembly.  This NOS derailleur now has free-running pulleys with all parts lubricated and is ready to roll.

Meanwhile, I had tried various adjustment scenarios, changing the chain tension and the pulley tension.  The above is a video I made discussing the various adjustments possible for this derailleur.  I initially set the chain tension to push the derailleur back so that I could use the 25T freewheel I had selected.  But, you will see from this video, that by doing so, my shifting performance has suffered.

So I decided to reduce the chain tension by adjusting the nut at the back of the mounting bolt (which has the chain tension spring threaded around it).  This is done by removing the spring from the arm, releasing the bolt, moving the spring back or forward (in this case, forward to reduce tension), and re-tightening the nut.

You can see from the above video that my shifting has improved dramatically.  However, upon taking the bike on a test ride, the torque on the drive train while riding caused the derailleur pulley to contact the 25T cog, making the bike unrideable in that gear.  So, back to the drawing board!  I’ll either switch the freewheel back down to a 24T model, or fiddle with the tension adjustments yet again (NOT!), and most likley swap out the front chain ring for something a bit smaller to help make this bike more rideable for a Portland commute.

9 thoughts on “Simplex Tour de France Rear Derailleur Adjustment

  1. That is a lovely bicycle with a properly fussy real old school derailleur. I never dealt with one of these, the closest I came was the Huret derailleurs on most Schwinn lower line derailleur bikes from the 60’s and 70’s. Your shifting reminds me of the clunky shifting on the 5 speed rear freewheels of that era. Its a testament to the durability of good quality bicycles and their components that you contemplate commuting on this bicycle.. My youngest bike is almost 30 yrs old and my oldest is from the 70’s. Still piling up the miles. Keep up the good work

    • It is a fussy derailleur. It’s mounted to a model specific Simplex dropout so I’m stuck with it. But I’m hoping to get it working for me. The bike weighs only 21 lbs so it is a speedy machine and a blast to ride.

  2. Nola, I admire your patience. There is something so rewarding about getting something working correctly. I am not sure I would have the patience for one of those derailleurs. Even the early Campagnolo Velox derailleur is simpler to set up. Fortunately my oldest bike, a Stella from 1971 features mostly Campagnolo equipment , is fairly simple to set up. It does sport the early “matchbox” front deraileur that requires a bit more fussing with to get right but works as it should. I have resisted the urge to replace it with a NR unit! Just a few short years later , life got a bit easier for cyclists with the introduction of other lines that made tuning easier. The French have mostly stuck with Simplex and that has its disadvantages to keeping the cycles original yet fully useable. I agree with clinchers over sew-ups as we have some pretty agressive thorns around here.Nice post ! We are have the “Endless Summer” down here , so I have been spending most of my time pedaling. I hope yoou get out and ride once in a while, pedals spinning and rubber down ! Joe

    • Hi Joe, thanks for your comments. And I’m glad to hear you are out cycling. We’ve had a warm winter here (comparatively) but I’ve only managed to get out for a few weekend rides beyond my regular commute. Hoping to improve that in 2021!

  3. Had one of those once. Mine was allegedly from 1953 and worked well with a 14-25 five speed freewheel. Arrived in absolutely perfect running order. Of course the bike had to be pulled down to frame and reassembly was slow. Very slow. Once working it was the fastest and most accurate derailleur I’ve ever met. But it just didn’t stay that way. Each attempt at re-adjustment was an adventure. Usually we got it pretty good and once it returned to perfect. This was all on a bike for my wife, she tired of the fiddling. And it was plain the derailleur was just fragile, no way would it last a long life. Dropout was modified and Campagnolo installed, end of problems.

    Chain made a difference. Modern chains did not work at all. Old Regina black was pretty good. Brampton worked better but was even fussier. Original Sedis chain was targeted, we never found one in time.

    The other early fast derailleur was the Gran Sport from Campy. They changed a lot from year to year and always work best with original Gran Sport levers. And with Regina chain. Of course Regina/Atom freewheels. When set up well they are miles better than any Nuovo or Super. But not as fast as the Simplex.

  4. Amazing!

    This was Incredibly informative and helpful to see some of the movement and adjustment described audibly and visually as opposed to simply reading about it (which I am so used to doing generally).

    Though I believe this to be my first comment, I have enjoyed your blog so much for quite some time and Love your content!

    – Juan M

Leave a Reply to Nola WilkenCancel reply