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Monday
Nov262007

Twiddling


Two important passions in my life have been music and bicycles. Coming of age as I did in the early 1950s, musically, I came in at the end of the Big Band era.

I saw the American big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton when they toured the UK. Later I witnessed the birth of Rock n' Roll in the mid 1950s and experienced first hand the emergence of the British music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

As for cycling I came in at the end of the fixed wheel era. In the early 1950s all the top time-trialists in the UK rode fixed gear. The picture above from 1948 shows a typical British time-trail scene.

Not a car in site; it is easy to see why this era is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Cycling.” Note the rider has a fixed gear, a single front brake, and the obligatory bell on the handlebars. (Picture from Classic Lightweights UK.)

Time Trialing in the UK during that period was predominantly a working class sport, and many working class people at that time did not own cars. Their bike was not only their recreation and sport, but also their mode of transport to get to work each day. Most had a bike with track dropouts making for easy adjustment of chain tension while switching differing size fixed rear sprockets.

The bike would have a brazed on lamp bracket boss on the front fork and have eyelets and clearance for mudguards. The mudguards would be put to good use; it rains a lot in the UK, and if your bike is your only means of transport, riding in the rain is your only option. A rider would wear a rain cape (Poncho) that was long enough at the front to reach over the handlebars thus keep their legs dry.

At the weekend, the mudguards would come off in readiness for a time trial and the cyclist would ride to the start of the event often carrying his best wheels with tubular tires on wheel carriers attached to the front of the bike.

These wheel carriers were simply two aluminum strips about 5 or 6 inches long with a hole drilled each end. The front wheel nuts were removed, the metal strips were then attached on either side of the front wheel spindle so they stood above and slightly forward of the front hub. The nuts were replaced and tightened.

The spare front and rear wheel spindle then attached to the hole in the top end of the metal strip, one on either side. Finally, the spare wheels were strapped to the handlebars using a toe-strap. Track nuts were always used, not quick-release. Everyone used a Brooks leather saddle that had bag loops on the rear; a saddle bag would be attached to carry racing clothes to change into, and food.

By today's standards riders used pretty low gears; distance events would be ridden on a 79 to 81 inch gear and the shorter events on about an 86 inch gear. The thinking of the day was that speed was achieved by pedaling fast, known as "twiddling."

I was like many of the younger riders and used gears, because I emulated the top European pro riders rather than the British time-trialists. However I did switch to fixed gear to ride through the winter months, and I would often strip my bike of its gears and convert to fixed to ride a 10 or 25 mile time-trial.

A very popular early season event was the 72 inch restricted gear 25 mile event. All competitors rode a 48 x 18 fixed gear, which was checked at the start by wheeling the bike between two chalk marks on the road, to ensure the crank did one complete revolution.

My very first time-trial was such an event, in March of 1952, one month after my 16th birthday. I had put in many miles on a 65 inch fixed gear all through the winter months and I could definitely twiddle. I had been riding seriously for over a year, but had to wait until my 16th birthday to be able to race.

I had been preparing for my début through the winter, whereas the more seasoned riders had been taking it easy and had not reached their full level of fitness at the start of the season.

I surprised myself and my fellow club members when I won the event with a time of 1hour-10min.-10sec. (See the press clipping, left.)

This meant I was pedaling at an average rate of over 100 RPM for the 25 miles. Top riders of that era could turn in times under the hour for 25 miles on a 72 inch gear; which is close to 120 RPM average. Two revs per second, that’s some serious twiddling.

The RPM rate was calculated as follows: 25 miles = 132,000 feet. Divide by my time for distance, 70 minutes = 1885.714 feet covered in one minute. Divide by feet covered per pedal revolution (18.67 ft.) = 101 RPM.

Calculated at a nominal wheel size of 26.75 inch diameter. (7.003 feet circumference.) 48 T chainring, divide by 18 T sprocket = 2.666 turns of the rear wheel per 1 turn of the chainring. 7.003 x 2.666 = 18.67 feet traveled per pedal rev.

Reader Comments (16)

There's still a few "medium gear" events around today in the UK time trial programme. I think I've still got some wheel carriers somewhere in my garage. I used to ride to the Saffron Lane stadium with my track bike on my back and wheels carried as you describe.
November 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Colin Griffiths
Pretty kewl stuff, Dave. That would be a pretty fun event to hold today in the US, but trying to find 25 clear miles in the US would be darn near impossible.
November 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter maltese falcon
Once again a great Article Dave. What does "getting inside evens" mean in the Newspaper cutting?

Thanks
Phelim, Berlin
November 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Colin,
I appreciate your updates on what's happening today in the UK.

Maltese Falcon,
You only need 12.5 miles out, turn and ride back. All British time trials are on "out and home" courses. Today they usually make use of round-a-bouts (Traffic circles.) for turns. Not too many of those in the US.

Phelim,
"Inside evens" means beating 20 miles per hour at any distance. For example 1hour, 15 minutes for 25 miles, or 5 hours for 100 miles.
Dave.
November 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Perhaps I'm missing something.
"
Calculated at a nominal wheel size of 26.75 inch diameter. (7.003 feet circumference.) 48 T chainring, divide by 18 T sprocket = 2.666 turns of the rear wheel per 1 turn of the chainring. 7.003 x 2.666 = 18.67 feet traveled per pedal rev.
"

How can you travel 18.67 feet per pedal revolution?

In fact, you earlier say
"
A very popular early season event was the 72 inch restricted gear 25 mile event. All competitors rode a 48 x 18 fixed gear, which was checked at the start by wheeling the bike between two chalk marks on the road, to ensure the crank did one complete revolution.
"
November 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
A 27 inch wheel divide by an 18 tooth sprocket, times a 48 tooth chainwheel = 72 inch gear.

A 72 inch gear is the equivalent of the distance covered by one revolution of a wheel 72 inches in diameter. This dates back to the “Ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” bicycle.

The circumference of a 72 inch wheel is 72 x 3.14 = 226.08 inches which is 18.84 feet. The chalk marks for checking the gear would be 18.84 feet apart if the crank did at least one revolution within these marks the gear was no higher than 72 inches.

A bicycle wheel is actually less than 27 inches, about 26.5 inches by today’s standard. Back in the 1950s when tires were fatter nearer 26.75 which is 7.003 feet circumference. The wheel turns 2.666 revolutions per one revolution of the crank, because it is geared up by 48 to 18.

7.003 feet x 2.666 = 18.67 feet traveled per pedal revolution, which falls within the 18.84 feet chalk marks. It is slightly less because the wheel is not a true 27 inch. If you do the math for a true 27 inch wheel it will come out at 18.84.

Dave
November 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Interesting post. Thats some memories from back there. Its a rare sight to see fixed gear TT's nowadays. The whole twiddling concept dashed my notion that in the early days, racers pushed for heavier gears and lower rpm's that today's high rpm blitz speeds popularized by Armstrong and Contador and all.

I think I'd like the idea of plugging my bottles near my handlebars on climbs. Neat idea. The 'shave off every gram of drag' approach has certainly buried some early age conveniences.
November 28, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Ron
It's hard to imagine a 1.10.00 winning a 25 mile these days. With traffic levels and modern technology winning times are more likely to be 52s and 52s. Top guys will do a few 49s and 48s.

Mind you, I'd swap it all to race on traffic free roads.
November 29, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Tejvan Pettinger
Tejvan Pettinger said...
"It's hard to imagine a 1.10.00 winning a 25 mile these days. With traffic levels and modern technology winning times are more likely to be 52s and 52s. Top guys will do a few 49s and 48s."

Tejvan,
Did you get the part about the fixed gear? What I wonder is how fast would one have to "twiddle" to ride 52 on a 48 x 18 fixed gear? Totally agree on the traffic free roads.

Dave, love the historical stuff. Thanks so much.

Cheers, Gene in Tacoma
November 29, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I'm planning to ride some TTs on a fixed bike in the uk later this year. This has been very helpful. I ride a 42-16 evcery day. My LBS has suggested a 46-14 combo for short and relatively flat TTs, I'm not sure if that's appropriate.

Ref the carrier: presumably the nuts on the spare wheel spindles are lossley fitted if at all or the wheels would turn with the front?
January 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Balf
A fascinating article. Newspaper clip: Brian Sanderson was my dad's cousin, and Keith Potter was a close family friend. Sadly neither are with us any more. My dad, Frank White was well known for winning hoards of silverware with Luton Arrow CC and also Icknield RC!
June 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Jon White

Hey the photo showing the traffic free roads brings back memories. I started cycling when petrol was rationed (wartime) and it was possible to cycle on Sunday and only see two or three cars all day! Can't wait for petrol rationing to return. HAPPY DAYS

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbikedunc

Love your knowledge of cycling history. I have an 80's pink and "titanium "looking steel frame bike by KHS. It has a decal of the name John T Howard on the top tube. I've gleaned some information from the internet that you may have had something to do with the building of this frame. It is in perfect original condition. I ride it once in awhile on Sunday club rides and it rides like a dream. Do you have any knowledge or history on this bicycle? Thanks - Harry

As a senior member now, I can relate to what you have written Dave. I also began racing at age 16, At my club Midland C&AC dinner in Dec 1950 It was noted that Juniors like John Crump (ME) a 16yr old, who in his first three 25s recorded a 1.7.1 1.4.7 and 1.1.58 in a NCU region champ ride,coming THIRD to Basil Francis and Bob Maitland (a TOP rider in his time) I think I used around a 86" gear at that time. All your memories are like mine, Rode several 72" 25s did about the same time as you did. Wish now I had stayed at it, Takes me, now at age 76yrs 1hr 9mnis to do a 40K with 27 gears! Oh to be young again! Cheers mate, John Crump OldBrit in Parker Co USA

October 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Dave, I guess somehow cycling and music are linked, As a opera buff in the early 50s When racing I always hummed an opera aria,Figero Figero, spured me on many times, During my 2 yr in the RAF I became very interested in Jazz,Started to play Alto and Tenor sax Clarinet flute, Formed my own band and played gigs all over Brum, Including the Irish Club,Charlie Parker,Paul Desmond two quite diffrent styles my favorites, When I came over to the USA in March 1957 I was only interested in Jazz, I went to California in 1958 Lived in Santa Monica and Venice played many gigs, even at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach with Shelly Mann Conti Condoli and the group, But could not get in the Muscians Union, Joe Petrello would not let non USA cits in, So I had to find work in The credit and finance field, Even found time to ride a bike and race a little,

January 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Great article Dave and a nice bit of history.
Twiddling is (of course) relative and often talked of in those terms when referring to fixed wheel on the road - your article cites average rpm for fixed gear time trial events. Gears seem to be getting bigger year by year, such that the 128" top gear we used to wind up on tandem events during the early 1980s can now be found on a mountain bike! We used to think that if we couldn't average c95rpm it was time to change down.
Something to reflect upon is the pedalling rate of continental pros who commonly tap along day after day at over 100 rpm irrespective of the gear size - if you cant crank a 70" gear at 100rpm what chance have you of twiddling anything over 90"? Even now I often come across cyclists humping a mega-gear at c.70rpm and doing 18mph even though Im not out of a comfort zone doing c22mph on a 70" fixed - and Im nearly 60.
During the early 1980s a mate of mine (Noel Lilly) had a go at a 25 TT on an 84" fixed just to see if he could beat a time that Al Fingers (Alf Engers) had set earlier that year. Noel did a fast 54 and we calculated that much of the time he must have been rattling away at 128rpm - well beyond the comfort zone of many! Likewise, when Boardman and Merckx broke the hour records their average rpm was over 100 for the duration of the event.

September 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Meaney
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